A soldier guards marijuana being destroyed in Mexico. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AP
This article is the first in a planned series on the drug war and the accompanying militarization in Central America.
Central America is the new front for a US-led war that has been going on for decades. This war has been criticized as racist, classist, and authoritarian. It has been the subject of countless books and films, some glorifying one side, some the other. Prominent world leaders have declared it a complete failure. Yet, despite all of this, the War on Drugs is still being fought, and it is so embedded in the public consciousness that you knew what I was writing about before you read it. The violence associated with this war has devastated the corridor from South American producers to North American consumers. Now the fragile states of Central America are bearing the burden of this failed war as the violence is pushed south, and US policy around the War could shape the region’s future.
Central America serves as a transit point, not a final destination, for drugs produced in South America for users in the United States (this may be changing according to recent reports that show a growing internal demand for drugs). Traffickers rely on weak institutions, ungoverned regions, and corruption to get the drugs through to users with minimal losses of product and personnel. To date, trafficking and stopping the traffickers have both been associated with the liberal use of violence, and that trend is continuing in Central America.
As the ‘supply’ to our ‘demand’, Latin America has always been involved in the War on Drugs. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the United States supported regimes willing and able to fight the war, regardless of internal rights abuses, authoritarian governance, and corruption. Producers and traffickers have fought against US-enforced prohibition. Despite this prohibition, they have reaped huge rewards feeding the voracious appetite of el Norte.
The most prominent case in recent years has been Mexico, where violence erupted following a declaration of war on the cartels by President Calderon. Initially brought in to supplement the police, the Mexican military has since taken control of the War on Drugs in Mexico, and it quickly fulfilled its ‘War’ descriptor. There have been over 50,000 killed in Mexico since 2006, and analysts everywhere agree that the surge in homicides is directly related to the War.
The Mexican army is battling organizations that are astonishing both in terms of the size and sophistication of their operations, and in the massive wealth they have accrued as middle men for drugs from the south bound for the north. The Forbes list of the most valuable drug traffickers has yet to be written, so nobody is sure about the true value of the drug trade, but the UN estimates the global revenue is approximately $325 billion.
This wealth has translated to significant power, which has allowed the cartels to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence quite effectively. While the situation in Mexico has become a part of the public consciousness in the United States, the trials of the Central American War on Drugs are a different story. As the US exports its drug war further and further south, the time has come to shine a light on the process and demand a new direction in domestic drug policy and the foreign militarization that surrounds it.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras is now one of the most dangerous places on the planet with a homicide rate of 82.1 per 100,000 people (the highest in the world). Guatemala and el Salvador are in the top ten with 39 and 71 per 100,000 respectively. The homicide rate in the United States is 4.8 per 100,000. While the homicide rates are not attributable only to the drug trade, the evidence points to it as a significant factor.
Guatemala’s President (and former General) Otto Fernando Pérez Molina made headlines earlier this year when he called for a discussion of legalization as a solution to the growing violence. His request for a conversation was met, predictably, with a stone wall from the United States. Vice President Biden summed up the US position by affirming the possibility of a conversation, and by announcing that there would be no possibility of that conversation leading to anything even resembling decriminalization or legalization.
This bit of political theater played out exactly as a hardened cynic would expect, but what is interesting is the subtext of these public pronouncements. President Molina ran on a strong ‘law and order’ platform and promised to use the military to fight the drug war in the streets. Why would such a President advocate for legalization? The most likely answer is that calling for legalization puts pressure on Washington to deliver more in the way of military aid and training. Recent analysis by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA points to a rapid deployment of military personnel to control protests and dissent, with only a nominal police presence to justify these activities as ‘joint military-police’ exercises.
The Latin America Working Group, or LAWG, recently published a report on the outcomes of military intervention to fight the drug war in Colombia. The ‘Cautionary Tale’ should be studied closely as policy makers and advocates try to roll back the brutality in Mexico and address the spreading violence and criminality in Central America. When the military is asked to intervene, that intervention comes at the expense of human rights for vulnerable groups. This happened in Colombia, it happened in Mexico, and it is starting to happen in Central America.
So what does all of this mean? It means there are a lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers right now. A few things are clear: the military is not an effective law enforcement institution, military funding consistently leads to human rights violations and repression, and Mexican-style escalation is not the answer. There is a growing consensus around the benefits of funneling foreign assistance into civilian police forces tied to local communities and building civil society.
Of course, all of the strategies for fighting the War in Latin America would be unnecessary if the United States spent time and resources working on its demand problem. The way things look at the moment, the United States plans to continue funding militaries of friendly governments, and sending our military to do job where necessary. It’s time for us here in the United States to take a stand against militarization and the deployment of our soldiers to Central America. It is already happening, but it’s never too late to start the opposition in earnest, especially when so much is at stake.