Beating the Drug-War Addiction

BUENOS AIRES – In January, US President Barack Obama nominated Marine Corps Lieutenant General John F. Kelly to head the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). Based in Miami, Florida, USSOUTHCOM runs military operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and is the key US “drug warrior” in the region. Across the region, the key question, among civilian and military leaders alike, is whether the change in commanders will bring with it a change in focus.

The top priority for USSOUTHCOM is to fight narcotics trafficking from the Andes to the Rio Grande. With the Cold War’s end, fighting communism was no longer the US armed forces main objective; USSOUTHCOM increasingly concentrated on pursuing coercive anti-drug initiatives, and funds to fight the drug war were plentiful. But the change in commanders is an opportunity for the US to revise, at long last, its regional doctrine in order to address other pressing security needs.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 paradoxically reinforced the US military’s focus on countering illicit drug traffickers. While other US forces became heavily involved in the “war on terrorism,” USSOUTHCOM scaled up its “war on drugs,” with its commanders targeting the industry’s bosses in the Andes, Mexico, and Central America.

That happened in part because, following 9/11, Latin America was the only region of the world that did not witness an attack by transnational terrorists linked to al-Qaeda, so there seemed to be little need to pursue counter-terrorist activity there. And, with the US continuing to be the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, its leaders’ focus on the drug war in Latin America does not appear misguided, at least not on the surface.