Militarization of the U.S. Drug Control Program
p o l i c y b
r i e f
Militarization of the U.S. Drug Control Program
by Gina Amatangelo | May 2001
This brief was commissioned and originally distributed
by the IRC’s Foreign Policy
in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign
Policy in Focus—A Think Tank Without Walls—can be accessed online
The U.S. has enlisted Latin America’s militaries as its pivotal partners in international drug control.
Protecting national security is used as the rationale behind the militarization of U.S. counternarcotics efforts-and is strengthened by campaigns labeling insurgents “narcoguerrillas.”
Militarization and increased funding for the war on drugs have failed to stem the flow of narcotics into the United States.
At a time when fledgling civilian governments in Latin America are struggling to keep security forces in check, the U.S. has enlisted the region’s militaries as its pivotal partners in international drug control. This
militarization, which begins at the U.S.-Mexico border, is undermining
recent trends toward greater democratization and respect for human rights
while doing little to stanch the flow of drugs into the United States.
Washington’s militarization of its antidrug efforts is the product
of a U.S. drug control strategy that has historically emphasized reducing
the supply of illegal narcotics rather than addressing the U.S. demand
for drugs. In 1971, three years after the first declared “war on
drugs,” President Richard Nixon took a crucial step toward militarization
by proclaiming drug trafficking a national security threat. “Protecting
the national security” has remained the rallying cry for providing
more money and firepower to wage the war on drugs. Since the 1970s, U.S.
spending on the drug war has risen from less than $1 billion to more than
$19.2 billion annually. According to the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy, between 1994 and 2001, spending on international
efforts increased by 175% and spending on interdiction programs increased
In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan raised the curtain on a
rapid expansion of U.S. antidrug efforts that continues unabated today.
Reagan justified the expansion, in part, by developing the narcoguerrilla
theory, which bolstered the national security rationale by positing ties
between Cuba, the Colombian drug cartels and leftist guerrillas, and the
Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Though this charge was largely fictitious in
the 1980s, in Colombia today the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the
armed forces are all involved with the drug cartels and are using drug
money to help finance their wars.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 1989 designated the Pentagon
as the “single lead agency” for the detection and monitoring
of illicit drug shipments into the United States. Soon thereafter President
George Bush announced his Andean Initiative, a $2.2-billion, five-year
plan to stop the cocaine trade at its source. Although U.S. military personnel
had been involved in training, equipping, and transporting foreign antinarcotics
personnel since the early 1980s, the Andean strategy opened the door to
a dramatic expansion of this role and to a significant infusion of U.S.
assistance to police and military forces in the region.
The Andean Initiative placed the spotlight on Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
Yet the vast majority of the Pentagon’s international drug spending
still went into its detection and monitoring operation in the Caribbean
and Gulf of Mexico transit zones, the cost of which, according to a September
1993 General Accounting Office report, eventually swelled “out of
proportion to the benefits it provided.”
In late 1993, President Clinton shifted the emphasis of military operations,
at least in terms of strategy if not spending. The focus shifted from
interdicting cocaine as it moved through the transit zones into the U.S
to dismantling the so-called “air bridge” that connects coca
growers and coca paste manufacturers in Peru and Bolivia with Colombian
refiners and distributors. As a result, drug traffickers quickly abandoned
air routes in favor of the region’s labyrinth of waterways. The Pentagon
responded by supporting interdiction operations that targeted the waterways
in both source countries and neighboring nations.
Coca cultivation in Colombia has risen sharply in response to recent
declines in Peru and Bolivia, earning Colombia the dubious distinction
of being the world’s number one coca source. In 2000, the U.S. significantly
escalated funding for militarized counternarcotics programs in the Andean
region with a $1.3 billion supplemental for Colombia and neighboring countries.
