While the pace of Mexico’s drug‐related corruption and violence has eased slightly over the past two years, the situation in Central America has grown steadily worse. The leading Mexican cartels began to move operations into Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2008 as the pressure in Mexico mounted. It’s a game of “squeeze the balloon.” Put pressure on the drug cartels in one area, and the drug trade just pops up somewhere else.
The corruption and violence followed them as well. In April 2013, Honduran authorities uncovered a plot by drug gangs to assassinate a congressman, a prominent journalist, and a police chief. A high‐level Guatemalan official recently told the Associated Press that the Zetas (perhaps the most violent of all the Mexican cartels) had gained control of nearly half of Guatemala’s territory. The Zetas and competing cartels also control major chunks of Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.
Highlighting the financial resources of the drug cartels, In a 2011 interview with Agence France Presse, former Guatemalan President álvaro Colom noted that authorities had seized almost $12 billion in property, drugs, and cash during his four‐year term in office. The comparable figure for the previous eight years was approximately $1.1 billion. Twelve billion dollars, he emphasized, was equal to almost two years of the Guatemalan government’s budget.
One particularly outstanding trouble spot has been Colombia. The government in Bogota has for decades fought a violent civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC rebels, who get most of their funding from the black market trade in cocaine. The Clinton administration’s initiative, Plan Colombia, aimed to eliminate the drug trade by funding a campaign to spray tens of thousands of square kilometers of Colombia’s farm land with dangerous chemicals. This not only failed to ultimately reduce cocoa production, but it had detrimental effects on the environment as well as the local population, inflicting residents with a variety of dreadful skin, respiratory, and other ailments.
Another part of Plan Colombia, which has continued into the Bush and Obama eras, has been to undermine FARC insurgents by encouraging the Colombian government with billions in U.S. aid to militarize its approach. Over the years, atrocities perpetrated by Colombian para‐military groups became common. According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, government‐ backed groups deployed to battle the FARC “regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control” often targeting “human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims of the paramilitaries who are seeking justice, and community members who do not follow their orders,” .
Instead of stabilizing the country, U.S. support for a hardline approach to the drug war in Colombia has exacerbated overall violence and human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, with millions more displaced. A 2013 report commissioned by the Colombian government documented “1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012, attributing 1,166 to paramilitaries, 343 to rebels, 295 to government security forces and the remainder to unknown armed groups.”
In recent years, drug‐related corruption and violence has hit Honduras especially hard. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of the unaccompanied minors making the perilous journey north now come from that country. Like much of Central America, Honduras has long suffered from a high homicide rate, but the drug cartels have made the bad situation there even worse. In 2007, before the Zetas and the other trafficking operations became entrenched in Honduras, the homicide rate was approximately 50 per 100,000 people. The rate soared to more than 90 per 100,000 in 2012, and the extent of the refugee flight indicates that the situation is not improving. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world with a homicide rate of 187 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. For comparison, New York City’s murder rate is 5.1 per 100,000.
Yet U.S. officials continue to blithely argue that the drug war strategy in Mexico and Central America has been a success. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exuded confidence in September 2013 when she said the money being spent on counter‐narcotics efforts in Central America, nearly half a billion dollars over the previous four years, “has been money well spent.” Testifying before a House committee this past April, Luis Arreaga, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, stated that under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the United States “is implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach to stem illegal trafficking.” Although he conceded that the effort might take some time to succeed, “we’re making progress.”
One wonders how Clinton and Arreaga define success—and at what cost. For the populations of Mexico and Central America, the toll in treasure and blood has been enormous.
Contrary to the confident assertions of U.S. officials, there is no evidence whatsoever that the cartels are weaker today than they were even a decade ago. And even if you accept the morally dubious premise that we should be willing to sacrifice Latin American lives to prevent Americans from ingesting drugs, these policies aren’t working. A study last year from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy found that “despite increasing investments in enforcement‐based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990.” The study concluded that “expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing.”
An increasing number of Latin American leaders are recognizing that reality. Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, provided a succinct indictment to the Associated Press in 2010: “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.” People should look at legalization, Fox argued, “as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their areas of power.”
Citing the bloodshed and collateral damage in their own countries, the leaders of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Bolivia have all called for an end to the aggressive, militaristic counter‐narcotics tactics championed by the United States. In 2009, the a report authored by former Latin American presidents César Augusto Gaviria (Colombia), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) came to the same conclusion. American officials have brushed them off. Current and former U.S. anti‐drug officials responded to the 2009 report by stating that the deaths of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans was a sign that the U.S. was winning, apparently oblivious to how that must sound to the citizens of those countries. Meanwhile, Argentina, Peru, and Mexico have begun decriminalizing small amounts of drugs, and Uruguay has legalized marijuana entirely.
A comprehensive report published in June 2011 by the Global Commission on Drug Policy reached a similar conclusion. “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” the report stated flatly. U.S. officials obviously disagree. But it’s far easier for American leaders to maintain a steely drug war resolve when it’s the citizens of other countries who are doing all of the dying.
The carnage visited on the populations of Mexico, Central America, and South America provides ample evidence that all of these current and former Latin American leaders are correct. The current child migrant crisis is only the latest human rights atrocity attributable to America’s drug war. How much more death, violence, and social upheaval must be inflicted on Latin America before U.S. officials concede that the current prohibition experiment has been a disaster?