Kill the Drug War: Death, Decisions, and the Limits of Military Power
To decide is to kill options, from Latin roots meaning “to cut away.” Given that real strategy demands hard choices, which extraneous missions must die on the altar of priority? The Department of Defense wandered into law enforcement roles as the Cold War faded and the end of history seductively promised an end to interstate competition. The excess of means and dearth of serious threats soon had the military chasing drug runners and trying to stabilize failed states.
That benign security environment is long gone. Today, great-power competition with China and Russia demands far more disciplined force planning and deepened alliances. Despite these growing security challenges, the United States continues a drug war that wastes exquisite military tools, destabilizes fragile states, and sours hemispheric relations — yet fails to gain any measurable progress. The routine deployment of military forces on such a peripheral mission habituates policymakers into seeing them as the default answer for other policy challenges, and that overuse dulls the military instrument even as it displaces appropriate civilian tools. For the sake of a coherent grand strategy, the United States should kill policies and missions that are simply impossible distractions — starting with the war on drugs.
Imperial Hubris and the Central American Conundrum
Aroop Mukharji’s War on the Rocks piece, “The Central American Conundrum: Toward a New Regional Security and Economic Order,” presents a new distraction that hopes to solve the root causes of the migration crisis with troops and tariffs. He advocates that the United States fund, organize, and lead “an international peacekeeping force, operating under the banner of the Organization of American States” to fix the Northern Triangle’s continuing instability, and proposes a revised tariff scheme to improve the regional economy.
The likely outcomes for these proposals range from costly and ineffective to simply disastrous.
As in Beirut in 1983 and Somalia in 1994, an open-ended military deployment to counter violent criminal gangs in Central America simply lacks an attainable military end state that could support a real theory of victory. Though the United States already uses military tools in the region for security cooperation and support to law enforcement, the idea of a military stability operation proportionate to the region’s violence is a uniquely bad one.
In contrast, the protectionist tariff proposal reflects a widely accepted premise that has informed regional economic policies for the past 60 years: Prosperity brings stable security, and the United States should underwrite some of these costs for the benefit of the entire hemisphere — including itself. To combat the hemisphere’s poverty and volatile social discontent, President John F. Kennedy promised “resources of a scope and magnitude sufficient to make this bold development plan [the Alliance for Progress] a success.” More than 40 years later, President George W. Bush claimed the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement would “help the democracies of Central America and the Dominican Republic deliver a better life for their citizens [by] opening up their markets [and so attracting] the trade and investment needed for economic growth.” President Joe Biden’s Central America plan to build “security and prosperity” also follows this consensus framing of the problem. The “comprehensive four-year, $4 billion regional strategy” touts “private sector investment to promote economic stability and job creation” and “economic prosperity through poverty reduction and regional integration programs” as two of its four lines of effort.
Whether countering communism, protectionism, or migration, though, such plans often fall well short of their noble objectives. Pitfalls abound for policymakers: They must craft functional yet salable proposals founded on valid assumptions while also anticipating the vagaries of the coming decades. As they construct a theory of change that leads to prosperous security, planners tend to gravitate toward readily accessible metrics, such as trade balances and formally tabulated economic sectors, and hope that influencing these visible factors will unlock the desired outcome.
Many development plans consequently undervalue a range of hidden factors, including illicit trafficking, corruption, and extortion. Though legal and visible, remittances also confound simple schemes that seek to curtail migration through prosperity-generated security. Remittances generate a larger share of Northern Triangle economies than manufacturing — $22 billion versus $19 billion per year. Targeted growth in manufacturing and industrial sectors could indirectly support better citizen security, and could by extension reduce migration, but the gradual losses in migration-generated foreign remittances would offset the net economic gains. Such complexity illustrates only one of the many challenges faced by planners attempting to address thorny problems with economic tools.
Although no development plan can guarantee success, simplistic policy proposals that fail to staunch the destabilizing flow of drug money and the related corruption and violence can only yield ignoble failure.
The Root of Corruption
Corruption ebbs and flows as a function of a society’s norms and relative prosperity. Officials in a prosperous and rules-based society have little to gain and much to lose by soliciting a bribe, but in a poorer society with endemic corruption and violence, refusing a bribe can be downright suicidal. From beat cops to petty bureaucrats to presidents, a culture of corrupt impunity grows and thrives.
