Drug Policy Analysts Tell Congress New Strategy Needed Against Cartels

December 4, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Dr. Mary Speck

WASHINGTON — Drug policy analysts told a congressional committee Thursday that the U.S. government has largely failed to stop illegal drug smuggling because of an unfocused strategy against the cartels.

Instead, they recommended flexibility that seeks solutions based on local conditions.

In one example analysts mentioned during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, the U.S. government uses a crop eradication strategy to destroy crops that Latin American growers transform into cocaine or heroin.

Soon after the crops are destroyed by U.S. and local law enforcement agents, they are replanted elsewhere, resulting in minimal drug interdiction.

“What we did find was that there was not a one size fits all approach,” said Shannon O’Neil, chairwoman of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission.

The Council on Foreign Relations is a New York-based public policy foundation specializing in foreign policy and international affairs. It issued a report recently that described serious flaws in U.S. policy against drug smuggling.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee called the hearing to consider alternatives to the problems mentioned in the report.

In the example of crop eradication, O’Neil and other analysts said better solutions could include incentives to combat government corruption, business advice to farmers to help them turn away from growing drug crops and building better rural roads that allow police to respond to reports of illegal activity.

She called the plan a “more context-based approach.”

Despite decades of a confrontational strategy, “The trafficking of drugs has not ended,” O’Neil said. Instead, it has “morphed” from an emphasis on cocaine and heroin to include opioids that originate in China.

In some cases, Latin American governments have grown weary of cooperating with U.S. policy, she said.

“They’re less interested, frankly, than we have seen in past governments,” O’Neil said about current Mexican officials.

Cliff Sobel, vice chair of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, said some U.S. policies seek to stop drug smuggling but lack an effective method for determining whether they succeed.

“We need to be more focused on evaluating these programs,” said Sobel, who also is a former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil. He suggested better “metrics” for measuring whether foreign investments are achieving drug interdiction.

Several members of Congress asked whether decriminalization of marijuana that has swept through U.S. states since 2012 might halt some of the illegal drug smuggling.

Mary Speck, executive director of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, said, “Decriminalization is unlikely to remove a significant source of income because these groups are so diverse.”

Their recent enterprises have included thefts of fuel that they sell on the black market.

“They have evolved into multi-faceted mafias,” Speck said.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee mostly agreed U.S. anti-drug policy showed serious problems but disagreed on how to resolve them.

Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who chairs the committee, said, “We need to increase investment into drug treatment.”

He also recommended more law enforcement efforts to prevent smuggled guns from reaching the Mexican drug cartels that continue operating through murder and intimidation.

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said that with current U.S. policies, “We’re treating symptoms” but overlooking core problems, such as the economics and government corruption that fuel illegal drug trade.

“We have to look at a different approach from the $2 trillion we have spent on the war on drugs,” Yoho said.

Rep.Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., referred to what he called “banana republics” and China when he said, “The reality is they can stop it if they want but they won’t.”

He suggested tough economic sanctions against illegal drug exporting countries “to hit them in their pocketbooks.”

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