The Enduring Legacy of Reagan’s Drug War in Latin America

US agencies stop semi-submersible, seize 12,000 pounds of cocaine

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Policy Roundtable: Reagan and Latin America from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

“Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them,” Ronald Reagan declared during his first term as president. “We’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” He wasn’t referring only to highly addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine, but also to marijuana, which he deemed “a dangerous threat to an entire generation.” Reagan’s sense of moral certainty and his tendency to view the world in black and white manifested in the way his administration waged the drug war both at home and abroad. Embracing an overly simplistic notion of the problem, he targeted Latin American countries that were producing these drugs with crop eradication, and admonished Americans to “just say no,” enacting exceedingly harsh penalties for those who failed to comply. It has now been over three decades since Reagan pledged to win the drug war, and yet the trafficking of heroin and cocaine continues to be a monumentally profitable and violent criminal enterprise that wreaks havoc on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The United Nations estimates that between one fifth and one third of the income of transnational organized crime groups comes from the production and trafficking of drugs. While the prohibitionist approach clearly failed to eliminate the scourge of drug trafficking, it was highly successful in creating a domestic political environment conducive to the pursuit of counterinsurgency in Latin American countries at a time when the support of the American public for Cold War military interventions was at an all-time low.

The War on Drugs

Though a prohibitionist ethos had already permeated the U.S. government’s official attitude toward narcotics, and punitive measures had been implemented long before Richard Nixon’s rise to power, Nixon was the one to formally declare a war on drugs. For him and other conservative culture warriors, the “get-tough” approach to crime and drugs was a response to the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As racial tensions erupted into riots in the inner cities, and massive anti-Vietnam war protests opposed U.S. foreign policy, drug use became inextricably linked in the public imagination with radical students, urban blacks, and the counterculture. Just as the Nixon administration sought to deflect responsibility for atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam by blaming it on drug use, U.S. officials located the source of domestic opposition to the power structure in the abuse of mind-altering drugs. In subsequent decades, the war on drugs was waged by a number of powerful interests: politicians on both sides of the aisle looking to score with their constituents, presidents in need of a scapegoat issue, prison guards’ unions, private companies with a financial stake in punitive measures, concerned parents of unruly teenagers, and a profit-driven news media seeking good copy.

It was Reagan who revived the war on drugs, which for all intents and purposes, had become moribund under the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Though Carter decided not to wage the domestic drug war, choosing instead a “harm reduction” approach that sought to provide medical and psychiatric treatment to addicts, supply-side anti-narcotics efforts continued. Supply-side policies essentially placed the responsibility for domestic drug use on the countries supplying the drugs, many of which complained that the United States was blaming them for its social ills. These efforts became the primary focus of the Reagan administration’s drug war in Latin America. At the same time, Reagan abandoned the Carter administration’s focus on medical treatment for addicts in favor of a punitive approach that in some cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Though it is difficult to determine how personally invested Reagan was in the drug war, it was certainly consistent with his own deeply held sense of American identity, traditions, and values.

The Politics of Narcoterrorism

The punitive approach to drugs was not just a domestic phenomenon. It was reflected in the Reagan administration’s supply-side anti-narcotics foreign policies, which sought to eliminate the supply of drugs at the source. In Latin America, this involved the extensive use of herbicides, usually applied aerially, to destroy opium, marijuana, and coca crops. Because virtually all the world’s cocaine is processed from coca grown in the Andes, the countries of Peru and Colombia were among the highest priority targets of crop eradication. These two countries also suffered from the depredations of radical left-wing guerrilla movements that exerted increasing control over drug production and trafficking. The supply-side strategy therefore aimed to strengthen the Peruvian and Colombian armed forces in their struggle against the guerrillas.

Not only did the supply-side approach empower the armed forces and security services of these countries, contributing to escalating human rights abuses, it was demonstrably ineffective. The so-called “balloon effect” meant that alternate sources of supply kept popping up. As long as the demand for drugs exists, people will find a way to supply them. Ironically enough, given his devotion to free market principles, Reagan seems to have never acknowledged this fact. But if the drug war wasn’t successful in actually reducing the demand for and supply of drugs, it proved useful in myriad other ways, most notably in developing the discourse around “narcoterrorism.”

