Rehabilitating the war on drugs: Central America and the legalisation debate

  • Author: Chris Abbott and Joel Vargas
  • Source: Open Briefing

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The war on drugs is America’s forgotten war. The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted in 1961 and US President Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” in July 1971. For over 40 years, it has continued largely unnoticed outside the region and, for the last decade, has been almost completely overshadowed by the war on terror and the related conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today the drug cartels’ ability to corrupt (through bribery or violence) has become so strong that, according to one senior Organization of American States official, they threaten democracy in many of the countries they operate in.  Drug trafficking is now a global enterprise worth over $320 billion annually, according to a UN estimate for 2003.  The cartels are increasingly branching out into other criminal activities, further filling their coffers with the proceeds of human trafficking, arms smuggling, oil theft, bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion.

The war against the cartels has so far cost the United States at least $1 trillion;  it continues to cost more than $100 billion globally each year, together with an unknown number of lives.

The illicit drugs trade and the militarised government responses are the greatest threats to state and human security in the Americas. Many analysts and policymakers now conclude that the war on drugs has largely failed.  The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has identified several serious unintended negative consequences of the war on drugs, which the international Count the Costs consortium has distilled into seven key costs. The consortium contends that the war on drugs:

  • Undermines international development and security, and fuels conflict.
  • Threatens public health, spreads disease and causes death.
  • Undermines human rights.
  • Promotes stigma and discrimination.
  • Creates crime and enriches criminals.
  • Causes deforestation and pollution.
  •  Wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement.

Mexico’s control paradigm

The most recent ‘battles’ in this war have been fought in Mexico under President Felipe Calderón. In December 2006, the newly elected Calderón sent 4,000 troops and federal police to Michoacán in an attempt to tackle organised crime and drug violence in the state. More than 50,000 police and soldiers are now involved in the nationwide fight against the Mexican drug cartels in an aggressive strategy supported by the United States with funding, equipment and training. Mexico is paying a huge price for this strategy: since Calderón came to power, the monthly death toll from violence attributed to organised crime has steadily increased in both number and geographic scope, with nearly 50,000 people killed by the beginning of 2012, according to figures from the Mexican government.

The war on drugs is the ultimate manifestation of the dominant security orthodoxy, which believes that military force can ultimately control insecurity. In the same way the war on terror essentially aimed to ‘keep the lid’ on terrorism and insecurity without addressing the root causes of perceived injustices, the war on drugs aims to keep the lid on the rising tide of cartel violence without addressing the root causes of illicit drug consumption in North America. Security policies based on this ‘control paradigm’ are often self-defeating in the long term as they simply create a pressure cooker effect.

In some respects Mexico’s militarised strategy is working: it is shifting the problem elsewhere, both within Mexico itself and across its borders. As robust law enforcement programmes and infighting within and between the cartels during the 1990s shifted the focus of the American illicit drugs trade from Colombia to Mexico, Calderón’s strategy now seems to be increasingly forcing the cartels into the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This is supported by figures from the International Narcotics Control Board, which reveal a sharp decline in cocaine seizures in Mexico but an increase in seizures in Central America.

Guatemala calls for debate

It is within this context that, on 14 February 2012, the newly elected president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, made the surprise announcement that he wanted to open a regional debate on the legalisation of drugs.

It is an interesting position for Molina to take, as the legalisation of drugs is a topic usually reserved for politicians and parties with generally liberal positions. In contrast, Molina is a former army General who founded the right-wing Partido Patriota in 2001 and was known as a hardliner during his presidential campaigns of 2007 and 2011.

However, Molina’s announcement should probably be seen in the context of Guatemala’s ongoing attempts to persuade the United States to resume military aid, which was halted in the early 1990s over concerns about human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war. If his initiative is little more than political positioning it is regrettable, as the drug cartels’ shift from Mexico means that Guatemala should be looking for innovative and effective solutions to the illicit drugs trade. According to the US Department of State:

Guatemala’s location between the Andean drug producing countries and the U.S. market made it an ideal transshipment point easily accessible to drug-trafficking organizations (DTO). The United States estimates that approximately 95 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through the Mexico and Central America corridor. Of this, an increasing amount – nearly 80 percent – stops first in a Central American country before onward shipment to Mexico. As a result of the country’s weak public institutions, pervasive corruption, and vast under-governed area along its borders, the United States estimates that approximately 15 percent of the primary flow of cocaine entering the United States transited Guatemala. In addition to marijuana for domestic consumption, Guatemala produced opium poppy for export.

