The use of the U.S. military for counternarcotics and anti-crime functions around the world should be minimized and employed only with extreme caution. The favorite counternarcotics recipe of special operations forces is to stand up specialized interdiction units (SIUs) to kill or capture high-value traffickers. In the context of weak state capacity and high corruption, such as in Central America or West Africa, SIUs are themselves prime targets for corruption and can become powerful and technologically-savvy drug traffickers or even forces that will stage a coup against the government.
SIUs concentrate mostly on crime kingpins. But such “high-value” targeting often intensifies violence, by triggering turf wars and internal succession fights.
Instead, a determined and systematic effort to develop police forces capable of also tackling street crime via community policing (as opposed to merely standing up SIUs to decapitate organize crime) and establishing capable intelligence systems in recipient countries would greatly enhance the effectiveness of external assistance.
However, to the extent that domestic military forces in recipient countries are used for anti-crime functions, external actors should steer the local militaries toward better practices in law enforcement roles. This would involve not setting up fixed checkpoints to search for contraband and members of criminal groups (traffickers simply avoid going through them) or declaring temporary states of siege (most criminals simply hide during such states of siege). The better practices would feature population-centric policing approaches by both police and domestic militaries. Via frequent, non-threatening engagement with the public, such policies seek to build a positive relationship between law enforcement and local populations.
President-elect Bolsonaro has embraced tough-on-crime measures that egregiously violate basic human rights and eviscerate the rule of law. Responding to Brazil’s 63,880 homicides in 2017, Bolsonaro calls for increasing protection for police officers who kill alleged criminals and arming citizens. He calls for further militarizing urban policing, reducing the age of criminal liability from 18 to 16, reinstating the death penalty, authorizing torture in interrogations and imprisoning more people... Brazil’s police are already notorious for being one of the world’s deadliest in the use of force. In many favelas, Brazil’s retired and current police officers operate illegal militias that extort and control local communities, murdering those who oppose them and engaging in warfare with Brazil’s highly-violent gangs and in social cleansing. Bolsonaro is simply threatening to turn the rest of the police into state-sanctioned thugs.
The Duque government’s drug policy in Colombia is taking on a progressively ominous and counterproductive direction. It threatens to undermine the incomplete and struggling peace process, misdirect law enforcement resources, augment the alienation of coca farmers from the state and undermine human rights and drug users’ access to health services in Colombia. With their emphasis on criminalization of even drug possession for personal use and forced eradication, the announced policies clearly cater to the Trump administration’s doctrinaire and discredited drug policy preferences that harken back to the 1980s. But without sustainable livelihoods already in place, forced eradication will not sustainably reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production. The dominance of zero-coca thinking in Colombia whereby a community has to eradicate all coca first before it starts receiving even meager assistance from the state never produced positive results in Colombia.