Military Operations in the Drug War

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By Joe Chivers

Typically, it is the DEA, the police, or the federal authorities who pursue drug offenders, but there have been several points in history where the United States has used its overwhelming military might against smaller countries as part of the drug war. In this article, we shall look at the role of the US military in several different operations relating to the drug war: namely, the 1989 invasion of Panama, the militarization of the Bolivian drug war, and the 2009 coup in Honduras. We will deal with these in said order.

The Panamanian invasion has been discussed recently due to the death of George H. W. Bush, but its true causes and motivations are rarely touched upon. Noriega’s military dictatorship was backed by the United States, who saw him as a bulwark against communism, and a valuable ally in its various military operations throughout Central America. Chiefly, Noriega’s Panama served as a conduit for support of the Nicaraguan contras. He also allowed the CIA to set up listening posts in Panama, and personally supported the war against the Sandinistas. He was, at one point, described by William Webster, then director of the CIA, as a key ally in the war on drugs. However, his past was far more murky in this regard. It was known to American authorities that Noriega himself had made a fortune from drug trafficking, with Panama serving as a key step on the route drugs took from South to North America. The DEA were investigating him as he was being lauded. The CIA then aided him in hiding these activities from the DEA. In the mid-80s, relations between Panama and the United States took a nosedive, with Reagan attempting to indict Noriega on drug charges in 1986. However, due to weak extradition laws, these threats were not credible. As George H. W. Bush had been director of the CIA, had ties to Noriega, and was running for President, an invasion was put off. The final nail in the coffin of Noriega’s leadership was when he shifted his allegiance towards the Soviet Union. Before the invasion, Bush denied any knowledge of Noriega’s role in drug trafficking, something that he would most definitely have known, having been Director of the CIA.  Finally, after attacks on American servicemen, deliberately provoked by the US military,  the invasion began. Despite taking just over a month, several hundred people were killed. A man whose drug activities had been sponsored by the United States lost favor with that same nation, and as a result, many people died. Make no mistake, no sane person would defend Noriega. His government was characterized by brutal repression, known to the American government. It was not this that lost him support, nor his drug trafficking, but the changing political climate in the country. As a result of  these byzantine, convoluted relationships, many people died. That is not justice.

The next country in this tragedy of errors comes with the militarization of the Bolivian drug war. For those unfamiliar with this, it focused on Bolivia’s production of coca. While coca is used in producing cocaine, it is also popularly chewed among South Americans. When chewed in its unrefined form, it is a mild stimulant, and can also work to combat effects of altitude sickness, important for those unused to the heights of the Andes. Recently, Bolivian leader, Evo Morales, legalized the production of the crop after several decades of illegality. US involvement in the drug war in Bolivia began in 1983, the same year that eradication efforts began against coca. US special forces were brought in to train paramilitary police squads, as Waltraud Queiser Morales describes in his article “Militarising the drug war in Bolivia.” Training was not the alpha and omega of US military involvement in Bolivia, however. In 1986, the two armed forces conducted Operation Blast Furnace together. This operation saw the US providing logistical support,including Black Hawk helicopters and counterinsurgency training, on raids against narcotraficantes in villages, which was treated as a violent incursion by the Bolivian peasantry. The operation was a failure, achieving nothing but temporarily depressed coca prices and outraging the locals. Another such failed operation was Operation Snowcap, which lasted from 1987-1994. The United States – Bolivian Anti-Narcotics Agreement brought with it further militarization, with said accord expanding the involvement of the Bolivian military in anti-drug operations. The bitter pill for historians to swallow was that, unlike in Colombia, this militarization was for nought. There was no widespread narcoterrorism. No large cartels. Morales, in his paper, writes that he feared such an approach would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing coca growers to form such groups. Coca growers were already powerful, protesting with mass roadblocks, hunger strikes, and peasant congresses. The Bolivian special forces units called UMOPAR (Mobile Rural Patrol Unit) were effectively a military force poised against the peasantry, even if they were small.

Years earlier in 1971, dictator Hugo Banzer had employed paramilitaries trained by the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon” Klaus Barbie, who had been smuggled into the country by US intelligence in 1951. The military of this period committed atrocity after atrocity against the country’s poor, and inspired a enmity between the military and the peasantry, one that US involvement saw fit to reopen. It is no wonder that the DEA became as hated in Bolivia as the CIA. The drug war in Bolivia may not have been as bloody as its Mexican equivalent, but is still responsible for death, injury, and numerous dark deals conducted by a government attempting to solve a problem of its own making: demand was high in the United States, making coca not just a cash crop for its traditional uses, but for export. One cannot solve the issue of demand by cutting off supply in one country. One nation cannot simply foist the blame for its own social issues onto another.

The last country on this list of the damned is Honduras. The troubled country was famed for having the highest murder rate in the world, a rate that it has since cut dramatically. However, when that figure was recorded in 2012, it was just three years after the 2009 coup d’etat, when President Zelaya was deposed by the military. Following this coup, as noted by The Guardian, the Honduran government ceased to function in remote areas, leading to increased cocaine shipments arriving in the country. To assist in this self-made crisis, the US helped push anti-drug efforts in these areas, increasing violence further. The coup, we should note, was roundly condemned around the world, with the notable exception of the US government. Leaked diplomatic cables revealed, as Stephen Maher said in his paper “Elections, Imperialism, Socialism, and Democracy: Coups and Social Change in Latin America,” that the US was aware the coup was “illegal and unconstitutional.” Numerous far-right policies were put forth by the Honduran government, such as “model cities” run by businesses and backed by US venture capital, where constitutional rights are rendered invalid. US assistance, driven by the war on drugs, enabled much of this behavior. It did not only affect Honduras, however, as a similar coup was attempted against the then leader of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. As opposed to the drug war being fought, as it is in the US, by domestic police forces, in Honduras, the war is fought at the point of a helicopter’s cannon: with US forces utilizing lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to take the war of drugs into a whole new level of intensity.

Why is it important to discuss these operations, when more bloody ones, such as the Mexican drug war, are statistically worse, and more well known? It is precisely because of this lack of knowledge that discussing it is crucial. The war on drugs is not only being fought by drug cartels and DEA agents. It does, and has always, involved US military assets being used in a barely-regulated manner. The drug war in America, waged against citizens by the police, the DEA, and FBI, cannot compare to the level of warfare visited upon foreign citizens in this mindless exercise in temperance. It is in these lower-level conflicts that you see US special forces not serving their country, but condemning another. It is there that you see helicopters built by Americans used against the peasantry of other nations, simply trying to make a living. The drug war has never been just, but here, it is at its most unjust. Here war is waged on civilians for one reason: a domestic American problem. If we are to create a more just world, then the drug war needs to end not just in the famous hotspots of Mexico and the United States, but in Bolivia, Honduras, and Central and South America as a whole. Until it does, people will continue to die unjust deaths, and that is something that the land of the free cannot continue to perpetuate.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.