Congress has released a sweeping report on drug policy in the Americas, laying out a long list of recommendations for curbing drug trafficking and addressing the public health issues created by drug consumption. The report provides a glimpse into what the fight against organized crime could look like during President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
Published by the House’s Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, the report argues for deep, often systematic changes to how the United States combats drug trafficking. It advocates for increased international coordination, a more holistic approach to policymaking and a review of antiquated punishments for countries not doing enough to meet annual goals.
“We may never end illegal drug trafficking, just as we cannot eliminate substance abuse,” the report said. “But we can better manage these deadly problems with a comprehensive strategy.”
It recommends that the United States establish multi-year “foreign assistance compacts” developed by ambassadors with in-country security and political leaders. The compacts would allow for greater information-sharing, the report said, as well as increased transparency between nations and more cost-effective solutions to issues like organized crime, criminal justice reform and human rights.
“What a Colombia needs is very different to what a Mexico or an El Salvador or Honduras might need,” Shannon O’Neil, chair of the commission, said of the idea during a December 3 hearing on the report.
“In that sense, it saves money and not just putting in place policies that are less than effective for a particular context,” she added.
The plan could also involve synchronizing efforts to prevent illicit digital transactions, which the report said organized crime groups are increasingly using to launder drug profits.
The report rebuffs traditional approaches to anti-drug policymaking that have proven limiting in the past, arguing against succumbing to false choices like “public security versus public health,” which it says can stymie more effective, holistic and multi-faceted strategies. It also drew repeatedly on InSight Crime’s own research and analysis.
What policymakers need to do, the report says, is take the best aspects from both sides of the debate by not only continuing to invest in traditional strategies like funding police training and destroying drug labs, but also compliment them with plans to improve public health, human rights and alternative economic development.
This could involve bringing the international community and private sector together to discuss creative ways to create long-term change, the report said. For example, it points to land titling in rural areas of Colombia where coca cultivation is flourishing. By granting land titles, farmers can access credit, government services and attract investment that provides them an opportunity to move away from illicit crop cultivation.
The report also strongly urges that officials review what is known as the certification and designation process, which requires the White House to release an annual list of drug producing and transit countries that have “failed demonstrably” in their fight to curb drug-related crime. Countries appearing on the list can receive sanctions as punishment, although this is uncommon.
The process is tantamount to a “naughty and nice” list, the report said, with a theatrical rollout that needlessly alienates Latin American partners and does little to discourage corruption. The process is also often accused of being politically motivated, the report noted, as certain US allies are sometimes left off the list without adequate explanation.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s report contains wise and long-overdue recommendations that have the potential, if implemented correctly, to improve the drug trafficking and drug consumption problems that are currently endemic to Latin America.
First, the report is correct to deconstruct antiquated debates between false choices like “public security versus public health.” The two strategies only make sense if applied together.
In Colombia, for example, aerial fumigation of illicit coca crops is costly and alienates rural communities. But coca eradication efforts can still play a part in a larger, more holistic approach to the issue if combined with “positive incentives” like building roads and expanding agribusiness opportunities to help residents transition to legal enterprise.
“We cannot control the supply of dangerous drugs without also reducing demand and we cannot curb demand without also limiting supply,” the report said.
This hits the nail on the head.
Secondly, the good faith attempts at coordination the report is promoting are for the most part a good idea, since the coordination efforts already in place have been shown to work. Despite their many shortcomings, joint efforts with the US have resulted in legitimate criminal justice reform and economic recovery that other countries could benefit from.
The Merida Initiative in Mexico, for example, appears to have brought down homicide rates as a result of US-supported police reform, according to the report. Applying similar strategies — improved upon from previous mistakes — could be constructive if shaped to each country’s specific needs and sociopolitical context. At the very least, these will be more cost-effective than many current efforts.
Lastly, the report’s decision to dispute the effectiveness of the drug certification and designation process has the potential to create profound change to the international fight against drug trafficking. Placing a country on the list comes across as a threat, and needlessly souring relationships that are already on the rocks. It also makes the United States look unsympathetic to the needs of the region, and only interested in maintaining control of the political landscape.
Perhaps the best example of this is Bolivia, which has appeared on the list every year after 2008, when former President Evo Morales exiled the US ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration. While the US was and continues to be right to raise concerns about the country’s handling of coca cultivation — such as implementing a nationwide legal coca market –its decision to include Bolivia on the list at a time when Peru and Colombia were producing significantly more coca came off as politically motivated, and put more distance between the two countries.