(updated 5/27: 12:15 p.m.)
As the violent war with drug cartels in Mexico reached new heights last week, federal auditors reported to Congress that there are basically no measures of success in place or ability to determine if billions of dollars in U.S. funding to fight the drug war in Mexico and other countries is having the desired impact.
You may have heard about the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Merida Initiative – the $1.6 billion plan to help the Mexican government battle the violent cartels that have essentially taken over the country in the last three years. The GAO report, which was widely covered by the mainstream media, found that only 9 percent of the funding for 2008-2010 has been spent so far amid bureaucratic delays. (See the AP story here.)
The problems plaguing the Merida Initiative so far –not just the inability of bureaucrats to get the money where it is intended to go, but also the rampant corruption that challenges U.S. efforts — were drilled home by recent headlines: Last week saw the violence escalate with a car bombing in the war-torn border town of Ciudad Juarez that drew comparisons to Al Qaeda. Federal prosecutors in San Diego announced the indictment of 43 people tied to the Arellano Félix cartel – including a key Mexican law enforcement official who worked closely with the U.S. on anti-drug efforts. On Thursday, a mass grave of more than 50 bodies (many showing signs of torture) was uncovered near Monterrey. And today, we learned of a prison in northern Mexico where guards gave their weapons and vehicles to prisoners and set them free to go on murderous nighttime rampages.
On the same day that GAO released the report on Merida funding specifically, the agency also released a report looking at overall, international drug war efforts by the Department of Defense. The report essentially concluded the same thing as the report on Merida on a much broader scale: the defense department does not have any effective way to measure success or gauge if international counter-narcotics initiatives (funded at $1.5 billion this year) are meeting established goals.
Testimony that accompanied that report was even more telling. Reviewing 20 GAO studies conducted over the last decade, the testimony by GAO’s director of International Affairs and Trade, Jess T. Ford, cited limited (if any) drug war successes coming out of international counternarcotics efforts over the last several years. Colombia. Afghanistan. The Caribbean. Central America. Essentially, nada.
Plan Colombia was one of the focuses of the testimony. Poppy and heroin production decreased over the last several years in Colombia (but, I’ll note, has just relocated to Afghanistan and Burma). Coca production actually increased for a time before falling recently. This minor victory, Ford explains, may not be a victory at all: while the Office of National Drug Control Policy touts a decline in coca cultivation in Colombia, the GAO says this may have nothing to do with drug war efforts but factors such as dry weather.
Furthermore, those gains are offset by what appears to be the inevitable pattern of the drug war: when you focus efforts on one geographic area it doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves it somewhere else, taking violence and corruption along with it.
Cocaine production may have fallen somewhat in Colombia, but it has increased in Peru and Bolivia, the GAO notes. And Ford said the agency is concerned that Peru could soon return to being the primary coca producing country in the world, just like it was in the 1980s and 1990s before it shifted to Colombia.
And that brings us back to Mexico and the Merida Initiative. The violence associated with our international counter-narcotics efforts is now raging within a stone’s throw (or a stray bullet) away from the U.S. because of our focus on more remote venues, such as Colombia, and our inability to address the real problems: the demand for drugs and the black market created by prohibition here at home. As long as prohibition continues and consumer demand does not ebb (which evidence suggests would require a true shift in policy and resources toward harm reduction and drug treatment) the problem will keep moving around the globe.
In Mexico, the criminality of drug trafficking organizations met with economic depression and easy access to the American market and American guns to create the perfect storm of violence and anarchy we are seeing there today.
As Congress looks to measure success in the Merida Initiative it should look beyond the metrics called for by the GAO, and it must not disregard the history of decades of failures in the current drug war strategy.
UPDATE 5/27: Note on “nation building.” I left this out of the original post, but it bothered me all night and I felt like I should add something about it. The GAO testimony noted that while counter-narcotics efforts have not been all that effective in, you know, countering narcotics, the programs have helped to further other American “foreign policy objectives.” These objectives include combatting insurgents in Afghanistan and strengthening security in Colombia. And I am very confident that Merida funding is helping to root out some corruption in Mexico, too.
But what I kept thinking about as I read this section were all of the ways in which drug war funding has undermined our foreign policy objectives and our national values by supporting dictatorships and countries with dubious human rights records. The example that has always haunted me was the pre-9/11 money we sent to the Taliban. The TALIBAN! Ok, we didn’t know that we were going to be attacked by terrorists based in Afghanistan four months later when we sent them $43 million as a reward for fighting poppy production in May 2001. But we did know that the Taliban government committed human rights abuses against women, essentially creating a government system that valued the life and liberty of half of its populations less than cattle. (Ron Paul writes: ”How tragic that our government was willing to ignore Taliban brutality in its quest to find victories in the failed drug war.” Read an article from the Drug Policy Alliance on UN anti-drug funding to the Taliban here.)
The message we have sent and continue to send with our international drug war efforts is this: it is OK if you commit human rights atrocities as long as you help us keep people in the U.S. from getting high. And that is morally reprehensible. Read Human Rights Watch’s warning last year about Merida funding in Mexico here.