Over the past couple of weeks, thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to protest the bloody drug war that has ravaged Latin America and left 35,000 people dead since 2006 in Mexico alone. Today, senior U.S. commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Mexico and Central America make up one of the most dangerous regions in the world — rivaling the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, indicated that the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras “is the deadliest zone in the world outside of active war zones.”
In 2009, State Department Secretary Hillary Clinton indicated that she felt “very strongly” that the U.S. and Mexico share co-responsibility in the drug war. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” stated Clinton about the United States. It turns out U.S. demand for drugs is also funding an army of organized criminals who are profiting off of the nation’s addictions and follies:
American consumers of narcotics drive the drug trade, and US weapons arm narco-criminals, says Andres Martinez, a fellow with the New America Foundation think tank.
US drug users contribute roughly $40 billion a year to Latin American cartels, Admiral James Winnefeld, head of the US Northern Command, in charge of US homeland security, added in testimony. The amount of US money that goes to Mexican cartels is so considerable that “if you ranked it among the world’s militaries, it would come into the top ten.”
Admiral James Winnefeld, head of the U.S. Northern Command, shed some light on how drug cartels are spending their profits. Night-vision goggles, heavily armored vehicles, and submarines are among the items purchased by increasingly sophisticated narco-criminals. Meanwhile, U.S. taxpayers spend $52 billion to treat, prevent, interdict, and enforce existing drug laws.
Latin American leaders have often called on the U.S. to consider legalizing marijuana use and focusing more on treating drug addicts. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, wrote, “it’s high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies…The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics.” The strategy, after all, has worked in other countries. Yet, the legalization of marijuana across the country remains a political land mine.
There are still things the U.S. could do to stop exacerbating the problem. While U.S. drug users are essentially funding the drug cartels, the U.S. federal government is funneling over a billion dollars into the Merida Initiative, a counterdrug assistance program for Mexico and Central America. Most of that money has been spent on the militarization of the drug war which has had the unintended effect of increasing the profitability of the illicit drug business. Hal Brand of the Strategic Studies Institute notes that the Merida Initiative is “not being partnered with any real efforts to ramp up prevention, treatment, or other demand-side programs in the United States. Rather, the money spent on the Merida Initiative seems to have come at the expense of such programs.” Brand also argues that the initiative has paid comparatively little attention to the structural problems that have fueled the drug trade and violence, including, corruption, human rights abuses, poverty, impunity, and the flow of guns from the U.S into Mexico.