San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Just say ‘No’ to the War on Drugs: Seeking a Latin American solution

The War on Drugs is the Big Lie used to justify the militarization of Costa Rican police. The argument goes like this: A small country like Costa Rica cannot protect itself from highly armed drug lords without the help of the United States. We need to train police at places like the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas.

In 2007, then-President Óscar Arias promised to stop sending Costa Rican police to WHINSEC for training. Several months later, and under great pressure from the U.S. government, Arias broke his promise and allowed the practice to continue. These events were documented in the Costa Rican press at the time and also were the subject of WikiLeaks revelations reported in the daily La Nación in March 2011. A lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the use of WHINSEC is currently pending in Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV.

Although cocaine is produced in countries like Colombia, it is consumed largely north of the Río Grande. Its path through Central America and Mexico, and U.S. efforts in the region to militarize the problem, has created a nightmare of violence, serious human rights abuses and corruption at high levels of government in many countries. And yet the drugs keep flowing.

Drug-related corruption in Costa Rica is revealed through the headlines: “Golfito judge releases three Costa Rican suspects 24 hours after they were busted with 2 tons of cocaine”; “Top Limón judge arrested on suspicion of collaborating with drug traffickers”; “Little has changed 1 year after the slaying of Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora”; “Limon judge accused of conspiring with drug traffickers back behind bars.”

The Tico Times published a recent Washington Post story by Joshua Partlow that describes the destruction of the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, where the war on drugs has created anarchy and violence. Medical students have stopped wearing their white lab coats when leaving school, because they were being kidnapped by the cartel and forced to treat injured drug traffickers. “We are a failed state,” a student is quoted as saying. “There is no law. It is the rule of the gun.”

Estimates of the number of lives claimed by the war on drugs in Mexico range from 80,000 to 120,000.

The Mexican government has sent nearly 2,000 members of the military to WHINSEC, but their training has only exacerbated the crime and violence on both sides of the Río Grande. A story by SOA Watch, “U.S.-Trained Ex-Soldiers Form Core of Zetas,” documents the careers of some former members of the elite Special Air Mobile Force Group of the Mexican Army who were trained at SOA/WHINSEC and who now call themselves the Zetas. They were part of an elite battalion sent to Tamaulipas in 1995 to fight drug traffickers. The Gulf Cartel recruited them and hired them as assassins.

The SOA Watch story quotes two experts. “There is a higher level of danger with the type of knowledge that these people have – their arms capacity, their knowledge of techniques and specialization in [drug] traffic operations,” said Luis Astorga, a drug-trade expert at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

“They are extremely violent. They are very much feared for the bloodshed they unleash,” Joseph Santiago Vasconselos, Mexico’s top anti-drug prosecutor, told The Associated Press. The drug profits have led to increased corruption, money laundering, human trafficking and weapons smuggling.

Earlier this year, The Tico Times published an interview with retired Col. Ann Wright, Medea Benjamin of CodePink and Theresa Cameranesi of School of the Americas Watch. These peace activists warned of the dangers of militarization and urged Costa Rica to stop sending police to WHINSEC. Their talks at the University of Costa Rica and the National University resonated with students who also do not want militarized police for their country. Some of these students, the future generation of Costa Rica, have suffered police brutality in response to nonviolent student protests.

The Tico Times then printed a response from Lee A. Rials, WHINSEC’s public affairs officer. It was a version of his usual rebuttal of negative press reports regarding the school. Officer Rials argued that “graduate” is not an appropriate term for Latin American military members who attend the school. His objection was to statements claiming certain “graduates” of SOA/WHINSEC later became dictators of their home countries, or “graduates” of SOA/WHINSEC were later involved in serious human rights violations. He pointed out that some of them only attended a few classes and cannot properly be called graduates.

The problem is – graduates or not – that some of these “attendees” at the school major in combatting drug trafficking. What better way to succeed in the lucrative, highly competitive drug business than to get the latest training in weapons, equipment and tactics from the experts at WHINSEC?

View of guns seized during the arrest of Raúl Hernández Lechuga, an alleged member of the Los Zetas drug cartel, on Dec. 13, 2011.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP

Current Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís, in his pre-inauguration visit to Guatemala, expressed an interest in studying the drug problem. However, he did not advocate legalization. Several other current and recent presidents of Latin American countries are calling the war on drugs a failure. These leaders may offer a path to Latin American cooperation to successfully address the drug problem.

We ask President Solís to study the results of programs to decriminalize drug use in countries like the Netherlands, Australia, Uruguay and Portugal. Starting today, the Fifth Latin American and First Central American Conference on Drug Policy will be held in Costa Rica, at San José’s Hotel Radisson. The two-day conference was organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and will be available for live streaming here. We urge members of the Costa Rican government and the public to attend this conference and learn about nonviolent alternatives to the War on Drugs.

We also urge cooperation with other countries in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, which meets in January in the Costa Rican capital. We advocate a redirection of resources to drug prevention, treatment and education and programs to minimize the harm caused by drugs to those who abuse them.

The poison of dangerous drugs destroys lives and families. But a militarized approach to fighting drugs not only fails to help, it also destroys communities, and can even destroy entire nations.

Costa Rica, do not become another Mexico. Turn the War on Drugs into relief for drugs’ tragic consequences.

School of the Americas Watch, Costa Rica is a chapter of the international organization dedicated to closing the U.S. Army training school WHINSEC and stopping the flow of Costa Rican police to the school for training. Follow the V Latin American and I Central American Conference on Drug Policy on Twitter.

