President Obama: The Enthusiastic Drug Warrior

When Barack Obama became president, many people expected a new approach to drug policy. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama said during a campaign event that he favored marijuana decriminalization. And the appointment of Gil Kerlikowske, then chief of the Seattle Police Department as “Drug Czar,” gave many people hope given Seattle’s emphasis on harm reduction policies instead of prosecution for drug offenses. In fact, one of Kerlikowske’s first acts as Drug Czar was to call an end to the term “War on Drugs.”

How people change. Today the New York Times has a story on how the Obama administration has deployed D.E.A. commando-style squads to Central America and the Caribbean to fight drugs cartels. These units were first created in the Bush administration to fight drug traffickers in Afghanistan linked with the Taliban. But in what is definitely an escalation of U.S. involvement in the region, the Obama administration has deployed these commandos 15 times to countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

As the New York Times piece rightly points out, the deployment of D.E.A. squads in Central America and the Caribbean is “blurring the line between law enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the ‘war on drugs’ with the ‘war on terrorism.’ So much for calling an end to “the war on drugs.” If anything, this development shows that President Obama is an enthusiastic drug warrior.

Some of these governments actually welcome greater U.S. involvement in fighting the increasingly vicious drug cartels. After all, they have even less institutional capacity than Mexico to fight these powerful criminal organizations. However, as professor Bruce Bagley of the University of Miami points out, the strategy could backfire:

“It could lead to a nationalist backlash in the countries involved. If an American is killed, the administration and the D.E.A. could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings. Taking out kingpins could fragment the organization and lead to more violence. And it won’t permanently stop trafficking unless a country also has capable institutions, which often don’t exist in Central America.”

Professor Bagley will be speaking about the effects of the war on drugs in Central America at our conference, “Ending the Global War on Drugs,” which will take place next Tuesday November 15 here in Washington. You can register to attend the event here.