Falling back on the control paradigm as applied elsewhere will likely severely damage the country’s social and economic fabric; even if it achieves some successes, it may do little more than push the problem elsewhere. There are, though, some indications that this might be a serious attempt by Molina to open the debate on the legalisation of drugs – not least of all Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s tour of other Central American leaders to seek support for a debate.

Guatemala’s neighbours have responded variously to Molina’s announcement. During the joint press conference in Guatemala City, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes agreed to begin debating the subject; however, he did not commit outright to the idea and has since seemed to back away from it. Presidents Ricardo Martinelli of Panama and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras have rejected the idea, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla firmly supports it, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has not taken a clear public position. Central American leaders and representatives met with Molina in Guatemala to discuss the issue on 24 March, though no consensus position was reached.

On 22 February, the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, announced that Mexico is willing to debate the legalisation of drugs, even though it does not consider it to be the best approach.  On 14 March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the war against the drug cartels was failing and that, as host the sixth Summit of the Americas, he would encourage a debate about illicit drugs at the summit on 14-15 April.

The response from others was more unequivocal. The US embassy in Guatemala immediately expressed the United States’ discontent with such a policy. On 23 February, Russian Federal Drug Control Service chief Victor Ivanov articulated Russia’s opposition to the legalisation of drugs. Then on 5 March, during a two-day visit to Mexico and Guatemala, US Vice President Joseph Biden reiterated the United States’ firm opposition to legalisation. 

Maintaining the status quo

What do the external powers fear so much? In short, the potential decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs in Central America threatens the foundations of deliberate policies enacted by North America and elsewhere.

Central to any war fought using the control paradigm are the principles of protecting the homeland by keeping the violence ‘over there’ and the near complete attention given to tackling external consequences rather than resolving any internal causes. These principles formed the core of the war on terror strategy and lie at the heart of the war on drugs. Legalising drugs in Central America would mean the fight could no longer be carried out elsewhere and would force the consumer markets of North America to look inwards at the internal drivers of the illicit drugs trade.

The United States is already experiencing the pressure cooker effect of the control paradigm in the form of a rapidly increasing federal prison population – half of which is now inmates serving time for drug offenses.  Figures from the US Department of Justice also reveal that black males between the ages of 18 and 34 constitute nearly one fifth of the whole prison population.  This socially and economically unsustainable situation may well become an internal driver of social change in its own right and eventually force the United States to re-examine its war on drugs.

Of course some Central American elites are equally wedded to the control paradigm, in the genuine belief it offers the best chance of security for their countries. Others see their country’s (and perhaps their own) long-term interests as best secured by supporting the United States when it takes a clear stance on an issue. And some believe that legalising drugs will result in dramatic increases in drug consumption and addiction in their countries. These differing viewpoints and motivations highlight the need for a regional debate on this issue and for countries to move forward together. 

A sustainable security strategy

An alternative approach to the control paradigm could offer some support to a genuine Guatemalan initiative to decriminalise drugs in Central America. Proponents of the ‘sustainable security’ framework argue that it is impossible to successfully control all the consequences of insecurity and so strategies must be developed to resolve the causes. In other words, ‘fighting the symptoms’ will not work, you must instead ‘cure the disease’. This framework is formulated on understanding integrated security trends and developing preventative responses.

Legalising some drugs and decriminalising others therefore makes a great deal of sense from a sustainable security perspective and is worth exploring as part of an integrated and multifaceted law enforcement and public health strategy. What follows is an outline of the six key elements of a sustainable security alternative to the war on drugs.

The decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs would be a nuanced, staged and managed process. The process might begin with decriminalising possession up to an agreed weight (justifiable for personal use) of those drugs that independent scientists agree pose the least harm to the individual and society. National standard fines should be agreed for local municipalities to impose alongside community service over infractions under that weight. Those caught in possession of decriminalised drugs over that weight would still face criminal penalties.

If successful, this strategy could be extended to include more harmful drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana (the principal targets of the American war on drugs) and encompass the regulation of production and distribution. (There will be some drugs – for example medical marijuana – that could be rapidly legalised and regulated.)

A decriminalisation programme would immediately cut off the drug dealers and illegal producers from certain areas of the market and stop the criminalisation of sectors of the population using currently illicit drugs. It is not, however, a panacea. Though forming a central pillar of a sustainable security strategy, in and of itself it would not be effective; other integrated programmes need to be implemented.

