Violence and Death at Heart of US Drug War in Latin America

April 21st, 2016 - by admin

Dawn Paley / TeleSURtv & Cyril Mychalejko / TeleSURtv – 2016-04-21 23:33:22

Violence is at the Heart of
US Drug War Policy in the Americas

Dawn Paley / TeleSURtv

(April 20, 2016) — From April 19-21, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs in New York City. This meeting, called UNGASS for short, is a critical space from which the 193 member states of the UN could move toward adopting more humane drug policies worldwide.

The special session on drugs was called for by three countries in which the militarized enforcement of prohibition has been at the root of violence and terror: Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala.

Prohibition is not a hands-off way of dealing with social, health or economic issues, rather, it is “an extreme form of government intervention,” according to Mark Thornton, author of “Economies of Prohibition.”

Narcotics prohibition got its start as laws making certain drugs illegal were passed in the early twentieth century, spearheaded by the United States and later upheld by the UN From the outset, narcotics prohibition was a political tool used as a way to criminalize and target communities and individuals based on race and ethnicity.

Prohibitionist logics got a boost in the 1960s and 1970s as they were deployed by countries across the Cold War political spectrum in order to criminalize youth and social movements worldwide.

Within the United States, drug prohibition has been a key contributing factor to the realization of what Angela Davis calls the “prison industrial complex” and what Mumia Abu Jamal has deemed “mass incarceration and [the] racialized prison state.”

Over time, the institutions created to enforce narcotics prohibition have become established parts of the US state repressive-judicial apparatus, thus threading a dependence on maintaining prohibition into the fabric of the state.

Every year since 2003, United States federal funding for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) has been lower than for supply reduction (domestic policing, interdiction, international), with the vast majority of supply reduction going to police forces nationwide. That balance is slated to shift in 2017.

Drug Prohibition: A $31 Billion Failure
Today, funding to uphold prohibition is spread across nearly the entire US federal government, with 13 of the 15 Executive Departments that make up the federal Cabinet slated to receive a segment of the $31.1 billion in funding to support the National Drug Control Strategy in fiscal year 2017.

The only cabinet level departments in the US government that do not receive money for the fight against narcotics are the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy.

The funds for international supply control, or the international enforcement of prohibition, total $1.6 billion annually for 2015, 2016, and 2017 (requested). International supply control is by far the most expensive form of prohibition enforcement for the United States government.

A 1994 estimate pegs the cost of reducing cocaine consumption in the US by 1 percent at $788 million annually if realized via international supply control, $366 million per year via interdiction, $246 million per year via domestic policing, and $34 million per year via treatment.

If reducing drug use in the United States were the primary political motivation behind these programs, it would be an obvious choice as to which kinds of policies would be put in place. But as we have seen, domestically and internationally, there are political implications to prohibition enforcement, which cannot be calculated using the metrics of the availability of narcotics and/or their use.

“Conventional drug policy has survived for so long despite compelling evidence of abject failure because dysfunctional policy has been good politics,” in the words of Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation,

According to the US government, international supply funds are used to “disrupt” and “disband” trafficking organizations, carry out investigations and gather intelligence, carry out monitoring and interdictions, and to enact policy changes and development programs in target nations.

Funding the ‘War on Drugs’ Can Be Addictive
In 2017, the international supply funds requested for the drug war are to be doled out as follows:
Department of Defense International Counternarcotics Efforts ($567.1 million),
Drug Enforcement Agency ($467.9 million),
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ($382.4 million), and
The US Agency for International Development ($131.9 million).

In Mexico, the US government has provided $1.5 billion “worth of training, equipment, and technical assistance” through the Merida Initiative since 2008. It is estimated that Mexico spent $79 billion over the same time period on security and public safety.

In Colombia US spending on Plan Colombia was much higher, at over $10 billion since the year 2000. Over the same time period, Colombia spent $200 billion on the drug war.

As I detail in my book Drug War Capitalism, the militarization of the enforcement of prohibition has allowed the US government to push policies of social control through violence and militarization in Latin America; but it is host governments who provide the majority of funding for these wars against their own populations.

Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative have had devastating social consequences, spurring violence and terror, spiking murder rates, pushing up disappearances, and increasing forced displacement.

The draft resolution for UNGASS includes a pledge to continue with international supply reduction efforts, through “more effective drug-related crime prevention and law enforcement measures.”

Though some positive change may come out of the UNGASS special session on drugs, it will remain up to activists and social movements in the north and south to continue to push back against militarization connected to the war on drugs.

Dawn Paley is a journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism, AK Press 2014. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_

Central America: US Pushes Militarization and Neoliberalism
Cyril Mychalejko / teleSURtv

(August 25, 2015) — Dawn Paley, author of “Drug War Capitalism,” spoke with teleSUR about how US policies are increasing violence and exploitation in the region.

teleSUR: How is the War on Drugs being fought in Central America?