Drug money has gradually normalized high levels of corruption along the trafficking routes. Recent notables include Mexico’s former secretary of defense and former secretary of public security, the current president and the head of congress in Honduras, the former president of El Salvador, and Guatemala’s former head of law enforcement and former minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing. Cocaine money in particular has seduced presidents, generals, and senior Cabinet officials for a generation, and shows no signs of stopping. The money is just too good. Even when the drug trafficking shifts to a new route, normalized corruption stubbornly remains behind, seeking out new revenue from graft and extortion.
Not everyone can be bought, though. Criminals selectively employ coercive violence against rivals, honest judges, competent police, inconvenient witnesses, and so many others. In 2018, 10,895 people in the Northern Triangle were murdered, and a further 5,695 were victims of forced disappearance — a euphemism often signifying abduction, torture, dismemberment, and disposal. The Syrian civil war killed 6,776 civilians and a further 13,185 combatants through that same bloody year, but in contrast to the wanton military violence in Syria, killers in these violently corrupted areas calibrate each individual murder according to its purpose: whether eliminating a judge, extorting businesses, or coercing an entire government. Extrajudicial killings swell the body count as hunted and frustrated cops exact their private revenge.
In light of these destabilizing levels of endemic corruption and warzone-level violence, how much stability could a large deployment of peacekeepers create in the Northern Triangle? International stability operations in Haiti provide the closest hemispheric analogue: In both locations, well-armed criminal gangs profit from local instability and perpetuate it through extensive corruption, coercive political violence, and virulent subcultures.
Haiti’s peacekeeping mission kicked off in 2004 with outsized confidence and an all-star football match, but U.N. forces nevertheless struggled to establish stability, much less preserve it. Today, Haiti remains little better off than before the 13-year mission. Gangs control much of the capital and the embattled president rules by executive decree. Adding injury to debatable efficacy, the U.N. force left the tragic legacies of raping hundreds of impoverished preteens and starting a cholera epidemic that killed nearly 10,000 Haitians. This peacekeeping experience should temper expectations for a bigger and more ambitious repeat in Central America.
The Northern Triangle has triple the population of Haiti spread over nine times the area, and suffers five times the murder rate owing to a variety of factors, including far larger drug flows and the jagged aftermath of Central America’s long civil wars. If a peak force of more than 12,000 peacekeepers failed in Haiti, rough heuristics suggest the Northern Triangle’s challenges would require well over 100,000 peacekeepers. By his own admission, Mukharji’s proposed stabilization force would require fundamental changes to the Organization of American States. It would also require a nearly unprecedented departure from Mexico’s historical policy of nonintervention and uncharacteristically submissive and enduring invitations from each Northern Triangle state. Putting these major policy obstacles aside, an external military stabilization force in the Northern Triangle would likely succeed only in wasting billions of dollars and placing foreign soldiers in awkward law enforcement roles. The destabilizing and corrupting web of dirty money would adapt beneath the militarized response, just as it did in Mexico.
The American electorate holds its military in uniquely high esteem, but that does not make us magicians who can reliably conjure peace from generational chaos in a few decades. The United States should not rush abroad in search of monsters to destroy or new stability conundrums to untangle.
The Economics of (In)stability
A trained surgeon might use a scalpel over tense hours to save a life. An amateur assassin could use the same tool to destroy life in seconds. The same dynamic extends to money: Dollar for dollar, dirty money sows discord faster than legitimate trade and investments can preserve stability. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has a hyperactive evil twin.
In 2016, Americans spent roughly as much on wine and beer as they did on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. The $24 billion U.S. retail cocaine market spreads a small but significant fraction of the overall value chain throughout the transit zone, growing the wholesale value from $2,200 per kilo in the Colombian jungle to $27,000 per kilo in New York. The even larger market for other illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, steers many billions more to Mexican criminal organizations.
A complex and adaptive network of illicit economic linkages churns, transfers, and reinvests these billions into patronage networks, hired guns, and similar business expenses throughout Colombia, Central America, and Mexico. The single-digit billions from regional cocaine trafficking might seem nearly inconsequential against the Northern Triangle’s collective $123 billion gross domestic product (GDP), but a few billion dollars hidden in malignant hands can devastate an already fragile state like a scalpel slicing through exposed arteries.
