Drug War Do-Over: Can the U.S. Push Trafficking Out of Central America?

As the crackdown on narcotics in Central America becomes increasingly messy, the best hope for success may lie in pushing drug traffic elsewhere

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Jorge Cabrera / REUTERS

A police officer stands guard as confiscated drugs are being incinerated on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras on July 4, 2012.

The headlines in Nicaragua these days have a familiar echo. In what feels like a 30-year high school reunion, the reanimated socialist Sandinista Front, led by president Daniel Ortega, is rekindling its old revolutionary romance with Russia, which has promised its former tovarishch millions of dollars in weapons, uniforms, helicopters, armored vehicles and training.

But this time, the Russian arms will be targeted at drug traffickers, not political insurgents. And the U.S., which spent billions of dollars to stop the expansion of Soviet influence in Central America in the 1980s, is welcoming its former cold war nemesis backinto the neighborhood.

“The truth is that we want collaboration, and if the collaboration comes from Russia in our hemisphere or if it’s the United States in Russia’s hemisphere, then I think that is positive,” Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, the Obama Administration’s point man on Central America’s drug war, said in response to Russian drug czar Victor Ivanov’s recent visit to Nicaragua.

(MORE: Caribbean Crisis: Can Nicaragua Navigate Waters It Won from Colombia?)

While Russian involvement in Central America is still cause for concern in some Washington circles, the U.S. has much bigger problems in the region. In Guatemala and Honduras, two of the most violent countries on earth, the U.S.-led drug war has become an increasingly difficult endeavor. Success, according to Brownfield, may mean pushing the drug trade elsewhere and beginning the battle anew.

In Honduras, which gets $36 million of the $85 million in annual U.S. aid for anti-drug efforts in Central America, rampant corruption has led the U.S. to bypass the normal chain of police command to work with specialized units of agents “selected for their honesty and lack of corruption,” according to Brownfield. The U.S. refuses to work with Honduran Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, whom U.S. officials are investigating for extrajudicial killings and other accusations ofrights abuses, and 20 top police commissioners under his command.

Brownfield, who recently visited Honduras, says the U.S. will maintain a policy of “two degrees of separation” from the country’s tarnished police commanders until the whole force is “purified” of corruption — a process he thinks will take five to 10 years.

The U.S.’ rocky relationship with the Honduran police force is not the only obstacle. Last July, the U.S. ended its controversial joint-drug operations on Honduras’ lawless Mosquito Coast amid international outrage at the alleged involvement of American DEA agents in the shooting deaths of four civilians in the remote Caribbean town of Ahuas.

(MORE: U.S. Insists Its Anti-Drug Agents Did Not Fire on Innocent Hundurans)

U.S. anti-drug efforts also face challenges in Guatemala, where President Otto Perez, a former general, has become an outspoken opponent of the drug war. Perez is demanding a new approach, including legalization, a policy that won some support from the leaders of Costa Rica and El Salvador, where President Mauricio Funes initially backed the idea before quickly flip-flopping.

All of these problems loom large as President Obama prepares to attend a May summit of Central American leaders in Costa Rica. Analysts say that trip will need to be much more substantive than just a friendly grip-and-grin.

“When President Obama visits the region, he will need another message beyond ‘we care’ and ‘we are willing to listen’ to alternative ideas on drug policy,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Latin America. “Washington needs to do more serious thinking on this issue, and recognize that the costs of a failed policy have been enormous and are being felt by our closest neighbors.”

Even top U.S. officials are starting to acknowledge that the drug war has not entirely been a success. “I would say at this moment in our efforts in Central America, we are in the second or third inning; the game has started and the pitcher is throwing well, even though unfortunately he gave up five runs in the first inning and at the moment the other team is winning 5 to 3, or something like that,” Brownfield said during a March 28 press conference.

Still, he’s optimistic that U.S.-led disruptions of the drug trade will eventually prevail. “We don’t have to establish a paradise in Central America to have success in the efforts against drug trafficking,” Brownfield said. “All we have to do is increase the operating costs for drug traffickers by perhaps 10% or 15% in the coming years. And when we achieve that, the drug traffickers will apply the law of the market that applies across the entire planet and they will look for new routes to traffic their products. And that is totally viable and possible in the coming two or three years.”

(MORE: Peace Through Security: What Does Central America’s Crime Crisis Call For?)

Brownfield says every drug shipment thatgets disrupted translates into rising business costs for cartel kingpins. Eventually, he says, the cost of trafficking narcotics through Central America will become too great, and the smugglers will seek cheaper alternative shipping routes.

