US Pushes War on Drugs in El Salvador

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Ursula Rozum

The US has a disgraceful history of involvement in Latin America. US peace activists recall the 1980s slogan,“ El Salvador Another Viet Nam,” conveying the US approach to the Salvadoran civil war. More than 75,000 were killed or disappeared during that US-financed conflict—mostly by the Salvadoran military and its death squads.

Against all odds, the Salvadoran people fought back. Under the banner of the Frente Faribundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), they forced the government to sign a peace treaty in 1992. Currently, as a political party, the FMLN champions the same issues that inspired the guerillas to take up arms—protecting workers’ right to organize and providing education and healthcare to all Salvadorans. In 2009 the FMLN achieved its greatest political victory when its candidate Mauricio Funes won the Presidency.

Ursula translating for a delegation visit to the community health team of El Paisnal. Photo: Alison AguilarUrsula translating for a delegation visit to the community health team of El Paisnal. Photo: Alison AguilarRecently, disturbing changes have been made in Funes’ security cabinet. Individuals willing to cooperate with new US security initiatives have been appointed to high-ranking positions previously held by FMLN members. According to anonymous sources in the Ministry of Public Security, the US insisted that Minister Manuel Melgar be removed as a condition for the US to sign the “Partnership for Growth with El Salvador” agreement.

General David Munguia Payes, a School of the Americas grad, replaced Melgar. Such alleged US pressure to remove Melgar and other security officials represents significant meddling in the sovereignty of the Funes government. Such military involvement in public security violates El Salvador’s Constitution and the 1992 Peace Accords – both of which established civilian control over the Salvadoran police force.

Now El Salvador will once again see an influx of arms. And it will see the growth of police and military forces – paid for by the US’ own regional anti-drug and anti-gang initiative, CARSI, the Central American Regional Security Initiative. CARSI is supposedly designed to fight drug trafficking in Central America.  The US has pledged $300 million to this new initiative that includes the US-funded International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Santa Tecla, El Salvador. The ILEA trains Salvadoran and other Latin American police with anonymous trainers and a classified curriculum. These militaristic programs fail to address El Salvador’s real security problems: the economic inequality and social exclusion that compel people to turn to gangs and crime to survive.

This US approach uses supply-side interdiction to stop drug flow from Latin America to the United States. Such an approach has proven ineffective at removing illegal drugs from US markets. For example, the US-financed “Plan Colombia” has only succeeded in pushing drug production into other countries and deeper into Colombia’s remote Amazon forests (the balloon effect). In Mexico, over 40,000 lives have been lost in the US-funded “War on Drugs.”

Also in Mexico the US-designed “Wide Receiver” and “Fast and Furious” schemes were supposed to battle organized crime by tracking small-time gun buyers up the chain to locate major weapons traffickers. Both operations failed, and US federal agents notoriously lost track of many of the more than 2000 guns linked to the operations. As long as the world’s largest market for illegal drugs exists in the United States and as long as drugs remain illegal in the US, all efforts to combat drug traffickers in the Americas through militaristic strategies are sure to fail.

The War on the US Poor
The drug war also takes its toll on US society. But many who live in white communities remain clueless about the devastation wrought. The US has waged its drug war almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. According to Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling The New Jim Crow, more African American adults are under “correctional control” today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the US Civil War.

Ronald Reagan announced the current drug war in 1982. A few years later crack cocaine hit inner-city streets. The Reagan administration responded by hiring staff to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence – part of a successful Republican Party strategy using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime to attract poor and working class white voters.

Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Gary Webb chronicled the sinister roots of the crack cocaine explosion and the drug war in his “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury News. Webb discovered the CIA’s involvement in smuggling and distributing crack cocaine in Los Angeles to fund the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s . Webb charged that the Reagan administration shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution to raise money for the Contras. For this expose, Webb was rewarded with two bullets in the head -- a suicide according to the coroner’s report.

US Corporations and Elites Benefit
In the context of global economic crisis, corporations eager to expand their profits are major stakeholders in the remilitarization process. The private security industry is booming, with US “defense” contractors – not the governments of Mexico or Central America – receiving 80 percent of the millions of dollars in US security aid to produce weapons, supplies and training for the war on drugs. In the US, the Corrections Corporation of America and their ilk lobby Congress for stiffer sentencing laws to generate more prisoners…and more profits.

US drug war policy is also building the infrastructure to repress social and political movements demanding systematic change. As the economic crisis deepens, more and more people around the world are pushed into poverty, and they’re fighting back. Instead of waging war on poverty, the US war on drugs paves the way for the use of force to maintain and advance the neoliberal policies that cause such widespread unrest.

Even former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly stated that the ILEA was making Latin America “safe for foreign investment” and free trade. In the wake of successful grassroots mobilizations that defeated attempts to privatize healthcare in El Salvador, the US State Department helped draft legislation for El Salvador, based on the USA Patriot Act that criminalizes civil disobedience as “terrorism.”

The Central American right wing has also capitalized on security problems for political gain. For months leading up to the recent municipal and legislative election in El Salvador, the right wing-owned media bombarded the public with sensationalized images of murder and violence, preying on people’s fears and criticizing the FMLN for failing to address these problems. Meanwhile, ARENA  campaigned on “iron fist” security policies aligned with the US drug war agenda and won the elections.

Alternative Solutions
Leaders across Latin America are questioning the effectiveness of supply-side drug interdiction. They talk about the real root of the problem – the US demand for drugs. The right wing president of Guatemala is leading the call for decriminalization of drugs to help reduce drug violence. In El Salvador, the FMLN, social movement organizations and other sectors of civil society propose comprehensive plans for violence prevention and rehabilitation for adults and youth. In the US, among the groups leading the effort to reform drug laws is the Drug Policy Alliance. The Alliance supports Rep. Barney Frank’s Marijuana Legalization Bill and is battling mandatory drug testing for those receiving public benefit payments.

More and more people recognize that the justifications for the US war on drugs are based on our own country’s enormous demand for illegal drugs and for the military-prison-industrial complex’s addiction to profit. We must resist these racist policies. We must challenge US militarization internationally and the drug laws that have destroyed communities of color across the US. We must demand sane policies that address drug use as a social and health issue, symptoms of larger systemic problems.

Drugs aren’t illegal because they are dangerous, they are dangerous because they are illegal.


Ursula, SPC staff organizer, traveled to El Salvador in March 2012 with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to serve as an elections observer and to learn about the current political context in El Salvador.