A Regional Strategy for Drug Wars in the Americas

The U.S.-Mexico border security strategy—and even the wider Merida Initiative—is only a first step in making the U.S. counternarcotics strategy more effective in reducing devastating levels of drug-related violence and corruption in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Better law enforcement responses to illegal drug flows are welcomed but only part of the solution. What is also needed is an actual commitment in the United States to reduce domestic demand for drugs. RAND studies released in the mid-1990s found that using drug user treatment to reduce drug consumption in the United States is seven times more cost effective than law enforcement efforts alone, and it could potentially cut consumption by a third.

And while the Merida Initiative and recently unveiled border security strategy are important first steps in dealing with the growing violence and instability reaped by drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, it would be myopic for the Obama administration to stop there. The administration must view Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in an integrated manner and develop a truly regional strategy for combating drug trafficking that raises allocated funds to Central America and the Caribbean in tandem with efforts in Mexico. Although Vice President Joseph Biden promised $100 million to Central America as part of the Merida Initiative fund increase of fiscal year 2009, splitting that amount between seven countries dilutes the intended beneficial effects.

Concentrating on reducing drug-related violence and other problems almost exclusively in Mexico at the potential expense of Central America is an error that the Obama administration must avoid. Until the administration commits the resources necessary to develop a comprehensive regional strategy, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will continue to build on the important first steps taken in March 2009 to tackle the latest challenges presented by drug trafficking in the Americas.

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