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Global Drug Report: Don’t Decriminalize, Demilitarize


Military Police of Colombia. Photo: Wikipedia.

A report released earlier this month by former heads of state and other global political figures made headlines across the world for calling the drug war a failure and for its endorsement of the decriminalization of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. However, one of the report’s major criticisms, its critique of the militarization of the drug war, was largely neglected by the media. “All out militarized enforcement responses have, counter-intuitively, undermined security in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico,” said the Global Commission on Drug Policy in its report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work.

The commission, which released its report on September 9, includes former presidents like Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, as well as former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and George P. Schultz, who served as U.S. secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

Militarized enforcement responses have sometimes led to infiltration and corruption of governments, armies and police by cartels, and a culture of impunity for human rights abuses, especially extra-judicial killings and disappearances,” said the Global Commission on Drug Policy's report.

The report also stated, “Militarized enforcement responses have sometimes led to infiltration and corruption of governments, armies and police by cartels, and a culture of impunity for human rights abuses, especially extra-judicial killings and disappearances.”

These critiques have a significant relevance in Latin America, where U.S.-led policies like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico, the two major theaters in the war on drugs in the region, have had a tremendous toll on human rights in both countries while barely making a dent in curtailing drug trafficking to the United States. Last week’s Colombian Senate debate about former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the drug war in his country between 2002 and 2010, and his alleged links to paramilitaries and drug trafficking, serves as a perfect example supporting the commission’s claims of corruption, human rights abuses and impunity.

Carlos Castaño, former leader of the AUC

During Uribes’s time in office the country was beset with a parapolitics scandal, which linked the president, members of his party, and members of the military to right-wing paramilitaries. Diego Murillo Bejarano, also known as Don Berna, a former leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the right-wing Colombian paramilitary group often identified by its Spanish acronym AUC, testified in 2009 that he helped fund President Uribe’s 2002 election campaign. Even more disturbing is that members of paramiltary group have testified to cremating massacre victims in ovens, in coordination with government officials. In addition, in 2008 Uribe was beset by what came to be known as the false positive scandal. It was revealed that members of the country’s military were murdering poor, rural Colombians and dressing them as rebels. The scandal was seen to be largely instigated by a policy that awarded soldiers with bonuses, promotions and vacation days for their number of kills. According to a 2009 U.S. embassy cable from Bogota, released by Wikileaks, Uribe measured success of the drug war by body counts.

However, the U.S. role shouldn’t be ignored. A July report on the false positive scandal published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation stated, “Based on data on 5,763 reported executions in Colombia and extensive documentation of U.S. assistance to the Colombian military, we found a positive correlation between the units and officers that received U.S. assistance and training, and the commission of extrajudicial killings.”

For example, the interfaith peace and justice organization’s report noted that almost 50 percent of Colombian officers who received training between 2001 and 2003 at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known by its former name the School of the Americas, “had either been charged with a serious crime or commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings.” Additionally, the United States has either ignored or looked the other way when faced with reports of human rights scandals in the country.

Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director or its Drug Policy Project, told teleSUR English that this scandal never really gained traction in Washington because it “disrupts the dominant and preferred discourse” that the drug war, and Plan Colombia in particular, has been a success.

“Watergate was peanuts compared to this scandal,” said Tree. “Can you imagine Nixon with domestic death squads?”

Despite the scandals, murders, disappearances and human rights abuses that plagued Plan Colombia, this drug war model was exported north to Mexico under the name the Merida Initiative in 2008. This “Plan Mexico,” along with former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s use of the country’s military to fight the so-called drug war, has brought similar results.