Principal among these programmes would be the separation of the law enforcement and military elements of tackling drug-related organised crime. An intelligence-led law enforcement model should replace the current war on drugs approach, with the military limited to involvement in those activities for which they are best suited (such as border patrol in remote areas). In many countries in Central America, citizen security challenges will continue to be more significant than traditional national security threats, and so funding and other resources need to reflect this.

Communities can empowered to tackle the problem themselves through citizen security models similar to the approach taken in Nicaragua, which supports social and institutional structures (such as neighbourhood watch schemes) to keep Northern Triangle drug gangs out of the country. Forging proper links between citizens and the police at the community level will help strengthen these structures. For this to be effective, though, lack of personal safety must be addressed. The means must be developed for citizens to report and respond to corruption and criminal activity without fear of reprisal. Without the proper level of safety for all persons involved in the legal process – from victims, to investigators, to judges – much drug-related crime will go unreported.

Central to the success of this will be addressing corruption in the police, who are often trusted even less than the military. A 2008 Americas Barometer survey found that 44 per cent of people thought their local police were involved in crime, while only 38 per cent felt their local police protected citizens.  In a 2009 Latinobarόmetro survey, 65.3 per cent of respondents had little or no confidence in the police.  Increasing police numbers and providing more funding will therefore be pointless without fundamental criminal justice and rule of law reforms. This will be a long-term process of change beginning in officers’ recruitment and training, and continuing throughout their careers with supervision, assessment and continuous development, and ending with career advice and support if and when they leave law enforcement.

Within many Central American countries there are three levels of conflict occurring: one between the state and the cartels, one between the different cartels, and one within the individual cartels themselves. This has created large numbers of fighters and weapons under the cartels control. Also, the cartels have multiple sources of income outside the illicit drugs trade – including human trafficking and arms smuggling – sources they could shift their focus to if drugs were no longer profitable. If the sustainable security proposals outlined in this briefing were successful, then at some point Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes will therefore be required.

DDR would entail collecting small arms and light weapons (a large percentage of which come from the United States), disbanding armed criminal groups, and reinserting and reintegrating former cartel members into their communities. Central to the reintegration element of the programmes will be strategies to address poverty and social inequality in Central America. The police and private security companies will also need to undergo processes of demilitarisation.

The regional war on drugs is not a Central American problem, it is an American problem. So regional agreements will need to be negotiated and, although it lies outside the scope of this briefing, to be truly effective this sustainable security strategy would need to be complemented by radical increases in funding for drug education and treatment programmes in North America. 


By focusing on ineffective supply reduction strategies, the war on drugs is destroying the countries of Latin America in order to protect those of North America.

Central American states must be allowed to develop their own policy strategies rather than be pressured to continue strategies that only benefit others. At the same time, Central American leaders must not allow themselves to be lured by promises of military aid. Assertive and capable leaders are needed who are willing to relinquish the comforting myth of the control paradigm and recognise that a new regional strategy is needed.

The goal of such a strategy is to undermine the power of the drugs cartels and ensure the health and security of citizens. Central America deserves nothing less. Anyone doubting the need for need for this rethink need only look to two large banners that appeared on 21 March 2012 in Peten province, northern Guatemala. Signed “Z-200” in the name of Los Zetas  – the most powerful Mexican cartel – the banners read:

To all the civil and military authorities and the general population… [stop] persecuting the clan or we will start to kill, we are going to launch grenades in the discos and shopping malls of Peten… this is Z territory, we don’t want a war against the government, this is the warning. Sincerely, Z-200.

A genuine Guatemalan initiative to launch a regional debate on the decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs could offer the seeds of a much-needed sustainable security alternative to both the war on drugs and the violence Los Zetas and the other cartels promise.

This policy briefing was published in English and Spanish on 4 April 2012, ten days before the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of our sustainable security project.

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  • Pndfam05

    Which came first: The chicken or the egg? Which came first: Demand for drugs or supply of drugs?

    We need to at least intellectualize legalization. Clearly, our current path is inefective. The “war on drugs” has been lost.

