DRCNet Book Review: "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America," by Ted Galen Carpenter (2003, Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95) 7/18/03

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Phillip Smith, Week Online Editor, [email protected], 7/18/03

That Ted Galen Carpenter's masterful account of US drug policy in Latin America begins in the skies over the Amazon with the shooting down of a small plane carrying US missionaries resulting in the death of Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter is both timely and appropriate. Timely because the US, Colombian, Peruvian, and now the Brazilian, governments are right now in the midst of scheming to reinstitute the murderous policy of blowing the planes of suspected drug smugglers out of the sky if they fail to heed orders to land. And appropriate because the response to the inevitable tragedy is so indicative of the US crusade against drugs in Latin America: "It didn't work, so let's do it again, even more so."

As Carpenter explains, the policy that led to the killing of Veronica Bowers was part of a US effort to eradicate domestic drug consumption by cutting off the supply, in this case, Peruvian coca paste and cocaine flown to Colombia for further processing and distribution in North America. Beginning in 1990, Peruvian and Colombian air force fighters, directed by US surveillance planes and radar, shot down at least 33 planes, though as Carpenter points out, it remains unknown how many were really drug traffickers. Peruvian coca production shrank dramatically, although that may have had more to do with an epidemic fungus than with enforcement efforts in the sky or on the ground. But the success was only apparent: Like a balloon squeezed in one spot, new coca production sprang up in Colombia, exploding until Colombia is now the world's largest coca producer.

That tale is instructive, but it is hardly unique in Carpenter's succinct, hard-hitting, fact-filled narrative of our quixotic crusade and its consequences. Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, DC, Carpenter scathingly unveils the evolution of a US drug policy whose roots lie a century back and whose fruit is bitter and poisoned, like the coca crops of Colombia today. Driven by domestic political considerations, institutional self-interest in the military and the drug war bureaucracies, and imperial arrogance, US administrations since Nixon's have pushed an aggressive, increasingly militaristic, policy of source country eradication on a reluctant Latin America.

As Carpenter shows with example after example, ramification after ramification, the results have been disastrous. Take Colombia. After twenty years of ever-increasing US military and other assistance to help Colombia "fight the war on drugs," that country has gone from exporting marijuana and small amounts of cocaine to become the world's leader in cocaine production and distribution. Small bands of smugglers morphed into lethal, sophisticated crime organizations, then, under the pressure of the war against the cartels, morphed back into more decentralized organisms. But the cocaine never stops coming. Meanwhile, growing fat off the trade, leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries alike swelled, leaving a spreading trail of violence across the land.

By any sane yardstick, US drug policy in Colombia is a miserable failure, as Carpenter makes clear in some detail. Thousands die in political violence related to the drug trade, hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees, hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land have been sprayed with poisons. And the cocaine never stops coming. But sanity is not what drives US drug policy in Colombia, and the fact that even with another billion or two in US military assistance it is difficult to see anything approaching success has Carpenter worried. "If the effort fails to achieve its objective," he writes, "pressure will mount on the United States to increase its commitment. Even during these relatively early stages of the campaign, one can hear arguments that America's credibility is on the line... In Colombia, another quagmire is beckoning."

Carpenter packs a lot of factual detail and analysis into 233 fast-reading pages. In one chapter, he dissects the package of supply-side solutions -- eradication, crop substitution, interdiction -- and finds them wanting. In another, one that resonates oddly as the United States embarks on a militant, rough-riding foreign policy around the globe, he describes the favored US tactics of bullying, pressure, and coercion, the resentment they inspire, and the anti-American sentiments they fuel across the hemisphere. "Those who favor using such coercive tactics," writes Carpenter in words seemingly specially crafted for the Bush foreign policy team, "should consider the possible adverse consequences. It seems profoundly unwise for the US to attempt to dictate the policies, much less the composition, of foreign governments. Such imperialistic pretensions are certain to be widely resented, especially in Latin America... The perception that US ambassadors are modern day Roman proconsuls implementing Washington's imperial edicts could undermine the legitimacy of the hemisphere's democratic governments and reawaken virulently anti-American emotions throughout the region."

But the US does not simply inflict its drug war, with all of its baleful results, on its hemispheric neighbors, it inflicts it on itself, and Carpenter waxes eloquent here as well as he describes the familiar litany of legions of prisoners, a gutted Bill of Rights, and a shrill, hysterical, and ever-escalating prohibitionist mindset. And unlike too many academics and other writers on the war on drugs, who clearly see the nature of the problem but fear to speak the solution, Carpenter makes no bones about calling for the legalization and regulation of drug use and the drug trade. "The only way out of this public policy morass is to adopt a regime of drug legalization," he bluntly states.

Despite the author's libertarian leanings, "Bad Neighbor Policy" is driven largely by pragmatism, not overt ideology. While a handful of references to the failures of central economic planning or the virtues of free trade agreements may cause some grinding of teeth in Buenos Aires or Bogota, Carpenter's libertarianism here targets primarily the unseemly state power of the US drug war machine.

Carpenter's libertarian skepticism of state power doesn't prevent him in the second to last paragraphs of the book from resorting to an argument that is all appealing to drug reformers but which drug policy and foreign policy reformers alike should approach with care. Ending the war on drugs, he argues, would "free up thousands of personnel and billions of dollars for waging the war against terrorism." True, but the futility of one never-ending war, as Carpenter has just spent a book describing, and the abuses of power involved in it, ought to lend caution to calls for bringing more troops into Ashcroft's Army.

Small quibbles aside, "Bad Neighbor Policy" is an excellent introduction to US drug policy in Latin America and a scathing indictment of it, all wrapped up in a nice, neat package. For area and policy specialists there are no earth-shattering revelations -- only tight narrative and tighter argumentation -- but for younger readers, those who weren't paying attention for the past quarter-century, and those who are relatively new to the topic, "Bad Neighbor Policy" will be a real eye-opener.

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Issue #296, 7/18/03 Editorial: Tragic Confusion | Medical Marijuana Eroding Capitol Hill Prohibition Consensus -- Democrats Also On Attack against Drug Czar, Drug War in General | With Hip-Hopper's Support, NY Governor Tries Again on Rockefeller Law Reform -- Not Good Enough, Say Critics | Bush, Ashcroft Ask Supreme Court for Permission to Punish Doctors Who Recommend Medical Marijuana | DRCNet Book Review: "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America," by Ted Galen Carpenter (2003, Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95) | Newsbrief: North Carolina Prosecutor Charges Methamphetamine Cook with Terrorist Offense | Newsbrief: Whites Benefit from California's Proposition 36 Disproportionately, UCLA Study Finds | Newsbrief: No Needle Exchange in Delaware -- Lack of Political Support Cited | Newsbrief: Colombian Supreme Court Blocks President's Effort to Recriminalize Drug Possession | Newsbrief: Brazil to Cooperate in Andean Drug Plane Shoot-Down Strategy | Newsbrief: Peru to Modify Drug Penalties -- One Step Forward, One Step Back, Some Standing in Place | Newsbrief: Legalize It, Says Canada's National Post | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Web Scan: CEDRO, Foreign Policy, Reason, Nation, Working for Change, Washington Post, Molly Ivins, usfumigation.org, UN Report, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sentencing Project | The Reformer's Calendar
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