Introduction: Damaging Side Effects - The War on Drugs

The following essays present insights into the various levels of military involvement in the war on drugs and the implications of this involvement in terms of democracy and human rights in the Western hemisphere.


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The following essays present insights into the various levels of military involvement in the war on drugs and the implications of this involvement in terms of democracy and human rights in the Western hemisphere. This introduction provides an overview of the increasingly repressive approach to the drugs issue and its damaging impact on the fragile democratization process in Latin America.

Accompanying the end of the Cold War were widespread hopes that Latin America would continue moving away from military dictatorships and civil wars. Both old and new obstacles, however, are threatening this process, and by now such optimism is hard to find on the streets anywhere across the continent. The drug issue - both in terms of the corrupting effects of illegal drug trafficking and the repressive approach in combating it - has become a key concern in the region. The problem's double-edged nature carries with it a highly explosive mix of ingredients: the criminalization of the economy and of society in general; the corruption of the judicial system and of the security forces; political corruption, the de-legitimization of government that contributes to the population's apathy toward the political system; a blurring of criminal and political violence; a fuelling of armed conflicts; new sources of human rights violations combined with new reasons for impunity; repressive legislation undermining civil rights; and a new agenda for relegitimizing the domestic role of the military apparatus.

Damaging side effects

The nature and evolution of the drug business and the policies designed to counter it are intimately linked. The illegality of the drug economy - defined as such in a number of United Nations' Conventions - has turned the drug business into the most extensive and profitable commodity market in the world. (1) The criminal techniques employed in drug trafficking today have evolved and developed in response to changing counterdrug strategies, and vice versa. The result has been a virtual arms race, increasingly involving military, intelligence and specialized police units in the fight against drugs. On the one hand, this has led drug trafficking networks to further professionalize, improving techniques to both subvert their opponents and to strengthen their power within the political system. Only the strongest drug trafficking organizations can survive - those with the best political and social connections. It should come as no surprise, then, that increasingly the world drug trade is carried out with institutional consent, often even under the control of sectors within the military, police or intelligence agencies.

On the other hand, the war on drug trafficking has served to justify the expansion of the operational capacity of the States' repressive agencies and institutions. In a growing number of countries, the militarization of the fight against drugs has relegitimized a domestic role for the military, and has curbed civil liberties, often to a frightening extent. Moreover, the question of sovereignty is involved, since repressive strategies to combat drug trafficking often are the result of severe pressure from foreign powers. The war on drugs is largely financed from abroad, and has led to transnational military and intelligence cooperation completely unencumbered by national democratic controls.

(The militarization of anti-drug policies(

During the Reagan administration (1980-1988) anti-drug policies were increasingly formulated in terms of "War" and national security. After President George Bush's September 1989 announcement of the Andean Strategy, this doctrine was exported to the South, and entailed the active involvement of military forces in those countries where drugs were produced or trans-shipped, in a common counter-narcotics cause. Colombia was among the first to fully adopt this ideology, adding to it the concept of narco-guerrillas, which served to combine military assistance in anti-drug training programs with counterinsurgency operations. This phenomenon is explored in the essay by Ricardo Vargas, who focuses on the In the 1990s, the drug issue took center stage. Following the break up of the Soviet bloc, the Pentagon had to come up with a new enemy in order to justify its defense budget and to maintain a global presence. Across the hemisphere, armed forces are undergoing a process of restructuring and are redefining their mission. In Central America, this is taking place in the context of the regional peace process and national negotiated settlements. Edgar Celada describes the course that this restructuring is taking in the region, with a special focus on Guatemala. Almost without exception, in one form or another, the issue of drug trafficking has entered military discourse during this process. Actual direct involvement in anti-drug operations, however, has been implemented slowly, with reluctance and in several countries has been seriously criticized. In many countries the first tasks assigned to the military were in the areas of aerial detection and intelligence gathering. But these first steps were usually the product of considerable pressure from Washington and differed substantially from country to country - depending on the nature of the local drug problem and the willingness of the government in power.