  • Valeriakf

    Rehabilitation means to restore to a good condition. It is not the war on drugs what needs rehab, it is the society, our families, the health system and the security system. We can all agree that the war on drugs has failed its goals and will continue to fail because it does not address the roots of the problem, neither does the legalisation proposal. It is just proposing the opposite approach without considering the effect it might have. The proposal is very intresting but it should be enforced, tested and evaluated before we change the legislation. 
    Who should be in charge of production and distribution of cocaine? What is the logic behind liberating the consumption of substances that without any doubt damage the body and destroy the real freedom of the people that use them. We should use legislation and health care systems to assure a better quality of life, not to surrender before the disease and crime. The statement posted by the Zetas should generate outrage,not complacency, it should generate more compromise to the community, the families and the youth damaged to this disease, not a policy that pretends to protect human right but hiddens complete disregard to the health of a society. 

    • openbriefing

      Thank you for your comments.

      Legalisation/decriminalisation is only one element of a sustainable security strategy; it must be implemented in conjunction with the other five elements outlined in the briefing if it is to be successful – on its own it would not be enough.

      Also, though the goal of the strategy is not to combat drugs per se (rather the drug cartels), it does include radically increasing funding for drug education and treatment programmes.  

  • A Critic

    “The war on drugs is America’s forgotten war.”

    Who has forgotten about it?

    ” For over 40 years, it has continued largely unnoticed outside the region”

    Which region? The DEA has agents on every continent and most countries.

    “Today the drug cartels’ ability to corrupt (through bribery or violence)”

    Cartels do not cause corruption. Power causes corruption.

    “The decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs would be a nuanced, staged and managed process.”

    In theory. In reality it will be arbitrary, short sighted, small minded, hypocritical, insane, and stupid.

    “The process might begin with decriminalising possession up to an
    agreed weight (justifiable for personal use) of those drugs those drugs
    that independent scientists agree pose the least harm to the individual
    and society. ”

    That’s pretty stupid. So people will be able to have a few joints worth of the safest drug on the planet and unlimited quantities of alcohol, one of the most dangerous? And the means of production and distribution will still remain prohibited, meaning that the vast majority of negative effects of prohibition will remain?

    If we are going to solve our problems we will only be able to do it in an intelligent manner. This is well intended, but really really really stupid. That’s what happens when you compromise and try to work within realpolitik.

    “If successful, this strategy could be extended to include more harmful
    drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana (the principal targets of the
    American war on drugs)”

    So…what drug were you going to decriminalize that’s less dangerous than marijuana?

    Also – it won’t be successful. Fundamental economics and politics show that if you introduce prohibition light it still fails. Witness med pot in America.

    “Central to the success of this will be addressing corruption in the police, ”


    Yes, you can say it. You can write many white papers about it. You can have conferences and journal articles and various organizations and associations dedicated to it. But can you do it? Not a chance.

    “sources they could shift their focus to if drugs were no longer profitable.”

    Those other sources are very limited. Very few people are interested in military arms or sex slaves. A great many people are interested in drugs. Cut off the drug proceeds and you will cut off the vast majority of their income.

    “By focusing on ineffective supply reduction strategies, the war on
    drugs is destroying the countries of Latin America in order to protect
    those of North America.”

    There’s plenty of demand reduction strategies, which like the supply reduction strategies, have nothing to do with reduction. The countries of North America are also being destroyed.

    “The goal of such a strategy is to undermine the power of the drugs
    cartels and ensure the health and security of citizens. Central America
    deserves nothing less.”

    There is far too much money and power at stake to attempt anything such as is outlined here. Should it be attempted it is doomed to fail. The governments are corrupt and the politicians do not care in the least about anything but their own power and the money that flows to their cronies. The system is inherently corrupt. You can’t reform a corrupt system – it will corrupt the reforms.

    As you gents said “In other words, ‘fighting the symptoms’ will not work, you must instead ‘cure the disease’. ”

    What is the disease? Political power. That is, the power to commit crime while being immune to prosecution. This includes crimes of fraud, such as campaign promises and the misinformation campaigns about drugs, and crimes of force, such as taxation and prohibition. So long as politicians are able to lie and get into power and use official criminal means for their own personal benefit, and far worse, for the benefit of their office – the corruption will not cease as not only are the politicians corrupted but so is their office.

    I congratulate you folks for trying to think of a solution, and I do agree with much of what you said that I have not commented on, but unless you start at the root cause of the problem you will never be able to solve it.

    • openbriefing

      Many thanks for your comments, which I will try to respond to in order.

      1) The general public outside the Americas are largely unaware of the true extent and nature of the war on drugs.

      2) The cartels are pro-actively seeking to corrupt officials (whether or not power in itself corrupts).

      3) “In reality it will be arbitrary, short sighted, small minded, hypocritical, insane, and stupid.” Why?

