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Misplaced Priorities: An Analysis of a Discussion on U.S. Drug Policy

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By: Michael Lohmuller, Patrick Burchat, and Ryan Eustace, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

“We cannot continue to bury our head in the sand”, said Congressman Matt Salmon (R – AZ) on June 25 in regards to U.S. Drug Policy in the Western Hemisphere. During an event hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue and Organization of American States (OAS), Salmon, as well as Congressman Eliot Engel (D – NY) and Paul Simons—former Ambassador to Chile and the current Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD)—discussed a range of topics relating to violence and drug trafficking in Latin America. The most prominent amongst them was the need to establish accountability for U.S drug policy. To this end, the Congressmen have introduced Bill H.R. 4640, “The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act”, calling for the creation of a commission to evaluate U.S. counter-narcotics spending in the hemisphere. The panel also held up Colombia as a model of success for fighting organized crime, calling it the “Shining Star” of the region and going on to say how it should be used as a surrogate to demonstrate to other Latin American countries what works. This, however, implies a continuance of current U.S. drug war policies given that Colombia has engaged in a lengthy process of militarization of its internal security. Indeed, Congressman Salmon suggested how he would like to see Mexico more engaged with improving security along its borders, and how the United States should bolster the security capacities of Central American nations. While improved security must certainly be part of any new strategy to combat drug trafficking, the policies of the U.S.-led “War on Drugs” have failed, and in many instances have only exacerbated violence levels. Latin American heads-of-state have increasingly acknowledged this and have called for a shift in strategy; most notably demonstrated in Uruguay with the recent legalization of marijuana. The conversation over drug policy is evolving, but U.S. policymakers are not keeping pace and continue to call for the evaluation and analysis of a broken strategy. While the Congressmen seemed certain about the effectiveness of their Bill and the merits of using Colombia as a model of success in Latin America, the realities of the narcotics trade in the Western Hemisphere are not as clear cut.

It’s Not Over Until We Say It Is

The U.S. spending to combat narcotics trafficking in the Western Hemisphere can be traced back to the Nixon administration in 1971; when the phrase “War on Drugs” was originally coined. In 2009, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, urged the end of the use of “War on Drugs” and for the pursuit of drugs as a matter of public health.[1] These calls came as the result of the increase in Mexican cartel militancy as well as levels of violence in Central America; casting doubt on the effectiveness of Washington’s almost 40 year-old counter-narcotics efforts.[2]

This approach signaled a shift in U.S. drug policy and a slight concession that the War on Drugs, at least domestically, is a failure. Legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington is indicative of a growing recognition amongst the American public that policies need to change.[3] In 2013, 145 regional and global non-governmental agencies and human rights organizations, joined by various Latin American head of states, sent an open letter to President Obama criticizing Washington’s security policy towards the region. The letter declared that U.S. policies have only served to “promote militarization to address organized crime,” which have resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.” [4] This letter is one of the many international voices that have joined the chorus of opposition to Washington’s current counter-narcotic efforts.[5]

Congressmen Engel and Salmon went on, unsurprisingly, to praise the recent House Bill, H.R. 4640, which they have been working on for how it addresses the “War on Drugs.” However, when evaluating the discussion surrounding H.R. 4640, “The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act”, it is clear that opposition voices, no matter how loud and ubiquitous, have fallen on deaf ears. Congressmen Engel and Salmon both stressed, in the Bill and in the discussion, the need for further evaluation of the effectiveness of the $15.7 billion USD that the United States has already spent on the “War on Drugs.” A reading of Bill H.R. 4640 demonstrates that an evaluation of U.S. efforts in the “War on Drugs” is the only quasi-solution it proposes.[6]The exact procedure for this evaluation is best summarized in clause (4) subsection (a) of Section 4 titled Duties: “An evaluation of whether the proper indicators of success are being used to evaluate United States international illicit drug control policy.”[7] While the Act outlines evaluation protocols and timelines, there is no actual mention of concrete policy changes or even specific metrics for the measure of effectiveness. To oversee this evaluation, the Bill outlines the structure and creation of the Western Hemisphere Drug Commission.[8] This Commission would receive $2 million USD of the $15 million USD currently asked to be allocated for U.S. military aid to Pakistan. In other words the Bill proposes spending $2 million USD on a commission with a vague mandate and even vaguer metrics of measuring its effectiveness. While disappointing in its lackluster response to the impending issue of narcotic trafficking, the bill does, however, provide useful information. Section 2, titled Findings, includes seven clauses of data and statistics that describe the growing rates of violence (70,000 killed in Mexico in the last seven years) in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the high number of drug users (close to 24 million people) in the United States.[9]

These statistics are part of the endless evidence that indicates the failure of current U.S. drug policy. Despite the alarming statistics, this bill is one of few offered by U.S. policymakers that seeks to directly address the issue of drug trafficking. Congressman Engels reminded the crowd that gathered in the Rayburn Building on June 25 that this very same bill failed in 2009 because the Senate ignored it. He assured the audience, though, that this time around he was confident it would pass because of its priority as viewed by the Senate and bipartisanship when it comes to drug trafficking. However,, a service that tracks bills in Congress, gives the Bill, as of July 2, a 38 percent chance of being enacted.[10] The Bill has currently passed sub-committee and committee markup in the House and is waiting to be passed by the House and Senate this summer. Even if this bill does make it through Congress this session, it hardly matters because it does not offer any sort of new or creative solution to an increasingly pressing issue.

