‘Another round of whack-a-mole’: Decoding the White House’s tough talk on cartels

Homeland Security chief John Kelly isn’t the man to fix the drug war.

Retired Gen. John Kelly (USMC), who is serving as Secretary of Homeland Security, has strong views on how to fight the war on drugs. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Retired Gen. John Kelly (USMC), who is serving as Secretary of Homeland Security, has strong views on how to fight the war on drugs. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

International drug cartels are only able to impose violent chaos on the Western hemisphere because Americans’ demand for narcotics is so high, DHS head John Kelly told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday.

“Drug consumption in the United States is the problem,” Kelly said.

“When you consider the massive amounts of profit that come out of the United States, the trafficker’s biggest problem is not getting drugs, till now, into the United States. The biggest problem they had was laundering the money,” he said.So when you have that much profit coming out of the United States, that profit is managed by cartels that are beyond violent.”

To many drug policy experts familiar with this basic reality of the drug market, the conclusion is obvious: To kill the profitability of the drug trade, legalize the drugs.


Yet while Kelly’s pronouncements that marijuana isn’t a big deal to the drug trade and that “the solution is not arresting a lot of users” might carry the whiff of an upheaval, the follow-through never materialized. He used the same observation about drug economics to call for doubling down on failed policies: Teaching kids not to do drugs, and going after drug organizations even harder.

“You will never make substances disappear by making them astronomically more valuable, which is what our policies do.”

“The solution is a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill,” said Kelly. “And then rehabilitation, and then law enforcement, and then getting at the poppy fields and the coca fields in the south.”

That’s the wrong lesson to take from the observation that high-profit drug markets with primarily American and European consumers are the true fathers of cartel power, drug policy experts told ThinkProgress.

“It’s been 40 years now. We know that what makes the profits so great for what are basically just weeds is the fact that they’re illegal,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Institute for Police Studies drug expert Sanho Tree agreed.

“These are agricultural products that cost pennies per dose to manufacture, and we’re giving it all an astronomical price support” through prohibition, Tree said. “You will never make substances disappear by making them astronomically more valuable, which is what our policies do.”

Kelly’s promise to go after heroin and cocaine at their agricultural origin points is particularly apt to go awry, the two said.


“These are areas with no government presence. There are no farm-to-market roads, no land titles, no real economy,” said Isacson. The lack of infrastructure and order makes coca the only rational crop choice for farmers there — many of whom know they could be killed if they refused to grow what the cartels want. “Forced eradication, the police fly over, come through and pull up the plants, and leave nothing behind? People just replant very quickly, because they have no other options.”

The promise to “[get] at the poppy fields and the coca fields” refers to a policy called source country eradication. For decades, American leaders have funded work to destroy coca production in the Andean region of South America, where remote communities disconnected from their national economies have turned to growing coca as a cash crop. (The Mexican government conducts similar programs against poppy fields in the south without financial assistance from Washington.)

For more than 15 years now, American cash has funded something called Plan Colombia. The Colombian government uses a mix of soldiers and pesticides to try to destroy coca fields, and U.S. taxpayers cover the cost. Until 2015, they were using airplanes to spray herbicides across hundreds of thousands of acres. After the World Health Organization found that the pesticide is “probably carcinogenic,” Colombia’s leaders ended the aerial fumigation and switched to much more limited manual spraying and field destruction.

Plan Colombia has been touted as a success by senior American officials from across the ideological spectrum. It is in fact a failure, Tree and Isacson said.

“The consensus around source country eradication is on its last legs,” said Tree. “They’ve done it for so long, in Colombia and other places, and it’s bounced right back. We’re back at 2001 levels — which used to be the absolute peak — in terms of Andean coca production.”

Trump’s options, if he wants to follow Kelly’s proposed direction on combating cartel power, are few. The obvious one is to re-invigorate Plan Colombia activity, including possibly returning to aerial spraying despite the public health concerns.

“In many ways the only thing worse than organized crime is disorganized crime.”

Another, perhaps more suited to the president’s outward self-portrait as a man of action and steel, would be to send some lead along with the crop sprayers. Colombia has become something akin to a forward operating base for American commando tactics in Latin America. Countries where the U.S. is legally barred from providing military advisers due to past human rights crimes can instead get the same training from the Colombians, who have learned at America’s feet for decades.


“You could do the same old search-and-destroy, disrupt the criminal network stuff, but that tends to make things worse in the long run,” said Tree. “In many ways the only thing worse than organized crime is disorganized crime. Don’t beat a hornets nest unless you have a really solid plan for what to do when the hornets fly out of their nest looking for a fight.”

Whatever course Kelly, Trump, and the administration officials who have actual jurisdiction over foreign policy eventually take here, they are unlikely to succeed by simply intensifying the same old policies. The lack of civic infrastructure is what allows coca and poppy production to bounce back every time this army or that herbicide wipes out a farm.

“They’re putting a lot of pressure on Mexico right now to eradicate more poppy, but I don’t hear more pressure being put on Mexico to pacify and establish an actual government presence in Guerrero and Oaxaca where the plants are being grown,” Isacson said.

“They’re setting themselves up for another round of whack-a-mole.”