Beyond Supply and Demand: Obama’s Drug Wars in Latin America

In its first year, the Obama administration has embraced and even extended its predecessors’ militaristic counter-narcotics policies in the Americas. In doing so, it has also adopted the basic tenets and priorities that have shaped U.S. drug control policies for decades. Until the administration pays attention to the structural origins of the drug war, as well as the profound international dependencies upon which it has always rested, it will be fated to continue pursuing a destructive, and failed, policy.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Suzanna Reiss

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

In its first year, the Obama administration has embraced and even extended its predecessors’ militaristic counter-narcotics policies in the Americas. In doing so, it has also adopted the basic tenets and priorities that have shaped U.S. drug control policies for decades. Among the most prominent examples are the administration’s decision to deploy U.S. military personnel to Colombian bases, the decertification of Bolivia and Venezuela as having “failed demonstrably” in upholding counternarcotics agreements, the continued funding for Plan Colombia (an estimated $672 million in 2009), and Obama’s expansion of the Merida Initiative, the “regional security partnership” brokered by the Bush administration with Mexico in October 2007.1 Under Obama’s watch, funding for the Mexican initiative almost doubled in 2009 to $830 million, making it the largest U.S. foreign aid program.2

All of this unfolded even as the director of National Drug Control Policy, R. Gil Kerlikowske, suggested on various occasions that the new administration was making a historic shift on drug policy. In October, for example, Kerlikowske told the Association of Chiefs of Police that “it’s become increasingly clear that the metaphor and philosophy of a ‘War on Drugs’ is flawed. . . . . it’s time to adopt a different approach.”3 This echoed sentiments he expressed in June, when he emphasized the need to move away from “divisive ‘drug war’ rhetoric” as part of a broader U.S.-led effort “to reduce the demand for drugs which fuels crime and violence around the world.”4

The Obama administration has made some gestures in this direction, most significantly making it a low priority for federal law enforcement to go after state-authorized medical marijuana retailers and suggesting a new orientation toward prevention and treatment. But to genuinely change the philosophy animating the so-called War on Drugs, it is essential to understand and question the international political and economic foundations of U.S. drug policy. These much-neglected foundations continue to fuel violence, repression, and economic coercion both within and beyond the United States’ borders.

The drug war has failed to achieve even its stated goals, as critics have long emphasized—there has been no net decrease in illicit drug production and trafficking, even while the devastating human and environmental costs of drug war militarism continue to rise. Meanwhile, rarely discussed is the drug war’s great success in helping to achieve unstated goals: extending global U.S. military hegemony and extending the reach of the legal U.S. drug economy, which often depends on raw materials and consumer markets in the very same territories forced to participate in the U.S.-led drug control regime.

This analysis gets submerged by the language of supply and demand and the notions of legality that permeate drug policy discourse. Both indicate capitalism’s shaping influence on the ideology of U.S. drug war policies. This obfuscating language—and the idea that regulating the drug trade is a question of effectively policing supply and demand—is itself a legacy of the economic and imperial logic that created an international drug control apparatus, which rests on the unquestioned power of the United States to designate players in the drug trade as either legal or illegal. Rather than presuming that the international flow of drugs is a consequence of the natural workings of a mythical, though often naturalized, free market, it is more useful to ask: Who gets to supply what and who gets to demand? Inequities between the global North and the South have historically structured the answer to these questions.


The language of supply and demand, much like the designation of legal or illegal, must be understood as a political and historical construction rather than as a set of neutral descriptive categories. The system of drug control itself has given these categories and labels substantive power. Attempts to control coca in the Andes provide an instructive example, since the region has been on the international drug control radar since the aftermath of World War II. In 1949 the UN Committee on Narcotic Drugs sent a commission to Peru and Bolivia (at that time the two primary producers of the coca leaf) as part of a broader effort to regulate “raw materials.” Arguing that indigenous people’s consumption of coca was addictive and destructive, the UN commissioners recommended that it be abolished.5 The only “legal” market for Andean coca leaves would be their primary international market, the United States.