Colombia: The Region’s “Shining Star”?

Besides their proposed evaluation, Congressmen Salmon and Engels offered another tellingly outdated insight into what members of Congress who deal with the Western Hemisphere envision as the best path forward for the region. Colombia was hailed as “the shining star in the region” and Congressman Engels implored Congress to increase their efforts to “support [President] Santos in every way possible.” By arguing that Colombia should be the model for the region, the Congressmen appeared to tacitly endorse the ongoing militarization Colombia is experiencing in order to ensure stability and stem the narcotics trade. However, increased militarization has proven to have brought on tremendous negative consequences for Colombia.

For the last 14 years Colombia has been the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region under “Plan Colombia” in order to combat drug cartels and left-wing insurgents. Colombia’s internal strife, which has lasted five decades already, has displaced approximately 5.7 million people and left some 215,000 Colombians dead.[11] Yet the U.S. experience in Colombia demonstrates that the increasing militarization of policing functions in order to maintain internal security can also result in a plethora of civil and human rights abuses. It also incurs the temptation to use enhanced military capabilities for private goals. For example, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) was notorious for inciting espionage and smear campaigns against the country’s Supreme Court justices, political opponents, and civil society groups by U.S. funded and trained Colombian Intelligence operatives.[12] According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, both the military and the right-wing paramilitaries, such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), have been implicated in a long list of abuses. One of the most infamous was the “false positive” scandal where more than 3,000 civilians were killed by the military and later claimed to be “combatants killed in action”. The incident was largely attributed to pressure from the United States to produce empirical results to validate success. Colombia’s military has been affiliated with right-wing paramilitaries, who are accused of abetting human rights abuses, encompassing rape, murder, and torture.[13]

Most disheartening about Latin America’s “Shining Star” is that increased security efforts in Colombia have done nothing more than displace the illicit drug trade. The price and purity of drugs on U.S. streets has remained relatively stable, largely due to the fact that Colombian drug production, which has dominated the market in the 1990s, was displaced to other countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Central America.[14] This “balloon effect” has not eliminated the problem; it has merely moved its origin. As a result, the apparent success of Salmon’s “Shining Star”, Colombia, and “Plan Colombia” should not merely be questioned, but the horrible outcomes brought about by these efforts (i.e. fatalities, human rights abuses, etc.) should be considered when U.S. aid to the country is being contemplated.

A law passed in 1997 known as the Leahy Amendment bans U.S. funding of foreign military units that do not conform to international human rights standards[15]. Yet due to loopholes in its implementation, and elements of the Colombian military that exploited them, the Leahy Amendment has clearly failed in its mission to protect the innocent and defenseless[16]. With the Colombian armed forces and its affiliated right-wing paramilitaries accused of many human rights abuses, the U.S. government, which publicly condemns other regimes for similar abuses, must question the validity of holding Colombia up as a model for the rest of Latin America.

This is to say U.S. drug policy is not only regressive, but is currently divorced from reality, even dysfunctional, and that the debate surrounding it needs to involve more progressive solutions.


Many former and current Latin American heads of state, even some with conservative platforms, most notably Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina, have publicly advocated a move away from U.S. solutions based on militarization. First and foremost, the United States should listen to what its Latin American partners are suggesting, since they have to deal with the drug problem firsthand. While, during the event, Congressmen Engel did mention reform briefly, it is imperative that the U.S. look at meaningful reform. Before we can see a change in the status quo in regards to rates of drug use, drug trafficking, and the drug-related violence that goes with it, there needs to be a change in way policymakers think about the issue. While the future of Latin America was left very uncertain after the discussion on June 25, one thing was very apparent; when it comes to U.S. Drug Policy in the Western Hemisphere, U.S. policymakers still have their heads buried deep in the sand.

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 [1] Fields, Gary, “White House Czar Calls for End to “War on Drugs”,” The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2009,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shane, Scott, “Why Colorado and Washington Were Wise to Legalize Pot,” Entrepreneur, January 20, 2014,

[4] Main, Alex, “Obama and the Militarization of the “Drug War” in Mexico and Central America,” The Center for Economic Policy Research, May 7, 2013,

[5] “U.S. Facing Bold New Calls for “War on Drugs” Alternatives,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, April 2, 2012,

[6] The United States House of Representatives, “H.R. 4640: The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act,” (May 9, 2014),  113th Congress, 2nd Session,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “H.R. 4640: Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act 2014,”, May 9, 2014,

[11]Arsesault, Chris. “Did Colombia’s war on drugs succeed?.” – Features. (accessed June 30, 2014).

[12]Deyoung, Karen, and Claudia Duque. “U.S. aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia.” Washington Post. (accessed June 30, 2014).

[13]Columbia -Country Summary.” Human Rights Watch: 1-7. (accessed June 30, 2014).

[14]Arsesault, Chris. “Did Colombia’s war on drugs succeed?.”

[15]Kovalik, Dan. “U.S. Fueling Human Rights Abuses in Colombia in Violation of Its Own Laws.” The Huffington Post. (accessed June 30, 2014).

[16]Stokes, Doug. “The Weaknesses of U.S. Human Rights Monitoring in Colombia,” Colombia Journal, (accessed June 30, 2014).