The Latin American Narcotics Trade and U.S. National Security

By Donald J. Mabry | Go to book overview

10
Antinarcotics Strategies and U.S.-Latin American Relations

Gregory F. Treverton

Narcotics is a major issue in U.S. relations with Latin America; with regard to some countries it is the central issue, overshadowing debt or migration. It is not hard to see why. The American people are alarmed over narcotics, even if that alarm may be superficial. The plethora of antidrug proposals, many quite silly, floating around Congress year reflects that alarm, given concrete expression lest any particular member be out-done by a potential opponent. And most imported drugs reaching the United States come from or through Latin America and the Caribbean.

It also is striking how far apart North Americans and Latin Americans are in conceiving of the issue. The gap was underscored, if inadvertently, by a recent Council on Foreign Relations volume: a chapter on U.S.-Mexican relations by José Juan de Olloqui dismisses the subject in a paragraph with the customary "it's not our problem,"1 as Congress debated a decertification of Mexico and several other Latin American countries under the 1986 antidrug law.

The "narcotics problem" is in fact two clusters of problems. The first is the social consequence of drug abuse, itself intertwined with the ills that trouble all societies in some measure--poverty, crime, poor schools and erosion of authority. The second is the crime and corruption that result because drugs are illegal, thereby creating huge profits in illicit trafficking. The Presidential Commission on Organized Crime estimates narcotics sales to total more than $100 billion dollars in the United States, or twice what the United States spends on oil and a third of its military budget. 2

So far it has been the first, abuse, that has been the focus of public attention in the United States, although U.S. police departments and courts are no strangers to drug-related corruption. The emergence of virtual drug wars in major U.S. cities is a vision of the future.

By contrast, it is drug-related crime and corruption that most afflict the Latin American states, although some of them are also becoming familiar with the evils of drug abuse; Colombia has more cocaine addicts per capita than the United States. When narcodollars buy police, courts, and elected officials, the foundations of democracy are shaken even in a stable republic

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