The US & the War on Drugs: On the Wrong Path

01 April 1997

Despite Republican criticisms, the Clinton administration has largely continued the supply-side policies and strong-arm tactics laid out by its predecessors, Presidents Reagan and Bush.

The war of words over the US war on drugs reached new heights during the recent US presidential election campaign. Seizing the issue as a means of staking out the moral high ground, the Republicans began a vicious assault on President Bill Clinton and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. Hammering Clinton for being soft on drugs, the Republicans attempted to present an image of a lax, liberal president who himself had tried marijuana and some of whose staff has come under scrutiny by the Secret Service for prior drug use. Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole presented old themes as new ideas: cut off supply, close the borders, and bring in the US military to fight a real war.

The Republicans' efforts failed to a large degree; but not, however, because Clinton presented an alternative vision of a rational drug policy. On the contrary, Clinton took on the Republicans on their own terms, trying to out tough them by beefing up a militarized drug control program abroad and punitive measures at home. The repercussions of the political battle over drug policy will be felt for some time in Latin America, where the so-called drug war is primarily being waged.

In the heat of the campaign, the US Congress doubled the budget for US international drug control programs for fiscal year 1997, most of which will go to police and military efforts in the Andes and Mexico. Not satisfied, Clinton then announced an additional package of more than US$100 million of assistance in military equipment to be used for antinarcotics purposes. All together, this virtually tripled the amount of funding available for Latin American military and police forces, reversing the trend of recent years of declining interest in and funding for US international drug control programs. Once again, US policies to promote human rights and democratization efforts in the region have taken a back seat to a drug war driven by domestic political considerations.

The Clinton administration's drug war: rhetoric vs. reality

Despite Republican criticisms, the Clinton administration has largely continued the supply-side policies and strong-arm tactics laid out by its predecessors, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In fact, Clinton's actions as President stand in stark contrast to his words as a candidate in 1992 when he argued for a focus on treatment on demand for drug users and education at home. He criticized former resident Bush for confusing being tough with being smart (because he) thinks locking up addicts instead of treating them before they commit clever politics. That may be, but it certainly isn't sound policy.. (1) Once in office, however, clever politics took precedence.

To its credit, the Clinton administration did adopt a different rhetoric. In addition to focusing more on demand-side issues - treatment and education - administration officials largely dropped the drug war rhetoric when talking of international drug control programs and paid greater lip-service to promoting democratic institutions and economic development in drug-producing countries. Clinton also down-played the issue, focusing on other domestic political concerns - a tactic which later was used against him as his Republican opponents accused him from failing to show leadership and being AWOL, or absent form the war on drugs.

Rhetoric did not, however, match reality. The drug control budgets presented by the Clinton administration have basically maintained the ratio of government spending on demand and supply-side efforts, with 35 percent for the former and 65 percent for the latter. The vast majority of resources allocated for international drug control programs continue to be provided for law enforcement and military efforts, while economic assistance has steadily declined as foreign aid has dwindled. No new programs or initiatives related to international drug control have been presented by the Clinton administration.

Moreover, following a review of international drug control programs by the National Security Council, the Clinton administration adopted a strategy of prioritizing source country efforts. Funding was scaled back for interdiction efforts in the transit countries of Central America and the Caribbean and along the US border and additional funding was sought for coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Clinton's first drug czar, Lee Brown, liked to compare drug control programs to bees. In February 1994 he told the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), It is easier to go to the beehive than it is to get the bees as they fly across the US border.

Saber-rattling on Capitol Hill

The US Congress, at that time controlled by the Democrats, was not convinced by the source country arguments. Increasingly, powerful subcommittee and committee chairmen expressed skepticism of international drug control efforts and in particular very expensive border interdiction programs. For several months in 1994, a Senate subcommittee withheld all US foreign assistance for antinarcotics efforts insisting that the administration present a new drug strategy for the Andes that would prove to be more cost effective. Although the funds were eventually released, Congressional appropriators steadily cut back funding for these programs and banned direct military assistance to the Colombian army and Peruvian armed forces because of their abysmal human rights records.

When the Republicans took control of the US Congress in January 1995, the drug warriors went on the offensive again. A number of particularly zealous members took control of key committees and subcommittees, perhaps best exemplified by Representative Dan Burton who took over the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House of Representatives. In Congressional hearings on March 29, 1995, Burton lambasted administration officials. Asking Is this a war or not?, Burton proposed placing a US aircraft carrier off the coasts of Peru and Bolivia (sic) and forcibly spraying coca fields with herbicides, regardless of the opposition of those governments. (Apparently, an alert staff member informed him that Bolivia does not in fact have a coastline and he subsequently altered the stump speech accordingly.) He also suggested putting concerns about national sovereignty aside and sending in US troops to take out Colombian drug traffickers.

