Drug Wars

Simply put, Witness for Peace Southeast favors a dramatic reworking of U.S.–Latin American drug policy. Since the early 1970s, the U.S. has been the hemispheric leader in drug policy and provided military and monetary aid to much of Latin America in an attempt to slow drug production (supply reduction) and trafficking (interdiction). However, both crop reduction in Latin America and interdiction at international borders does little to slow growth or movement. Instead, a process known as the balloon effect1 takes place whereby growers begin production in other areas and traffickers create new routes and methods of moving their supply.2


As the War on Drugs spreads to disparate areas throughout Latin America, little has changed in U.S. policy regarding the problem. At its core, U.S. policy is one of prohibition and punishment rather than a health and safety concern, both at home and abroad, and ignores the root causes of both supply and demand. This type of approach leads to various economic, social, and health problems across all societies. Some examples include the following:

  • Crop eradication by aerial fumigation using potent and carcinogenic compounds3 leads to:
    • Unusable livestock
    • Respiratory problems, skin rashes, premature births, and other health problems in the human population
    • Poisoned lands which lead to farmers’ inability to support their families, making many more likely to accept proposals from those in the drug trade to either grow or traffic drugs
  • Increased violence, corruption and lawlessness go hand in hand with drug production. This also leads to an increase of migration and emigration, leading to increased immigration into the U.S.
  • Undocumented immigrants fleeing poverty-stricken, violent affected by the drug trade are rarely granted asylum in the U.S. Instead, many become victim of U.S. immigration policy, leading to:
    • Higher incarceration rates for non-violent offenders4
    • Higher deportation rates
    • Broken families.5


While there is no one-size-fits all solution for this complex and far-reaching problem, Witness for Peace Southeast joins the many world leaders and researchers in calling for the U.S. to drastically change direction in drug policy. Among taking other steps, we call on the United States to:

  • Redirect funds for Plan Colombia6, the Mérida Initiative7, and CARSI 8toward anti-poverty and youth empowerment programs
  • Prioritize drug abuse prevention, addiction treatment, and poverty reduction both at home and abroad
  • Renegotiate trade policies such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and the U.S.-Colombia FTA, which the exacerbate poverty, displacement, and social inequalities that provide cartels recruitment opportunities

Putting the health, safety, and economic security of all nations in the hemisphere would no doubt have a ripple effect. As Uruguay9 follows Portugal’s example10 of taking a drastically different approach to drugs, involving decriminalization and treatment for drug users, Witness for Peace Southeast will be watching. We will continue to evaluate such policies to see what lessons can be learned from countries taking a more progressive and diverse approach to drug use.


1. The “balloon effect” is an analogy between efforts to stop drugs and squeezing a latex balloon. When pressure is applied to a balloon, the air inside does not dissipate, but rather moves to another area within the latex casing.

2. For example, in the 1990s, U.S. supported efforts to diminish coca production in Peru and Bolivia succeeded, but during that same time, production doubled in Colombia.

3. The best known example of this is the Colombian coca production spraying that took place from 1997-2015. Defying the U.S.’s wishes, Colombia halted this program in 2015, but the U.S. still encourages the use of such methods

4. An oft-ignored side effect of this is that when poor, soon-to-be deported inmates have contact with those fully immersed in drug and gang culture, they become more susceptible to agreeing to participate in drug and gang activities upon returning to their home countries. With little other economic opportunity, this becomes a way to support themselves and families back home. It also increases criminal activity, violence, lawlessness, and further feeds into the cycle.

5. See the humanitarian crisis in the summer of 2014 in which thousands of immigrants, including many unaccompanied children, crossed the U.S. – Mexico border en masse in an effort to escape drug war-torn areas of Mexico.

6. A U.S. military and diplomatic aid initiative aimed at fighting the drug war in Colombia. Mostly an anti-cocaine strategy, it is blamed for not only creating a balloon effect, but also for the use of harmful herbicides in aerial fumigation that destroy not only coca crops, but also hurt lawfully farmed lands, livestock, and humans.

7. Similar to Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative seeks to combat drug production and trafficking, but in Mexico and Central America. A major criticism includes a reliance on local military and law enforcement, often susceptible to corruption, misuse of funds and resources, and human rights abuses with little oversight or accountability.

8. Central American Regional Security Initiative: A plan meant to address safety and disrupt criminal movements and contraband in Central America while enhancing regional law and cooperation between Central American countries. There has been moderate success in some areas, but criticisms in other areas include corruption, misuse of funds, and lack of protection for witnesses against would-be defendants in criminal proceedings. The initiative kicked up a notch in 2008 in Guatemala and Honduras, but the 2014 humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children from those countries crossing the U.S. southern border raises further questions about the program’s efficacy.

9. Uruguay decriminalized and sanctioned the growth, production, and selling of marijuana in 2013. Early results are promising, but more time is needed.

10. In 1991, Portugal decriminalized all drug use and adopted a policy of treatment, after care, and social re-integration for abusers rather than criminal punishment. All research to date indicates a drastic reduction in drug related violence and recidivism. Though clearly not a part of the America’s, such policies should be examined to determine what lessons can be learned and, perhaps, applied in the Americas.