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Is Obama Aware of the History of Failure that Marks Our Drug War in Latin America?

Besides reneging on a campaign promise to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon this past week, Barack Obama shored up his support for Plan Merida, a $1.4 billion anti-drug package designed to assist the Mexican government in its ongoing battle with violent drug trafficking organizations. As journalist Charles Bowden documents in the current issue of Mother Jones, the Merida initiative has done nothing but sow violence and terror in Mexico by providing high tech weaponry and resources to the Mexican armed forces, which are notoriously corrupt and have an abhorrent human rights record. Since December of 2006, 12,000 Mexicans have been slaughtered, but only seventy-two soldiers have died. Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto is currently seeking political asylum in the United States, because the Mexican army is trying to kill him for exposing its corrupt practices. Rather than serving to confront the drug problem, the army is in fact fighting a war for control of the drug proceeds as the Mexican economy nears collapse.

The Merida Initiative in Mexico is eerily similar to Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion dollar military assistance program inaugurated by the Clinton administration in the late 1990s authorizing the destruction of over 100,000 acres of drug crops and giving a boost to counter-insurgency efforts against the left-wing guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armada Revolucionario de Colombia (FARC). Human Rights groups have rightly criticized Plan Colombia for contributing to the poisoning of farmers through the spraying of chemical defoliants on their land and for empowering the Colombian military, which has been implicated in the wide-scale extrajudicial assassination of labor and human rights activists and peasant leaders. CIA intelligence reports acknowledged that U.S. subsidized security forces in Colombia employed “death squad tactics” and had a “history of assassinating left-wing civilians in guerrilla areas, cooperating with narcotics related paramilitary groups in attacks against suspected guerrilla sympathizers and killing captured combatants.” Ironically, one of the effects of Plan Colombia was to drive many traffickers into Mexico, which became even more of a transshipment center than before. Egil Krogh, a Nixon aide, once told reporters that enforcement efforts were “like squeezing a balloon. You squeeze it in one place and it will bulge out in another” – a comment which seems especially relevant in this latter context.

The moral and political failure of U.S. drug policy in Latin America fits a long-standing historical precedent. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. mobilized police constabulary units to regulate opium in its colony in the Philippines. While seizing large amounts of contraband in raids, as late as 1930, American investigators found that opium was easily obtainable and that corruption was prevalent in the U.S. subsidized force. Flash forward forty years, and the Nixon administration initiated a major escalation of the international war on drugs, in part in response to the drug crisis among U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam and as a product of the conservative backlash against the1960s counterculture. Mexico was a major focal point because it was found to be the source of 80 percent of imported heroin and marijuana. In September 1969, Nixon launched a sting at the Mexican border called Operation Intercept, which was later aborted because it caused long customs delays. Nixon subsequently launched “Operation Cooperation,” in which the U.S. helped to train over 500 Mexican police in narcotics enforcement and supplied special military helicopters and aerial surveillance equipment to aid in the detection of poppy fields. Between October, 1969 and 1974, American assistance was crucial in the destruction of over 20,000 opium cultivation sites, as well as 18,000 marijuana fields largely through the spraying of herbicidal defoliants.

An internal State Department study later determined that nearly 60,000 hectares of non-target vegetation was also affected by these operations causing pronounced health and environmental damages, including skin corrosions, the contamination of grazing cattle and natural drinking water, and a devastation of the natural habitat of various endangered animal and fish species. The Catholic Church charged that chemical defoliants destroyed the food crops of impoverished Indian farmers, who represented the “weakest and most socially fragile link of the drug chain,” according to sociologist Ricardo Vargas, and were “driven as a result to hunger.”

For all the devastation caused, governmental and police corruption -- extending to the highest reaches of power -- proved to be a major barrier to effective interdiction. In December 1972, a top Army General, Humberto Marillen, was arrested in a swank Paris apartment with 132 kilograms of heroin. John Ingersoll, head of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD - precursor to the DEA), noted that he had frequently smuggled drugs through Mexico City where he “had no fear of customs due to his high-rank.” A congressional staff report later revealed that in spite of the provision of millions of dollars of technical aid, including military aircraft equipped with sophisticated radar systems and remote night-sensing vision, the drug war in Mexico did not yield the arrest of a “single major drug trafficker” and was plagued by a “massive misappropriation” of governmental funds and phony police statistics. DEA personnel themselves referred to the aerial eradication program as a “fraud” targeting “poor dirt farmers” instead of major trafficking syndicates, with most U.S. helicopters aiding President Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in waging a “dirty war” against student protestors in Mexico City, as well as peasant activists in the Guerrero province, who were subject to napalm attacks. After initiating a special eradication campaign in the Sinaola, Durango and Chihuaha regions, DEA-trained forces were later accused by 567 prisoner witnesses of extorting millions of pesos and torturing illegally detained peasants and youth, sometimes to the point of amputation and death. DEA chief Peter Bensinger later conceded to a San Diego Union reporter that, “our agents are instructed to leave the room when the torture begins.”

These remarks exemplified the tendency of high-level American officials to try to wash their hands clean of human rights violations through a reliance on proxy forces. They also convey the willingness of the United States to endorse repressive behavior so long as it was perceived to benefit American security interests. The continuities with the present are stark in this latter respect, though the degree of violence is far worse today.

The Obama administration should be made aware of the past failure of American drug control initiatives and should work to develop alternative solutions. If legalization is not on the table, then Obama should at least focus on promoting harm-reduction policies and education to reduce demand in the United States while at the same time cutting aid to the Mexican military and other repressive forces in Latin America promoting the growth of the drug trade. Obama should also rethink his position on NAFTA, which has helped to undermine local agricultural production and industry and fomented social inequalities lying at the root of the growth of the cartels, and should provide genuine development aid to help bring hope for the future to Mexico’s marginalized youths who make easy recruits for criminal gangs. There are no magic solutions, but the current U.S. approach is clearly a failed one.