But even the Republican Congress id not at that time match its rhetoric with action. Although the international drug budget fared better than other forms of US assistance, the administration's request was cut in half and, in fact, in 1995 less was allocated for fiscal year 1996 than in previous years. Cuts to domestic demand-reduction programs were even steeper. This dynamic of tough talk but reduced funding continued through 1995, but took a dramatic turn as the November 1996 presidential elections neared.

Election-year politics take hold

By late 1995 the Republican leadership perceived that the drug issue could be used to the party's advantage in its efforts to portray Clinton as a weak leader. In fact, President Clinton rarely referred to the drug issue in his public presentations, in stark contrast to the Just Say No campaign of the Reagan years and President Bush's constant hammering on the subject. Clinton's first drug czar, Lee Brown, took a low profile and was virtually absent from debate on international drug control policy. During his entire tenure in office, he never even named a deputy for international narcotics programs, abdicating responsibility for international programs to other government agencies. Then in November 1995 important survey data was released indicating that drug use by teenagers in the United States is on the rise (a trend reconfirmed by survey data released in 1996). Republicans began pointing to the lack of presidential leadership as the key factor explaining the reversal in drug use trends.

Put on the defensive, the Clinton administration began a counter-offensive. A number of get tough initiatives were introduced, including mandatory drug testing for all individuals arrested on federal criminal charges. Of greatest significance, Clinton put a general at the helm of the drug war. A hero from the Gulf War, General Barry McCaffrey, now retired, replaced Lee Brown as the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in early 1996. Prior to this appointment, General McCaffrey served as head of the US Southern Command in Panama where he coordinated antinarcotics efforts by the US military and became intimately familiar with the militaries of the Andean and other countries. Those relations remain prominent, as General McCaffrey is most effective in lobbying for additional resources for his Latin American colleagues.

The certification debate

The annual certification debate provided the next key opportunity for political grandstanding, and Colombia and Mexico became the primary victims. Each year, the administration must certify to the US Congress that countries receiving US antinarcotics assistance are cooperating with US efforts. Countries which are not certified face a range of US sanctions, including the suspension of all US foreign assistance not directly related to antinarcotics programs. The previous year, in 1995, the administration denied full certification to a number of countries - instead they were made eligible for continued US assistance through national security waivers - including Colombia, which came under harshest attack. The powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senator Jesse Helms, finally dropped his opposition togranting a nationalsecurity waiver to Colombia, but introduced legislation in which Colombia would be treated as decertified if a series of antinarcotics targets were not met by February 1996 (which they were not).

In 1996, the political stakes were higher: both Clinton and Helms faced re-election. Although key foreign policy advisers argued against a complete decertification of Colombia, the White House political handlers won out. Clinton could decertify Colombia himself and gain some political points for being tough on a foreign government perceived as allied with drug traffickers, or he could let Senator Helms reap the political benefits. Senator Helms had made clear his intention of pushing through his legislation treating Colombia as decertified, and he had th votes necessary to win. For the first time since the certification process was initiated in 1986, the President did not certify a US ally and trading partner. (Colombia was decertified once again February 1997).

A similar debate raged on Mexico; however, much more was at stake for US-Mexican relations. In contrast to the Andean countries where drug policy dominates the bilateral agenda, US policy toward Mexico focuses on a growing economic relationship, concerns about stability in a country on the US border, and immigration matters. While drug policy is increasingly high on the agenda, it does not take precedence over all other policy concerns as is the case in the Andes. Moreover, key financial contributors to both the Republican and Democratic parties have economic stakes in Mexico (strengthened by NAFTA) and are adamantly opposed to a decertification. Thus, when similar legislation was introduced to treat Mexico as decertified, Republican party leadership got the word out that Mexico was not to face the same fate as Colombia.

While Latin American countries remain highly critical of the unilateral certification process, many US officials perceive it as an effective tool. The impression in Washington is that the US government's strong-arm tactics in the region are bearing fruit, a view reinforced by the Samper government's weak response to last year's decertification. There appears to have been little political cost for the administration in practical terms as a result of its ultimatums to the Colombian government. The US has beefed up its antinarcotics efforts in Colombia and has strengthened ties with Colombian military and police forces. The Colombian government even agreed to allow US personnel to pilot aircraft used in aerial eradication campaigns, in stark contrast to Mexico which will not even allow US oversight of aircraft provided by the US government.

Escalation of US military and police assistance

Another fallout from the political grandstanding around the drug issue is a reversal in the trend of declining US resources for international drug control issues. In this case, President Clinton was able to go on the offensive, chastising the Republican Congress for failing to fund adequately the drug control budget. For fiscal year 1997, the administration requested US$213 million, as it had the previous year. With the elections looming, for the first time in many years the Congress approved the administration's full request. To meet that request, US$50 million was transferred from funds that would have gone for development assistance and international organizations. Of the US$213 million, 66.5 percent is allocated for law enforcement and military support, as compared to only 15.5 percent for development assistance.

