Limits of Pressure: US Policy Failures in the International War on Drugs

Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Limits of Pressure: US Policy Failures in the International War on Drugs


HAL JONES, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard International Review

Many policymakers in Washington believe that the United States can use its role as the hegemonic power in the hemisphere to induce its neighbors to launch extensive campaigns against the production and trafficking of illegal narcotics. Since 1986, for example, the US Congress has required the president to assess the performance of Latin American nations in the war on drugs. If the efforts of the drug-producing country are judged to be insufficient, the US government "decertifies" that nation and cuts off aid. What US officials fail to realize is that the strength or weakness of Latin American anti-drug efforts is determined not so much by the level of pressure exerted by the United States as by Latin American policymakers' assessments of how potential courses of action will affect the perceived legitimacy of their government. The behavior of the Mexican government between 1970 and 1985 and the actions of the Peruvian government in the 1980s demonstrate that Latin American states will respond favorably to US pressure only when such a reaction is in accord with their interest in asserting national sovereignty.

Defending Mexican Sovereignty

Mexico carried out intensive and largely successful anti-drug campaigns in the 1970s and early 1980s primarily because Mexican leaders realized that such efforts would enhance the legitimacy of the government and increase the administration's effective control over the country's territory. To be sure, the zeal with which Mexico pursued its campana permanente ("permanent campaign") against drugs pleased US officials, who supported the initiative with equipment and advice. However, Mexico's anti-drug program represented an attempt to address internal challenges to Mexican sovereignty much more than an effort to placate the country's powerful neighbor to the north.

One factor that led the Mexican government to take decisive action against illegal drug activity was the decline of governmental authority in the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua, which formed a vast "critical triangle" in the northwestern part of the country. There, drug producers grew marijuana and poppies, and narcotraficantes set up operations in defiance of the central government. Because these criminal elements effectively exercised control over large areas of practically inaccessible national territory, Mexican leaders realized that a protracted and energetic effort would be necessary to reassert the authority of the central administration. They subsequently designed an ambitious campaign to meet the challenge. Surely pressure from Washington was not necessary to convince officials in Mexico City of the need to reclaim sovereignty over the increasingly lawless regions dominated by drug traffickers.

A related concern was the fear that anti-government insurgencies would find support and a secure base of operations in the drug-producing areas of the northwest. Indeed, some Mexican officials apparently worried that guerrilla movements were already active there. Thus, moving against drug rings was seen as a way to eliminate an even greater threat to national sovereignty than that posed by the drug traffickers themselves. Moreover, Mexican leaders reasoned that the experience gained by the military in fighting the war on drugs would be valuable as counter-insurgency training even if no guerrillas were found to be operating in drug-producing areas.

Mexico's government also perceived an internal threat to its security from drug traffickers in that it recognized a growing drug abuse problem among its own citizens. Therefore, an effort to reduce domestic consumption was made as a part of the country's anti-drug campaign. The United States had no direct interest in the realization of this goal and is unlikely to have applied pressure to coerce its neighbor into pursuing such policies. Thus, the Mexican administration's domestic priorities appear to have been more important than the values of the US government in determining many of the areas upon which the campana permanente focused. …

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