For further recommended reading, see:

Giber, John. “To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War.” 2011. San Francisco City Lights.
Pacheco, Hernández, Daniel. “La Necesaria búsqueda de alternativas en la lucha contra las drogas.” El País de Costa Rica. Oct. 17, 2012.
Negrete Lares, Angeles, “U.S.-trained ex-soldiers aiding drug cartel.” Brownsville Herald. Oct. 19, 2003.
Karlin, Mark. “The School of the Americas, the CIA and the US-Condoned Cancer of Torture Continue to Spread in Latin America, Including Mexico.” Truthout. June 10, 2012.
Mate, Gabor. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.”

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Ken Morris

I generally support the views expressed in this article, but believe it contains an inconsistency as well as a few omissions.

The inconsistency is whether the call is for Costa Rica to refuse to militarize its police in order to participate in the US-led war on drugs, or whether the war on drugs itself should be abandoned.

Granted, I think the writers want both outcomes–neither for Costa Rica to participate nor for the US to persist in hostilities–but this is not exactly what the article says. It says that Costa Rica shouldn’t participate.

But is Costa Rica’s refusal to participate in a contuing US-led war on drugs really wise? The alternative might well be for Costa Rica to welcome US marines into the country to fight the war. If this is the alternative, it might be wiser to “militarize” Costa Rica’s police rather than allow the US soldiers in.

That is, I’m not sure that the choice is between good and bad outcomes, but suspect it is between two bad outcomes. I don’t like militarizing Costa Rica’s police either, but I prefer that to allowing the US soldiers in.

Enter an omission: Sorry, the problems of violence associated with drug trafficking ain’t going to end, almost regardless of changes in US or Costa Rican drug policies. There is next to no support in either country to legalize much more than pot, and even that is a protracted policy fight that hasn’t happened yet. Does anyone seriously believe that either country is going to legalize cocaine the day after tomorrow? But if cocaine policy doesn’t drastically change too, there won’t be an end to drug trafficking. Moreover, the policy would have to change in many more countries than the US and Costa Rica. A significant portion of the drugs end up in European markets. Not least, Costa Rica has less of a drug problem than a drug lord money laundering problem. Drug lords like a stable banking system in a stable country. To really get rid of these guys, Costa Rica would have to intentionally ruin its financial sector as well as legalize drugs.

A second omission in the article is that it fails to understand the US motives for waging the war on drugs. Let’s face it, neither US politicians nor the US military brass are that dumb. They too know that the war on drugs has been an utter, violent failure. Since they clearly know this, yet persist with the war, you have to infer that the war has another rationale.

And it’s not hard to figure out what this rationale is. At least once not long ago the general heading the US Southern Command even admitted it. The US wants an excuse to maintain a massive military presence in the region, nominally to repel Russia and China, but also to be in a military position to do whatever else it might want to do.

The war on drugs is mainly an excuse the US uses to keep its ships and troops in the region. If they every so often catch a few boats or planes hauling drugs, so much the better, but that’s really only a diversion that gives the troops something to do in between shore leaves and an excuse for the brass to build local networks and spy.

A third omission is that Costa Rica is militarizing its police for reasons other than the war on drugs. Again, the police even admitted this about their recent training. They wanted their police trained to combat an invasion from Nicaragua! Yes, that’s what they said.

Well, how a police force trained and equipped to fight an army is different from an army escapes me (as of course it does Nicaragua, which argues that Costa Rica does have an army but just calls them police). But the bottom line is that there are forces inside Costa Rica that want a militarized police for more reasons than to fight the war on drugs.

Again, I don’t disagree with this article. The war on drugs is not only wrongheaded and ineffective, it is also violently destructive. Ideally, Costa Rica should not participate.

But how to translate these arguments into effective policy is I’m afraid more complicated for Costa Rica than simply refusing to send its police to training at WHINSEC. Maybe, I dunno, that would make a small difference, if only as a symbolic statement, and I wouldn’t oppose it. But I think the forces operating run much deeper. I think the real cuprits are US militarism more generally, Costa Rica’s own desire to militarize anyway, and failed global drug policy, anchored perhaps as another post says in the UN.

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Dean Becker

The drug war is a scam, a festering collection of lies, innuendo, bigotry, hatred and fear; nothing more. This prohibition empowers terrorists, enriches barbarous cartels and gives reason for existence to tens of thousand of US gangs. It has never stopped even one determined child from getting their hand on their drug of choice. What is the benefit? What have we derived from this policy that even begins to offset the horrible consequences of continuing down this same failed path? Quite obviously, and for obvious reasons, those who believe in drug war do not believe in public safety. End the madness, please visit

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true, the scam of our lifetime

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Thanks for this piece and the “correct” position on this matter. Prohibition does not work.

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James Gierach

The fountainhead of world drug prohibition is the United Nations and its three drug prohibition treaties, starting with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic drugs. These treaties require treaty nation member to criminalize all recreational drug use and to provide for the deprivation of liberty and incarceration of persons who violate the national laws enacted pursuant to the one-size-fits-all treaty mandates. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is a nonprofit, international, educational organization that has drafted and proposed an amendment to the UN drug treaties. The LEAP amendment enables treaty nations to end the criminalization, prohibition and incarceration model and instead encourages a human rights, health and freedom treaty approach. The LEAP “Proposed Amendment of UN Drug Treaties — 2014 can be read here: (English edition) and here (Spanish edition). In March 2014, the amendment was sent to world leaders with this letter: The amendment can be supported here:

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Great info, James! Thanks!

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David Boddiger

Thanks, James.

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If they catch someone with a large amount of drugs take them to the Nica border. Let the Nicas escort them to Honduras. Let Honduras escort them to Guat. Let the Guats es..________.
Hell give them free fuel ! LOL
It’s the US’ problem. They have the consumers. Let them deal with it.

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A very prudent article. It is time to legalize and shut the door on militarization. I believe this is part of Plan Obama long term regional strategy. He understands the failures of the war and his policies are incrementally changing public opinion and their view on drugs.

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