Why a Drug `War`?

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS390

Section 1

Global Drug Policy has, since at least the era of Ronald Reagan's US presidency, been an extension of US domestic policies and US foreign policy goals. The United States declared a War on Drugs, both domestically and abroad, and used its influence in global politics to affect that position against drugs. This was implemented through diplomatic pressure on foreign governments and funding of anti-narcotics work and training programs through the DEA, CIA, and State Department. Importantly, how we talk about these policies shapes much about them, from consideration, to implementation, to critique or reform. So, why a "Drug War"? Why have we chosen to frame combating drug usage as a War? Doesn't this lead to military intervention as the primary response? One can quickly conclude that if there is a war on drugs happening, and if it's been going on for a while now, the drugs must be winning the war (or, at least, have not lost it). This is a sort of facile challenge to the concept of a war against an idea, but it's no less poignant about how flimsy wars on ideas are. Thus is the challenge of fighting a war against a concept, much as there are similar challenges implicit within the founding claim of the so-called "War on Terror".

Within Latin America, the War on Drugs has had massive effects on most countries, due to the US implementing or assisting with the implementation of strict anti-drug legislation. There's strong consumer demand for drugs in the US, and where there's a demand, suppliers will be found. Organized crime (modernly Transnational Organized Crime, or colloquially the drug cartels) has stepped up to fulfill this demand, and have conquered their local markets through intimidation, blackmail, assassination, torture, and bribery. This has resulted in an unstable security environment for citizens, coup d'états of Latin American governments, and militarized responses to social ills due to their overdeveloped militaries (because they need a military to fight the drug cartels).

This framing of drugs as something that people are at war against has resulted in the highly militarized response to drugs and drug prohibition in Latin America. This, in turn, created an arms race between the Latin American militaries, and the drug cartels, for military and intelligence gathering prowess.

Section 2

Honduras is a great example of a Latin American country whose militarized response to drug trafficking in their country has likely resulted in an arms race between the cartels and the state. The primary (as the US State Department calls them) "Drug Trafficking Organizations" operating in Honduras are MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, who have been locked in a war for control of the market. The challenge within Honduras is that the cartels have a large amount of money, and thus a large amount of power, certainly through bribery but also through intimidation and assassination. Corruption is endemic in Honduras, and much of the police force (and some of the military) appears to be on the payroll of the drug cartels operating in the country. This presents a special challenge to combating drugs (though not unique to Honduras), because if Honduras continues to follow the US's lead on drug policy (a request for aid via funding, which has been recently renewed by the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, at the CELAC meeting in Cuba in January) and act with a zero tolerance policy and a militarized response, the fight between the cartels and the state may never end.

In late June 2009 there was a coup in Honduras: Manuel Zelaya was deposed from his elected presidential position, and Roberto Micheletti was interim president until new elections could be held. Elections were held on 29 November, and Juan Orlando Hernández was elected. During that interim period, the drug cartels made great gains within Honduras to control territory, due to the instability within government caused by the coup. Cocaine shipments through Honduras increased exponentially during that time, and have not abated since. Hernández has called upon the US to help Honduras fight the drug cartels, but the United States has not been overly willing due to their disinterest in recognizing the election that saw him rise to the presidency (international observers verify the election as free and fair, but the US does not recognize as legitimate the actions of parliament which deposed Zelaya). Hernández supports the War on Drugs and a zero tolerance policy for drugs, but has been stymied to make gains against the cartels due to the corruption in his police and military forces. The corruption is such that some have called the relationship between the police and cartels "collaborative"[1]. (Kolb)

It seems that the challenges within Honduras would elicit consideration of alternative policies (because additional funding for the police and military, which are known to be corrupt, would probably backfire), but instead Hernández seeks to double down. This, too, is endemic to the framing of the War on Drugs. A war always has an enemy, and to stop a war is to admit defeat. It is logical that if one treats combating drugs as a war, then it can be won if one party posses superior tactics, technology, and resources. This is precisely the reason Hernández calls upon the US for further funding and training. Mexico's previous president, Felipe Calderón, with the help of the United States, aggressively consolidated power over the police and military[2], and succeeded in suppressing the drug cartels in his nation – which resulted in them shifting some operations to nearby countries (such as Honduras). So, theoretically, doubling down can work, but it only sweeps the problem under the rug a little, instead of eliminating the reasons the drug cartels exist in the marketplace.

This policy challenge was noted in CELAC's (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC is the Spanish acronym) 2014 Plan of Action, in which they suggest finding commonalities in policy between CELAC member states, as well as consulting with and participating in the UN General Assembly on the World Drug Problem, with the "ultimate goal to reach a regional consensus on the treatment of this issue in a comprehensive manner, focusing on persons" (CELAC Plan of Action, 16). CELAC, however, aims to focus more broadly than stopping cartels (which is to say, stopping/slowing supply) but also to focus on demand reduction[3] (as they call it).

Section 3

There are several responses that can be found to the drug cartel problem in Honduras. First is the one Hernández is taking, to double down on zero tolerance for drugs, asking the US for additional help combating the supply side of the drug market (cartels, producers, et all). Second is the general policy template introduced by the EU-CELAC meetings, where a two-pronged approach is used – one prong to target demand reduction, and another to target supply reduction. Third is to consider a third way, an alternative policy formulation such as legalization or nationalization of the drug production chain – This would not ignore the power organized crime has, but would seek to defeat their power by eliminating their profitability.