Dawn Paley: Central America is experiencing a militarized version of the drug war, where the official position is that to prevent drugs from arriving to the US, a primarily military strategy be deployed in producing and transit nations.

Over the past years, many Central American countries have experienced and continue to experience extremely high murder rates, high levels of extortion, and high levels of outward migration due to economic and physical violence.

At times the relation between the war on drugs and escalating violence is obvious, as in the massacre at Finca los Cocos in Guatemala in 2011, and other similar incidents. Other times there is not such a clear link, but I think it is important that we explore connections between the militarization forged through plans like the Central America Regional Security Initiative and the Alliance for Prosperity and increasing structural violence in host countries.

teleSUR: How has this increased militarization impacted Guatemala and Honduras? What have been the social, economic and political impacts?

Dawn Paley: Politically, the administrations in Guatemala and Honduras are totally aligned with the United States. That’s looking from above, at elected officials and so on. The relationships between these governments and the US are strong although there have been serious, ongoing corruption scandals as well as near total impunity for crimes committed by state security forces (not to mention irregular armed groups, often made up of former security forces) in both nations.

In each of these countries, the war on drugs appears to serve as an effective tool for governance, pumping resources to train and arm more police and soldiers into host countries. It also provides an effective pretext for state violence under the guise of fighting drugs.

But what we also see in both nations are recent waves of protest in Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa that to varying extents cut across class, ethnic and political lines. These protests have been sparked by massive corruption scandals in both countries, and have triggered calls for more dynamic, democratic structural reforms.

Of course, these recent protest actions build on a long legacy of organization and resistance, which is ongoing in many areas throughout the region.

As mobilizations continue and as elections are held in Guatemala amid protest, it is important to keep our eyes on what is happening on a popular level, as these are the sectors which are most likely to experience repression linked to militarization justified by to the war on drugs.

teleSURtv:Can you explain what the Washington’s Alliance for Prosperity is, and what it means for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in light of the recent push in these countries by civil society to push for political and democratic reforms?

Dawn Paley: The centerpiece of the Alliance for Prosperity is the construction of a new gas pipeline from Salina Cruz, which is in the Mexican State of Oaxaca, to Esquintla, Guatemala. Salina Cruz is on the Pacific Ocean, it hosts the southernmost refinery in Mexico and is connected to Mexico’s main pipeline infrastructure. A pipeline to Esquintla will traverse over 650km, much of which will cut through Chiapas and Guatemala’s coastal regions.

The argument here is that the natural gas pipeline will lower energy costs in the region. That is of course speculation. What we can say with certainty is that this pipeline is about opening a new market for fracked gas from the US (and perhaps eventually from Mexico). It does nothing to reduce Central America’s dependency on purchasing fossil fuels. But it does promise that businesses will be able to use this fuel at reduced rates.

The Alliance for Prosperity proposes the expansion of Central America’s common electricity supply, and interconnection with Mexico and Panama. This means more power lines, more dams, and more environmental conflict. A year and a half ago in Honduras, Indigenous Lenca communities resisting a hydroelectric project were attacked by state forces and one opponent was killed.

The interconnection with Mexico represents, in fact, an interconnection with the US market, and the interconnection with Panama means Andean and Central American power markets would be linked.

Global Drug Report:
Don’t Just Decriminalize, Demilitarize


“Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of US assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received US assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.”

(September 21, 2014) — A report released earlier this month by former heads of state and other global political figures made headlines across the world for calling the drug war a failure and for its endorsement of the decriminalization of drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

However, one of the report’s major criticisms, its critique of the militarization of the drug war, was largely neglected by the media.

“All out militarized enforcement responses have, counter-intuitively, undermined security in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico,” said the Global Commission on Drug Policy in its report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work.

The commission, which released its report on September 9, includes former presidents like Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, as well as former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and George P. Schultz, who served as US secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

The report also stated, “Militarized enforcement responses have sometimes led to infiltration and corruption of governments, armies and police by cartels, and a culture of impunity for human rights abuses, especially extra-judicial killings and disappearances.”

These critiques have a significant relevance in Latin America, where US-led policies like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico, the two major theaters in the war on drugs in the region, have had a tremendous toll on human rights in both countries while barely making a dent in curtailing drug trafficking to the United States.

Last week’s Colombian Senate debate about former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the drug war in his country between 2002 and 2010, and his alleged links to paramilitaries and drug trafficking, serves as a perfect example supporting the commission’s claims of corruption, human rights abuses and impunity.

During Uribes’s time in office the country was beset with a parapolitics scandal, which linked the president, members of his party, and members of the military to right-wing paramilitaries.

Diego Murillo Bejarano, also known as Don Berna, a former leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the right-wing Colombian paramilitary group often identified by its Spanish acronym AUC, testified in 2009 that he helped fund President Uribe’s 2002 election campaign. Even more disturbing is that members of paramiltary group have testified to cremating massacre victims in ovens, in coordination with government officials.