Seventy-five percent of the funds allocated for Colombia went to security
forces, and nearly 50% of the funds allocated for neighboring countries
were directed toward military and police forces. The Bush administration
has requested $730 million in the FY 2002 budget to expand counterdrug,
alternative development, and government reform programs in the Andean
Today, the vast majority of Washington’s international antinarcotics
spending goes to Latin America and the Caribbean, where thousands of U.S.
troops are annually deployed in support of the drug war, operating ground-based
radar, flying monitoring aircraft, providing operation and intelligence
support, and training host-nation security forces. Despite this militarization
and the massive funding for Washington’s drug war, illegal drugs
still flood the United States. In fact, illegal drugs are more readily
available now, at a higher purity and lower cost, than they were when
the drug war was launched.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
Militarization of counternarcotics efforts in Latin America undermines
recent trends toward democratization and greater respect for human rights
while threatening regional security.
Resources and training provided to the region’s armed forces to support
their new role in domestic drug control operations often circumvent
congressional oversight and human rights restrictions.
U.S. military personnel work side by side with armed forces, some
of whom are implicated in human rights violations and drug trafficking.
Drug trafficking poses a serious threat to regional security and has
a corrosive impact throughout the hemisphere, corrupting democratic institutions,
skewing local economies, and increasing political violence. However, the
U.S. should increase efforts to strengthen democratic institutions against
such threats rather than fueling the flames of violence in the region
by strengthening military power.
Washington’s ambitious strategy to “attack narcotics trafficking
in Colombia on all fronts” underscores the fundamental problem with
the U.S. approach to international drug control. The plan is premised
on the Pentagon forging closer ties to Colombia’s military with the
aim of building what Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander of U.S. military
forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, describes as “marriage
U.S. policymakers apparently believe that local militaries are their
most capable and reliable allies in the war on drugs. In several Latin
American countries, the resources and training that Washington provides
to local armed forces in order to support their new role in domestic drug
control operations—often in circumvention of congressional restrictions
and oversight—are eroding the efforts of civilian-elected governments
to consolidate their power.
In most democracies, counternarcotics operations are a law enforcement
function reserved for civilian police, but the U.S. government prefers
to use foreign military forces. When Washington does recruit police, it
provides them with heavy arms and combat training inappropriate for the
domestic, civilian role that police should play, thereby continuing to
fuel human rights abuses. During the 1970s, Congress halted police aid
programs because of widespread human rights abuses by U.S.-trained police
in Latin America. But in the 1980s these programs resumed in Central America
and have since spread to many other countries.
The militarization of counternarcotics efforts in Latin America not
only undermines efforts to promote human rights and democracy, it also
threatens regional security. In Colombia, where the line between fighting
drug trafficking and combating insurgents is blurred, Washington risks
becoming mired in the hemisphere’s longest-running guerrilla war.
Citing the threat posed by Colombia’s guerrillas, who earn much of
their income by protecting coca and poppy fields and clandestine drug
laboratories, the Pentagon expanded its operations in neighboring Andean
nations. Colombia’s neighbors have expressed concern about the spillover
of refugees, violence, and drug production and trafficking that is occurring
as a result of the maelstrom in southern Colombia.
Assistance to Latin American security forces stems from a tangled web
of training and aid programs administered by a variety of government agencies.
Despite efforts to increase the availability of information about the
programs, it is still often difficult to ascertain the exact extent and
nature of U.S. antidrug assistance and to determine whether Washington
is complying with congressional oversight and human rights requirements.
The perils posed by the lack of adequate controls can be seen throughout
the region. In 2000, after a heated congressional debate about the likelihood
of the U.S. being dragged into the Colombian counterinsurgency war, U.S.
Black Hawk helicopters were used in combat to defend security forces from
guerrillas in drug producing areas—despite tight congressional restrictions
on the use of the equipment.
Even when programs are covered by restrictions, U.S. military personnel
and administration officials are reluctant to enforce them. Units receiving
U.S. training are supposed to be vetted to ensure that they include no
one accused of human rights violations. But screening, when it occurs,
is cursory. In 2000, President Clinton invoked a national security interest
waiver in order to deliver aid to the Colombian military despite the fact
that the Colombian government had failed to meet the majority of the human
rights requirements stipulated by Congress, signaling that the U.S. is
willing to turn a blind eye to abuse in the name of other objectives.
