Ted Cruz recently provided an exclusive interview to Breitbart News. He asserted that the U.S. military should be working in conjunction with the Mexican government to fight the cartels. He didn’t suggest a full-scale invasion, but he did propose something similar to our program, "Plan Colombia."
If you’re not familiar, Plan Colombia is officially the U.S. foreign military aid program for Colombia aimed at preventing drug trafficking. The U.S. has provided the Colombian government with $10 billion of military aid over the last 15 years.
Senator Cruz said of Plan Colombia, "It was treated less as a law enforcement matter than as a military matter. Where our military went into Colombia and helped destroy the cartels." His assessment was partially accurate because Plan Colombia isn’t purely an anti-drug strategy. Instead, it is essentially part of a broader U.S. geopolitical strategy in which our country uses the pretense of the drug war to resurrect Cold-War-style intervention.
However, Cruz’s belief that Plan Colombia helped defeat the cartels is completely wrong. First of all, that gives the impression that the program effectively reduced drug production. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The White House released a report in March stating that cocaine production in Colombia had reached record levels last year, roughly 710 metric tons.
Secondly, the program went into effect in 1999, which was many years after the Medellin Cartel had fallen and not long after the leadership of the Cali Cartel had been captured. Plan Colombia was first implemented when the most powerful drug trafficking organizations weren’t traditional crime organizations. Instead, the drug trade was fueling the country’s civil war between the right-wing paramilitary group, the AUC, and the communist rebels, the FARC.
Proponents of Plan Colombia believe that U.S. military support was a factor that led to the eventual disarmament of the FARC and the end of Colombia’s 52-year civil war. That point is debatable. But, even if you concede it, "peace" was reached at what cost?
Both the AUC and the FARC were officially recognized as terrorist groups by the U.S. government. They’re both responsible for an untold number of crimes against humanity. These groups committed mass murder, evacuated entire towns, and used rape as a weapon of war.
However, the right-wing paramilitary groups were closely aligned with the Colombian government and military. Likewise, U.S. military support from Plan Colombia was almost exclusively focused on defeating the communist rebels for geopolitical reasons. Hence, the U.S. and Colombian government turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the paramilitaries, which committed far more atrocities.
To be specific, the National Centre of Historical Memory released a report finding that 1,982 massacres were committed between 1980 and 2012. The paramilitaries were responsible for 1,166 as opposed to 343 by the communist rebels. Suffice it to say, that was essentially state-sponsored terrorism.
The AUC technically disbanded in 2006, but most of it members didn’t lay down their arms. They simply went their separate ways and formed several different organizations. The Colombian government refers to the splinter groups of the AUC as "Bandas Criminales" or BACRIMs. The BACRIMs are no longer driven by right-wing political ideology, but the proceeds from illegal drugs have helped these groups maintain vast political connections. These groups are more accurately described as organized crime syndicates.
Currently, the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Colombia goes by multiple names, i.e. Los Urabeños, Clan Úsuga, the AGC, or the Gulf Cartel. This group is a decedent of the AUC. Like many other BACRIMs, it terrorizes numerous cities across the country in ways similar to a paramilitary organization. Forced evacuations, murder, and extortion are their main tools for gaining control of territory in the prime drug trafficking routes.
Los Urabeños are becoming more aggressive now that most members of the FARC are disarming. At times, they’ve passed out leaflets threatening journalists, political and human rights activists, and police officers. Last month, after a wave of a dozen police officers were killed in one area, the Colombian police dropped leaflets over the town of Apartado. They offered a $5 million reward for information that leads to the capture of the Los Urabeños, Dario Antonio Úsuga.
Unfortunately, Ted Cruz and other drug war proponents tend to read these kinds of news reports and conclude that we need to make a stronger commitment to the war on drugs. Granted, history has definitely proven that Los Urabeños will eventually be defeated. However, there will always be a group of vicious criminals that is willing to take their place in the black market.
The citizens of Colombia will never truly see peace until there is no longer demand for illegal drugs in the United States, but the demand is showing no signs of slowing down. Therefore, the only realistic measure for reducing the violence in Colombia is ending the war on drugs in the United States.
Is ending the drug war a panacea?
There will always be violent organized crime groups. Homicidal gangs such as Los Urabeños certainly won’t quit overnight. But, there is no better way of reducing their power than taking away their main source of income, drug money. That’s what pays for their guns, assassins, bribes, infrastructure, money launderers, etc. Over time, the number of gang members will drastically fall if there is no black market for drugs.
Both sides of the drug debate recognize the violence of the black market. Remarkably, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, millions of Americans continue to believe that further militarizing the drug war will bring peace and stability to Latin America. And Ted Cruz may best be the strongest supporter of that point of view in Congress.
Ted Cruz has many misguided notions about the drug war. In fact, he has suggested building Trump’s border wall with the proposed $14 billion in asset forfeiture from El Chapo. That idea is flawed on multiple levels. First, a border wall will do nothing to reduce the consumer demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. Second, the U.S. government will likely collect only a small percentage of that $14 billion. According to Mexico’s Attorney General, U.S. investigators have yet to find a single dollar connected to Guzman’s drug empire.
Recent history doesn’t bode well for the U.S. government. The leader of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva aka "El Mochomo," was extradited to the U.S. back in 2014. The government originally sought $10 billion in forfeitures. However, the feds settled for roughly 5 cents on the dollar in April. Certainly, five hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but it won’t pay for a border wall.
Now, back to the original topic. Ted Cruz told Breitbart News that we should follow the Plan Colombia formula in Mexico. What he failed to mention is that we already have a similar program in place, which was implemented in 2006. It’s called the Merida Initiative. The U.S. has provided $2.5 billion of military aid through this program since 2008.
Coincidentally, the Merida initiative began in the same year that the former President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, enlisted the Mexican military in domestic counternarcotic operations. To state the obvious, that was a disastrous decision. It clearly hasn’t stabilized the country. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. There have been an estimated 80,000 murders connected with the drug war in Mexico since 2006.
The Mexican military is another layer in a brutal, corrupt police state. In many instances, massacres have been committed at the hands of Mexican Special Forces troops, yet these murders rarely result in convictions. Simply put, law enforcement officials operate with impunity. For example, the National Commission of Human Rights has opened over 10,000 investigations into torture in the last four years. Only 22 investigations resulted in criminal charges with none of the defendants being sentenced for a crime.
The root of the problem is that the cartels have a significant percentage of the government on their payroll. That includes police, soldiers, judges, prosecutors, prison officials, politicians, etc. Therefore, whenever a major drug bust takes place, it is often at the behest of a rival cartel.
That leads to a question Ted Cruz received in the Breitbart interview. He was asked about the challenge of providing military assistance to the Mexico government when it has such pervasive corruption. Cruz acknowledged the challenge. But, he insisted that our country’s leaders need to find the incorruptible Mexican government officials, secure the border, and block the illegal drug from entering our country.
If only it were that easy. The only sensible solution is to end the war on drugs, take away the power from the cartels, and end the senseless violence throughout Latin America.
Brian Saady is the author of The Drug War: A Trillion Dollar Con Game. His three-book series, Rackets, is about the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. Visit his website. You can follow him on Twitter @briansaady.