The concept of “narcoterrorism” emerged in the highly politicized context of the Cold War. The Reagan administration accused Cuba and Nicaragua, the two avowedly Marxist-Leninist regimes in Latin America, of smuggling drugs into the United States to destabilize American society and then using the profits to finance Marxist revolution in the Western Hemisphere. Circumstantial evidence of the involvement of corrupt Cuban and Nicaraguan officials in the drug trade did emerge, but there was no evidence to suggest that it was systematic or pursued as a matter of policy. In fact, the evidence of Cuban and Sandinista complicity in the drug trade was identical to the evidence of drug trafficking by the right-wing counterinsurgency forces — the “Contras” — battling the Sandinistas. However, the Reagan administration dismissed these charges out of hand. Funding the Contras was one of Reagan’s pet projects, and his administration continued to provide them with military and humanitarian support even after Congress had passed numerous restrictions on such funding, and after allegations of the Contras’ involvement in drug trafficking became public.

While the “narcoterrorism” label initially served as a rhetorical weapon with which to attack Cuba and Nicaragua, it evolved as a way to portray communist insurgencies in Latin America as a national security threat to the United States. The previously distinct dangers of communist insurgency and drugs became inextricably linked in the public imagination when, in November 1985, Movimiento de 19 Abril guerrillas infiltrated the Colombian Palace of Justice. They took the entire Colombian Supreme Court hostage and destroyed documents, including U.S. extradition requests for major drug traffickers. Allegations emerged that Pablo Escobar, head of the notorious Medellín cartel, had paid the guerrillas nearly a million dollars for the attack. Less than six months later, National Security Decision Directive 221 declared drugs a national security threat, widening the scope of military involvement in the drug war and linking counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics in official U.S. policy for the first time.

The Reagan administration used the term “narcoterrorism” as shorthand for the relationship between narcotics traffickers, political terrorists, and leftist guerrilla movements.  From the outset, however, this relationship was poorly defined. While the traditional definition of terrorism focuses specifically on a group’s political aims, the term “narcoterrorism” was used to designate three distinct phenomena: the use of terror by narcotics traffickers to intimidate political authorities; the use of drug profits by insurgents to finance terrorist acts aimed at generating political outcomes totally unrelated to narcotics; and the logistical network through which drugs and profits flowed. The rhetoric of “narcoterrorism” completely failed to distinguish between the tactics and the goals of its practitioners. By using the term in an indiscriminate fashion, U.S. officials and the news media elided the crucial distinction between drug profits as an end and as a means to an end.

This conflation of the threats posed by drug trafficking and leftist insurgency allowed the Reagan administration to provide counterinsurgency support to Latin American governments even in the restricted atmosphere of the post-Vietnam era, when Congress and the American public were wary of being sucked into another Third World quagmire. Especially as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to improve during Reagan’s second term, fears of communist subversion no longer animated the American people. The specter of violent street crime perpetrated by junkies, however, haunted the breakfast table with every newspaper headline, and the dinner table with every evening news broadcast. Although levels of violent crime and drug use remained relatively steady throughout the decade (i.e., impervious to the strenuous efforts of the drug war), mainstream news media coverage of it skyrocketed. This threat of a domestic drug crisis helped Reagan shore up public support for his military activities in Latin America. The “drugs as national security threat” paradigm provided the impetus for continued, and even increased, military funding in an atmosphere of uncertainty created by the drawdown of the Cold War.


The supply-side narcotics control efforts spearheaded by the Reagan administration continue to define the U.S.-led international drug war today. The prohibitionist ethos has contributed to the further destabilization of Latin American societies, siphoning resources away from the types of reforms that are needed to enhance democracy and prosperity in the region. Central America, as the main vector of cocaine that is smuggled from the Andes to North America, is among the most violent areas in the world today, with some of the highest homicide rates. These escalating crime levels negatively impact economic growth and democratic development, while eroding respect for the rule of law. Judicial reforms are needed in order to root out the political corruption that allows narco-traffic to flourish, while domestic efforts in the United States should be focused on reducing demand and treating addiction. However, the reproduction in the United Nations and the Organization of American States of the harsh U.S. punitive regime removes the option of member-states to implement policies experimenting with decriminalization or legalization.

Ultimately, the supply-side strategy pioneered by the Reagan administration has exacerbated regional instability while utterly failing in its goal of eliminating — or even reducing — the production, trafficking, and consumption of narcotics.


Michelle Getchell is an assistant professor in the Department of Strategy & Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. She is the author of The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War: A Short History with Documents and is currently working on a book about Reagan and Latin America.

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