In the case of Peru, for example, President Fujimori at first strongly objected to any military involvement in the drug war, only to announce in 1992 that the armed forces would be assigned a key role in anti-drugs activities. However, by the end of 1995, this decision would be reversed once again, for reasons that will be explained in detail by Ricardo Soberón.

Continental security

The trend toward economic globalization and the numerous initiatives of hemispheric and regional integration (the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mercosur, the Central American Integration System, the Andean Pact, the Caribbean Community) have served to accelerate the transnationalization of the structures that coordinate anti-drugs efforts. For the military, the counter-narcotics mission has been the most important vehicle available allowing for the intensification of trans-border collaboration.

Other issues that also play an important role in post-Cold-War security are international terrorism, illegal immigration, and joint measures against rebel states such as Cuba. Nevertheless, the drug issue is considered outstanding among them. As US Defense Secretary William Perry stated at the second hemispheric (Cuba excepted) meeting of defense ministers in Bariloche, Argentina, in October 1996: drug trafficking is international, and does not respect borders, which puts national authorities at a tremendous disadvantage when confronting it. This annual meeting of defense ministers was first held in 1995 in Williamsburg, US. In 1997 the third meeting is to take place in Cartagena, Colombia, in spite of that country's decertification by the US. (2)

The upcoming defense ministers' meeting is the perfect forum for redefining the ideological underpinnings of today's military in the hemisphere. The concept of National Security is gradually being replaced by a new continental definition of security. This shift is being analyzed in detail by Adriana Rossi in her Argentina, Future Watchdog of the Americas? As was the case with the previous doctrine, once again the Argentinean armed forces may be assigned a special role in the implementation of this doctrine throughout the continent.

In the 1992 San Antonio Aericas Summit, when President Bush proposed the creation of a multilateral military force to combat drugs in Latin America, the idea was widely rejected out of concern for national sovereignty. At the Bariloche meeting the idea of a continental security strategy was raised once again. This time, however, the idea was put forward by Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Ezguerra Portocarrero. Two other proposals discussed in Bariloche came from US Defense Secretary William Perry. The first called for the creation of a regional military training center in the US which would specialize in counternarcotics. The second recommended channeling hemispheric military intelligence on drug trafficking through the Pentagon.

The reactions from Perry's Latin American colleagues must have disappointed him. Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay all voiced serious objections to any increased military cooperation on the drugs issue, and again rejected the idea of a multilateral force. In the words of Mexican Under-secretary for Foreign Affairs Sergio González Gálvez: from no point of view whatsoever will the proposal for a multinational contingent be supported, because it violates the principles of self-determination.. (3)

A more balanced approach

A week later, on October 16, 1996, in Buenos Aires, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission of the Organization of American States approved the Anti-Drug Strategy in the Hemisphere. This document expresses a more cautious approach to the drugs issue, with a set of recommendations based on the principle of shared responsibility, that gives priority to reducing demand for drugs with health education programs, placing equal emphasis on chemical or pharmaceutical drugs and those of natural origin. On the supply side, the document stresses the issues of alternative development and poverty eradication, giving special attention to processing chemical and money laundering controls, etc. Concern about pressures to implement repressive measures and the violation of sovereignty is explicitly mentioned: In the case of drugs of natural origin, comprehensive measures such as alternative development, law enforcement, and eradication, among others, could be applied...

The document calls for these measures to be applied with respect for the particular conditions and circumstances in each country. It will be the exclusive responsibility of each government to determine, implement and enforce these measures in accordance with their national programs and internal legal order. The controversial issue of aerial spraying, heavily promoted by Washington and in 1996 applied in the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Panama, Colombia (provoking a mass uprising), Venezuela and (very recently) in Peru, is fully ignored, apart from the reference that: In the execution of supply reduction programs, the countries will give special attention to the ecological aspects of the problem, so as to provide protection for the environment. In the chapter on Control Measures, no reference at all is made to a possible role for the military. The possibility of military involvement was only indirectly mentioned: The countries of the hemisphere also recognize that implementation of national programs and effective international cooperation in the area of information exchange, training and the conduct of operations to detect, track and confiscate these illicit shipments are, inter alia, important aspects of a comprehensive strategy to be developed with due respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country.

