Published in NACLA North America Congress on Latin America
By Allen Hines
Despite growing calls for alternative strategies to combat the flow of drugs through Central America, William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), toured the region last week to promote more of the same: supply-side programs for drug interdiction. The INL, whose budget exceeds $2.5 billion, focuses on destabilizing foreign suppliers of illegal drugs and is the State Department’s key agency in fighting the drug war.
The thrust of Brownfield’s visit seemed to be to quell the growing regional opposition to U.S. drug war policies that have failed to reduce demand for drugs in the United States or disrupt supply routes from producer countries.
Foremost among the proponents of a change in drug war strategy has been Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina. After winning the November 2011 presidential elections on a tough-on-crime platform, in January Pérez Molina called for the decriminalization of the transportation, consumption, and production of drugs. On February 14, El Salvador president Mauricio Funes said that he was open to discussing the issue. On February 29, Costa Rica president Laura Chinchilla urged Central America leaders to meet about the proposal.
Several other leaders throughout Latin America have questioned U.S. drug war strategies in recent years. The United States remains the world’s largest market for illegal drug consumption, and trafficking organizations remain powerful with the capabilities to shift drug routes in response to interdiction efforts. Meanwhile, the peoples of the region continue to suffer the effects of the failed U.S. approach to the drug war, including displacement, increased heavy-handed policing measures, and countless deaths.
“In America we have analyzed this concept and agree that it’s no good, that it does not work, not for moral, psychological, health and crime reasons,” he said at a press conference in Honduras.
Brownfield cemented the message that supply-side drug war strategies aren’t up for debate among U.S. officials by announcing that a batch of U.S. helicopters will be delivered to drug-trafficking zones in the coming weeks. The helicopters will be used in Operation Hammer, a militarized interdiction effort in waters along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of the isthmus, involving U.S. Southern Command and forces from 12 other countries. The effort began in January.
“We intend to terminate [traffickers’] operations by limiting their ability to use Central America as a transit zone,” Fraser said.
The prospects for changes to the drug war are now dimming, with waning support for Pérez Molina’s proposal. On Saturday, March 24, the day before Brownfield arrived in Honduras, Pérez Molina hosted a regional summit on legalization that was attended by only Costa Rican president Chinchilla and Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli. Pérez Molina said that U.S. pressure led to the other leaders’ absence from the regional conference.
On March 31, Funes firmly switched from his original position on the topic, issuing a joint statement against legalization with Honduran president Porfirio Lobo and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, both of who had already expressed opposition to Pérez Molina’s proposal. The United States has effectively pressured the Funes administration before, forcing the ouster of leftist members of the Security Ministry in November.
Allen Hines is a researcher with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. See also the Spring 2012 NACLA Report on the Americas, “Central America: Legacies of War.”