Not to be outdone, the Clinton administration presented a package of $112 million worth of military equipment and training to be provided to Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico and Caribbean countries for antinarcotics purposes. Another package of US Defense Department equipment is likely to be announced in the near future. In addition, after months of stalling, the administration agreed to sell the Colombian government armed Blackhawk helicopters worth US$169 million. Human rights groups objected vociferously to the sale, as Blackhawk helicopters purchased previously by the Colombian government have been used to strafe local hamlets during counterinsurgency operations.

In Congressional testimony on the helicopter sale in September 1996, debate focused not on the human rights implications of the sale or its likely impact in stemming the flow of illicit drugs out of Colombia, but rather on how fast the helicopters could be delivered. Irate Republicans blasted administration officials for dragging their feet on the sale. Human rights concerns were portrayed as unfortunate, but no more. Ambassador Peter Romero, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, noted: I think all of us in the room would agree that the performance of the army particularly has been very disappointing with respect to adherence to human rights standards. There continues to be instances of extrajudicial kilings, disappearances, torture from very credible sources. But he went on to justify the sale nonetheless, while admitting that once the helicopters are provided, the US government has no means of ensuring that they not be used in counterinsurgency operations.

Likewise, the US government is providing additional helicopters to the Mexican government (as part of the US $112 million package) despite confirmed reports that helicopters provided previously were used in counterinsurgency operations against the Zapatista guerrillas.

At the same time as aid has skyrocketed, human rights restrictions have been reduced. In the fiscal year 1997 foreign aid bill, the US Congress lifted a ban on direct military assistance to the Peruvian armed forces, in effect since 1992, and placed no restrictions on aid to the Colombian army as it has in previous years. The US government has finally succeeded in its goal of involving the armed forces of all of the Andean countries in its antinarcotics programs.

At what cost?

The cost for human rights and democratization trends in the region is likely to be high. Nowhere is this more evident than in Colombia. The Samper government's failure to meet US antinarcotics demands has greatly hindered US relations with the civilian elected government, but has resulted in strengthened relations with the Colombian military and police. Unwilling to engage with the Samper administration, US officials now go directly to the Colombian military high command. As noted by General Harold Bedoya, Comandante General de las Fuerzas Militares, in a November 1996 interview with WOLA: The US has changed its perception of the Colombian military. (As noted, the Colombian military is already reaping the benefits.) If past trends hold, the US assistance provided to the Colombian military will directly support one of the most brutalcounterinsurgency campaigns in the hemisphere today.

Human rights violations are also proliferating as a result of the aerial eradication of coca in the Guaviare, Putumayo and Caqueta regions (where the Colombian army has astutely launched a major offensive against the FARC guerrillas). Local community leaders describe how the eradication process works: First, the army depopulates the selected areas, coming in on foot, looting and burning houses, and forcing people out. Then, helicopters swoop down and strafe the area in case anyone was missed. Finally, planes, protected by helicopters, spray the area. As noted, now US contract pilots are manning the eradication aircraft, americanizing the war even more. The US government points to the eradication program as one of its biggest successes in Colombia.

In Peru, in order to further US antinarcotics objectives, the US government is providing protection to Vladimiro Montesinos, de facto head of the Peruvian intelligence services (SIN), close advisor to President Alberto Fujimori and long-rumored to be on the CIA payroll. Montesinos is linked to some of the most serious human rights violations that have taken place under the Fujimori government, and widespread allegations implicate him in drug trafficking. In stark contrast to its policy toward Colombia, in the face of these allegations the Clinton administration has offered blanket statements of support to the Fujimori government instead of backing calls for an investigation. US officials acknowledge that the United States collaborates with the SIN to further its antinarcotics objectives, despite the SIN's dismal human rights recrd.


In the wake of the 1996 presidential and congressional elections in the United States, the possibilities for a more rational and effective approach to the very real problems of drug abuse and drug-related violence are more remote than ever. The lesson of the 1996 campaign for US politicians is that there is a lot to be gained and nothing to lose by being tough on drugs. Increased counternarcotics funding for fiscal year 1997 further strengthens a narco-bureaucracy that spans dozens of US government agencies and Congressional committees. Cabinet and other appointments reinforce ongoing policies, and a Republican is again at the helm of the Defense Department. As he enters his second term in office, President Clinton is staking out the middle ground, foiling efforts by his Republican critics to paint his second term as a return to his liberal political leanings. All of which is to say, that Latin Americans - unfortunately - can expect more of the same failed US international drug control policies, arm-twisting and constant badgering from the second Clinton administration and the second Republican Congress.


1. In: Eva Bertram y Ken Sharpe, Can't Kick the Habit, in In These Times, 11 November 1996.