As a result of the lack of both oversight and restrictions regarding
some aid programs and of ineffective implementation of regulations when
they do exist, U.S. troops work side by side with accused human rights
violators throughout the region. As Colombian sociologist Ricardo Vargas
Meza, who has warned about the growing risk of “a dirty war”
in his country, notes, “Washington lights one candle for God and
another one for the devil.”
Human rights violators are not the only devil Washington is collaborating
with. Ironically, the U.S. decision to engage armed forces as its principal
allies in the drug war has meant that the Pentagon is now providing counternarcotics
assistance to militaries implicated in drug-related corruption, including
those in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Even as the Department of Defense plans further expansion of its counternarcotics
operations in Latin America, many within its ranks are reluctant recruits
in these efforts and are vocal about their reticence. These critics, like
their civilian counterparts, question the underlying rationale for the
mission, its effectiveness, and its impact on the region’s democratic
institutions. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his confirmation
hearing: “I am one who believes that the drug problem is probably
overwhelmingly a demand problem… if demand persists, it’s going
to find ways to get what it wants, and if it isn’t from Colombia,
it will be from somewhere else.” Department of Defense officials
also question the strategies and tactics being used to carry out the mission,
arguing that they undermine the desired result. The Pentagon, according
to former drug policy coordinator Brian Sheridan, has been asked to address
a “terrible social problem” with a “series of lousy policy
options”—an untenable situation that has many military planners
“looking for the exit doors on this issue.”
Toward a New Foreign Policy
The Bush administration must develop a broad, clearly defined strategy
for strengthening civilian governments and reducing the role of the
armed forces in Latin America.
The U.S. should cease counternarcotics assistance to Latin American
militaries and orient antidrug assistance for civilian police forces
in order to strengthen their capacity to perform sound criminal investigations
targeting drug traffickers.
Though oversight of programs has improved in recent years, greater
control needs to be exercised over the programs under which training,
equipment, and financial assistance are provided to Latin American forces
for antidrug operations.
The Bush administration should be developing a broad, clearly defined
strategy for strengthening civilian governments and reducing the role
of the armed forces in the region, but the opposite seems to be happening.
The U.S. is interacting with nearly every military in the hemisphere,
training more than 10,000 security personnel each year. A third of these
training programs are financed through counternarcotics budgets.
Similarly, the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), searching for a new
raison d’être , was quick to fill the post-cold war policy
void by enlisting Latin American militaries as part of its counternarcotics
strategy. The U.S. has negotiated arrangements to upgrade and utilize
existing airfields as “Forward Operating Locations” in Aruba,
Curaçao, Ecuador, and El Salvador, which will be used for counternarcotics,
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights. These bases are
intended to replace Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which was closed
in 1999 when the U.S. government’s contract with the Panamanian government
expired. In July 2000, Congress approved $116.5 million for upgrades to
the Forward Operating Locations as part of the Colombia emergency aid
package. The U.S. plans to use the bases for at least 10 years, allowing
the Pentagon to establish stronger ties with local security forces. The
bases have already generated controversy in some Latin American countries,
most notably in Ecuador, where some sectors of the population consider
the base to be a threat to national sovereignty that will drag Ecuador
into Colombia’s war.
Washington lawmakers are moving in the wrong direction. The U.S. must
act to reduce (not merely redefine) the role of militaries within societies.
Currently, Washington is providing the training, resources, and doctrinal
rationale for armed forces to take on new tasks (building roads and schools,
offering health services, protecting the environment, controlling drugs)
rather than acting to limit their role to the defense of national borders.
Given the problems and risks associated with the militarization of antinarcotics
programs in Latin America, Washington should cease financial and political
support for Latin American military involvement in drug control operations.
