The Enduring Impact of U.S. Cold War Foreign Policy on the Drug Wars

Posted: May 5, 2012 in Blog Posts

How did the drug war become so violent? Observers have wrestled with this question in the wake of intense fighting between Mexican cartels, the police, and the military, particularly in Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican government estimates that between 2006 and April 2012, 54,927 people have perished in drug-related violence. There are a number of possible answers to this question. Many have rightfully pointed to the easy flows of American weapons across the U.S./Mexico border. Others have pointed to endemic corruption in the Mexican military and police forces, which, rather than protecting citizens, have aligned with warring cartels at one point or another. These are all reasonable explanations. However, these conditions are only the byproducts of something much larger: the enduring impact of U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Latin America.

Narcotrafficking is deeply embedded in the history of the Cold War. Take, for instance, the powerful Zetas cartel in Mexico. The Zetas originated from an elite but corrupt clique of Mexican and Guatemalan Special Forces and Counterinsurgency Specialists which the United States trained to defeat leftist insurgencies in these countries. In 1999, these officers broke apart from the armed forces to provide security detail for the Gulf Cartel. In 2010, the Zetas split from their Gulf Cartel allies, and are currently battling the Sinaloa Cartel and the defunct-Gulf groups over control of Ciudad Juárez.

The Zetas are only the latest in a long-line of crooked Cold Warriors turned drug traffickers. Between the late 1950s until the mid-1990s, the United States allied with right-wing mercenaries and military dictators to satisfy its short-term goals of defeating leftist insurgencies, especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. U.S. allies, including the Contras and regional militaries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama), were heavily involved in criminal conspiracies including drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. Under President Reagan, the CIA sought these groups’ assistance in destroying the FMLN (El Salvador), URNG (Guatemala), and the Sandinista (FSLN) government in Nicaragua. In exchange, the U.S. permitted them to traffic cocaine across Central America and through Caribbean ports.

Take, for example, the United States’ partnership with General-President Manuel Noriega of Panama. Noriega, a former director of the Panamanian secret police and close ally of the Medellin Cartel, was on the CIA payroll for nearly thirty years. Noriega provided critical regional intelligence to the CIA, and in return, the United States assured him it would not shutdown his lucrative drug running and money laundering operations in Panama City. The U.S. also relied upon the Panamanian dictator to secretly arm the Contra rebels against the Sandinista government. He even promised to assassinate FSLN leaders if the U.S. would lead international propaganda campaigns to “clean up his image.”[1] The Contras were involved in narcotrafficking as well. In October 1988, Newsweek reported that the Contras had purchased weapons with profits from the sale of cocaine they had brought into the United States with the help of the CIA and DEA. The story ignited a firestorm of controversy, but was just another episode in a long line of blunders and scandals that defined the Reagan administration’s policy toward Latin America. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Just Cause, a U.S. Army invasion of Panama that removed Noriega from power. At the time, the operation was the largest U.S.  military action since the Vietnam War.

Nicaraguan Contras

It is important to clarify that the drugs wars are not about states and militaries fighting powerful non-state entities (cartels, gangs, etc). I argue that the boundaries between the state and organized crime in certain countries of Latin America have been irrevocably collapsed. Once again, this is a direct consequence of U.S. sponsored “dirty wars” and counterinsurgencies during the 1970s and 1980s. These policies had the effect of uniting powerful state security apparatuses with organized crime syndicates, drug traffickers, and later, gangs. These alliances have perpetuated judicial impunity and corruption, especially within law enforcement and the military.

Take, for example, the case of Guatemala. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Guatemalan government under civilian presidents Vinicio Cerezo and Jorge Serrano waged a covert dirty war against its opponents (organized labor, student movements, leftwing political parties, and human rights advocates). To avert public attention, these governments conscripted “death squads” comprised of elite intelligence agents and “off-duty” police and military personnel. These death squads collaborated with organized crime syndicates and even contracted “street thugs” to kill opponents.[2] As a result, politicians, military leaders, and mobsters became close bedfellows. Today, Central American nations are infiltrated by mobsters and traffickers who finance elections in exchange for state protections.

U.S. policymakers must recognize how its destructive Cold War policies in Latin America continue to play a major role in the perpetuation of drug violence and terror in the region today. The United States continues to finance, arm, and train Latin American security forces whose tactics have remained largely the same since the 1980s.  They continue to exist beyond the reach of civilian oversight or control. They do not respect due process, specializing instead in illegal methods of coercion, including forced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations. And yet the United States government continues to rely upon military solutions for curbing drug violence, from the woefully ineffective Plan Colombia to the most recent Plan Mérida agreement. U.S. Southcom and DEA continue to engage familiar cronies and Cold Warriors with abysmal human rights records in its quixotic quest to interdict Andean cocaine before its reaches the border. Until our government considers a range of serious alternatives for controlling the drug trade, and in particular, curbing domestic demand, it can expect the same old results.

-Edward F. Shore

[1] See “Primary Sources”- “The Contras, Cocaine, Noriega, and Covert Operations”

[2] See, for instance, “Primary Sources” Section- “U.S. State Department’s Frustration with Guatemalan President’s Permissive stance on Drugs” and “CIA Links Guatemalan Military Officer to Drug Trafficking.” “U.S. Policy in Guatemala, 1966-1996.”

