The United States is Losing the War on Drugs in the Americas

Foreign PolicyBy José R. Cárdenas


Last week, the Trump administration issued a stark warning to Colombia: Unless it improves efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production, it runs the risk of having “failed demonstrably” to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.

It was an unprecedented admonishment of the strongest U.S. ally in Latin America.

Colombia’s commitment to eradicating and seizing illegal drugs has been nothing less than heroic for nearly two decades. Regrettably, however, the warning was unavoidable.

A month before the United States called out Colombia, the Drug Enforcement Agency said that the United States would likely experience in 2018 the highest cocaine supply and usage levels in a decade — a direct consequence of the Colombian government’s policy decisions as part of its efforts to reach a peace agreement with the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombia is the main source of cocaine for the U.S. market.

According to the DEA, the Colombian government “eased eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lessen the risk of armed conflict during peace negotiations.” To put it more bluntly, as a result of concessions made to the FARC by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, “Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine production in 2016 reached the highest levels ever observed.”

Frankly, this is the last thing we need to hear as our country struggles with ongoing opioid and methamphetamine crises that are wrecking havoc from coast to coast and already taxing U.S. capacity to cope with the public health and law enforcement fallout.

Even more disturbing, however, is that the Colombia case is indicative of a larger problem in the Western Hemisphere: the collapse of the regional consensus on combating the cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs. That consensus was always fragile, as our neighbors chafed at the notion that we were pushing them to spill their blood to help solve a problem caused by the American people’s irresponsible drug consumption.

To hold that consensus together, successive U.S. administrations used determined diplomacy and prodigious budgets to not only strengthen local enforcement and eradication policies, but also shore up judicial systems and sponsor alternative development programs to wean farmers from participating in drug economies.

That commitment, however, waned under the Obama administration, in its headlong flight from any policy that smacked of U.S. heavy-handedness in the Americas. Without strong U.S. leadership, it was inevitable that regional governments would look to escape the tough choices on the drug suppression side.

Last year, the United States dodged a bullet at a United Nations General Assembly special session on drugs that sought to declare the U.S.-backed focus on enforcement and criminalization a failure and to support more “humane solutions.” The effort, led by longtime U.S. partners Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia, fell short of the ultimate goal, but it exposed that we and our regional partners are no longer on the same page on drugs.

The Trump administration’s statement on Colombia demonstrates that the White House is intent on recapturing the initiative on combating illegal drugs in the Americas. It would do well to impress on our regional partners that fighting drugs is not a choice between reducing supply or reducing demand. Eradication and interdiction are not foreign impositions, but essential pillars of any counternarcotics strategy, augmenting and working in concert with prevention and treatment-oriented policies.

Secondly, the Trump team should emphasize that drugs are not just a U.S. problem and that our neighbors are not immune from the consequences of the drug scourge. No one, of course, disputes the corrupting influence of drug trafficking organizations that suborn governments and law enforcement and undermine security by turning public streets into literal shooting galleries.

But our partners are also suffering from their own consumption problems, which pulling back from prohibitionist policies will only exacerbate. According to the Organization of American Sates, the percentage of secondary students using cocaine is higher in Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and several other Latin American countries than in the United States. The U.N. reports, “The number of people in treatment for cocaine use disorders remains quite high in Latin America and the Caribbean, where nearly half of people in treatment for drug use disorders are treated for cocaine use.” The social consequences of increased drug use do not need to be explained.

It may be that we will never be able to declare final victory in the “war on drugs,” any more than we will be able to eliminate other social ills through efforts such as the “war on poverty.” But we have a moral responsibility to ourselves and to our children to use every conceivable means to contain and manage the fallout from these debilitating substances. Reconstituting the regional consensus around this truth will not be easy or be accomplished overnight. It is imperative, however, that we recommit ourselves to the effort.



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During the last several decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in trying to help the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean deliver better lives for their citizens. This has meant helping them increase internal security by combating the illicit growing and trafficking in narcotics and the activities of terrorist groups, as well as helping them to shore up their democratic and free market institutions.

Unfortunately, in recent years, continued progress in these areas has been threatened, not least by the radical populist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere. These governments have instituted retrograde agendas that include the propagation of class warfare, state domination of the economy, assaults on private property, anti-Americanism, support for such international pariahs as Iran, Russia, and even transnational criminal organizations.

We are a group of concerned policy experts that fear the results of these destructive agendas for individual freedom, prosperity, and the well-being of the peoples of the region. Our goal is to inform policymakers and international public opinion of the dangers of these radical populist regimes to inter-American security.