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

September 3, 2014
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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?

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP
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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