Reluctant Recruits: The US Military and the War on Drugs


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Despite spending some $20 billion over the past decade on international drug control and interdiction efforts, illegal drugs from Latin America still flood the United States - a fact that concerns many within the military itself.

About reluctant recruits: the us military and the war on drugs

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Peter Zirnite

Executive Summary

Despite the end of the Cold War and recent transitions toward more democratic societies in Latin America, the United States has launched a number of initiatives that strengthen the power of Latin American security forces, increase the resources available to them, and expand their role within society - precisely when struggling civilian elected governments are striving to keep those forces in check. Rather than encourage Latin American militaries to limit their role to the defense of national borders, Washington has provided the training, resources and doctrinal justification for militaries to move into the business of building roads and schools, providing veterinary and child inoculation services, and protecting the environment. Of greatest concern, however, is US encouragement and support for the region's armed forces - including the US military itself - to play a significant role in domestic counternarcotics operations, a law enforcement function reserved in most democracies for civilian police.

Among the vast array of US government agencies involved in drug control efforts, the Department of Defense (DOD) is on the front line of the war on drugs in Latin America, a role mandated by the 1989 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The act designated DOD as the "single lead agency" for the detection and monitoring of illicit drug shipments into the United States. Congress backed this directive with dollars, quadrupling DOD's counter-drug budget between Fiscal Year (FY)1988 and FY1992, when it peaked at $1.22 billion. Billions more have been spent since then.

As the perceived threat of communism faded and eventually collapsed in the 1980s, the drug war replaced the Cold War as the military's central mission in the Western Hemisphere. Few in the military establishment, however, embraced the counternarcotics mission enthusiastically. While many regional commanders and their officers reluctantly complied with the Pentagon's directive to develop plans for carrying out the new mission, the Panama-based US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) eagerly took it on.

For officials within SOUTHCOM, the drug war was an opportunity to apply the low-intensity-conflict skills honed during 30 years of fighting guerrilla insurgencies in Central America and the principal means of maintaining and enhancing relations with militaries throughout the region. Closer ties with Latin American military forces help to encourage "subordination to civilian authorities, defense transparency, peaceful resolution of disputes, and protection of human rights," according to Gen. Wesley K. Clark, until recently Commander in Chief of SOUTHCOM. (1)

Testimony of Gen. Wesley K. Clark before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 11 March 1997. Primarily coordinated out of Panama, the US military now undertakes a vast array of assistance, training, intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities aimed at reducing the flow of drugs into the United States.

Passage of the 1989 NDAA coincided with President Bush's announcement of the Andean Initiative. Although US military personnel had been involved in training and transporting foreign antinarcotics personnel outside the country since1983, the Andean strategy opened the door to a dramatic expansion of this role, and to a significant infusion of US assistance to police and military forces; the Andes quickly replaced Central American as the primary recipient of such assistance. While aid levels declined in the early 1990s, over the last 18 months the US Congress and the Clinton administration have again dramatically escalated the provision of antinarcotics-related security assistance, primarily to the Andean region and Mexico.

The Andean Initiative placed the spotlight on Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and the impact of the drug war in those countries generated vocal concern among human rights groups. The vast majority of DOD's spending in the early 1990s, however, went to support domestic law enforcement efforts, and to detection and monitoring operations in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico transit zones, employing state-of-the-art military surveillance at a staggering financial cost. Those efforts quickly came under fire, as a series of investigations by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found transit zone interdiction programs to be costly and ineffective.

In late 1994, President Clinton shifted the emphasis of the US counter-drug strategy in Latin America, after an extensive administration review concurred with the GAO. Through a Presidential Decision Directive, he moved the focus of interdiction efforts from the transit zone back to the so-called source countries, particularly the "air bridge" connecting coca growers and paste producers in Peru and Bolivia with cocaine refiners in Colombia. A year later, the architect of this strategy, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former commander-in-chief of SOUTHCOM, was appointed "drug czar."