This goal was codified in the 1961 Single Drug Convention, which dictated that all traditional domestic coca consumption be eradicated in 25 years and that the export market be carefully monitored to ensure supplies remained in “licit” channels. Thus, the international drug control regime itself structured Andean countries’ participation within the drug trade as a “supply side” source of raw materials.

To this day, coca leaves are processed by pharmaceutical companies authorized by the U.S. government to produce a flavoring extract for Coca-Cola (the biggest coca “consumer”) and to manufacture cocaine for use in research laboratories and as a local anesthetic in medicine. The drug control regime that emerged in the 1950s was just that, a system of control—not outright prohibition. Drugs themselves were not illegal. Cocaine and other controlled substances straddled the licit-illicit divide, since their legal status depended on their circulation within the marketplace and on the question of who grew, manufactured, sold, and consumed them.

One of the more dramatic, and mostly unquestioned, contradictions is that while the United States spends billions of dollars attacking “drugs,” the legal drug industry is regularly among the top five most profitable industries in the country.6 North Americans are notoriously quick to turn to drugs to answer their ailments, medical or otherwise; meanwhile, through direct marketing, the pharmaceutical industry encourages the excessive consumption of drugs that are often of questionable medical value.7

Internationally, drugs have always served as a measure of the United States’ wealth and influence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, pharmaceutical preparations represent by far the most profitable U.S. exports, which is partly the result of free trade agreements— like the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATDPEA), whose title alone indicates the intimate connection between economic relations and U.S. police and military collaboration. Beyond chemicals’ prominent and controversial role in drug crop fumigation campaigns, these agreements establish preferential access for legal U.S. drugs in foreign markets, extend their patents, and include a number of other measures that propel the dominance of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry around the world.8

The United States does not so much wage war on drugs as wage war with drugs. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. government has considered certain drugs, including most recently flu vaccines, strategic materials and has subsidized their mass-production and stockpiling in the interests of national security.9 Drugs, among other things, can numb a soldier’s pain, stimulate and ease labor, and vaccinate against disease, giving them special strategic value. Obama’s continuation of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, including policies that limit the availability of critical medicines, shows how drugs’ medicinal value has also been deployed to exert coercive diplomatic leverage.10 A U.S. company selling drugs to Cuba would in this context be committing a crime, revealing the limits of drug war rhetoric focused on an underworld of “illicit” drug profiteering.

This dynamic interplay between the legal and illegal drug economies and political and economic interests continues to determine drug enforcement’s focus. The Obama administration’s handling of the concurrent crises in Mexico of drug trafficking and the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, is emblematic. On April 30, congressional hearings on the president’s fiscal year 2009 War Supplemental Request included a discussion that linked the two issues: The U.S. government would provide sufficient resources and support for the mass production of (privately patented) flu vaccines (especially ensuring adequate supplies to the U.S. military), while waging war against drug cartels. Senator Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) reflected the consensus in government when he strongly supported “helping Mexico, which is facing real threats from heavily armed drug cartels and is now dealing with the H1N1 virus.”11 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that USAID had given $5 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organization to “help detect and contain the disease in Mexico,” an insignificant amount when compared to the some $2 billion the Obama administration has spent stockpiling vaccines for U.S. citizens.12

These efforts at “helping” Mexico reflect broader political and economic inequities in access to legal drugs. Linked to the U.S. practice of securing adequate national drug supplies is the power to determine who gets to consume them—a politically charged issue on tumultuous display recently regarding the H1N1 vaccine. U.S. (and European) drug patents price most of the world’s population out of the market, and power dictates who receives the drugs that are produced and distributed, even in the context of the swine flu “emergency.” The WHO has warned that there will be a critical shortage of the H1N1 vaccine in the developing world, since some 90% of it has already been pledged to “high income countries.”13 On the domestic front, Michigan Democratic representative Bart Stupak, referring to plans to vaccinate prisoners at Guantánamo (presumably to protect their U.S. guardians from infection), complained in October that “while much of America waits in line to receive their H1N1 vaccination, the Pentagon is giving priority status to accused terrorists.”14