In addition, in 2008 Uribe was beset by what came to be known as the false positive scandal. It was revealed that members of the country’s military were murdering poor, rural Colombians and dressing them as rebels.

The scandal was seen to be largely instigated by a policy that awarded soldiers with bonuses, promotions and vacation days for their number of kills. According to a 2009 US embassy cable from Bogota, released by Wikileaks, Uribe measured success of the drug war by body counts.

However, the US role shouldn’t be ignored. A July report on the false positive scandal published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation stated,

“Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of US assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received US assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.”

For example, the interfaith peace and justice organization’s report noted that almost 50 percent of Colombian officers who received training between 2001 and 2003 at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known by its former name the School of the Americas, “had either been charged with a serious crime or commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings.”

Additionally, the United States has either ignored or looked the other way when faced with reports of human rights scandals in the country

Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director or its Drug Policy Project, told teleSUR English that this scandal never really gained traction in Washington because it “disrupts the dominant and preferred discourse” that the drug war, and Plan Colombia in particular, has been a success.

“Watergate was peanuts compared to this scandal,” said Tree. “Can you imagine Nixon with domestic death squads?”

Despite the scandals, murders, disappearances and human rights abuses that plagued Plan Colombia, this drug war model was exported north to Mexico under the name the Merida Initiative in 2008. This “Plan Mexico,” along with former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s use of the country’s military to fight the so-called drug war, has brought similar results.

Molly Molloy, a border and Latin American researcher at New Mexico State University Library, started focusing her research on drug war violence in 2008 after she saw what she called a situation of “hyper-violence” explode in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Molloy’s research contributed to the book Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, written by the recently deceased Charles Bowden.

She said that the number of people murdered in the country since 2007 is much higher than Mexican government claims. Using statistics from various Mexican government agencies, she estimates the number of dead to be at least 155,000, in contrast to the 80,000 to 100,000 often cited in media reports. She added, however, that her figures don’t take into account the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have been forcibly disappeared.

“The Merida Initiative money provided to Mexico and Plan Colombia funding mostly goes to fund fighting drug organizations with violence,” said Molloy. “My observation is that this generates more and more violence and does nothing to destroy drug organizations.”

In 2012, according to the research and analysis website InSight Crime, makeshift ovens and charred bodies were found in the Mexican state of Michoacan, illustrating how Colombian paramilitary-government tactics traveled north. And as far as generating more violence, as Molloy suggested, Amnesty International published a report this month that stated cases of torture and human rights abuses by Mexico’s police and armed forces increased 600 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Moreover, despite this militarized approach’s track record of increased violence, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras have been calling for a Central American version of Plan Colombia to be funded by the United States.

While the Drug War’s stated goals are drug eradication and reduction of trafficking from Latin America into the United States, its failures have raised questions about potential ulterior motives. Dawn Paley, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book Drug War Capitalism, believes that there are economic motives for militarizing this resource rich region.

“We should use a new metric to understand the success of Plan Colombia, one that examines how it benefits transnational capital,” Paley told teleSUR English. “If we were to examine the results of Plan Colombia based on how it deepened neoliberalism in Colombia, we would have to recognize that it was a success. This was exactly what inspired the Merida Initiative in Mexico and other, similar drug war policies elsewhere.”

Paley said that in Colombia there are documented cases of where right wing paramilitaries aided transnational corporations operating in the country. For example, banana giant Chiquita Brands International gave over US$1 million to the AUC. Other companies accused of using paramilitaries for profits include US-based coal company Drummond, Occidental and BP.

“Colombian paramilitaries were involved with anti-labor violence and the displacement of Indigenous communities living in resource rich areas,” said Paley.

According to a 2001 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, US oil companies lobbied for increased military aid to Colombia through Plan Colombia.

“The protection of US oil and trade interests is also a key factor in the plan, and historic links to drug trafficking right wing guerrillas by US allies belie an exclusive commitment to extirpating drug trafficking,” said the report.

Paley called the Global Drug Commission’s report “a step in the right direction,” but argued that it didn’t go far enough.

“I wish it had included more of an economic analysis about how the drug war has been beneficial for certain sectors of the economy,” added Paley. “This is a crucial element to why the militarized model of the drug war continues to be promoted by the US in Latin America and elsewhere.”

The commission put human rights front and center among its recommendations.

“Greater accountability for human rights abuses committed in pursuit of drug law enforcement is essential,” the report stated. However, it didn’t explain how to achieve this, especially in light of the difficulties countries like Colombia and Mexico face, with their problems of widespread corruption and institutionalized impunity.

“The Commission’s aims are very aspirational, but not very strategic at this point,” said the Institute for Policy Studies’ Tree. “The devil is in the details. How do you actually implement this stuff.”

See also: The Legacy of the War on Drugs in Mexico

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