      4) This is a staged, managed process that has to start somewhere, and the report says that this should then be extended to cover production and distribution also.

      5) The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, for example, writing in the Lancet lists a dozen drugs that they assess as causing less harm to the individual and society than cocaine and marijuana (e.g. khat, ecstasy, LSD). (Note that the Committee lists alcohol as the most dangerous.) And, in any case, the process would quickly move onto those drugs – which are most relevant in the Americas. 

      6) Corruption in the police can and must be addressed; it’s a fundamental factor in all this. It’s not enough to just say it’s impossible.

      7) Yes, I agree, cut off the cartels drugs proceeds and you cut off most of their income, but the other potential sources of income are not insignificant.

      8) Yes, North America is also struggling under the effects of the control paradigm approach (e.g. the expanding prison population and massive over-representation of young black men within that population – referenced in the report).

      9) Yes, the seeds of many problems can be found in political corruption (both in terms of the individuals within office and the system itself, as you say). But I disagree that should the strategy outlined in this report be attempted it would be doomed to failure because of that system. There are enough politicians and civil servants who would respond if the citizenry demanded changes to the war on drugs; if those demands are supported by high-placed individuals like President Molina (whatever his personal motivations) then all the better – especially if that then attracts the support of other regional leaders.

      I hope I have responded to all of your points.

      Chris Abbott

      • A Critic

         Thank you very much for this discussion. It’s rare when any substantial discourse is possible on this topic.

        2) Politicians are also looking to be corrupted. Power doesn’t just corrupt – even more importantly, it attracts the corrupt.

        3) People and reality are very complex. Politicians are stupid and incompetent – they are incapable of comprehending nuance. They can’t even distinguish between hemp and marijuana. So far as “staged and managed” goes – we currently have “scheduled and controlled” substances. The controls are so effective that the substances are sold on the street, on the Internet, and by delivery. You can come up with a system of rules – but can you effectively get people to obey them? No, no you can not.

        4)”This is a staged, managed process that has to start somewhere,” There is that phrase again. “Staged, managed.” You are trying to reduce something beyond your comprehension (all of the drug trade and use of drugs) to being something that you don’t merely comprehend – but actually control. Reality doesn’t work that way.

        5) The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs wasn’t being scientific or independent. I congratulate them for recognizing that alcohol is the most dangerous drug, but to say that ketamine or LSD is safer than marijuana is ignorant of the plainly obvious reality.  These are the type of people who will be counseling the politicians – and that’s what they believe? It’s like saying pure alcohol is safer than water. After all, alcohol is self-sterilizing. See? All I need now is a few journal articles and some statistics and scientists will believe me and so will the politicians.

        6) I would like to agree. What can be done when the majority of police, prosecutors, and prison guards are corrupt?

        9) “There are enough politicians and civil servants who would respond if the citizenry demanded changes to the war on drugs;”

        In America, at this time, I don’t believe that to be true. We are now beginning to discuss whether marijuana can be legalized/decriminalized. People have been demanding change for decades. The numbers are now over half of people want changes in the medical marijuana laws. It will be years or decades before we see any change on that small front. When it comes to everything else – people aren’t even close to being ready for it. We’ve spent generations breeding and training people to be controlled. While the controls fail miserably people still believe earnestly in them. In twenty to thirty years once the older politicians and the older citizens die off we may have a different scenario.

        Further, we can not allow any real measure of liberty in this realm, as it would set a most dangerous precedent to state power. If we allow people to choose which drugs to use, they will begin to believe that they are free, and then they will demand their freedom in other realms. That would threaten the very existence of the state, and a great many other control regimes (housing, zoning, health care, retirement, welfare, warfare, environment, business, agriculture, academia, education, etc etc etc). I think it’s a safe estimate that over 99% of Americans support the state and some of these control regimes. They all have a vested interest in maintaining the power of the state. Very few would be willing to consider decriminalizing crack cocaine.

        So first the people’s mind’s would have to change – a slow and painful and nearly impossible process, and then the politicians would react. One of the other big problems with this is that as people’s minds do change we are building a super sophisticated totalitarian police state. Once people do get around to demanding real change the politicians are going to have nearly total control over everything. I can not believe that these people are going to put their power, and trillions of dollars of other people’s money that they get to use for their power and to hand out to their cronies, are going to cooperate. I would expect a vicious war for their survival. I’d bet on them disappearing academics such as yourself before I’d bet on them legalizing cocaine.