The European countries' strategy against drugs in Latin America is often referred to as a counterbalance to the militarized US approach. Focus is on trade and developmental measures, such as the special trade preference regime for Andean and Central American countries, on strengthening the legal systems and providing support for the prevention and health education programs to reduce drug consumption. Direct support for controversial aspects like forced eradication, aeril spraying or military operations, is generally avoided. Most European anti-drugs assistance to Latin America is indirect, channeled through the United Nations Drug Control Programme.

An analysis of the differences between the seemingly cautious European approach to the drugs issue in Latin America and the US strategy, however, must take into account several factors: In the first place, direct criticism from Europe regarding US policies towards Latin America is very rare, even though these policies seem to contradict European policy in other areas.

Secondly, because Europe has few strategic interests in Latin America, the issue of drugs does not overlap with security concerns, as is clearly the case with US drug policy in the region. European security interests lie elsewhere and hence the link between drugs and security issues applies to other regions, notably the Maghreb region of North Africa, Turkey, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Thirdly, the European unification process has not yet reached a stage in which member states fully coordinate their foreign and security policies. The Maastricht Treaty does call for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, explicitly mentioning the drugs issue as a possible area for joint action. How this strategy develops is at this point hard to predict. In the meantime, very little information is available about international anti-drugs activities of individual member states. Clear examples, however, exist of cooperation far beyond the balanced approach put forth in European policy documents, including Britain's provision of supplies to the UMOPAR patrols in Bolivia, or the deployment of British military in Colombia. (4)

The balance shifts

Although 1996 was marked by advances in diplomatic initiatives and declarations of good intentions, it was also a year plagued by disturbing events that indicate further military involvement in the war on drugs. The US, in bilateral negotiations with Latin American governments, has conditioned assistance programs upon further military involvement in the anti-drug war, bringing about a growing willingness on the part of Latin American governments to involve their military in such activities. Among the special rewards given out by the US in the second half of 1996 are: the increased US budget for drug programs, special military aid packages (including armed helicopters for Mexico), the lifting of the ban to directly provide military equipment to the Peruvian Armed Forces, and plans to provide the Argentine military access to state-of-the-art weapons and equipment (aircraft and missiles), and the approval of a major sale of armed helicopters to Colombia (see articles by Coletta Youngers and Adriana Rossi).

These incentives and pressures have already begun taking effect:

  1. A US and Mexico Defense Working Group, after examiningborder cooperation. During the year, all key posts in Mexico have been turned over to military hands (retired generals): the National Institute for the Fight against drugs, the Federal Judicial Police, and the Center for Drug Control Planning. And military units were assigned tasks such as crop eradication, interdiction efforts, intelligence, and the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations.
  2. At the Bariloche meeting, Panama's Defense Secretary proposed the installation of a joint military monitoring base in Panama for counternarcotics purposes, a proposal directly linked to on-going negotiations regarding the future of US military bases in the Canal Zone. Control over US bases will be returned to Panama on December 31, 1999. On various occasions, US authorities have expressed their interest in maintaining at least one base in Panama for counternarcotics tasks. The lead official in the US anti-drug efforts, (retired) general Barry McCaffrey, former head of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Panama, has recommended that some 5,000 troops remain in Panama for this purpose.
  3. The joint military operation Laser Strike, was carried out in early 1996 under US military supervision in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia with support from Venezuela Ecuador and Brazil. It was the first time the Brazilian military joined in a multinational anti-drugs operation: details are included in the article by Jayme Brener.
  4. President Clinton's anti-drugs budget for 1997 virtually triples the amount allocated to Latin American military and police forces. Colleta Youngers discusses the reasons for this increase in her article.
  5. A military pact between the US and Argentina was discussed during a White House visit by President Menem in December, completely contradicting Argentina's position during the Bariloche meeting. See article by Adriana Rossi.
  6. By no means demoralized by the outcome of Bariloche, the US National Security Council proposed the creation of a Latin American Air Force to combat drug trafficking. The idea is to transfer 70 aircraft being retired by the Pentagon, to Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador. The fleet would still be owned by the US, would be maintained at the new center in Panama, and would be flown by Latin American pilots. The proposal is still under consideration by the US government. It would be the largest transfer to date of military aircraft to Latin America, and would require a budget of some US$400 million over the next several years.

