Is the Drug War in Latin America Wasting Billions?

The concept is logical enough. Want to stop illegal drugs from coming to the U.S.? Go to the source.

That’s the reason our tax dollars fund anti-drug smuggling operations in places like Colombia, Mexico and Honduras.

Here’s the problem. We’re failing. Miserably.

A high ranking Marine Corps general recently said that the U.S. military in Latin America allows three out of four suspected drug smuggling boats to pass by. He says there’s not enough funding to stop them.

He’s right about one thing. Defense spending on the drug war has been scaled back in recent years.

The president’s proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year would cut Defense Department funding for drug operations by over a third from its 2012 level, going from $1.8 billion to $1.1 billion.


But we’ve spent billions fighting drugs overseas in the past and that hasn’t done much to stop the flow into the U.S. The price of marijuana, cocaine and heroin has fallen over the past two decades. That’s a sign that the supply chain hasn’t been radically disrupted.

There’s also a question of priorities. Military spending has been focused on terrorism since 9/11 and countries like Honduras aren’t as much of a threat in that regard, according to Joy Olson, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America.


“When it comes to terrorist organizations that might have eyes on the United States, there just isn’t that much going on in Latin America,” she told Fusion.

We could spend more on drug missions but most people would consider that a waste. A poll last year found that only one in five Americans think the drug war has been worth the costs. And a clear majority support marijuana legalization.


The takeaway: Yes, the military says drug boats in Latin America are getting away. But maybe it’s time for a wholesale rethinking of why we’re chasing about them in the first place.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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