War on Drugs: What Won’t Work — Again

Plan Merida dwarfs previous U.S. counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico, and the Bush administration has touted the aid package as a major step forward in the fight against the drug trade. As currently designed, however, Plan Merida stands little chance of producing meaningful long-term results. Why? Because at its core, Plan Merida represents the same flawed ideas that have long bedeviled U.S. drug policy. If not modified substantially, this program will go down as simply another failed offensive in the war on drugs.On June 30, President Bush signed into law an initiative called Plan Merida, a $465-million program designed to help Mexico deal with the unchecked drug trafficking and violence that have recently turned much of the U.S.-Mexican border into a war zone. The initiative is the most recent chapter in the long history of attempts to regulate activity along America’s southern frontier. It is bold and ambitious — and it probably won’t work.

The trouble with Plan Merida is the same problem that has traditionally plagued U.S. efforts to halt the flow of illegal narcotics from Latin America: it overemphasizes security and military issues to the exclusion of social and economic questions. The $465 million devoted to Plan Merida is slanted heavily toward Mexico’s military and security forces, with other initiatives — most notably economic development and the protection of human rights — meriting only a small fraction of American aid.

This approach is certainly understandable; drug-related violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives in Mexico over the last two years, and well-armed gangs like Los Zetas are ruthlessly terrorizing Nuevo Laredo and other border communities.

In the past, though, security-first strategies have typically provided no more than a palliative for the problems associated with the drug trade. Since 2000, the United States has poured several billion dollars into Plan Colombia, the counter-narcotics program upon which Plan Merida is modeled. Roughly 80 percent of this money has gone to military assistance and coca eradication projects, with far less directed to spurring rural economic growth and alleviating the desperate poverty that so often drives farmers to participate in the drug industry.

Accordingly, the results of Plan Colombia have been mixed at best. U.S. assistance has been undeniably effective in reducing internal violence in Colombia and weakening the rebel groups that only six years ago controlled 40 percent of the country. But economic development programs have lagged badly, ensuring that coca cultivation remains the most profitable way for poor farmers to support their families.

Coca farming has actually increased since 2000, and cocaine shipments to the United States continue apace. Just as the brutal counter-insurgencies waged in Latin America during the Cold War generally left the root causes of internal unrest untreated, so too has U.S. drug policy achieved only superficial success.

There’s no reason to expect that Plan Merida will fare any better. In Mexico as in Colombia, the obstacles to combating the drug trade go well beyond a simple lack of security. The Mexican police and armed forces have a sorry history (going back more than a century) of human rights violations, which in many cases undermine their ability to work effectively with the local population. More broadly, the corruption that abets the Mexican narcotics trade is in large measure a product of persistent poverty and underdevelopment.

These problems are not susceptible to a solution based predominantly on military assistance. Overcoming them requires a better-rounded and more complete approach to combating the drug trade. From a U.S. perspective, this means integrating the necessary security components of Plan Merida with the often-slighted, “softer” side of counter-narcotics. The Bush administration and its successors must allocate a greater chunk of U.S. aid dollars to improving the human rights practices of the police and military, as well as measures (such as professional exchanges and judicial reform) that will help lessen corruption within these institutions. Most important of all, the United States must channel considerably more assistance into economic development, which represents the only long-term hope for improving the lot of Mexico’s poor and thereby undermining the financial allure of the drug trade.

For too long, U.S. counter-narcotics strategy has privileged security-related programs at the expense of more sustainable solutions. If American policymakers can seize on the launching of Plan Merida to achieve a more equitable balance between security, development and human rights, they may well make real progress in curbing the drug trade. If not, they will simply pass this problem along to future generations.

Hal Brands is the author of "From Berlin to Baghdad: America's Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World," and is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. He is also a Davis Fellow working at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.