Perhaps without knowing it, Stupak seemed to intimate how some people are more worthy of medical care than others. Obama chillingly echoed these sentiments when giving his own assurance that health care provision will “not apply to those who are here illegally.”15 The president also indicated that he might allow an exception for “children who may be here illegally but are still in playgrounds or at schools, and potentially are passing on illnesses and communicable diseases,” presumably to “legal” children—a distinction that dramatically embodies the dehumanizing impact of U.S. drug wars.16


Drug warriors in the United States and at the United Nations, the main international body regulating the drug trade, typically divide the countries of the world into drug suppliers (mostly in Latin America and Central and Southeast Asia) and consumers (primarily North America and Europe). This formulation has had a definitive impact on both the thrust of drug control initiatives, and on the arguments presented by their opponents. So, for example, the United States spends the vast majority of drug war funding on interdiction campaigns in “supply” countries—constituting some 65% of federal drug control expenditures.17 Some governments in Latin America have welcomed this funding, in particular the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, who have all embraced the drug war as a powerful tool in their efforts to consolidate political control and finance counter-insurgency wars against political and economic dissidents. But there have also been demands from across the region, including among the United States’ allies, that the U.S. government do more to limit domestic consumption, as well as to limit its involvement in supplying the precursor chemicals and weapons that are essential to illicit production and distribution.

The Obama administration has had a somewhat novel response to this diplomatic challenge. Unlike his predecessor, Obama acknowledged a deeper U.S. role in the illicit drug trade. In April, when a number of administration officials, including the president and secretary of state, traveled to Mexico to show support for President Felipe Calderón and his war on the cartels, Obama declared he would not pretend that combating drugs “is Mexico’s responsibility alone.” He continued: “A demand for these drugs in the United States is what is helping to keep these cartels in business. This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States.”18

Yet the administration’s acknowledgement of “shared responsibilities” has helped only to cement the ongoing militarization of the region. The devastating impact of this approach has been well documented: increased levels of violence, political corruption, and a blurring of the line between the police, the military, and drug cartels in ways that profoundly undermine democracy and human rights.19 The limits of a supply-demand framework extend to the weapons deployed in the conflict. The Obama administration provides Mexico with billions of dollars to buy U.S.-manufactured weapons, Black Hawk helicopters, surveillance equipment, and police training, making the U.S. the major source of both legal and illegal weapons that are flooding the streets of Mexico.

Embodying the U.S. orientation toward “supply-side” interdiction, the U.S. president each year identifies “major” illicit drug “producing” as well as “transit” countries and then determines whether they cooperate with international drug control. In September, Obama identified 20 countries as “major drug transit or major illicit drug producing countries”; of these, 15 were in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombian, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela (the rest included Afghanistan, Burma, India, Laos, and Pakistan).20

Of the “major” supplying countries, Obama designated three—Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela—“ as countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.”21 This designation, or “decertification,” as it is known, empowers the United States to withhold aid and deny preferential treatment under existing trade agreements with those countries. The supply-demand formulation deployed in this context, together with the selective designation of countries as “major” drug suppliers and as having “failed” by assessing their willingness to collaborate with a particular system of international drug control, recasts diplomatic struggles not as political or economic but as conflicts over the pursuit of criminality and terrorism.

The political ideologies associated with governments in the hemisphere—not the actual health consequences or “violence” emanating from struggles over control of the drug trade—have determined the certification process. If this were not the case, Colombia and Mexico, as the major “producer” country and the largest “transit” country, respectively, would undoubtedly top the blacklist of drug war failures with their thousands of displaced peoples, environmental devastation, and documented human rights abuses. Yet it is Bolivia and Venezuela that have been branded as drug-control rogue states, primarily as an outcome of political tensions between these nations and the United States.