The U.S. should reevaluate its costly, militarized, supply-side drug
control programs, which have failed to produce results for the past 15
years. Rather than counterbalancing by merely increasing funding for programs
aimed at promoting democracy and human rights while pursuing a militarized
strategy that puts democracy and regional security at risk, Washington
should take its international drug control strategy back to the drawing
board. The Bush administration has an opportunity to adopt a new approach
to drug control and ensure that budget priorities reflect the administration’s
stated belief that the supply of drugs will continue as long as demand
persists. The U.S. can still provide critical support to its Latin American
neighbors in their efforts to curb the drug trade and the related violence
that it causes. But rather than directing assistance to militaries throughout
the region, assistance should be directed toward building the capacity
of civilian institutions to investigate and prosecute crime, strengthening
respect for human rights and the rule of law, and spurring economic development.
But in the current political atmosphere in Washington, where drug control
policy is fueled by the fear of being labeled “soft” on drugs,
it is unlikely that either the White House or Congress will act to reduce
the counternarcotics roles played by U.S. and Latin American militaries,
despite their ineffectiveness in combating drug trafficking. Though oversight
of these programs has improved somewhat in recent years, at minimum Washington
needs to exercise greater control over the programs under which it provides
training, equipment, and financial assistance to Latin American forces
for antidrug operations.
Since 1998, Congress has required the state and defense departments
to annually compile a comprehensive foreign military training report listing
all U.S. trainees worldwide. Human rights advocates have welcomed this
effort as an important step toward congressional and public oversight
of the training programs, but several problems should be addressed to
increase the utility of these reports. The Latin America Working Group
(LAWG) recommends the declassification of information about completed
training exercises, clarification of course descriptions, and standardization
of reporting across funding categories. LAWG also recommends that the
Defense Department’s Section 1004 authority, now one of the main
sources for funding counternarcotics training programs for Latin American
security forces, not be reauthorized. To increase transparency, these
training programs should be funded through the State Department, which
has more thorough reporting requirements.
Gina Amatangelo < GAmatangelo@wola.org >
is a Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, specializing in
international drug control programs in the Andes region.
Sources for More Information
The Andean Information Network
Voice/Fax: 011 (591) 422-4384
Center for International Policy
1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Ste. 312
Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 232-3317
Fax: (202) 232-3440
Just the Facts website: http://ciponline.org/facts/
Federation of American Scientists
Arms Sales Monitoring Project
307 Massachusetts Ave. NE
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 675-1018
Fax: (202) 675-1010
Latin America Working Group
110 Maryland Ave. NE, Box 15, Ste. 203
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 546-7010
Fax: (202) 543-7647
Voice: (3120) 662-6608
Fax: (3120) 675-7176
Washington Office on Latin America
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Second Floor
Washington, DC 20009
Voice (202) 797-2171
Fax: (202) 797-2172
Colombia Human Rights Certification II (Washington: Amnesty International
USA, Washington Office on Latin America, Human Rights Watch, January 2001).
Martin Jelsma and Theo Rocken, eds., Democracias Bajo Fuego: Drogas
y Poder en América Latina (Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones de
Joy Olson and Adam Isacson, Just the Facts 2000-2001: A Civilian’s
Guide to Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean
(Washington: Latin America Working Group, January 2001).
Peter Zirnite, Reluctant Recruits: The U.S. Military and the War
on Drugs (Washington: Washington Office on Latin America, August 1997).
Drug Enforcement Administration
Lindesmith Center—Drug Policy Foundation
Office of National Drug Control Policy
U.S. Southern Command
This brief is a product of the Interhemispheric Resource
Center’s Global Affairs
and Americas Programs .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "Militarization of the
U.S. Drug Control Program," Foreign Policy In Focus Policy Brief,
vol. 6, iss. 17 (Interhemispheric Resource Center/Institute for Policy
Studies, May 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/briefs/2001/v6n17drugmil.html