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Problems with Current U.S. Policy.

Drug trafficking poses a serious threat to regional security and has a corrosive impact throughout the hemisphere, corrupting democratic institutions, skewing local economies, and increasing political violence. However, the U.S. should increase efforts to strengthen democratic institutions against such threats rather than fueling the flames of violence in the region by strengthening military power.

Washington's ambitious strategy to "attack narcotics trafficking in Colombia on all fronts" underscores the fundamental problem with the U.S. approach to international drug control. The plan is premised on the Pentagon forging closer ties to Colombia's military with the aim of building what Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, describes as "marriage for life."

U.S. policymakers apparently believe that local militaries are their most capable and reliable allies in the war on drugs. In several Latin American countries, the resources and training that Washington provides to local armed forces in order to support their new role in domestic drug control operations--often in circumvention of congressional restrictions and oversight--are eroding the efforts of civilian-elected governments to consolidate their power.

In most democracies, counternarcotics operations are a law enforcement function reserved for civilian police, but the U.S. government prefers to use foreign military forces. When Washington does recruit police, it provides them with heavy arms and combat training inappropriate for the domestic, civilian role that police should play, thereby continuing to fuel human rights abuses. During the 1970s, Congress halted police aid programs because of widespread human rights abuses by U.S.-trained police in Latin America. But in the 1980s these programs resumed in Central America and have since spread to many other countries.

The militarization of counternarcotics efforts in Latin America not only undermines efforts to promote human rights and democracy, it also threatens regional security. In Colombia, where the line between fighting drug trafficking and combating insurgents is blurred, Washington risks becoming mired in the hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war. Citing the threat posed by Colombia's guerrillas, who earn much of their income by protecting coca and poppy fields and clandestine drug laboratories, the Pentagon expanded its operations in neighboring Andean nations. Colombia's neighbors have expressed concern about the spillover of refugees, violence, and drug production and trafficking that is occurring as a result of the maelstrom in southern Colombia.

Assistance to Latin American security forces stems from a tangled web of training and aid programs administered by a variety of government agencies. Despite efforts to increase the availability of information about the programs, it is still often difficult to ascertain the exact extent and nature of U.S. antidrug assistance and to determine whether Washington is complying with congressional oversight and human rights requirements.

The perils posed by the lack of adequate controls can be seen throughout the region. In 2000, after a heated congressional debate about the likelihood of the U.S. being dragged into the Colombian counterinsurgency war, U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were used in combat to defend security forces from guerrillas in drug producing areas--despite tight congressional restrictions on the use of the equipment.

Even when programs are covered by restrictions, U.S. military personnel and administration officials are reluctant to enforce them. Units receiving U.S. training are supposed to be vetted to ensure that they include no one accused of human rights violations. But screening, when it occurs, is cursory. In 2000, President Clinton invoked a national security interest waiver in order to deliver aid to the Colombian military despite the fact that the Colombian government had failed to meet the majority of the human rights requirements stipulated by Congress, signaling that the U.S. is willing to turn a blind eye to abuse in the name of other objectives.

As a result of the lack of both oversight and restrictions regarding some aid programs and of ineffective implementation of regulations when they do exist, U.S. troops work side by side with accused human rights violators throughout the region. As Colombian sociologist Ricardo Vargas Meza, who has warned about the growing risk of "a dirty war" in his country, notes, "Washington lights one candle for God and another one for the devil."

Human rights violators are not the only devil Washington is collaborating with. Ironically, the U.S. decision to engage armed forces as its principal allies in the drug war has meant that the Pentagon is now providing counternarcotics assistance to militaries implicated in drug-related corruption, including those in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Even as the Department of Defense plans further expansion of its counternarcotics operations in Latin America, many within its ranks are reluctant recruits in these efforts and are vocal about their reticence. These critics, like their civilian counterparts, question the underlying rationale for the mission, its effectiveness, and its impact on the region's democratic institutions. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his confirmation hearing: "I am one who believes that the drug problem is probably overwhelmingly a demand problem ... if demand persists, it's going to find ways to get what it wants, and if it isn't from Colombia, it will be from somewhere else." Department of Defense officials also question the strategies and tactics being used to carry out the mission, arguing that they undermine the desired result. The Pentagon, according to former drug policy coordinator Brian Sheridan, has been asked to address a "terrible social problem" with a "series of lousy policy options"--an untenable situation that has many military planners "looking for the exit doors on this issue."

Key Problems

* Militarization of counternarcotics efforts in Latin America undermines recent trends toward democratization and greater respect for human rights while threatening regional security.

* Resources and training provided to the region's armed forces to support their new role in domestic drug control operations often circumvent congressional oversight and human rights restrictions.

* U.S. military personnel work side by side with armed forces, some of whom are implicated in human rights violations and drug trafficking.

Gina Amatangelo <> is a Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, specializing in international drug control programs in the Andes region.
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Article Details
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Author:Amatangelo, Gina
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:May 15, 2001
Previous Article:Militarization of the U.S. Drug Control Program.
Next Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.

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