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Global Drug Report: Don’t Just Decriminalize, Demilitarize

Military Police of Colombia (Photo: Pipeafcr)

A report released earlier this month by former heads of state and other global political figures made headlines across the world for calling the drug war a failure and for its endorsement of the decriminalization of drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

However, one of the report’s major criticisms, its critique of the militarization of the drug war, was largely neglected by the media.

“All out militarized enforcement responses have, counter-intuitively, undermined security in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico,” said the Global Commission on Drug Policy in its report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work.

The commission, which released its report on September 9, includes former presidents like Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, as well as former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and George P. Schultz, who served as US secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

The report also stated, “Militarized enforcement responses have sometimes led to infiltration and corruption of governments, armies and police by cartels, and a culture of impunity for human rights abuses, especially extra-judicial killings and disappearances.”

These critiques have a significant relevance in Latin America, where US-led policies like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico, the two major theaters in the war on drugs in the region, have had a tremendous toll on human rights in both countries while barely making a dent in curtailing drug trafficking to the United States. Last week’s Colombian Senate debate about former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the drug war in his country between 2002 and 2010, and his alleged links to paramilitaries and drug trafficking, serves as a perfect example supporting the commission’s claims of corruption, human rights abuses and impunity.

During Uribes’s time in office the country was beset with a parapolitics scandal, which linked the president, members of his party, and members of the military to right-wing paramilitaries.

Diego Murillo Bejarano, also known as Don Berna, a former leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the right-wing Colombian paramilitary group often identified by its Spanish acronym AUC, testified in 2009 that he helped fund President Uribe’s 2002 election campaign. Even more disturbing is that members of paramiltary group have testified to cremating massacre victims in ovens, in coordination with government officials.

In addition, in 2008 Uribe was beset by what came to be known as the false positive scandal. It was revealed that members of the country’s military were murdering poor, rural Colombians and dressing them as rebels. The scandal was seen to be largely instigated by a policy that awarded soldiers with bonuses, promotions and vacation days for their number of kills. According to a 2009 US embassy cable from Bogota, released by Wikileaks, Uribe measured success of the drug war by body counts.

However, the US role shouldn’t be ignored. A July report on the false positive scandal published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation stated, “Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of US assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received US assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.”

For example, the interfaith peace and justice organization’s report noted that almost 50 percent of Colombian officers who received training between 2001 and 2003 at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known by its former name the School of the Americas, “had either been charged with a serious crime or commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings.” Additionally, the United States has either ignored or looked the other way when faced with reports of human rights scandals in the country

Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director or its Drug Policy Project, told teleSUR English that this scandal never really gained traction in Washington because it “disrupts the dominant and preferred discourse” that the drug war, and Plan Colombia in particular, has been a success.

“Watergate was peanuts compared to this scandal,” said Tree. “Can you imagine Nixon with domestic death squads?”

Despite the scandals, murders, disappearances and human rights abuses that plagued Plan Colombia, this drug war model was exported north to Mexico under the name the Merida Initiative in 2008. This “Plan Mexico,” along with former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s use of the country’s military to fight the so-called drug war, has brought similar results.

Molly Molloy, a border and Latin American researcher at New Mexico State University Library, started focusing her research on drug war violence in 2008 after she saw what she called a situation of “hyper-violence” explode in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Molloy’s research contributed to the book Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, written by the recently deceased Charles Bowden.

She said that the number of people murdered in the country since 2007 is much higher than Mexican government claims. Using statistics from various Mexican government agencies, she estimates the number of dead to be at least 155,000, in contrast to the 80,000 to 100,000 often cited in media reports. She added, however, that her figures don’t take into account the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have been forcibly disappeared.

“The Merida Initiative money provided to Mexico and Plan Colombia funding mostly goes to fund fighting drug organizations with violence,” said Molloy. “My observation is that this generates more and more violence and does nothing to destroy drug organizations.”

In 2012, according to the research and analysis website InSight Crime, makeshift ovens and charred bodies were found in the Mexican state of Michoacan, illustrating how Colombian paramilitary-government tactics traveled north. And as far as generating more violence, as Molloy suggested, Amnesty International published a report this month that stated cases of torture and human rights abuses by Mexico’s police and armed forces increased 600 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Moreover, despite this militarized approach’s track record of increased violence, the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras have been calling for a Central American version of Plan Colombia to be funded by the United States.

While the Drug War’s stated goals are drug eradication and reduction of trafficking from Latin America into the United States, its failures have raised questions about potential ulterior motives. Dawn Paley, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book Drug War Capitalism, believes that there are economic motives for militarizing this resource rich region.

“We should use a new metric to understand the success of Plan Colombia, one that examines how it benefits transnational capital,” Paley told teleSUR English. “If we were to examine the results of Plan Colombia based on how it deepened neoliberalism in Colombia, we would have to recognize that it was a success. This was exactly what inspired the Merida Initiative in Mexico and other, similar drug war policies elsewhere.”

Paley said that in Colombia there are documented cases of where right wing paramilitaries aided transnational corporations operating in the country. For example, banana giant Chiquita Brands International gave over US$1 million to the AUC. Other companies accused of using paramilitaries for profits include US-based coal company Drummond, Occidental and BP.

“Colombian paramilitaries were involved with anti-labor violence and the displacement of Indigenous communities living in resource rich areas,” said Paley.

According to a 2001 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, US oil companies lobbied for increased military aid to Colombia through Plan Colombia.

“The protection of US oil and trade interests is also a key factor in the plan, and historic links to drug trafficking right wing guerrillas by US allies belie an exclusive commitment to extirpating drug trafficking,” said the report.

Paley called the Global Drug Commission’s report “a step in the right direction,” but argued that it didn’t go far enough.

“I wish it had included more of an economic analysis about how the drug war has been beneficial for certain sectors of the economy,” added Paley. “This is a crucial element to why the militarized model of the drug war continues to be promoted by the US in Latin America and elsewhere.”

The commission put human rights front and center among its recommendations.

“Greater accountability for human rights abuses committed in pursuit of drug law enforcement is essential,” the report stated. However, it didn’t explain how to achieve this, especially in light of the difficulties countries like Colombia and Mexico face, with their problems of widespread corruption and institutionalized impunity.

“The Commission’s aims are very aspirational, but not very strategic at this point,” said the Institute for Policy Studies’ Tree. “The devil is in the details. How do you actually implement this stuff.”

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