Human rights and the war on drugs

The US recently approved a US$50mn military package for Mexico, including 73 Huey helicopters, the first 20 of which were handed over in November 1996. The contract, of course, states that these may not be used for purposes other than counternarcotics operations, but government officials have confirmed that they lack verification procedures to prevent this from happening. And a US Government Accounting Office report released in June 1996, Drug Control: Counternarcotics Efforts in Mexico, stated: During the 1994 uprising in the Mexican State of Chiapas, several US-provided helicopters were used to transport Mexican military personnel to the conflict, which was a violation of the transfer agreement. In a period of mounting tensions in several Mexican states, this situation is likely to repeat. The US government, however, does not seem to be too concerned with the misuse of its equipment, especially following the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the words of outgoing Defense Secretary William Perry: When it comes to stability and security our destinies are indissolubly linked.. (5)

In Colombia, the cause for concern is even greater. The director of Amnesty International USA, William Schulz, at a press conference on October 29, 1996, illustrated exactly how grim the situation was. Suspecting that US military anti-drug aid might be directly used in human rights violations in Colombia, Amnesty compiled a list of military units with a history of proven violations. They then asked the State Department to verify whether any of these units had received US military equipment. Amnesty never got an official answer, but three confidential documents reflecting the investigation that followed where leaked to them.

In one of the documents, Colonel Warren D. Hall III from SOUTHCOM, laid the situation out clearly: the light infantry skills US special operations forces teach during counterdrug deployments ... can be used by the Colombian armed forces in their counterinsurgency efforts as well, and that US-supplied equipment may be used in counterinsurgency operations during which human rights violations might occur and that it is unrealistic to expect the military to limit use of the equipment to operations against drug traffickers. One of the other documents listed the very same military units from the Amnesty list, along with a detailed description of the US-supplied military equipment they had received. All but one of the brigades mentioned had received US military assistance. In her contribution, Coletta Youngers provides more background to the strengthening of US-Colombian military ties, despite the decertified status of the Colombian government.

Although the human rights situation in Colombia is without doubt the wost on the continent, violations of human rights connected to the fight against drugs show a systematic pattern, as does the endemic impunity provided those involved. Ex-DEA agent in Guatemala and El Salvador Celerino Castillo III, briefly referred to by Edgar Celada, has publicly denounced gruesome details of such practices noted while he was an agent. For example, the hiring of the probable assassin of archbishop Romero afterwards as a trainer for a special anti-drugs unit in El Salvador, or his eye-witness accounts of the torturing of suspected drug traffickers by the Guatemalan military intelligence (G-2), which inevitably end in the death of suspects.

Theo Roncken provides a detailed account of human rights violations connected to the drug war in Bolivia. A consistent element in throughout his description is the persistence of impunity for human rights violators, from the days of the dictatorships into the current anti-drugs efforts and even extending to protect officials involved in the illegal business itself.

As the Bolivian case shows (and Mexico for that matter) structures of impunity are not the exclusive reserve of the military. Although Bolivia was among the first to create a legal framework allowing for military participation, the war on drugs is still primarily fought by special police units. The anti-drugs UMOPAR patrols, operating under direct US supervision, are the groups most systematically involved in human rights violations. The militarization in Bolivia hence takes the form of combined forces, as in the case of the build-up in the past two years of two joint training centers in the main coca-growing Chapare region, for FELCN, UMOPAR, Ecological Police and military units.

