Colombia’s New President Is Right: The U.S. Can End The War On Drugs By Changing The Focus Of Its Counternarcotics Strategy

Image Source: CNN

This article is a guest submission from Ivan Thirion Romo.

Recently, Colombia’s newly inaugurated President Gustavo Petro delivered a powerful speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in which he criticized the dysfunctional policies of the United States’ “War on Drugs.” Petro criticized the U.S. counternarcotics strategy that has primarily focused on disrupting the supply chain of drugs by strengthening defense and law enforcement institutions, arresting drug cartel members, and seizing or destroying their assets and infrastructure. Petro emphasized that the strategy is largely flawed not only because, after decades of implementation, it has failed to tackle the root problem of reducing the demand for drugs in the United States –which continues to grow exponentially every year-, but also because of the catastrophic impact that it has had on the environment and the people of Latin America.

“To destroy the coca plant, they throw poisons such as glyphosate that drips into our waters, they arrest their cultivators and then imprison them,” Petro noted that the U.S.-backed aerial fumigation campaigns of coca crops, the plant used to make cocaine, are destroying the Amazon rainforest in Colombia. The aerial fumigation campaign is one of the many U.S. counternarcotics strategies catastrophically impacting the environment and local communities that live and depend on the resources from the Amazon to survive.  

During the UNGA address, Petro spoke about the decades-long rampant violence Colombia has faced due to what he claimed to be an “irrational war,” reaffirming that “reducing drug use does not require wars.” Petro also warned that if the United States does not change its course of action and address the root cause of this crisis – the demand for drugs –, millions of lives will continue to be affected and lost to drug overdoses, violence, and environmental degradation across the entire Western Hemisphere. 

Since the War on Drugs began in 1971, the United States has spent billions of dollars providing security assistance to Latin American countries. Title 22 of the U.S. code enables the U.S. government to provide security assistance programs ranging from defense equipment, education, training, and other related services to eligible foreign governments with the aim to advance U.S. national security interests. Title 22 has had some success in strengthening military and law enforcement institutions across Latin America. However, such successes have been called into question given that in some instances, government, military, and police officers have divested defense resources for personal gain or to commit gross human rights violations against civilians. In other cases, Transparency International and other civil society organizations have documented instances where the defense aid has funded weapons that end up in the hands of organized criminal organizations. Widespread corruption and weak rule of law make the success of these security assistance programs difficult to achieve without causing substantial collateral damage. 

These counternarcotics policies have mostly focused on attacking the symptoms of the problem rather than its causes, and have not been successful at reducing the number of domestic drug overdose deaths, which in 2021 alone, killed 100,306 Americans. Additionally, drug-related violent crime rates continue to affect millions of people across Latin America. To put into perspective, between 2006 and 2020, it is estimated that a total of 300,000 people died and 73,000 people disappeared as a result of the War on Drugs in Mexico alone. This problem simultaneously exacerbates the already unsustainable refugee crisis at the Southern border, driven by displaced people fleeing violence. Today Latin America and the Caribbean ranks as the most violent region of the world, home to 9 percent of the total world’s population and accounting for one-third of its murders.

Strategic power competition with China and Russia increasingly centers the United States National Security Strategy. For this reason, it is critical for the U.S. government to take steps to ensure the stability of the region, rebuild and cultivate its relationship with Latin American and Caribbean countries, and re-engage with Cuba and Venezuela in areas of mutual interest in order to maintain its strategic leadership position in the region. Only through strong, integrated Inter-American cooperation the prospect for success in addressing transregional challenges effectively will be possible. In order to accomplish that goal, the U.S. government needs to modernize its counternarcotics strategy and develop a comprehensive policy strategy that prioritizes, first and foremost, the reduction of the demand for drugs. Innovative policy strategies that largely invest in drug prevention education, rehabilitation, harm reduction programs, and research projects to continue to explore paths for drug legalization beyond marijuana, could address the root problem of the crisis. These root-based policy solutions have produced successful outcomes in countries like Portugal. A country that used to be known in the 1980s as one of the “drug capitals” of Europe has seen a dramatic drop in its number of overdoses over the years. As a result of these root-based policy solutions, Portugal has today one of the lowest rates of drug-related deaths on the continent. 

The increasing presence and influence of China and Russia in the region present a timely opportunity for the United States to revive and deepen its relations with Western Hemisphere countries. To do so, the United States should seek partners to develop an innovative, human rights-framed, transregional security strategy aimed at addressing the root causes of the War on Drugs and advancing economic prosperity, citizen security, and democratic stability across the region. As U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken eloquently stated during the recent Summit of the Americas: “No region more directly affects the lives of American citizens, their security, their prosperity, than the Americas.” The future prosperity, stability, and national security of the United States depend deeply on its ability to prioritize and ensure the well-being of the region that impacts it the most. 

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