Bolivia again provides a useful example of how drug war spectacle masks political conflict and how decertification is used as a tool to criminalize challenges to U.S. hegemony. The Obama administration’s decertification of Bolivia, continuing the Bush administration’s policy by maintaining Bolivia’s suspension from the ATDPEA, defies any rational, fact-based justification.22 It seems instead to be a retaliatory move for actions the Bolivian government took in the fall of 2008, when it did not renew USAID contracts, accused the DEA of spying, expelled the U.S. ambassador, and alleged that the United States was providing covert support to the violent and economically
powerful U.S.-aligned opposition.23

After the White House said Bolivia had failed to live up to its “shared responsibility,” Bolivian president Evo Morales fired back, accusing Obama of having “lied to Latin America” at the Summit of the Americas in April, when the U.S. president said “there is no senior partner and junior partner” in the United States’ hemispheric relations.24 Further challenging the inequality built into the economic roles assigned to various countries in the drug economy, the Bolivian government formally submitted a request, now under review before the United Nations, to have coca leaf removed from the 1961 Single Drug Convention.

The convention’s “restrictions on and prohibition of coca leaf chewing,” the Morales administration argued, violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (among other international treaties), which maintains that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines and knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora. . . . ”25

Morales, reelected to a second term in December, is not alone in challenging the U.S. drug war. Leaders across Latin America are seeking not only to expand their right to participate in the legal drug market, but also to question the validity of the control and enforcement regime. They increasingly question U.S. drug control priorities, emphasizing its many failures. In August, the First Latin American Conference on Drug Policy, which brought together representatives from an array of the region’s governments, international organizations, and community groups, concluded that “Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, the three countries that together produce the entirety of the world production of cocaine, did not manage in 10 years to reduce the acres of [coca] cultivation, but instead gained 2 million refugees, put peasants in jail, and sprayed pesticide that degrades the environment.”26


The capitalist ideology that sustains the United States’ ongoing drug war in the Americas manifests not only in the assumptions built into the supply-demand model. It is also present in the very notion that drugs themselves “cause crime and violence,” as Kerlikowske said when he announced the administration’s professedly forward-thinking and practical approach to drug policy.

Focusing on the commodity overshadows the people and political struggles at the heart of the “drug” conflict. It is not drugs per se, but rather competition to control their production, distribution, and consumption that has generated violence over the last half-century. Personifying drugs themselves as criminal, violent agents has served as a useful mechanism for obscuring the real human impact of drug control policy since well before the Nixon administration, which officially launched the drug “war.” Despite the frequently staged spectacles of drug enforcement officers burning marijuana fields in California or airplanes fumigating coca fields in the Andes, it is necessary to restate the obvious: The United States has never waged a “war on drugs.” Rather, it has waged various “wars” on specific groups of people.

Take, for example, African Americans, who are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population, even though most illicit (and licit) drug users in the United States are white. The domestic drug war, since the introduction of the first mandatory minimum sentences in the United States in the 1950s, has always been structured by racial and economic bias. Similarly, the burdens of U.S.-led drug wars in Latin America have fallen disproportionately on indigenous communities, many of which have fled drug war violence or lost access to their economic means of survival—caught in the political crossfire between governments and insurgencies, which both capitalize on the drug trade as a means of waging war.

The Obama administration’s early rhetorical shift away from drug war rhetoric continues the government’s dishonest assessment of what fuels drug production and consumption. It fails to acknowledge the violence that maximizing profits and monopolizing international drug flows requires. Domestically, in the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, the fact that most imprisoned people are serving time for drug-related offenses has yet to become a serious topic in the Obama administration’s deliberations on drug policy.27 On the international stage, the power hierarchies of who gets to supply and who gets to demand also ripple through racial, economic, and social disparities.

Until the administration pays attention to the structural origins of the drug war, as well as the profound international dependencies upon which it has always rested, it will be fated to continue pursuing an ill-conceived, destructive, and failed policy under which the value of drugs is determined by violence and economic inequality.

Suzanna Reiss teaches history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and is a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. She is the author of Policing for Profit: U.S. Imperialism and the International Drug Economy (forthcoming).

