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Team America and the Failing Drug War

The Associated Press published an interesting account this week on the shift of the U.S.-funded Drug War to Honduras, which is now considered the most dangerous place in the world with four times the murder rate of Mexico (where some 55,000 people have died in cartel violence since 2006). The article led with the recent […]
Team America and the Failing Drug War

The Associated Press published an interesting account this week on the shift of the U.S.-funded Drug War to Honduras, which is now considered the most dangerous place in the world with four times the murder rate of Mexico (where some 55,000 people have died in cartel violence since 2006).

The article led with the recent killing of an alleged drug trafficker by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent operating in Honduras over the last weekend. Drawing from the seemingly endless resources of the U.S. government — including DEA, the State Department, and Pentagon — “Operation Anvil” is the latest full-scale attack on illegal drug trafficking, this time targeting the estimated 100 illegal drug flights a year from a dozen clandestine airstrips in Honduras. According to the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force-Bravo (under U.S. Southern Command), stationed in Comayagua, Honduras is now the main landing point for drug flights from South America.

Why? Well, not until the 16th paragraph in the AP story do we learn that “International crackdowns in Mexico and the Caribbean have pushed drug trafficking to Central America, which is now the crossing point for 84 percent of all U.S-bound cocaine.” According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, America is still  the “world’s largest consumer of cocaine (shipped from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean), Colombian heroin, and Mexican heroin and marijuana.”

So, after more than $1 trillion spent on the so-called War on Drugs over the last 40 years, international anti-narcotics enforcement has become nothing more than an elaborate whack-a-mole operation in which not only do thousands die each year (perpetrators and civilians alike) but cartels, corrupt police, and politicians reap the benefits from escalating drug prices.

And just because the trafficking has shifted southward doesn’t mean the violence has left off in places like Mexico. To the contrary, despite the $1.6 billion the U.S. promised to Mexico through the 2007 Merida Initiative (or “Plan Mexico”), the country is as dangerous as ever.

In fact, the mayor of the Ciudad Juarez — the Mexican border city that accounts for one-tenth of the violent deaths in Mexico over the last six years — said in May that the aid from Merida has had little impact at the local level. Meanwhile, exploring the effect of the Drug War on the eve of the July 1 Mexican presidential election, the Wall Street Journal reports none of the candidates is talking about it because they “don’t really know how to solve the problem.”

The position of the current Calderon government has been to continue sending the army in to battle the cartels, which have had extraordinary success in not only terrorizing towns and cities but in taking over public services, businesses, and security organs to the extent that they become the government in some of these seriously besieged communities.

The candidates “don’t know how to do anything different” from what is already being done to fight these conditions, José Antonio Crespo, a political analyst, told WSJ. “Anybody who becomes president will be overwhelmed by the problem.”

The candidates have tried to distance themselves, slightly, from President Felipe Calderon’s boots-on-the-ground approach. They’ve promoted the idea of “violence reduction” over targeting cartel ringleaders as a way out of the country’s grim predicament.

Shannon O’Neil, Latin American specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees:

… despite the significant amounts of drugs and drug money flowing within the 50 states, U.S. streets today are safer than they have been in 20 years. In large part, this is because of the strategic choices by local, state and federal authorities to focus not on drugs but on violence.

In cities across the United States, police forces don’t just go after drug trafficking, but work to influence the way the drug business is conducted. The most well-known shift happened in New York City in the 1990s when the police force began rewarding officers for lowering crime rates on their beats rather than for making arrests. If Mexico works to reduce violence while building up professional police forces and clean courts, it could make streets safer there as well.

That would be great if the police throughout much of the region weren’t so notoriously corrupt.

In Honduras, Operation Anvil may be teaming DEA agents with local law enforcement, but the police force there seems to be a huge part of the crime problem. According to the Associated Press story, the police are “one of the country’s main organized crime operations.” So again the government has called out the military to help maintain order. Maria Louisa Borjas, a former police official pushed out of her job because she asked too many questions, recently told National Public Radio:

Everyone here knows that each day young men turn up dead, with their hands bound, and the famous execution shot to the base of the skull … and the majority of people that come forward, they say that it was the police that had taken those young men away.

A  law-enforcement culture marked by the ability to “disappear” people with seeming  impunity (some say this dates to U.S.-backed training of right-wing paramilitary groups during the 1980s) combined with a lucrative drug-smuggling economy is testing the will and cohesion of this country. Even the Peace Corps has been forced to retreat.

Nonetheless, the aid comes flowing in from U.S. taxpayers, though Hondurans wonder where it is going. “There’s been a lot of aid, but it hasn’t been well-coordinated,” Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla told NPR. “We haven’t established clear and precise guidelines for ourselves. We don’t have a security policy in this country.”

But Team America continues its push its way through the jungles and over the mountains. According to the AP, Operation Anvil has access to not only State Department helicopters (which are permitted to fire on suspects “in self-defense and in the protection of ground elements”) but U.S. military resources, with coordination through a new Narcotics Affairs Section in the American Embassy in Honduras. DEA agents are organized to train and work with local law enforcement in FAST [Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams], which are rotated among three “so-called Forward Operating bases” located throughout remote “drug-running regions.”

Besides the one Honduran killed over the weekend, a May 11 raid involving Honduran police with DEA advisors killed four people on a boat who locals insist were innocent civilians. The DEA said the boat fired first.

A growing number of leaders in Central America seem to recognize that the U.S. Drug War itself — and the prohibition of drugs — is causing all this corruption and violence in the first place. Many said as much at the April Summit of the Americas in Colombia, urging the U.S. delegation to consider alternatives to Drug War, including legalization. This is part of a broader discussion turning into a “burning debate” over how to resolve the endless cycle of violence in the Americas.

That debate is happening here in the U.S., too, though Washington stubbornly continues to ignore it. Opposition to the War on Drugs has grown far beyond hippies and medical-marijuana advocates. Today it is a question of security, fairness in the criminal justice system, and the health of economy, as evidenced in the decriminalization movement across the country. (Chicago just passed a major marijuana decriminalization measure on Wednesday.) Free-market economists know the score — that prohibition just doesn’t work. From economist Art Carden at Forbes, arguing for the end of the Drug War in April:

For the sake of the argument, let’s go ahead and assume that everything you’ve heard about the dangers of drugs is completely true. That probably means that using drugs is a terrible idea. It doesn’t mean, however, that the drug war is a good idea.

Prohibition is a textbook example of a policy with negative unintended consequences. Literally: it’s an example in the textbook I use in my introductory economics classes (Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics if you’re curious) and in the most popular introductory economics textbook in the world (by N. Gregory Mankiw).The demand curve for drugs is extremely inelastic, meaning that people don’t change their drug consumption very much in response to changes in prices. Therefore, vigorous enforcement means higher prices and higher revenues for drug dealers.

The disconnect between what is happening in states and cities across America and what the federal government is doing in our name in places like Honduras is stark. Sure, the expansive U.S. national-security complex is benefiting from the continuing mission, but who else is, aside from the bad guys?



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