  1. William Shore says:

    The paradox of the United States’ War on Drugs is that it should be a war on counterinsurgents, military personnel, politicians and police trained or supported by the United States in Latin America. Instead, the U.S. focuses on low level distributors and gang members on the streets in our cities. If the U.S. government really wanted to end narcotraffiking, it would need to depose and arrest more people like Noriega and then address the embarrassing questions like” why did the U.S. support and finance this drug lord for 30 years?” The more I learn about narcotraffiking, the more I am convinced that the most effective way to end it is through legalization of marajuana and decriminalization of all other drugs combined with readily available drug treatment services. It would be cheaper in the long run then the War on Drugs and could be funded at least in part by federal and state taxes on legal drugs. William Shore

  2. Dad,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about how drug legalization/treatment will not only undercut the cartels, but will also prove a) far less costly than interdiction/drug fumigation, b) restore the credibility of the United States in Latin America c) provide a way to restore/improve American cities with high rates of drug addiction and crime. We need look no further than the recent Portuguese example whereby the government decriminalized ALL narcotics and invested in drug treatment programs, to great success. My only concern is that the cartels, like the Mafia after Prohibition, are already so powerful, and have such entrenched/expansive networks, that they will simply turn over to new illegal products/commodities, or sell even cheaper marijuana. I’m confident they will expand the markets for crystal meth and club drugs, as well as become more involved in human and sex trafficking. We must be prepared for this adaptation, because history shows us that they can/will find new markets and goods to traffic.


  3. Mike Sinodis says:

    With Arizona v. United States currently in the Supreme Court, I cannot help but question what the current priorities of the nation are. For a nation that was so quick to go overseas in response to a perceived threat of imminent harm, the United States has consistently failed to do anything proactive in terms of combating its War on Terror in its own back yard. Instead of focusing on the need to control international gun smuggling, it chooses to focus on deporting persons without status. Instead of curbing drug demand, the federal government raids state-legalized marijuana dispensaries. And instead of informing the public about the carnage in Mexico to a degree that can adequately be deemed proportional to any other international tragedy, public attention is directed to the Kardashians. Ignorance is bliss.

    But after reading this piece, I am wondering what the motivation is this time around. Is this simply a continuance of old tactics? Is it apathy? Is this the United States being spread too thin, and realizing that it cannot do anything to stop these gruesome cartels? Why is there such a big front for the War on Drugs, when it consistently hasn’t worked?

    In the 80’s the motivation to engage in behavior that would enable narco-traffickers to function more efficiently was to contain communism. Drug dealers have massive influence, which yields massive power, which contains movements. So no matter what the cost, and even if your politics encourage narco-trafficking, there is some “good” (perceived national security interests in the Cold War era) that comes out of it. But what is the motivation to do nothing now? Ostensibly, if one was engaging on a War on Terror, wouldn’t 60,000 slaughtered neighbors yield a debate a bit more immediate than a person’s citizenship? No matter how hard you try to keep people out, if they want to, they can kick the door in.

  4. Mike, you raise a lot of good points. I’ll try to answer why the United States has escalated its war on drugs. I believe there at least five explanations. First, is the political dilemma. No congressman/senator/sitting president has had the courage to rethink interdiction/fumigation/militarization because none has dared to look “soft on crime.” The second problem is how massive the DEA and other anti-narcotic bureaucracies’ budgets are. Michael Kenney raises that issue in his book, “From Pablo to Osama.” These agencies are designed to stop narcotrafficking, but in order to justify their budgets, they can’t do their job “too well,” if that makes sense. These institutions depend upon a “border crisis.” Moreover, there is a great deal of corruption within the DEA/FBI as well. We can’t think of those as just “Latin American/Mexican” problems.

    Third, with such bold rhetoric and avowals to destroy the drug trade, the U.S. feels it can’t quit. In that sense, it sort of parallels the Vietnam War. There is a revolving door of the same policymakers/anti-drug czars/etc who have staked their entire careers on the war. They are obsessed with making it work, whether out of pride/desire to look tough/etc. Why quit now? Fourth, I think the war is symptomatic of over 200 years of aggressive/bullying American foreign policy in the region. The United States remains distrustful of left-leaning political voices in Latin America, particularly in Central America, until perhaps only recently with its support of Mauricio Funes and the FMLN in El Salvador. Another related issue is the United States has a long history of training the Latin American militaries that are battling the war on drugs, whether in the Panama Canal Zone to the Army School of the Americas/Western Hemispheric Institute of Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Ft. Benning, GA. The United States views military strength/security as a top priority in its Latin American foreign policy, perhaps second only to free trade, and it will continue to work with their Latin American counterparts for the foreseeable future.
    These Cold War security apparatuses have remained largely unchanged, specializing in “aggressive interrogation” and dirty war tactics. They still continue to target their old opponents on the left, too, and especially journalists. These are groups that have advocated a reversal of the drug war, and for this reason, they continue to be targeted. I recently wrote a research paper about this topic and can send it to you. Finally, I think a lot of this has to do with the big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Merck that have powerful lobbies, and have resisted the legalization of medical marijuana. They throw a lot of money at congressional races and I don’t think you will see many elected leaders bite the hands that feed them.

    • William Shore says:

      The drug war and , DEA’s, FBI’s, CIA’s, etc. involvement is reminiscent of the self perpetuating ” military industrial complex” that Eisenhauer warned us about 50 years ago. Dad

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