Researchers writing in the Bulletin on Narcotics generalized that “lack of trust, competition, and risks from law enforcement” collectively fracture illicit trafficking networks into smaller and more secure cells. A more recent PRISM article noted how militarized crackdowns and kingpin strategies against Mexican transnational criminal organizations have accelerated this “incipient process of fragmentation in the criminal underworld towards horizontal networks of smaller outfits.”
So, instead of staying within the efficient pipeline of a vertically integrated cartel, pressurized dirty money now darts through these consequently more numerous economic links with higher monetary velocity and far higher profit margins than a typical global value chain. Atomized money spurts through the hands of coca farmers, lab operators, FARC dissidents, neighborhood gangs, hit men, clandestine shipyard workers, fishermen, crooked officials, fixers, money launderers, accountants, lawyers, and politicians. This global value chain better resembles a massive cobweb: redundant, resilient, and evolved for robust, adaptive, and profitable efficacy over fragile efficiency.
The value chain’s beginning, covering production and trafficking in Colombia, illustrates the multiplicative power of this microeconomic effect. Although Colombia’s annual coca cultivation and processing totals only $810 million, or 0.2 percent of Colombia’s GDP, the percentage grows tenfold, to 2 percent of GDP, when accounting for the additional economic impact between the jungle cocaine lab and the border.
The size of this illicit economy also illustrates the greater efficiency of locally actioned dirty money versus centrally planned state finance. Colombia spends more than 3 percent of its GDP in military expenditures and receives more than $1 billion annually in development assistance. Despite these enduring investments, which are aimed at and exceed Colombia’s cocaine economy, the 2018 coca crop represented the second largest ever recorded, while the associated revenue fuels a truly challenging security environment.
Dirty money displaces the good with remarkable efficiency. One assassin gives bloody work for many trauma surgeons, coroners, and gravediggers.
Fairer Trade Is No Panacea …
States in the Northern Triangle struggle against the same insidious efficacy of dirty money further along the value chain, a problem for which Mukharji and others proffer trade-based solutions based on the intuitive correlation between prosperity and security. He claims that protected industries would eventually create “a stronger regional economy,” which would in turn “help to stem emigration, weaken drug and human trafficking networks, and end the endless cycle of regional economic depravity.” This myopic focus on one part of the licit economy merits careful dissection.
Without addressing the wicked problems of endemic extortion and corruption, a growing economy merely incentivizes criminals to get an even bigger share of an expanding pie. Although the Northern Triangle’s gangs and other criminalized power structures might get an early boost with drug money, they quickly diversify their revenue streams by violently extorting bus companies, garbage trucks, and virtually every other local business. These tragic examples help explain the paradoxical reality that “homicide rates first increase as per capita income rises.”
The surprisingly positive correlation between prosperity and violence eventually flattens and reverses, at least for Latin America as a whole, but countries on the cocaine trail buck this larger trend despite robust military responses to drug trafficking. Citizens in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico enjoy much higher incomes than citizens in the Northern Triangle. Even so, these richer nations all suffer higher homicide rates than Guatemala, which has half the per capita income of Mexico. El Salvador had virtually the same per capita income as neighboring Guatemala in 2018, yet suffered more than double its per capita homicide rate that same year. El Salvador’s homicide rate has since fallen dramatically, but gang politics explain this swing far better than marginal economic growth. The lack of correlation between prosperity and security along the cocaine trafficking route shatters the original claim for causal inference, and with it, specious arguments for preferential tariffs. Many, many other factors beyond prosperity help create citizen security.
… Neither Is Military Power
The proposals for large peacekeeping forces and unequal tariffs represent only two bad ideas on a nearly endless field, but at least these can die as rejected proposals rather than as wasteful realities. The same cannot be said for the longstanding overuse of scarce nuclear attack submarines, strategic bombers, Aegis destroyers, anti-submarine aircraft, and command and control aircraft on extracurricular law enforcement support missions in the Western Hemisphere. Worse than simply inefficient, these exquisite tactical instruments have failed to gain any operational progress toward a strategic end state in the war against cocaine.
The Government Accountability Office observed in 1991 that “interdiction alone cannot raise cocaine traffickers’ costs and risks enough to make a difference, regardless of how well [the Department of Defense] carries out its detection and monitoring mission.” Contemporary analyses from the CIA and RAND Corporation reached similar conclusions.
