Failure or Fraud: The US Drug War on Latin America

The Drug War formally began with President Richard Nixon in 1971. This was a tumultuous year: in the United States, revolutionary social movements led by people of color were organizing millions of people to demand systemic change, while in Latin America, popular movements were surging against repressive regimes in Latin America, and presenting socialist and communist alternatives to dictatorship. The U.S. economy was tumbling into recession. Those in power in the U.S. worried that fundamental change might be heading their way.

In order to stop communism from taking root in Latin America, to undercut popular movements in Latin America that were moving toward true democracy, to destroy the growth of revolutionary movements in U.S. cities, and to enable access to cheap resources and workers for U.S. businesses, destabilization was necessary.

In this political atmosphere the Drug War was born. The Drug War was introduced as an innocent enough proposal – stop drug use – while less publicly doing two critical things:

  • Introducing harsh jail time for drug use, especially targeted at people of color communities;
  • Legitimizing the militarization of Latin America under the cover of stopping production of drugs.

The Drug War could be called a failure, as it did not achieve any of its purported goals, or a fraud, whose true purpose was to destroy peoples’ movement and uphold repressive power structures in the the US and the Western Hemisphere.

The ideology of the drug war is that repression, violence, and destruction are ample tactics to stop drug trafficking. It shapes policies that have militarized Latin America and serves as a legislative tactic to maintain US power in the region. The US profits directly from this violence by arming military and paramilitary groups.

The US Drug War is a destabilizing force that set a trajectory for our current situation.

US Drug War in Mexico

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, he has followed the United States’ lead in criminalizing drug use rather than addressing its root causes. Between 2006 and 2010, over 40,000 people have died in the US-sponsored drug war in Mexico, while 10,000 more have disappeared. Communities throughout the country are struggling to establish order as violent battles between rival drug gangs, police, and military devastate entire populations.

Together, Mexico and the US have implemented destructive policies like Plan Mérida similar to Plan Colombia, and the National Security Law similar to the Patriot Act. In April 2011, the citizens of Mexico’s swelling social movement, No Mas Sangre, have asked that we in the US, together with them, carry out bi-national actions in order to collectively denounce the violent tactics that our governments are promoting and executing.

The Drug War and the cartels are able to take hold of Latin America in part because the economy has been destroyed by Free Trade Agreements like NAFTA. Without reasonable economic opportunities the working people of Latin America have few reliable options for survival outisde of the drug trade. FTAs have created a situation where small scale multi-faceted economies are being replaced by US agribusiness and a monoculture of low-wage factory work. Lack of economic stability allows US business access to cheap resources and labor, but also creates a destructive black market drug trade and desperate families.

Plan Central America

The US Drug War is creeping north from Colombia and south from Mexico into Central America. The US plan is to extend this program from Colombia and Mexico into Central America in the near future with legislation called Plan Central America.

An excerpt from a report by our allies at NACLA explains the implications of Plan Central America.

“On September 17 President Barack Obama named five Central American nations as major hubs for drug transportation from South America. Obama’s announcement confirms this expansion of the U.S. drug war into Central America, an area in which Washington has historically wielded tremendous power. Critics say that U.S. intentions may follow a broader geopolitical strategy, one that includes the arrival of U.S. troops into some parts of the region. The United States will be using the same anti-drug policies in Central America as it has used in Colombia and Mexico, where results have been murky at best. First and foremost is Costa Rica, which will allow approximately 7,000 Marines into the country. The forces headed to Costa Rica has led many to believe it will be the U.S. staging ground for the drug war in Central America. There would be nothing stopping the U.S. government from using similar bases in Central America to maintain pro-neoliberal and pro-U.S. administrations in those nations. An increasingly independent and confrontational Latin America is not in Washington’s perceived best interest.”

Forty years after the initial launch of the War on Drugs, we have reached a cross roads – ignore the violence, the mass-incarcerations, the depleted budget and continue down a path that has failed to meet any of the public goals and has destabilized and militarized Latin America; or cut off funding for the Drug War, pull troops out of Latin America, treat the root causes of the inflated drug black market – criminalization, and enable self-determination for communities on both sides of the borders.


Wagner, Peter (2003).The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry. Northampton, Massachusetts: Prison Policy Initiative.

Citizens Pact for Peace

Under Fire in Drug War, Mexico’s Media Falls Silent

Christopher J. Mumola: Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2006, NCJ 213530

“One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”. The Pew Center on the States. 28 February 2008.

Alexander, Michelle (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. pp. 7.

Beyond the Drug War: The Pentagon’s Other Operations in Latin America”, by John Lindsay-Poland. NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June, 2011.

US War on Drugs Has Met None Of Its Goals: AP Impact”, by Marth Medoza, Huffpost Politics, May 13, 2010.