WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 May 2012 | Commentary | News

Confronting Drugs, Violence, and Organized Crime: In Response to The New York Times Online Debate on Military Roles

By WOLA’s George Withers

The New York Times recently hosted an online debate on the use of the military in the war on drugs, particularly in Honduras. Some of the guest writers argue for the use of the military and most, not all, argue for a blended force of military and police. The two central issues are what impact the use of force—whether it be by the United States or host country or a combination of both—has on the human rights of a country’s people and what is the long-term solution to the issues of drugs, violence, and organized crime.

As was alluded to in several of the pieces, the history of U.S. military involvement in Latin America is one which is rife with examples of coups; propping up military dictatorships; opposing popular, democratic political forces; and all the human rights abuses that naturally accompany such policies. It’s worth revisiting history to see the direction in which our military involvement is headed.

In the late 1980s, the House and Senate held a series of hearings on whether or not to direct the Department of Defense to assume a leading role in the detection and monitoring of drug trafficking outside of U.S. borders. Until then, military involvement in what was understood to be a law enforcement problem was forbidden.  In what may seem ironic to many, it was the conservatives and the Department of Defense which argued strongly against such a move, and it was the liberals who insisted on it, as shown in hearing transcripts.  Since the law was adopted and made a permanent part of the U.S. Code, the application of the law has transformed dramatically.  The U.S. military has gone from detection and monitoring of drug trafficking to including law enforcement agents (U.S. Coast Guard and DEA) in their operations to training and equipping foreign militaries and police.  In this decade, the U.S. Southern Command identifies trans-national criminal organizations and gangs as “strategic threats” to the United States and the recent commander of the Special Operations Command of the Southern Command, Rear Admiral Thomas Brown, says that special operations forces “straddle that spectrum of conflict between ‘War’ and Law Enforcement, able to contribute to [US Government] efforts against asymmetric threats (dangerous non-state actors)…”

Over time, the U.S. military response to drugs, violence, and organized crime becomes deeper and more complex. The problem is that the military can’t provide a lasting solution to these three challenges.  Instead of seeking real solutions, the United States continues to expand the role of the military.