Mirroring Bush administration claims about victories in transit zone interdiction, the Clinton White House soon declared its air-bridge strategy a success, citing declining prices paid for coca leaf and demands by pilots for more money to fly drug-laden planes. But even the administration's most zealous drug warriors admit that gains have been more tactical than strategic. Drug traffickers circumvent radar interdiction by flying below it and transporting more illicit drugs via land or river. Perhaps most significantly, the need to bring raw materials into Colombia, the primary cocaine-producing country, has been reduced by the expansion of coca production in Colombia itself - by 32 percent in 1996 alone.

Despite spending some $20 billion over the past decade on international drug control and interdiction efforts, illegal drugs from Latin America still flood the United States - a fact that concerns many within the military itself. Pentagon-backed counter-drug operations have resulted in some successes - the arrests of drug traffickers, eradication of coca fields, destruction of processing labs, and disruption of transportation - but gains have been episodic and temporary, as the sophisticated, well-financed "enemy" adapts quickly to enforcement strategies.

The seizure of thousands of metric tons of cocaine between 1988 and 1995, and the eradication of more than 55,000 hectares of coca plants, have failed to reduce the supply of illegal drugs in the United States or their availability, as measured by price and purity. Eradication in the Andes is offset by expanded cultivation. The area under coca cultivation actually grew by 15 percent from 1988 to 1995, and opium poppy cultivation jumped by 25 percent. As a result, the seizures of cocaine and heroin "made little impact on the availability of illegal drugs in the United States and on the amount needed to satisfy the estimated US demand." (2)

After noting how aggressive U.S-led interdiction efforts in Latin America simply force the cartels to diversify routes and improve their methods of shipment, one frustrated military planner compared the cocaine industry to poison ivy and the military response to scratching. "Scratching gives some short-term relief - which is hard to resist - but it spreads the problem." (3) Other military analysts suggest that a cardinal rule for US forces operating abroad is to focus on a clearly identified central target; however, to combat illicit drugs military planners have identified 14 such targets. Pursuit of these moving targets threatens to draw the US armed forces deeper into Latin America, even as some in the Pentagon, such as DOD drug policy coordinator Brian Sheridan, claim to be "looking for the exit door on this issue." (4)

The militarization of the drug war may be spreading more problems than just drug trafficking. US strategy depends on building close ties with Latin American militaries and beefing up their counter-drug capabilities, resorting in some countries to unholy alliances with armies that have deplorable human rights records. In Colombia, Mexico and Peru, US international drug control efforts - including the provision of equipment, training and direct assistance - contribute to counterinsurgency campaigns characterized by gross violations of human rights. Moreover, the US war on drugs has promoted a dangerous internal security role for Latin American militaries. Finally, it provides an on-the-ground role in the region for the US military and expanded intelligence-gathering and surveillance, evoking concerns about national sovereignty among countries throughout the hemisphere.

These issues generate significant controversy on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress have questioned both the human rights impact of drug policy and the US government's ability to effectively monitor use of antinarcotics assistance. In four reports from 1991 to 1994, the GAO concluded that US officials lacked sufficient oversight of military aid to ensure that equipment was being used efficiently and as intended in Colombia and Peru. In February 1997, the agency reported that this problem lingers, and has spread, citing the Mexican government's use of US-supplied, counternarcotics helicopters to transport troops used in quelling the uprising in the state of Chiapas. (5) Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch/Americas have released information from the US Embassy in Colombia documenting the provision of US antinarcotics assistance to counterinsurgency units of the Colombian armed forces responsible for some of the worst human rights atrocities in recent years.

The concerns expressed by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and other human rights organizations about the on-the-ground impact of the drug war are shared by many within the DOD establishment. In fact, some of the harshest criticisms of the Pentagon's anti-drug mission come from within its own ranks, where parallels are often drawn to the Vietnam War. Like their civilian counterparts, military critics question why they were drafted for the mission, the tactics being used to carry it out, and its overall effectiveness. These doubts, however, have not tempered the enthusiasm of Congress and the US public for a military solution. In a nation that historically has a propensity to declare "war" on its social ills, as if waging a "war" simply means rallying others around a cause, it is not surprising that failure in such efforts brings a call for escalation rather than reevaluation. For many, the urge to "scratch" remains irresistible.