Drugs and political crime

In politically unstable situations or periods of transition toward a democratic regime, those sectors in society who see their traditional power base threatened often seek independent funding sources to help them resist these changes. From the perspective of drug trafficking organizations - always in search of new and more secure trading routes - periods of political transition provide opportunities for making alliances with threatened sectors - often military officials. This can result in a highly destabilizing mixture of organized crime and political violence, especially during transitions in which the repressive apparatus is being dismantled. Existing organized crime structures do not just provide a life-line for demobilized military and intelligence personnel, but also offer them an ideal infrastructure for pursuing their political agenda even once they are out of office.

Drug traffickers and the most unsavory of the counterinsurgency operatives have often worked together. (6) Samuel Blixen enters this difficult terrain, following a trail that originates in the Southern Cone military dictatorships, continues through the cocaine coup of Garcia Meza in Bolivia in 1980 and the covert actions against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and ends up in the jungle of Chiapas. Such covert structures operating within the military or intelligence communities are difficult to dismantle, since they are able to privatize (or at least partially) their funding sources, if they need to for their survival.

In its 1994 report, for example, the Joint Group in El Salvador (established to investigate the resurgence of death squad-style political assassinations) states that its findings have raised large questions regarding the current ties of persons earlier identified with... the so-called 'death squads,' with heavily armed organized crime groups, dedicated especially to bank robberies, car theft, and arms and drug trafficking. The relationship between these powerful structures and politically motivated crimes is described as a serious danger to the country's social and political stability.

Such links between political crime and organized crime structures are designed to make these organizations and their members unouchable. Most involved are still well connected to the more reactionary sectors of the armed forces or the intelligence apparatus, which provides them with a certain degree of protection. And the lead or gold approach, which combines sheer terror with drug-money bribes, provides a level of impunity similar to that enjoyed while they were still in office. The motives guiding their actions become an indistinguishable blend of private profit with political agendas. In Colombia, several regions are fully controlled by such paramilitary structures (as described by Ricardo Vargas) which is a factor contributing to the total disintegration of the nation-state. Similar narco-mini-states exist in Mexico, and smaller variants have been reported in Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and several small Caribbean islands.

The selective killings directed against popular movement groups - carried out from within these groups - are not the only sources of destabilization. The more general inkillings, kidnapping, rape and robbery is in many countries reaching levels comparable to the social effects of a civil war. To complete the circle, the widespread popular demands for strong State measures to counterattack such violence tends to open the door for a more authoritarian leadership.

Fuelling armed conflict

Worldwide, wars have fuelled drug production and vice versa. The rapid global expansion of the illicit drug trade has cast its shadow over almost all armed conflicts today. Easy money from drug trafficking has not only affected the armed conflicts in drug producing-regions such as Peru and Colombia (see the article by Ricardo Vargas) or Burma and Afghanistan, but also has taken its toll in conflicts in Liberia, Turkey, Lebanon, Senegal, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and in the ex-USSR Central Asian and Caucasian republics. (7)

The impact of the drug trade is often underestimated as a catalyst in pre-war crisis situations. The existence of heavily armed groups involved in the narcotics business seriously increases the risk of armed escalation. Since such groups have no qualms about provoking armed confrontations as a means of protecting their special interests. The existence of such drug trafficking structures also means the existence of pipelines into the area through which those exacerbating a crisis can be supplied from abroad. In each of the recent cases of Bosnia, Somalia, Ruanda and Chechenia there are indications that the presence of drug trafficking interests may have played a role during the pre-war crisis, the outbreak of initial hostilities and the early stages of the conflicts. (8)


The interdependent complex of the globalizing illegal drugs business and the militarization of the strategies employed to counter it, has caught the fragile process of democratization between two fires. It brings about a degree of collateral damage to the democratization process that can no longer be disregarded and that obliges the international community to profoundly evaluate the most repressive aspects of current anti-drugs policies and even to rethink the principles underlying the global prohibition regime. The Special Session on Drugs of the UN General Assembly, scheduled for June 1998, will provide an apt forum for a critical assessment of the viability of the course the world has taken in confronting these problems.