Critics say that doesn’t sound like a winning strategy, but acknowledge Brownfield’s candor.

“It’s almost refreshing to hear him admit that U.S. drug control efforts have failed until now and that the only way they will ‘succeed’ is by shoving the problem elsewhere, presumably to the Caribbean,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based organization that advocates for alternatives to the drug war. “Brownfield’s comment should also serve as a wake-up call for the island nations of the Caribbean; the more the drug war ‘succeeds’ in Central America, the more it will ‘fail’ in their neighborhood.”

With Russia jumping into the fray in Nicaragua, Guatemala pondering a truce and Honduras acting more like a liability than an ally, perhaps the best outcome the U.S. could hope for with its current policy is a drug war do-over somewhere else.

MORE: Can Obama and Peña Nieto Clear the Marijuana Smoke?

35 comments
OoBrisk
OoBrisk

@TIME @TIMEWorld Of course they can considering all of the medicinal products that are derived from flora that is native to only S America

Apsahra
Apsahra

@TIME @TIMEWorld I think America has bigger issues like famine disease and education to worry about then trying to control things.

ajw1970
ajw1970

@TIME @TIMEWorld To push the drug trafickking known as iniquity from our hearts, the Lord begins with separation and cleansing. Heb7v26

TheHeret1c
TheHeret1c

@TIME @TIMEWorld Legalize drug, it's profit will be reduced to the level of panadol and eliminate trafficking.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

USA AND ORTHER COUNTRIES HAVE SPENT TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS.......THAT IS ,,,,,,TRILLION....WITH A ....T......IN SO CALLED "DRUG WARS" SINCE I CAN REMEMBER........AND......N O T H I N G......

IF THIS WERE TRULY A WAR........DRUG MAGNATES WOULD HAVE BEEN ARRESTED IN THEIOR HOMES......ETC ETC......

BUT......AS IT IS.......WE ARE ONLY PLAYING GAMES.

VALENTINE, COMEDIAN

Regio121
Regio121

Why actions and words are IN-efficient

Passing new laws in some parts of the US actually does give confidence to any drug dealer, in and or out of the US regions and contradicts US war on illegal drugs. You either are in or out, but cannot be in a matter of doing business here and over there.  Where are the principals (morals if any) and role model? We want to play 

jeff2012
jeff2012

The question is: “Why does our US Government persist in pursuing its war on drugs for billions of dollars annually when it has been a consistent failure?”Are we fools?Are we hopeless optimists?Is there something driving this costly war that we do not know about or understand?

Well, as we most things the US government does you just need to follow the money to figure out what drives government policies that are otherwise nonsensical.So, where does the money trail lead us with this war on drugs?Without diving into too much boring detail, I will try to explain at least some of the primary drivers of our failed war on drugs.

The US politicians in Washington DC do not make a move now days without considering what impact it will have on their power base.That is to say, they consider how their votes will impact their fund raising efforts because money is what gets them elected and longevity in office means increasing their seniority and this seniority increases their power base within the political system whether that be the House of Representatives or Senate and an increased power base means more money will flow into their coffers.The end game of our politicos is to increase their power base within the government, which gives them leadership positions on important committees and this means they can have substantial influence over how the government allocates it funds.

Now that we have a handle on what drives our politicos it is easy to see that industries that want to influence how the government spends its money, needs to influence if not control the senior politicos so that money can be directed to purchase their products.For example, when the government has approved $36 billion in foreign aid for a country, what they are really saying is that $36 billion of the products of US companies and some amount of cash will be sent to this country.Products?What does that mean?It means SUVs for the police departments, helicopters for the military, radios for special operations, and an endless variety of other US made products.Therefore, these aid packages are actually driven by US companies who want to sell their products to a country and have the US Government pay for them.Thus, foreign aid is not only a form of international welfare but it is a way for US politicos to raise campaign funds from US companies.The US companies will lobby and donate substantial amounts of money to senior office holders because they get a clear return on their investment in the form of increased sales of their products via foreign aid.

Armed with this knowledge, is it not logical the private prisons here in the US, which are brimming with non-violate drug offenders, are lobbying and donating heavily to the US politicos who are pushing the war on drugs and tough prison sentences for drug offenders?Does it surprise anyone that defense contractors who make helicopters/guns/radios/bullets/electronics/ and more here in the US, lobby and dump money on politicos who push for foreign aid packages?Moreover, on it goes with one industry after another controlling, pushing, directing, our federal politicos and our drug policies here in the US and our foreign aid packages related to fighting the war on drugs.

