Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy; War and Drugs in Colombia

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has long maintained that U.S. international drug policy not only fails to affect the price and availability of illicit drugs on U.S. streets but also causes severe "collateral damage" in target countries. This well-documented and up-to-date study contends that U.S. policies export law enforcement programs that replace due process and fairness with disproportionate mandatory sentencing, undermine favorable trends toward civilian control of military forces, foment popular unrest, and hurt the environment. As a result of the "balloon effect," such policies have actually spread the drug trade into more and more regions and countries. Recognized successes -- for example, in strengthening criminal investigation capacities, reforming police units, and capturing drug kingpins -- are outweighed by strategic failure. The report is more effective in deflating U.S. claims of victory in the war on drugs than it is in providing alternatives potentially attractive to current policymakers. Still, this collection of program assessments and case studies is probing, informative, and deeply disturbing.

The International Crisis Group report concurs with WOLA's conclusion that Colombia continues to flood the United States (and, increasingly, Europe) with cocaine, and that aerial spraying, even when effective locally, is not likely to keep pace with the geographic mobility of traffickers. (Alarmingly, the financial coffers of armed insurgents are deep enough to continue fighting indefinitely.) The Crisis Group is less ambivalent than WOLA about beefing up Colombian security forces, but it shares WOLA's preference for alternative rural development strategies and urges a scientific approach to demand-side "harm reduction measures," possibly including partial legalization of soft drugs, to take the wind out of the criminal black market.

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