Was the US Really Ever Trying to Win the War on Drugs?

The US spends around $48 billion on the war on drugs each year. The massive spending doesn’t do much to stop drug use, but it has been a major boon for arms and security contractors and human rights abusers around the world.

The United States spends around $48 billion on the war on drugs each year, with a fraction of the money invested in public health measures to support dependent populations. (Sangosti / MediaNews Group / the Denver Post via Getty Images)

When the former Bolivian president Evo Morales implemented the legalization of coca leaf growing in 2004, he knew he was taking a risk. The man who made his name as leader of a militant coca growers’ union then expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers who had backed a violent coca eradication campaign that often left farmers without viable alternatives. In terms of limiting coca production and reducing violence, legalization worked.

Morales — later forced to flee Bolivia following a US-supported coup — had argued that the increased demand for cocaine in North America should not rob indigenous people of ancient traditions going back potentially eight thousand years, as well as coca’s benefits. He called on the UN to remove it from its list of prohibited drugs.

“This leaf represents . . . the hope of our people,” Morales told the General Assembly in 2007, holding a coca leaf aloft. He negotiated successful crop substitution plans in an attempt to limit Bolivia to twenty thousand hectares of coca-growing fields — leading to a 12 percent decrease in the area used to grow it by 2011 (before limits were increased in recent years to service demand).

The US state department said Bolivia, which was implementing socialist reforms under its first-ever indigenous president, had “failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotic agreements.” The United States withheld approval for Bolivia’s antidrug policies (dictating whether they received aid or trade benefits from the country), even though it certified allies Colombia and Peru, which both saw coca cultivation rise. Eventually, Bolivia unilaterally withdrew from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, amid objections from Western states, before re-acceding in 2013 with an allowance for the chewing of the coca leaf.

Morales tweeted in 2021 of US authorities: “The so-called ‘war on drugs’ is an excuse to attack progressive and anti-imperialist governments. It is a cover for your geopolitical interests.” His measures brought peace to coca-growing areas that had been riddled with narco killings, police violence (including rape threats), and farmer protests, which were forcibly put down — while the US demanded an end to coca production and handsomely funded such efforts.

A 1995 Human Rights Watch report said US aid to Bolivia “supported programs and policies deeply flawed by human rights abuses, including prolonged detention of suspects even after their acquittal, due process violations by antinarcotics police, alleged torture, and impunity for law enforcement personnel accused of violations among both the Bolivian and US forces.”

The United States spends around $48 billion on the war on drugs each year, with a fraction of the money invested in public health measures to support dependent populations — policies considered the most effective way to reduce demand. Through the drug war, client regimes in Latin America have become further indebted — monetarily or otherwise — to the United States from the purchase of their weapons and military hardware after Washington’s foreign policy focus in the region from the late 1980s shifted from containing communism to opening markets and the stemming of illegal drug flows.

Described by scholars as “narco-colonialism” and “drug war capitalism,” the drug war has been identified as a major driver of investment for the burgeoning security industry. It has financed right-wing paramilitaries and repressive militaries in Latin America and elsewhere, which have waged a dual war against traffickers and dissidents while sometimes getting in on the drug trade themselves, such as “drug-running” CIA-backed former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

During the 1980s, the CIA funded the Contras, a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua connected to cocaine trafficking, to overthrow the elected socialist Sandinista government. A senate inquiry chaired by future presidential candidate John Kerry warned: “In the name of supporting the Contras, [officials] abandoned the responsibility our government has for protecting our citizens from all threats to their security and well-being.” The CIA later conceded it had failed to “cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking.”

This came after Bolivia’s so-called cocaine coup in 1980, which saw a left-wing, anti–drug trade president replaced by a right-wing junta backed by traffickers, and the CIA. Mass murder, extrajudicial killings, and a systematic use of torture ensued.

“Michael Levine, the senior agent in the region for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), had earlier penetrated the [Bolivian drug baron] Suárez organisation and claimed he ‘was being offered thousands of kilos of cocaine a month,’” the Guardian reported. “But the DEA, apparently under CIA pressure, had hampered Levine’s operation, even to the extent of insisting that its computers held no information on Suárez.”

In the next decade, in Venezuela, an antidrug unit funded by the CIA was found to have smuggled more than nine hundred kilograms of cocaine into the United States with the knowledge of agency officials. “The CIA wanted the DEA’s permission to ‘let the dope walk’ — in effect, be sold on the streets — in order to gather further intelligence about smuggling by the Medellin cartel,” the Washington Post reported. “Sources say the DEA turned down the request as a clear violation of policy. But the DEA later learned that the load went through anyway.”