1. The White House, Presidential Determination No. 2009-30, September 15, 2009; “Joint Press Conference With President Barack Obama and President Felipe of Mexico,” Obama speech transcript, Los Pinos, Mexico City, Mexico, April 16, 2009; June S. Beittel, “Colombia: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress no. RL32250 (August 7, 2009): 29.

2. Claire Ribando Seelke, “Mérida Initiative for Mexico and Central America: Funding and Policy Issues,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress no. R40135 (August 21, 2009): i–5.

3. “Statement of R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director, National Drug Control Policy, Remarks at the 2009 International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference,” transcript, October 8, 2009.

4. “Statement of R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director, National Drug Control Policy, Remarks at Release of the World Drug Report,” transcript, June 24, 2009.

5. Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf, May 1950, Fifth Year: Twelfth Session, Special Supplement no. 1, Official Records, Economic and Social Council, United Nations (Lake Success, New York, United Nations, July 1950).

6. See annual rankings at “Top industries: Most profitable. Fortune 500: Annual Ranking of America’s Largest Corporations,” Fortune, money.cnn .com/magazines/fortune.

7. Marcia Angell, “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” The New York Review of Books 56, no. 1 (January 2009).

8. U.S. Census Bureau, “Exhibit 7—Exports by End-Use Category and Commodity,” US International Trade in Goods and Services (FT900). For discussions of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry’s advantages under free trade agreements, see Davinia Ovett, “Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and Human Rights: A Serious Challenge for Latin American and the Caribbean,” Puentes 7, no. 1 (January/February 2006); Economist Intelligence Unit, “Peru Pharma: A Fair Trade?,” March 4, 2009; Karen Hansen-Kuhn, “Andean FTA: Threats to Development,” The Development Gap (July 2004); Ellen R. Shaffer and Joseph E. Brenner, “A Trade Agreement’s Impact on Access to Generic Drugs,” Health Affairs 28, no. 5 (August 2009): w957–w968.

9. See for example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Strategic National Stockpile,”

10. Peter Schwab, “Cuban Health Care and the U.S. Embargo,” The Monthly Review 49, no. 6 (November 1997): 15.

11. “The President’s Fiscal Year 2009 War Supplemental Request,” Hearing Before the Committee on Appropriations United States Senate One Hundred Eleventh Congress, First Session, April 30, 2009 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2009), 4, 47.

12. Ibid., p. 4; Michael D. Shear and Rob Stein, “Why Such a Shortage of Swine Flu Vaccine?,” The Washington Post, October 27, 2009.

13. Jennifer Gonzalez, “WHO: Poor Nations Urge Global Access to Swine Flu Vaccine,” the Associated Press, July 3, 2009.

14. Representative Stupak (MI), Congressional Record, House, vol. 155, October 29, 2009, H12122,

15. “Remarks by the President to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care,” transcript, September 9, 2009.

16. Brian Montopoli, “Obama: No Health Care for Illegal Immigrants,”, July 21, 2009.

17. The White House, National Drug Control Strategy: FY 2010 Budget Summary, May 2009, p.13

18. “Joint Press Conference,” transcript, April 16, 2009.

19. Charles Bowden, “We Bring Fear,” Mother Jones (July/August 2009): 29–43.

20. The White House, Presidential Determination no. 2009-30, September 15, 2009.

21. Ibid.

22. Kathryn Ledebur and John Walsh, Obama’s Bolivia ATPDEA Decision: Blast From the Past or Wave of the Future? (Washington Office on Latin America, August 11, 2009).

23. Roger Burbach, “The United States: Orchestrating a Civic Coup in Bolivia,”, November 17, 2008.

24. “Remarks by the President at the Summit of the Americas Opening Ceremony,” transcript, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, April 17, 2009.

25. Economic and Social Council United Nations, “Substantive Session of 2009,” Geneva, July 6–31, 2009, E/2009/78, pp. 4–5.

26. Press Release no. 9, July 8, 2009, First Latin American Conference on Drug Policy.

27. See “Statistics on Drugs and Crime,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice,


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.