The Drug War Expands to Africa

Ignoring trillion-dollar annual budget deficits and a nearly $16 trillion national debt, the American Empire is still growing. The latest imperial foray is expanding the ineffectual U.S. drug war into Africa to combat such smuggling into Europe. Yes, Europe. Not only does the United States spend tens of billions of dollars a year subsidizing the defense of rich European countries, it is now swelling such welfare spending to include essentially financing a drug war in Africa for Europe. Never mind that cocaine use is a declining problem back home in the U.S.

According to the New York Times, the United States has begun training counternarcotics police in African countries because Latin American drug cartels are increasingly moving cocaine into Europe from weakly governed African states instead of through Spain, which has conducted a crackdown on drug smuggling.

That drug producers and traffickers merely move production or reroute supplies, respectively, when confronting such crackdowns should be no surprise to U.S. officials. In Latin America, a U.S.-backed Colombian government crackdown on coca growers merely moved such production to Peru. When the U.S. government started interdicting drug smuggling routes in the Caribbean, the trafficking merely moved through Mexico. When the U.S.-backed Mexican military violently clashed with drug cartels, they moved their trafficking through Central America. The U.S. is now training and participating in — even leading — lethal raids with Central American anti-drug forces. That model has begun to be copied in Africa.

The United States recently completed a West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative [.pdf] with 15 African countries that will encourage them to battle trafficking using the same techniques Americans imported into Mexico and Central America. Such methods include building institutions (nation-building) and leading regional cooperation, including sharing intelligence and operating regional law enforcement training centers.

That they are wasting tens of billions of dollars annually on what amounts to ineffective “Whac-A-Mole” efforts doesn’t deter U.S. anti-drug officials. They are confident that they can at least push the drug trade out of selected countries, but they leave out that the drug lords will merely migrate to other countries. And if U.S. officials increase violence in nations where they are militarily challenging previously dominant drug lords — as they did by apparently leading lethal drug raids recently in Honduras — they say it’s all worth it, because they believe the alternative is worse. They claim that nations experiencing drug trafficking also become consumer nations. So implicitly these anti-drug warriors are saying that people’s freedom to put what they want into their bodies is worse than being endangered or killed by wanton violence.

The people of Mexico — who have experienced such a spike in drug war–related carnage, because the U.S.-backed Mexican army and police have challenged the drug lords — would beg to differ with this line of argument. Enrique Peña Nieto was recently elected president of Mexico on a platform that emphasized reducing the violence, thus implicitly lessening the confrontation with drug lords. In a few years, the people of poor African countries may also disagree with the “increased violence to reduce drug consumption” trade-off.

In the case of Africa, U.S. security forces may have ulterior motives for moving into West African nations. The U.S. training of local counternarcotics forces has begun in Ghana and is planned for Nigeria. The DEA has set up its first office in Senegal, and the Pentagon has set up a center in the island nation of Cape Verde off the West African coast to detect drug-trafficking vessels headed for the continent. First, instead of reducing the federal deficit by reducing spending, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, U.S. security forces need something to do and are putting more effort and money into fighting drugs. Second, West Africa is supplying an increasing percentage of American oil imports. As a result, Africa, previously the only continent in the world that the U.S. security establishment didn’t regard as strategic, now has the U.S. Africa Command created to police it. The U.S. government now wants to have closer relationships with governments and security forces in West Africa, and helping them fight drug smuggling is a good excuse. However, this “let’s be friends” policy may backfire among the people of these countries if U.S. security forces are perceived to be responsible for increased drug violence either by backing the militaristic response of local governments to drug lords, as in Mexico, or by eventually leading the lethal raids against them, as has seemingly happened in Honduras.

At any rate, the Caribbean-Mexico-Central America model of militarized drug interdiction is not one that should be replicated in Africa. It will only bring spiraling violence and heartache to Africans and distress to the American taxpayer’s pocketbook. The proper response is to end the ineffectual and violent drug war everywhere and legalize drugs for adults.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.