Rethinking the Drug War in Central America and Mexico
A new report from the Meso-American Working Group
Analysis and Recommendations for Legislators
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U.S. security policy in Mexico and Central America, focused on militarized counter-narcotics efforts known as the war on drugs, has had severely negative effects on the region. This report analyzes the effects in four areas – militarization, drug policy, violence against women and forced migration—and examines the impact of this security policy on three countries: Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
The report finds that current drug war policy has dramatically increased the transfer of arms, equipment and military/police training to the region. Concurrently, we find that violence in the region has exploded.
Our findings raise serious concerns regarding increased U.S. military influence and presence in the region, combined with expanded national military and police activities under the war on drugs. We find that the impact on public safety, human rights, violence against women and democratic institutions has been disturbingly negative. This indicates an urgent need to review and rectify programs and spending priorities.
United States militarization in Mexico and Central America takes diverse forms, from arms sales and military bases, to military training of police forces and an approach to addressing organized crime and social protest that prioritize military doctrines. Despite budgetary constraints in the United States, a plethora of U.S. agencies including the US Southern and Northern Commands, DEA, DHS, ATF, and FBI have expanded activities in the region under the auspices of the drug war.
Along with a rise in generalized violence, we found a significant rise in violence against women, particularly femicides. This increase correlated with greater militarization in all three countries examined. Under recent U.S.-supported policies, security forces have frequently perpetrated acts of violence against women and women human rights defenders have been specifically targeted. These alarming trends not only directly affect women, but also serve as a barometer of human rights and stability.
This report also finds that as a result of the rise of violence in the region, the number of people migrating to flee the violence has increased. Exploding homicide rates and widespread fear in the region contribute to this trend. Migrants in transit also face far greater risk of death and abuses as cartels encroach on migrant smuggling routes in Mexico. Despite the security build-up, the region’s governments systematically fail to combat these attacks and protect migrant men, women and children.
We have seen a significant shift in opinions regarding the underlying rationale of the war on drugs—prohibition of certain substances and enforcement of prohibition laws. This shift, combined with the problems identified above, requires that we rethink our foreign policy related to counternarcotics efforts. A majority of people in the U.S. favor legalization of marijuana and twenty states have regulated its use for medicinal or general purposes. Latin American leaders have publicly questioned the huge commitment of resources and high political and social costs in their countries of enforcing prohibition, in the U.S. which remains the main consumer market for illicit drugs. Recognizing the need for change, the Organization of American States has released a report on alternative scenarios for drug policy reform, one of which includes regulating marijuana.
Mexico has experienced a marked increase in the homicide rate, with estimates showing 80,000 dead since the war on drugs was launched, 27,000 disappeared, and many thousands more displaced from their homes. The U.S. Merida Initiative has not only failed to improve public safety but correlates with a dramatic erosion of citizen security. The armed forces and police supported by U.S. policy have consistently been implicated in human rights abuses and corruption. Under the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, cooperation on the war on drugs has continued despite these disastrous results and deepening concern in both U.S. and Mexican legislatures.
In Guatemala, a militarized approach to security has not led to a decrease in criminal activity or violence. Instead, it has led to increased repression, human rights violations, and has debilitated Guatemala’s transitional justice process. Current U.S. support to the Guatemalan military encourages human rights abuses and has fueled organized crime. Recent reports show evidence of close links between the Guatemalan military and criminal organizations. The questionable use of the military in matters of internal security threatens to open old wounds, and places the long-term peace process in jeopardy, and with it, Guatemala’s fragile democracy. Despite legal restrictions on military aid to Guatemala since 1977, counter-narcotics programs through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) ultimately reinforce a militarized security model, contributing to the climate of violence in the country.
In Honduras, since the 2008 Merida Initiative and later CARSI were applied in Central America, the homicide rate has gone from 58 to 85 per 100,000 residents, giving it the highest murder rate in the world. In the context of the 2009 coup d’état, impunity and dysfunctional institutions compound the problem. Honduran security forces have been plagued with scandal and accusations of human rights violations and have been systematically used to repress public protest, particularly in defense of land and resource rights. Despite this situation, U.S. aid concentrates on supporting these forces.
Recommendations to Congress
- Demilitarize our approach to regional security. Policy should address organized crime not with military support, but though prosecution and transnational anti-money laundering efforts, arms control and anti-smuggling initiatives. Pentagon budget authorities for the drug war should be zeroed out, including all non-prevention funds from the DOD Counter-narcotics Central Transfer Account. Military assistance under Foreign Operations Appropriations should be redirected. Meanwhile, Congress should fund independent evaluation of human rights impacts of such assistance and demand greater transparency.
- Hold oversight hearings on the Drug Enforcement Administration, especially concerning its activities overseas.
- Stem the rise in violence against women. Draw down aid to abusive security forces, carry out human rights reviews that include a gender perspective, and support women human rights defenders by denouncing and urging investigation of attacks on them and publicly recognizing their role in building democracy.
- End policies that feed migration and crimes against migrants: Divert military aid to job creation, small business infrastructure, human rights defense (including the protection of migrants in Mesoamerica), and other policies that prevent migration or lessen risks to migrants; halt the militarization of the border and de-link border militarization from comprehensive Immigration Reform and eliminate deportation policies that make migrants vulnerable to organized crime, including night deportations.
- Open a debate on drug policy and review law enforcement priorities. Hold hearings on drug policy reform in the Americas, including marijuana regulation, sentencing reform, and harm reduction; advocate that State Department internationalize the Attorney General’s policy position to encourage reduced sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses; endorse a formal position that the U.S. will not intervene in nations pursuing drug policy reform.
Partial Recommendations by Country
- End the failed Merida Initiative and develop a bi-national relationship that prioritizes public safety, prevention and eliminating the root causes of crime through poverty alleviation and education, while combating transnational criminal activity within our borders;
- Reinforce anti-money-laundering mechanisms;
- Focus on community-building and repairing the badly damaged social fabric by contributing to civil society efforts, empowerment of women, education, youth programs and construction of a culture of peace and lawfulness.
- Maintain current restrictions on military funding through Foreign Operations Appropriations;
- Withhold all DOD funding to the Guatemalan Army and Kaibil special forces;
- Ensure effective application of the Leahy Law, prohibiting funding to units and individuals involved in human rights violations;
- Prioritize support for justice-sector strengthening, including funds to increase the investigative capacity of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, provide protection for judges, prosecutors and witnesses, and the CICIG; increase support for human rights defenders.
- Halt assistance to the police and military in Honduras until significant improvements in ending impunity and the strengthening the judiciary have been demonstrated, including aid through the CARSI and the multilateral development banks;
- Hold private sector interests accountable for any crimes committed;
- Vote against multilateral development bank loans to or in Honduras that could impact the fundamental rights of Hondurans.
The Mesoamerican Working Group (MAWG)
CIP Americas Program
Drug Policy Alliance
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
JASS (Just Associates)
School of the Americas Watch