Former DEA chief Robert Bonner said at the time there was “at least some participation in approving or condoning” the drug smuggling by the CIA.

Around this time, the United States established a certification process to ensure foreign governments were cooperating with the war on drugs. The process was linked with aid, which generally declined in real terms as drug war funding rose. Both Mexico and Colombia have received billions in aid which has often gone toward bolstering their armies, usually with US-made equipment, despite their particularly poor human rights records. It is difficult to see what taking the fight to the cartels has achieved aside from the carving out of a path of destruction that has left graveyards in its wake.

But perhaps some of the cartels have received preferential treatment. There are also long-standing allegations that El Chapo’s cartel was in effect allied with the DEA and supplied US authorities with information on rival groups, helping them on their road to hegemony. DEA leaks are reported to have led to brutal massacres, with the head of its “Sensitive Information Unit” in Mexico awaiting trial in 2020 for selling secrets.

“It’s like pest control companies, they only control,” Guillermo Terrazas Villanueva, a Mexican regional spokesperson told Al-Jazeera in 2012. “If you finish off the pests, you are out of a job. If they finish the drug business, they finish their jobs.”

Economist Milton Friedman once said bluntly: “See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.”

And business has boomed, at least sometimes unhindered by the banking establishment. A 2012 US court ruling found the British bank HSBC allowed at least $881 million of Sinaloa cartel drug trafficking money to be laundered through its accounts. Prosecutors said Mexican authorities had warned HSBC in 2008 that it was referred to by a drug lord as “the place to launder money.” The bank was fined a record $1.9 billion, about a month’s income for HSBC’s American subsidiary.

At the time of the revelations, its then chief executive, Stephen Green, was working for the UK government as a trade minister, and Paul Thurston, who was in charge of HSBC Mexico, was later promoted. A New York Times editorial reported: “Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC . . . on charges of vast and prolonged money laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and . . . endanger the financial system.”

Today, crippling current sanctions and asset freezes on Afghanistan, seemingly a punishment following the US invasion, are likely to be making impossible the Taliban’s pledge to curtail opium and heroin production. Afghanistan produces the vast majority of the world’s illegal opium. Production soared from less than a hundred tons a year in the 1970s to two thousand tons by 1991 to fund the war effort against the invading Soviets, which was also financed to the tune of $3 billion in arms by the United States.

The opium crop plummeted to 185 tons in 2000 as the Taliban imposed a ban on cultivation to win international support. But after the declaration of the “war on terror” and the American invasion in 2001, production accelerated once more — from three thousand tons in the next year to record levels of more than nine thousand tons by 2017.

US forces were in Afghanistan for two decades, a period of unprecedented growth in opium cultivation and heroin production which a Senate report admitted saw the military “ignore the drug trade flourishing in front of its eyes.” The country has been described as the world’s first true narco-state: where drugs “dominate the economy, define political choices and determine the fate of foreign interventions.” The brother of the former president Hamid Karzai, a suspected player in the opium trade, received regular payments from the CIA throughout the 2000s in part for helping recruit a paramilitary force that received US orders.

It came after American intelligence officers are claimed to have effectively consented to opium exports throughout the 1990s. “The heroin pipeline in the 1980s could not have operated without the knowledge, if not connivance, of officials at the highest level of the [US] army, the government and the CIA. Everyone chose to ignore it for the larger task was to defeat the Soviet Union,” according to Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid.

Decades later, in 2013, plans to go after Taliban commanders and drug lords were abandoned due to concerns it would destabilize Afghanistan and undermine potential peace talks, before the United States’ ignominious exit from the country. But researchers have found that the destruction of labs in northern Helmand bombed by US fighter jets from 2016–17 would not have any prolonged effect on the opium economy or Taliban revenues. “These are not Taliban, they killed women and children; NATO killed them,” London School of Economics academics quoted a local as saying.

The strikes came after the Pentagon had been “fundamentally opposed to being drawn into an aggressive counternarcotics effort for fear of alienating the rural population whose hearts and minds it hoped to win over.” But news that opium production had significantly risen — piercing a hole in the narrative that the Afghan government controlled two-thirds of the population — prompted action. The costs of the campaign and the destruction caused in Helmand — the ninth most bombed region of the world over the past decade — did far more harm than good, like elsewhere. And was the United States really even trying to win their war on drugs anyway?