When thinking security threats in Latin America, one has to think about the bloody war on drugs raging in Mexico. Although Mexico is currently the battle arena of the war on drugs, Colombia previously held that position. At the time, the United States and Colombia worked together militarily to combat this threat. Their efforts resulted in the significant weakening of the Colombian drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and the subsequent rise of DTOs in Mexico. Removing the DTO threat in Colombia did not stop the drug trade in the Americas but merely displaced it, moving it along trade routes toward its largest consumer: the United States.
The crackdown on DTOs by the Mexican government has resulted in an incredibly bloody battle between the state and the DTOs as well as a savage conflict between DTOs over trafficking routes into the U.S. The United States, fearing “spillover” violence as the war to the South grew increasingly bloodier, assisted Mexico, much of Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic through the Mérida Initiative, an agreement that focuses on training and weapons transfers. In 2011, the U.S. altered its focus in the Beyond Mérida program that included funds and training geared to help Mexico’s struggling judiciary and reform its largely corrupt law enforcement system.
This change in focus is a significant change in perspective that will lead to a stronger cultural adherence to the rule of law in the long-run. The problem remains, however, that Mexico is not the only country that suffers from a lack of rule of law in the region. El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, to name a few, have significant problems with rule of law and hold geographic positions along drug trafficking routes to the United States through Central America and the Caribbean.
As seen in Colombia and the following shift of the war on drugs arena to Mexico, the arena of the war on drugs seems to migrate through weak rule of law states along the drug trafficking routes toward the U.S. At present, the United States’ policy resembles assisting states in chasing DTOs from their own country to another. This game may eventually lead to DTOs deciding that transporting illicit drugs across the border is too expensive and risky and instead turn to producing within the U.S.
If the United States wants to finally end the decades long war on drugs, it must change its focus from a country by country military aid focus, pressuring and assisting states in improving the rule of law within their countries on a regional scope. Although Mérida and Beyond Mérida offer some assistance to these countries, it mainly focuses on weapons and military transfers as opposed to initiating reforms that will increase the rule of law by improving the judicial systems within the countries.
Although this will limit the spread of the drug trade and migrating arenas in which the war on drugs is fought, the most important policy the U.S. can pursue is that of reducing the demand for illicit drugs within its own borders. The National Drug Intelligence Center asserts in its National Drug Threat Assessment 2011 report that in the U.S. “overall demand is rising, largely supplied by illicit drugs smuggled to U.S. markets by major transnational criminal organizations.” Despite the efforts of the U.S. and other countries in the region, drug trafficking remains a profitable business and will do so until the region, especially the United States, can find a way to significantly reduce demand for illicit drugs.
Mérida and Beyond Mérida, overall, are programs that benefit the region by helping countries improve the rule of law within their borders and reduce DTO migration. However, without a significant reduction in demand, the war on drugs will continue to migrate from country to country along trafficking routes despite U.S. assistance because it remains profitable.