New government report shows the US has no idea what its ‘war on drugs’ is achieving

Coca lab burning, pictured in Tumaco, Colombia.
Support us and go ad-free

For roughly two decades, cocaine production in Colombia has increased alongside major increases in US counter-narcotics assistance. In 2017, for example, Colombia was producing three times more cocaine than it was four years previously – a record high.

In short, the US ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia is clearly not achieving its stated goals. And according to a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington has no idea why.

The report

The GAO’s report “was undertaken because of the obvious mismatch between the continuing anti-cocaine spending and the fact that cocaine production” in Colombia kept increasing.

After looking into three parts of Washington’s approach to the war on drugs (eradication, interdiction/prohibition, and alternative development), it concluded that:

without information about the relative benefits and limitations of these activities, the US government lacks key information to determine the most effective combination of counternarcotics activities

It added:

it is unclear to what extent increases in cocaine seizures in recent years are due to the increased effectiveness of interdiction efforts or more cocaine being present in Colombia to seize

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

In other words, the US government seems to have no idea why its war on drugs is failing.

No idea? Really?

Buried in the same report, however, were remarks from US officials about the country’s approach to drug eradication. “Using eradication as a supply-reduction strategy amounts to ‘mowing the grass’,” said one official; “it represents a short-term approach to reducing the coca crop”. And while this is true, the problem with the US approach to the war on drugs goes even deeper than this.

Policy-makers in the US have long been aware that focusing efforts on drug-producing countries is the least effective way of dealing with domestic drug issues. In 1994, a landmark RAND corporation report – sponsored by the US army and the Office of National Drug Control Policy – found that funds invested in domestic drug treatment “were 23 times as effective as ‘source country control’”. Evidence-based drug policy in Portugal, meanwhile, has since supported these findings.

Why, then, has the US continued to terrorise Colombia with counter-insurgency warfare, support for paramilitary groups, and likely cancer-causing aerial fumigation policies?

The ‘war on drugs’: not about drugs

There’s a very convincing reason why the US didn’t bother to analyse the effectiveness of its drug war in Colombia properly: it’s never been about drugs.

When Colombia became Washington’s third largest recipient of military assistance in 1999 (after Israel and Egypt), the Colombian military was one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights. This sits within a general trend of US military involvement in Latin America – which, according to Noam Chomsky, suggests that “the more foreign policy aid given [by the US], the more brutal and less democratic the police institutions and their governments become”.

In the same vein, US counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia sponsored the destruction of Colombian social organisations deemed threatening to US economic and strategic interests. After the events of 11 September 2001, the George W. Bush administration formalised this relationship by requesting US$98m to fund a Colombian counterinsurgency brigade to protect US corporation Occidental Petroleum’s oil infrastructure.

Neoliberal Colombia

Washington’s ‘war on drugs’ has been a failure. But since it began in Colombia, the latter has further opened its natural-resource industry to foreign investment, adopted a wide range of neoliberal policies, and remains a vital oil producer for US markets.

Ultimately, then, the US may very much see the ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia as a success.

Featured image via Policía Nacional de los colombianos

Support us and go ad-free

Get involved

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us