Now the war on drugs is comes into focus a little better once we understand how the money flows from the US tax payers into the war on drugs.The war on drugs may have started as a war on drugs but it has evolved into a campaign finance driver for our federal politicos.Best of all, it is a war that on the surface sounds moral, ethical, honest, upstanding, and best of all necessary if not vital to the US.However, if you consider the results of this war it makes no sense what so ever to continue.In the above article, our own drug war man from the current administration, Mr. Brownfield, makes the absurd statement: “All we have to do is increase the operating costs for drug traffickers by perhaps 10% or 15% in the coming years.” What?Is he serious?The markup on illegal drugs such as cocaine from the time it leaves a Colombian drug processing lab in the form of a Kilo to the time it hits the US is measured in the thousands of percent.Does he really believe that cutting into the drug cartels profits by 15% is going to make any difference?Drug cartels would be more than happy to increase the price of transporting their drugs by 50% if that would guarantee safe transport to the US market.

Did you know that Afghanistan was a minor player in the heroin market before we invaded the country to rid it of the Taliban Government?Now, after more than 10 years of US occupation, Afghanistan is a world leader in the production of heroin for the US and world market.Amazingly, the DEA pays Afghan companies to destroy the factors of production for heroin such as crops, and these companies in turn use the profits to build IEDs and kill NATO forces.

OK, I will stop, I will stop before I get into the hopelessly corrupt governments that we fund as part of the drug war, I will stop before I get into how we have created a bloated DEA whose own agents admit that much of what they do is make drug busts to get headlines so they can keep their budget growing, I will stop before I get into how our war on drugs is destroying communities, economies, and even whole countries that we pretend to be supporting, I will stop before I get into the idea of legalizing drugs and spending our billions on prevention and treatment programs, I will stop, as you are likely sick of my ranting and to be honest I am getting a little depressed as well.

I wish I had all the answers as to how to fix our problems with drugs in the US, but I do not.However, I can tell you what we are doing is not only not working, it is a waste of finite resources and is actually making the situation worse here in the US and abroad.



babycheeks
babycheeks

We USA citizens have destroyed one country after another with our multi-billion dollar drug habit and now want to push the effect of such destruction on even more countries. Unless we as a people change our lust for the drugs or give up and change our laws, we will just see the same results were ever we "push" the drug cartels. We need to admit that we are the problem and do something on our end. Mexico, Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala, now who do we destroy next?

emmas23
emmas23

@TIME I dont really think so. I think you guys should control the use that your citezens have, cause most of the drugs go to

Azujapan
Azujapan

@TIME No!!!! The American Government Are In The Business

Nowhere1111
Nowhere1111

We could have more control by legalizing. Not a great option but better than the failure of the 'war on drugs' where there's virtually no control over distribution

MarkRobison
MarkRobison

Keep Russia out of it. The extent of corruption that runs rampant through Russia will guarantee problems. Especially mixing guns and Drugs. Russians run some of the most sophisticated drug rings in the world. Frankly I am amazed this is even being considered. Clearly there will be large benefits to the Russian, such as pay-offs in drugs or drug related money. It has been proven that drugs will not be stopped though coercion. The legalization process is being seriously discussed in South America. The Russian ‘Merchant of Death Viktor Bout was just given 25 years in prison for buying Columbian terrorist heavy weapons with Drug money. This article must be some sort of Joke.

hivemaster
hivemaster

@babycheeks The desire for chemical escape will never wane.  The lesson we need to learn is that of Prohibition:  when you ban something and seek to eradicate it, you simply push it underground and create the black market for it, massive unregulated (and untaxed) wealth, and the associated violence that goes with it.

The war on drugs can never be won, it can only be halted by legalization, the equivalent of the repeal of Prohibition.  End the black market, and the cost of goods (and profit) drop sharply, making it not worth the cartel's time and effort.

Nowhere1111
Nowhere1111

@Cuabs04 Ya mean like prohibition dried up demand for alcohol? FAILURE!! Give up on drying up demand idea!

babycheeks
babycheeks

@mhungerman @babycheeks  I do not disagree with you. I have prosecuted criminals for over 20 years, and have come to that conclusion as well.

hivemaster
hivemaster

@Nowhere1111 You'll never dry up demand.  What you do is dry up MASSIVE untaxed profits.  Cannabis is a weed, hence the name.  It will literally grow anywhere.  By legalizing it, people can grow their own, or in limited quantities, grow and sell.  The market gets flooded, prices and profits drop, and proceeds are taxed.  It becomes not worth the cartel's time and effort to stay in the market.