Given their historical record, the ongoing violation of human rights, their role in maintaining the deeply rooted structures of impunity throughout the continent and their systematic involvement in the drug trade itself, the region's armed forces are clearly a dubious partner in the war on drugs in Latin America. As their mission is redefined and their internal role is re-legitimized in order to safeguard democracy against the corrupting impact of the illegal drug traffic, the proponents of a greater role for the military in the drug war should keep in mind the saying: We have met the enemy... and he is us.


1. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs provided in November 1994 the following estimate on the volume of sales worldwide in the illicit drug industry: conservative estimates range from US$400 billion to US$500 billion {a year}. That would be equivalent to approximately one tenth (10% to 13%) of total international trade. It would be larger than international trade in oil, mineral fuels and lubricants, which together account for 9.5% of total international (legal) trade, chemicals (9% of international trade), or food, live animals, beverages and tobacco (also 9% of international trade. The turnover of the illicit drug industry would be nearly double the turnover of global pharmaceutical companies (assessed at US$215 billion in 1993) and seven to eight times as large as the amount spent on official development assistance (US$66.6 billion in 1993). Commission on Narcotics Drugs: Economic and social consequences of drug abuse and illicit trafficking: an interim report, E/CN.7/1995/3.
2. On March 1, 1996, President Clinton, following the recommendations of the US State Department, decertified Colombia, along with Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma and Nigeria, for not having shown a serious commitment in the fight against drugs. Criteria for this yearly certification procedure includes performance in the areas of: crop eradication, fight against corruption, extradition to the US of suspected drug criminals, law enforcement against trafficking cartels, and legislative measures against drug money laundering. In the case of Colombia's bad rating, among the reasons cited was the fact that Colombia had failed to reach a maritime counter-narcotics agreement with the US, had failed to toughen penalties for drug trafficking, and that the Calí cartel leaders had been able to continue to run their drug empire from prison. The accusation that the Calí cartel had financed part of President Samper's electoral campaign also affected the country's standing. Decertification makes a country ineligible for most forms of US bilateral assistance and obliges the US to vote against multilateral loans for those countries in international financial institutions. Additional means by which the US can increase pressure on a decertified country, include trade sanctions or visa restrictions for State officials. The law specifically allows US funding for drug programs to continue, so has no direct effect on anti-drug operations.
3. Cited in: Ministros de Defensa en Bariloche, En busca del enemigo perdido, by Samuel Blixen, in Brecha, October 1996, Montivideo, Uruguay.
4. For a more extensive analysis of European drugs policies abroad, see: Borderline Criminology: External Drug Policies of the EU, by Nicholas Dorn, in European Drug Policies and Enforcement, ed. By Nicholas Dorn, Jorgen Jepsen and Ernesto Savona, MacMillan Press, London 1996; European Drug-Control Policy and the Andean Region, CIIR Discussion Paper No. 6, CIIR London, January 1994; and The Drugs Trade as a Developmental Issue: Proposals for a EU Response, by Andy Atkins, in Trocaire Development Review, Dublin, 1996.
5. Cited in: The Drug War against the Zapatistas, by Jeffrey St. Clair, IPS 14-1-97.
6. This is well documented for a number of cases. See for example: The Politics of Heroin, CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W. McCoy, Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago 1991; The Crimes of Patriots, A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA by Jonathan Kwitny, Touchstone, New York 1988; Cocaine Politics, Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, University of California Press, California 1991; and the recent series of newspaper articles in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996, reviving the drugs-side of the Iran-Contra scandal.
7. Examples can be found in the monthly Geopolitical Drug Dispatch of the Observatoire Geopolitique de la Drogue (OGD)in Paris, ISSN 1161-8442.
8. In the case of Bosnia, for example, it can be argued that the early stages of the crisis were heavily influenced by the pre-war involvement of the most extremist factions of both Croation and Serbian nationalists in Bosnia in transporting heroin from Turkey to Northern Europe. Once the crisis evolved, these factions intensified their involvement in the drug trade to finance their armies. And as the war developed, both the Serbian and Croatian States played a role, in support to their allies in Bosnia. As a result, all three countries are now plagued with seriously criminalized economies, and with powerful political crime organizations that are very difficult to get rid off.

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