These Cold War-era analyses remain fundamentally valid, even as traffickers adapt to the continuing pandemic and redoubled counter-narcotics operations. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently assessed that “the continuing overall trend of lower prices but higher purity suggests demand remains lower than supply—resulting in a cheaper, more pure product than throughout the past decade.” Looking ahead, the 2019 National Drug Control Strategy glumly anticipates that drug traffickers will embrace a “favorable risk-reward structure … to an even greater degree in the years to come.” The Government Accountability Office, CIA, and RAND Corporation predicted as much 30 years ago.
If nothing else, though, military counter-narcotics operations can sate a frustrated electorate’s demand for its government to do something about the epidemic of drug overdoses — even if that ostentatious something has almost nothing to do with causal factors. Cocaine’s obvious horticultural origin in South America and clear market destination in North America make it the perfect target for well-publicized interdiction efforts. While 67,367 Americans died by drug poisoning in 2018, cocaine (without opioids) caused only 3,779 of that tragic total, which is scarcely more than a typical year for accidental drownings. Meanwhile, opioids such as fentanyl killed a staggering 46,802 Americans. The unending stream of dramatic, military-supported cocaine interdictions in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific might seem like progress against drug trafficking writ large, but these tactical successes have little relation with growing cocaine availability and historically low prices. Stopping a few tons of cocaine makes a great headline, but it does nothing against prevalent and far deadlier synthetic opioid availability.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz only stated the obvious in 2013:
The war on drugs has simply not worked. It hasn’t kept drugs out of this country. It hasn’t caused us to have a lower level of use than other comparable countries. We have wound up with a large number of young people in jail, mostly blacks, a huge cost, and a debilitating one to our society. And big foreign policy costs.
If You Want a Friend, Be a Friend
Beyond wasting military power and catalyzing violent corruption from Colombia to Mexico, the drug war also persistently alienates allies and partners throughout the hemisphere — Shultz’s “big foreign policy costs.” These relationships should be strengthened, not poisoned. As the global security environment degrades into multipolarity, and traditional allies with stagnating demographics suffer a declining share of global power, the United States should diversify its partnerships to help balance China’s assertive rise. Although the entire hemispheric neighborhood is important, Mexico and Colombia merit particular attention.
Mexico has a larger economy than South Korea, and will surpass France and the United Kingdom in economic size around 2030. Colombia’s smaller but rapidly growing economy now exceeds South Africa’s. These Pacific-facing, maritime democratic powers have a combined population exceeding Russia’s, and both Mexico and Colombia (a current treaty ally) have fought and bled alongside the United States in the Indo-Pacific theater.
Today, however, both partners fight persistent and well-funded criminal insurgencies within their own borders. U.S. drug prohibition creates just enough scarcity for criminal organizations to reap incredible profits and fund these wanton insurgencies, even as this strategy fails to restrict widespread drug availability.
Respected leaders from Mexico and Colombia know this interminable struggle all too well. In his 2016 Nobel Lecture, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia argued that “the manner in which this war against drugs is being waged is equally or perhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined. It is time to change our strategy.” The Organization of American States presented a range of policy options, including decriminalization and legalization, in its 2013 report on the drug problem in the Americas. Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, called for the legalization of all drugs.
Allies matter now more than ever in recent memory, and they should not be conspicuously alienated for the sake of a mission that has always been a fool’s errand. Formerly circumspect American voters increasingly agree with Shultz, Santos, and Fox. Such a policy shift would help defund organized crime from Colombia to Mexico. Though no panacea, this would help make these regional powers into potentially more effective partners, while also ameliorating the horrific violence that pushes waves of migrants from Central America.
Decades of militarized counter-narcotics efforts demonstrate that even the most brilliant application of overwhelming force cannot redeem flawed strategy. As the international security environment continues to degrade, the United States should preserve its military instruments for truly military challenges, stabilize the hemispheric neighborhood through policy rather than open-ended military deployments, and attract truly consequential allies.
Killing the drug war would help accomplish all three.
Lt. Cmdr. Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer who recently served as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He earned a master of systems analysis degree from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master of naval and maritime science degree from the Chilean Naval War College. He has also published with the U.S. Naval Institute and Center for International Maritime Security.
The views presented are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.