U.S. and Mexican Governments Continue to Brush Aside Perspectives of Drug War Victims

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Tania Arroyo
Foreign Policy in Focus

On July 8, the “war on drugs” claimed another victim, the songwriter Argentine Facundo Cabral, the victim of an ambush in Guatemala. Cabral, a tireless pacifist, was killed when three carloads of gunmen ambushed the vehicle in which he was riding. This is an irreparable loss to the Argentine and Latin American people.

The victims of this drug war have mostly been anonymous, from the perspective of the global media. But the war has begun to claim some famous people, like Cabral. In Mexico the murder of the son of renowned intellectual Javier Sicilia has led to the emergence of a strong and important social movement calling for an end to the war on drugs. This movement forced President Felipe Calderon to initiate a dialogue with society: an imperfect dialogue but dialogue at least.

Despite this social message, on June 22, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Guatemala that the U.S. government would spend nearly $300 million this year helping governments in Central America confront the mafias that smuggle cocaine to American consumers. At the same event, President Felipe Calderon called for more resources from the international community to fund this ill-advised strategy to combat crime. He dismissed the notion of a symbolic contribution, “because this is not about charity,” and asked for an amount equal to the billions of dollars received by criminals to run their operations.

Ironically, the next day, Calderón met with Javier Sicilia in México for a dialogue that seemed to have deaf ears. Sicilia said to the Mexican president, “Watch carefully our faces. Search carefully our names. Hear our words. We represent innocent victims. Do we look like collateral damage or statistics?” He asked Calderón to apologize for the 40,000 deaths caused by the struggle against organized crime. The president responded that he wouldn’t apologize for having pursued the offenders. “Javier, you’re wrong,” he said. “I regret not having sent federal forces in earlier.”

For more than three decades, the “war on drugs” has been a constant concern for the United States and has shaped relations with various governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Mexico or Colombia, have completely followed U.S. foreign policy, as with Plan Colombia launched in 1999 or the Merida Initiative for Mexico in 2008. Others failed to cooperate with the United States and established independent drug control strategies, like Venezuela, which stopped receiving U.S. financial support in 2005.

Despite these efforts, the strategy has totally failed. In human costs, according to a report of the U.S. Congress, homicides in Latin America have increased from 19.9 per 100 000 people in 2003 to 32.6 per 100 000 people in 2008. In terms of strategy, from 1980 to 2008, the U.S. government has spent $13.1 billion dollars. This money has done little, as the same report notes: “Temporary successes in one country or sub-region have often led traffickers to alter their cultivation patterns, production techniques, and trafficking routes and methods in order to avoid detection.”

Fighting violence with violence only begets more violence. Additionally, it has profoundly damaged the social fabric and has damaged institutions. Public confidence in the army, which has killed civilians as part of “collateral damage,” has declined considerably. The same applies to the judiciary. Victims now prefer silence for fear of reprisals or because they consider official complaints to be a waste of time. According to the Report on the Americas, 73 percent of Latin Americans perceive corruption among public officials as a widespread problem.

Governments and policymakers say that they are acting in line with democracy, human rights and public opinion. But, in reality, they are not willing to listen to the demands of society. In the context of the “war on drugs,” they are unable to guarantee human rights or even the right to live.

The deaths of Cabral and Juan Francisco Sicilia are not more important than the other casualties of this war. But they have inspired major social reactions. Latin American and U.S. governments must start to listen to these reactions. If they don’t, they will have another war on their hands – with their own enraged citizens.

Visit Foreign Policy in Focus for a broad view of global justice.

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