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  • Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy
  • Russell Crandall
Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin, eds. Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2005. Maps, figures, tables, bibliography, index, 414 pp.; hardcover $65, paperback $25.

When President Richard Nixon coined the term war on drugs in the early 1970s, he was referring only to a domestic effort to stop drug production and use. Today, however, this "war" has expanded across the globe and involves not just the United States but also the United Nations and numerous foreign governments. Given that this international component (or "source country strategy") has been in place since the mid-1980s, one would expect that the amount of illicit drugs under cultivation or circulating on the streets of Chicago or Rome would have dropped precipitously. Yet despite the billions spent on the drug war since its inception, drug production continues unabated, and the price [End Page 192] of drugs has actually fallen in recent years—a telltale sign that supply is more than meeting demand. If the measure of a policy's success is the extent to which it meets its objectives, then the U.S. war on drugs has been a profound failure.

Today, the drug war is still in full swing, even with this abysmal track record. The United States and other nations continue to "spray" and "bust" at least to "do something" on the international interdiction component, mainly because the budget allocation is there; and once a government project is funded it becomes much harder to cancel. Add to this the bipartisan view that fighting drugs is a relatively effective way for a particular politician to demonstrate concern about the drug issue, and pity the brave member of Congress who questions the efficacy, cost, or morality of the international effort.

The volume Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy attempts to measure not the drug war's already well known failures but rather the "collateral damage" it causes in the source countries. Editors Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin believe that the drug war has serious and often hidden consequences in the source countries and that these effects are largely overlooked in conventional evaluations of the drug war's efficacy. They argue that this collateral damage includes heightened political and economic instability, human rights abuses, a worrisome involvement of the military in what should be law enforcement matters, restrictions on civil liberties, and the undermining of democratic decisionmaking.

While the editors are highly critical of what they consider to be the drug war's "blowback," or negative consequences, they do not advocate ending international counternarcotics efforts. Instead, they posit that the drug war must be fought in a more humane manner, one that better considers the often crucial domestic realities, such as weak democratic governments or desperate farmers who only turn to illicit crop cultivation as a last resort. The result would be a sort of "drug war with a human face."

Implicit in this argument is the belief that a more humane drug war would be more effective in combating drugs and produce less collateral damage in the source countries. Yet it is worth asking whether the drug traffickers across the region, and particularly the narcoguerrillas and narcoparamilitaries in Colombia, would go along with this recipe of fewer sticks and more carrots. Today, drugs are linked to vicious insurgencies intent not just on using the drug profits for personal gain but also on destroying democratic governments. Thus, while the book's seemingly sensible and productive policy recommendations are hard to quibble with, they, like everything else in the drug war, will be infinitely harder to implement and more uncertain to succeed.

The editors acknowledge that the drug trade itself is violent and disruptive, and therefore it is not only the war against the drugs that is [End Page 193] causing all the problems. This is a critical point, given that the war on drugs should be seen as a response to what is unarguably illegal behavior. The narcotics kingpins and narcoguerrillas are the real villains of the Latin American drug saga. The United States...


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pp. 192-195
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Archived 2007
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