The policy taken by Honduras will probably backfire on its face because of the corruption problem in the police and military, but will also fail for subtler reasons. Doubling down on a failed policy doesn't magically create a successful outcome, but it's larger than that – as Hernández continues to frame drugs as something against which war is being waged, only the status quo of drug cartels, government corruption, extra-judicial killings, and destabilized governments can result. That's what a war works out to, in this context. One can argue that a defined enemy can be defeated in combat, but the same cannot be said of an idea. History is extremely clear that prohibition of ideas doesn't work. Militarized enforcement of that prohibition creates a militarized environment for people to live in, leaving many who are unrelated to drugs to have a militarized daily life. This has really nasty effects on individuals and societies that are beyond the scope of this paper to explain[4]. Additionally, this leaves large parts of society (Honduran, but also many others) in a "state of exception" as Giorgio Agamben would call it, where due to the framing of drugs as something being fought in a war, the rule of law can be partially or completely suspended by the government on a whim (or continuously, as has happened). In a state of exception, it matters not whether the government functions, it has no effective requirement to protect the rights of citizens (because they have been suspended in some way).

The EU-CELAC joint policy is a more moderate policy, which still assumes drugs will be strongly discouraged, where both the supply and demand of the drug market are to be targeted by governments, through both private and public projects and partnerships. If pursued in earnest it may result in mild successes due to its more moderate nature and the focus on local solutions[3].

Some of the other CELAC countries, most notably Uruguay, are pursuing alternative policies with regards to drugs. Uruguay has legalized and regulated marijuana in an attempt to combat the drug cartels (this eliminates the drug as a profit center for the cartels). Implementation of the law was postponed until 2015 due to being more challenging than initially thought, but implementation will be attempted nonetheless. Challenges will be present for any legalization strategy, not least because it is in direct contravention to current mainstream (US policy-based) ideas about drugs. These ideas are changing slowly, but there is very much still a proportion of people who view drugs as a zero-tolerance issue. Additional challenges result from the large theoretic framework change necessary to implement policies like legalization, where public health services (for example) must be developed to deal with overuse. Presently many places fine or jail drug users, but if it were approached as a public health policy challenge, different solutions would be created. Governments could adopt a harm reduction framework for soft drugs (this is very close to the public health policies of some CELAC countries already), and a treatment system for addiction to hard drugs. This would probably have all of the intended (explicit) effects of the war on drugs (reducing demand, supply, and perceived harm to society due to drug use) while sharply undercutting drug cartels' power in society, instead of formalizing it.

The final challenge to all of these three options is that none of this can be normative. Perhaps each of these three example policy paths fits a country, but other countries must find some other options that work for them. As much as anyone could support any one of these options, they are indeed one-size-fits-all solutions, which makes them unlikely to work perfectly anywhere.

Section 4

Using war as a framework for policy creation is very concerning. It does not fit the official line of Clausewitz that war is an extension of politics, or a politics of last resort. If policy is being framed through a war framework (and this applies to many more things than just drugs) then war is assumed, and not the result of a breakdown in politics. As this framework increases in use, a few things will develop: entrenchment of dichotomous thinking, defaulting to zero tolerance policies, states of exception, and securitizing daily life.

War is predicated on having a definable enemy, and a war on drugs does not have a definable enemy – it's an idea. Drugs are a policy issue of some sort, and a cultural issue in some places (religious related drug use, for example), but they are not a war. There is not two (or more) sides with ideals and aspirations, fighting. The entire discussion should be reframed as a public health problem for more-left nations and a social problem for more-right nations, with the public health policy solutions and social policy solutions for those respective cases. As in the case of Honduras, projecting moral indignation is not a policy, and especially not any way to wage a war. Organized crime exists to usurp/handle over-regulated or inefficient or non-existent markets, and that's what it's doing here. If the market is legitimized in some way, and made reasonably efficient, drug cartels will go away for the most part (perhaps they'll switch to stealing oil, as has been seen recently in Mexico). Until more discussions that take into account not just the goals of a policy but a realistic view of the effects (are they what the intent suggested? Has declaring a war on drugs and implementing those policies resulted in a reduction in drug use? Does whipping the public up into a furor using wartime language achieve the objective?), these discussions about policy are for naught. You're either with us or against us, as they say. These sort of (false) dichotomies flourish in wartime theoretic frameworks.

Us versus Them dichotomies play really well with nationalism and war, but not for public health. It turns drug users (all the many millions of them) into Others, which if the discussion continues as it previously has in US policy circles, results in automatic states of exception for entire countries of people who do not follow US drug policy. They can be subject to being secured at any time by the US military, which usually means a forfeiture of autonomy, if not explicitly life. Of course, this also means that due to the capacity of the cartels to challenge state sovereignty, they can find themselves in a state of exception with the cartels as well. I'm abusing the term to make a point here, but it stands – anyone caught between these two semi-sovereigns warring would have no rights at all, because one or the other would find them in a state of exception. The problem is larger than just drug users and drugs, though. The problem is this entire warring framework is bad. Every time someone speaks about energy security, or food security, or national security, or any other kind of security problem, the solution is a militarization of that thing. All of these problems also exist in all of those contexts as well.

The broad challenge presented here, and the real great takeaway, is that thinking of combating any perceived health or social ill with the military is a patently Bad Idea™ due to the way it reduces your solution options for any problem. If one considers drugs a problem, or religious practice, or how someone brushes their hair, and through a warring lens, there are a finite list of options (none of them good) with which to handle that problem. Most involve guns and jails. Certainly the solution put forth by the US (which is what Honduras seeks to emulate) will. Honduras should be looking to its neighbors in CELAC for alternative solutions, because war hasn't solved the problem in 40 years, and it's not for lack of trying.


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1: link By Mattathias Schwartz

2: link By Nathaniel Parish Flannery

3: link EU-CELAC Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism on Drugs – Annual Report June 2012 – May 2013

4: Further reading: Discipline and Punish? Youth Gangs' Response to 'Zero-tolerance' Policies in Honduras, by Lirio Gutiérrez Rivera