        There are many other facets to the state, and they all play some role in relation to this one, but one of the most crucial is the sea change in the American rule of law. We’ve spent two hundred and twenty years transitioning from a constitutional republic to an administrative welfare-warfare state, and for at least eighty we’ve been introducing and moving to a feudal state. The rule of law continues to break down and administrative law and feudal law continues to gain headway. This is a major obstacle to achieving what you want done.

        Thanks again for responding. I agree fully that we must change, but I believe the problem is not within the system, but that the problem is the system, and that far too many people have spent their lives to building these problems and that they have far too much money and power and ego on the line to solve the problems that they created. I think what you are saying is akin to someone saying “Hey, how about we have a rational solution to one of our major problems” in the Soviet Union in 1982. You are smart and educated, but the problems are beyond your ability to solve.

        For what it’s worth, I have an alternative plan. I plan on demolishing the American federal government, using my secret weapon: patience.

        Also, one more area you should spend some serious time researching: the history of the American federal government dealing drugs. It’s surprisingly well documented, goes from the 1950s CIA to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton up to this year when the newspapers quietly announced the DEA has been facilitating the importation of tons of cocaine and that it has been laundering hundreds of millions of drug money for the cartels. Often, at least in this country – the politicians ARE the drug lords – and that is one more reason they won’t be following a nuanced, staged, and managed plan.

        • openbriefing

          Many thanks for your comments. 

          4) A “staged and managed” process of decriminalisation/legalisation is in contrast to a sudden blanket legalisation (which policymakers would never agree to anyway). This would allow for negative/positive consequences to be evaluated and the process modified as it was rolled-out, and for the political/law enforcement system to adapt.

          5) I was not holding up the ISCD’s list (or the ISCD) as perfect, I just wanted to point out in response to your question that there are drugs that are considered to cause less harm to the individual and society than marijuana. (It is not enough, however, to dismiss the ISCD as not being scientific or independent simply because you disagree with their conclusions.)

          6) There is no panacea to police corruption but there are approaches that might yield positive results over time. These two reports might be of interest: (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, May 2010) and (United States Institute of Peace,  November 2011). 

          9) Without getting too drawn into the wider debate, I would just say that Open Briefing exists in order to ensure that it is not only those with the power and money who have access to reliable, credible information on defence, security and foreign policy issues; every citizen should have that information. Also, our job is to highlight policies that are not working, explain why they are not working, propose evidence-based alternative strategies, and leverage our networks of influence to promote those alternatives to opinion-formers, policymakers and the general public. These two roles are our small contributions to a much wider process of societal change.

  • openbriefing

    Please note a revised edition of this briefing was published on 11 April 2012. This edition included minor typo and editing corrections and an additional reference, and is the edition provided above.

  • Jbrewer

    Thanks Joel- a very well written and logical assessment.  My primary concern right now is that the
    transnational organized crime leaders are gaining even further in sophisticated
    weapons, strategies, and espionage-like tradecraft.  They are not afraid of any enforcement
    mechanism.  However, they can’t stand the
    persistent heat in Mexico coming from U.S. assistance (military/SIGINT and
    related intel-community efforts). 

    Their recruiting and training of the Maras in C.A. as “diversionary
    pawns” is a strategy to focus “local efforts” off of them also, as they continue
    to push through South America (very well entrenched in Argentina now). The
    Maras and other Mexican gangs are relying heavily on traditional crimes of violence
    that include kidnapping/extortion; murder for hire; human/sex trafficking; oil
    thefts; robbery, etc..   They are making incredible profits and are strengthening.

    A military presence will remain needed by MX, as well as CA
    to confront and contain them.  In my
    estimation, the legalization of drugs will not affect the new thirst for high
    dollars in violent “control” crimes.  The
    thousand or so women missing and killed; as well as mass graves of migrants
    (robbed) found are not on the drug cartel’s agendas. I see legalization simply
    bringing on much higher addiction rates- also now a major concern in Brasil  

    These countries will need education and territorial infrastructure,
    etc.; but this long term goal will not keep pace with the rising deaths (murder
    rates) and direct military confrontations. 
    Their prisons, as well as the U.S. are also housing more violent
    offenders than ever.  I fear that this “war”
    is about to explode very soon.


    • openbriefing

      Many thanks for your comments.
      Legalisation/decriminalisation is only one element of a sustainable security strategy; it must be implemented in conjunction with the other five elements outlined in the briefing if it is to be successful – on its own it would not be enough.


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