Democratic Dilemmas in the U.S. War on Drugs in Latin America (Case Study #21)


Drug abuse and addiction cost the United States an estimated $110 billion a year and exact a heavy toll on the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities across the nation. Because of its broad impact on the American public, the illegal drug trade has become a potent political issue. The federal government currently devotes one-third of its drug control resources to reducing the demand for drugs in the United States; two-thirds are targeted at reducing the supply of drugs both in the United States and internationally.

Over the past two decades, U.S. efforts to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the country have increasingly focused on Latin America. Traditional interdiction programs to block the shipment of drugs to and across U.S. borders have been augmented by new policies aimed at reducing drug production and trafficking closer to the source in Latin America. Through the annual drug certification process, begun in 1986, the United States has attempted to stiffen the drug control efforts of other countries by judging their performance and sanctioning those that do not measure up. Even more important, since launching the Andean Initiative in 1989 the United States has been deeply and directly involved in equipping, training, and advising Latin American security forces to fight the war on drugs.

This case study examines the ethical issues raised by the U.S. drug war in Latin America. First, it introduces the broad context of U.S. drug control policy and the role of international supply–reduction within it.

Second, it highlights the dilemmas for democracy posed by these U.S. policies in Latin America. These include issues of: legitimate authority over drug control policy; the means of pursuing drug control policy, such as support for local military or police forces; and the impact of U.S. international drug control policies on democracy and human rights.

Third, the study outlines the political dynamics that shaped the origins of current supply-reduction programs in Latin America.

Fourth, it tracks the expansion and evolution of U.S. drug control programs launched during and after the Andean Initiative. It gives particular attention to the views of publics and policymakers in the United States, Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.

Finally, it poses questions for further discussion of these important and complex issues.

To purchase this case study, go to the GUISD Pew Case Study Center.