Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Drug Flashback: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Drug War

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As if President Barack Obama didn’t have enough on his plate—the Mexico drug war has really come up and brought the administration’s focus back into this hemisphere.  Besides grappling with a global financial meltdown, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the stunning severity of narcoviolence—and the “spillover” into the U.S.—is demanding immediate attention from the U.S. government, perhaps sooner than people would have thought or certainly hoped. 

Congress is paying attention, holding several hearings and questioning officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice, among other agencies. Unfortunately, the hearings have demonstrated there is no comprehensive strategy or clear coordination, or direction, in confronting the drug problem.  In all fairness, it’s still quite early in the Obama administration and people who would otherwise be working on this issue have yet to be installed in the government. And, the Merida Initiative—the $1.4 billion, three-year counternarcotics program for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and Dominican Republic initiated under the Bush administration—has only recently gone into effect.

After Congress made a big enough stink, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico last month, and President Barack Obama is due to visit Mexico City on April 16, before he goes to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. (Actually he’s arriving the evening of the 15th and leaving the 17th.)

Without the relevant administrative posts yet filled, the question is: what’s being discussed at Washington DC think tanks? Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq are some tough nuts to crack, so perhaps we can get our arms around narcotrafficking?

First, the Nixon Center hosted a lunch last week for Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, about his new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense can Rescue American Policy. Gelb talked about how he would advise the Obama administration on how to use U.S. muscle on such “Big Foreign Policy Issues:” Afghanistan, Pakistan and China and opining about a new international currency to replace the U.S. dollar. 

The conversation came to a halt when Geoff Kemp, director of the regional strategic program at the Nixon Center, asked—and I’m paraphrasing—“I want to bring this discussion a bit closer to home…How would you advise the administration on the catastrophe brewing on our border with Mexico, given that it involves three of the most divisive domestic issues—guns, drugs and immigration?”

Gelb responded—and again, I’m paraphrasing—“I have no idea. I was afraid someone was going to ask about this. But, boy, are you right. We’ve got one heck of a problem, and I believe it will affect our future more than what’s going on in Afghanistan. And I don’t know what to do about it. You know, people like us, we don’t know anything about Mexico. I wish I did. We never learned about that stuff, Latin America.”

Here we are, eating  sushi with some of the brightest bulbs…. Did we come up with any brilliant solutions or hash out any possibilities? No.  

The next day, I was on a morning panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “Mexico and Its War on Drugs: Our Shared Responsibility”, with Andrew Selee, Stephen Johnson and Roger Noriega, who acted as moderator.  

We didn’t come up with a solution either; that was not the point. But, we put out a comprehensive picture of the drug war, and assessed the Merida Initiative. In doing so, as Roger Noriega put it, we must include Central America—which does not get appropriate attention on this matter—and especially the countries with weaker institutions, Honduras and Guatemala.

I’m simplifying, but here’s the point: Colombia’s cartels and their trafficking routes up to Miami were choked off, and so traffickers go through Mexico and the Caribbean. You squeeze Mexico’s traffickers now, and more and more traffickers are going to dig into Central America, where you already have fragile and young democracies. Remember that gun battle between narcos in Guatemala in 2008?

Perhaps one bright spot is the emerging regional cooperation in Central America—especially if we can put politics aside, and just look at security and economic concerns.

Andrew Selee finds another bright spot. This crazy, senseless violence offers the U.S. an opportunity to help strengthen Mexico’s institutions and create a stronger state. Furthermore, in working together, this is an opportunity for the U.S. and Mexico to overcome the deeply-rooted distrust between the two countries.  So, ultimately, this situation could yield a better—and more equal—partnership between Mexico and the U.S. (those are my words, not Andrew’s).

Most who study this agree that the Merida program needs more money—more than the $300 million in this budget. So, in thinking up a broader strategy, what should be our next steps in the drug war?  We’ve been going back-and-forth on this subject for too long: Colombia; the Andean region; the Caribbean basin; Mexico; crime rates; corruption; drug overdoses. And, all of a sudden, the U.S. media portray this full-fledged battle between Mexican narcos and the police as if it just started—and worse, they often frame it as a border issue—and that the U.S. is living next door to a country on the brink of collapse. That is not the case. The questions don’t change and the answers from the U.S. government don’t change radically. It’s like banging your head against the wall.  

So, I checked in with a wise one on security issues—who asked to remain anonymous until formally in the administration.  This person was concerned whether the U.S. government could fashion a cohesive, comprehensive long-term strategy with everything that’s going on in the world—and with the financial constraints.  My contact hopes that the government connects what’s happening in Mexico to what’s happening in Central America and in Colombia.

It’s not just a border problem.

This requires a strategic understanding of the complexity of the problem that goes beyond just strengthening the Mexican police and border security.  Instead, now, we’re pushing the drug problem down from Colombia to Peru and Bolivia, and from Mexico to Guatemala, the wise one said.

Is the U.S. thinking that far ahead? Or is that an unwritten, but seemingly inevitable, chapter for the drug war? We need something more than a three-year program, like Merida.

Perhaps we could have a serious discussion about legalization in this country?

Yep, same questions, but maybe a different ending this time.


*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org



Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.

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