Evaluating Plan Colombia

In his essay, James Roberts argues that Mexico blames the United States for its drug-related violence, when in reality the corruption of Mexican elites and narco-traffickers cooperating with the Venezuelan government are at fault. While corruption in the Mexican state has hindered a more robust response to drug-related violence, and the rise of Venezuela as a transit country for narcotics is concerning, neither is to blame for Mexico becoming the transit point for 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. For that, much of the blame lies with the United States — for both its failure to curb cocaine production in Colombia and its failure to curb demand for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and meth at home.

Roberts suggests that the United States should up its assistance to Mexico along the lines of the Merida Initiative, but with more funding. He seems to believe that such a policy would work, because, after all, the model for the Merida Initiative, the United States’ $6 billion counternarcotics program in Colombia, was “successful.” Plan Colombia may have increased security for some of Colombia’s citizens, but from a counternarcotics standpoint, it was a failure. It certainly didn’t decrease the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [pdf], Colombia produced 617 metric tons of cocaine in 2001, and 610 metric tons of cocaine in 2007. Plan Colombia’s stated goal was to reduce production by 50 percent in six years. The UN’s statistics are corroborated by the research of the International Crisis Group in its March 2008 report on drugs in Latin America, Losing the Fight [pdf], as well as reports [pdf] from think tanks such as the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America. The United States is currently negotiating an expanded military presence in Colombia – a presence that wouldn’t be necessary if Plan Colombia had been a true success.

Given that the United States’ best attempt to curb cocaine production was a $6 billion failure, it seems highly unlikely that a similar approach would lead to success in Mexico. As drug traffickers have shown time and time again, when efforts are made to disrupt their business, they adapt-whether by shipping their product to Europe via West Africa, or to Mexico via ship instead of air. Trying to disrupt the supply or transit of drugs is, as Ted Galen Carpenter clearly outlines, a futile endeavor.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs — and for prohibition — are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Response Essays

  • Stephanie Hanson suggests that decriminalizing drugs, and possibly legalizing marijuana, is a promising strategy for reducing drug-related violence. Yet she acknowledges that coordination problems exist between the United States and Mexico on this issue, and she suggests that a second-best option may be to enforce stricter controls on guns leaving the United States and heading to Mexico.

  • James Roberts faults Prof. Castañeda for taking the easy way out: Drug legalization might not be much work for the elites, but it will ruin lives and degrade regional democracies. It won’t stop violence and may even increase it. The United States and Mexico should work together to fight Mexican drug cartels because the survival of the Mexican state is at stake, along with American lives and American morals. Mexico in particular needs to step forward, reform its corrupt government and enforcement agencies, and get its own house in order, rather than seeking U.S.-based solutions.

  • Ted Galen Carpenter commends Jorge Castañeda for recognizing the nature of the problem that besets his country, but he suggests a more radical solution: As long as U.S. prohibition remains in place, he writes, violent criminals will dominate the trade in narcotics. Only ending prohibition can solve the international problems of the drug trade. Militarization of enforcement simply escalates the violence and corruption, because the cartels have enough money to bribe and/or fight their way through any escalation we’d be prepared to mount.