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U.S. Counter-Drug Policy in the Western Hemisphere: Is it Working?

Date & Time

Feb. 17, 2021
9:30am – 11:00am ET


In 2016, the U.S. Congress established the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, to “conduct a comprehensive review” of policies “to reduce the illicit drug supply and drug abuse and reduce the damage associated with illicit drug markets and trafficking.” Behind that initiative was a sobering reality: close to half a century after the Nixon administration declared a “war on drugs,” illegal narcotics remained readily available in the United States, causing some 71,000 deaths in 2019 alone, while drug trafficking organizations in the region were ever more numerous and violent.

Following its inauguration in 2019, the Commission issued a December 2020 report. It called attention to important policy successes: the strengthening of anti-money laundering regulations; criminal justice reforms in Mexico; alternative development programs in coca-growing regions of Colombia; and increased funding for substance abuse prevention and treatment at home. But the Commission also highlighted some persistent failings. These include the faltering of anti-corruption efforts in Central America’s Northern Triangle; Colombia’s continued status as the world’s largest producer of cocaine; and record numbers of drug-related homicides in Mexico.

Selected Quotes

General Douglas M. Fraser

“While our mandate focused on drug control policy within the Western Hemisphere, the commission recognized that drug control policy is linked to both the demand for drugs in the United States and U.S. drug control policy around the world.” 

“Fundamentally, the goal of U.S. policy is reducing the supply of illicit drugs by helping partner governments in Latin America reduce the ability of transnational criminal organizations to operate within their borders and work with their neighbors to reduce the abilities of these organizations to operate regionally.”

“The commission recognizes that the fight against transnational criminal organizations must be an enduring policy focus, and requires sustained commitment. U.S. policy must give government agencies the flexibility, resources and support needed to win this fight.”

Daniel Mejía Londoño

“As a drug supply reduction strategy—the report calls it a failure—I think it is, not in the sense of actually not having achieved any goals, but in the sense of having put the focus of the anti-drug strategy in the parts of the production and trafficking chain that made it very cost-ineffective. This is attacking the coca crops and not the really important parts of the drug trafficking.” 

“Destroying one hectare of land by manual eradication or aerial spraying is very costly to the U.S. and Colombia, is very costly in terms of lives of manual eradicators, is very costly in terms of health outcomes of the populations exposed to the aerial spraying program […] and it’s not an effective strategy in actually reducing the amount of cocaine flowing out of Colombia.”

“We have to revise the metrics with which we measure success in the anti-narcotics strategies of the U.S. in Latin America and of the anti-drug strategies that Latin American countries are doing.”

Alejandro Hope

“Something that has changed in Mexico very significantly over the past decade is that in terms of drug production, we have shifted increasingly from plant-based substances to synthetic substances. The century-old marijuana trade […] if not disappeared, has certainly declined […] mostly because of marijuana legalization at the state level in the U.S. that has significantly changed the game.”

“Probably the only criminal organization that is akin to what we used to think as a cartel is the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, even though it is also probably a more decentralized organization that what used to be the case in the past.”

“There is no real champion of institutional reform at the national level. The priority of the current administration is building federal capabilities—and federal capabilities built on the armed forces.”

Mary Speck

“Traditional counter-narcotics tools, interdiction and eradication are necessary but grossly insufficient. Nonetheless, our report argues that some U.S. policies show promising results. It argues, as General Fraser pointed out, that we need a comprehensive approach that is better managed in Washington and better targeted in Latin America.”

“The key is to establish state presence, win local trust and provide viable, long-term alternatives to Coca.” 

“AMLO—at the start of his term—dismantled the federal police, which had received substantial U.S. support and training, replacing it with a new national guard which so far has expressed little or no interest in U.S. assistance.”

“Mexican criminal organizations—as we know—rely on weapons smuggled into Mexico from the United States. The U.S. can do more to tighten background checks and regulate sales in border states while giving Mexico the technological tools to detect arms crossing the border and trace those used for crimes inside the country.”

Hosted By

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

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