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Wars Without End: Drug Trafficking and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century

Rediscovering the War on Drugs

recent military operation staged in Peru last month was a timely reminder of the connections that can be drawn between terrorism, new war paradigms and the persistence of the illicit global drugs trade.

The incident in question saw the rescue of thirteen adults and twenty-six children who had been held captive for more than two decades by the Shining Path Maoist rebel group in the remote Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM). Shining Path was responsible for agitating internal conflict in Peru for much of the 1980s, with estimates of the number of civilians killed as a result of the overall violence ranging between 11,000 – 70,000.

The Shining Path movement declined rapidly in the nineties in large part due to the capture of the group’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, but authorities have since struggled to eradicate the group completely. As of today, Shining Path continues to be concentrated in the mountainous, jungle terrain of the tri-river area, and is complicit in the production and transportation of cocaine along some of the most entrenched drug trafficking routes in South America. The Peruvian government last year was forced to abandon much of its anti-narcotic activity in this last remaining Shining Path stronghold and faces ongoing difficulty in governing the greater region. Both the United States and the European Union continue to define Shining Path as a terrorist organisation. In 2013, Peru officially became the largest cocaine-producing country in the world, though some argue that Colombia has again supplanted Peru in the top spot as of this year.

The trajectory of Shining Path is thus a useful analogue in attempting to discover the status of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ today, particularly in terms of how it feeds into related trends of terrorist activity and territorial ungovernability. The decade in which Shining Path was most active coincided with the decade in which the War on Drugs was first consolidated in the USA. Although initially declared by President Nixon as early as 1971, it was not until the 1980s that the War on Drugs really gained traction through a plethora of zero-tolerance policies implemented under the Reagan administration.

The Reagan policy approach has been surprisingly resistant to reform despite repeated criticism and an arguable lack of evidence as to its effectiveness. For example, mandatory minimum sentencing is perceived to be a key cause behind rocketing prison populations in the United States. The disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing continues to bypass nuance and context when evaluating the criminality of particular drug crimes. In broader terms, the refusal to move wholly towards a compassionate, health-based policy approach alludes to an institutionalised punitive mindset that is in stark contrast to the ongoing decriminalisation of marijuana across many American states.

As the mainstream interest in the War on Drugs waned in the 1990s, it nevertheless left behind in its wake a strong, unyielding framework for the definition, processing and tackling of both drug usage and drug crime that has consequently had repercussions not just in America, but all around the world. In many ways, the framework has become static and opaque; for all the money and rhetoric leveraged behind it, the War on Drugs has failed on two counts. It has failed to meaningfully disrupt the economics of incentive and risk within the illicit drugs market and it has failed to anticipate developments within the market, by which production transfers fluidly among regions to evade policing efforts and usage transfers among different types of drugs. Today, our ability to accurately chart trends within the sprawling shadow economy in which the drugs trade operates is woefully limited, and yet the relevant social dynamics continue to evolve in new ways.

To arrive at a more suitable understanding of the modern global drugs trade therefore requires a number of points be introduced, or indeed reintroduced, into the policy conversation. These are, namely, the ongoing interaction between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror; the interaction between production and user markets; and the role of the state in regulating sub-state and transnational forces, in terms of both the appropriateness and the effectiveness of such intervention.

Reconsidering the War on Drugs

The interaction between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror can be considered not only in terms of geographical congruence (for example, Afghanistan and the opium trade), but also in terms of conceptual congruence.

One of the most durable criticisms levied at the War on Drugs – a criticism that seemed to apply even more urgently to the War on Terror in the post-9/11 era – is that it is a fundamental conceptual error to wage war against groups and activities that are primarily social in character rather than militaristic. With the global drugs trade, just as with the variegated topography of international terror organisations, all sense of a ‘conventional’ war inevitably breaks down; there is no clearly defined enemy, there is no demarcated theatre of operations and, most crucially, there is no coherent understanding of what victory should ultimately look like. Such confusion prevailing at the policy level can and has led to mistakes on the ground; quagmire-like conflicts with changeable objectives, precipitous actions that collaterally and disproportionately affect civilians, and a lack of transparency that erodes civil liberties both at home and abroad.

Of course, some argue that the use of the term ‘war’ in this sense is metaphorical, applied only as a means of encapsulating the scope of the commitment to eradicate either drugs or terrorism respectively. If this be the case, then it is a misleading and hugely expensive metaphor to apply. Furthermore, with the current international security sphere being increasingly prone to the sort of hysteria and misinformation that makes strategic objectivity difficult to maintain, one should rightly question the use of hyperbole as a means of guiding the national interest.

However, it is fair to pose the question of whether or not drug cartels and terrorist organisations are today becoming so sophisticated and operating on such a scale that they now constitute organised groups that are tangible enough to justify military tactics and the full deployment of a state’s war apparatus. Although accurate figures are impossible to collate, the UN World Drug Report yearly characterises the illicit global drugs trade as one of the largest businesses in the world.

Similarly, the rise of ISIS over the course of 2014 in Iraq and Syria demonstrated the degree to which terrorist organisations can exploit pre-existing areas of instability to rapidly build up quasi-state infrastructures by way of territory gains, the seizure of lucrative assets such as oil fields, and the deployment of new media for recruitment and propaganda purposes. One could argue that the threat posed by the drugs trade and by international terrorism is more acute than ever and that the response must likewise be rigorous.

The scale of the problem – particularly when drugs are combined with terror, when drug production routes are integrated with drug user markets, and when cocaine trades in South America are juxtaposed with opium trades originating in Asia – is well and truly global. By persisting in using the terminology of war and of national security, however, it is the state that is emphasised and the national level that is privileged. When dealing with transnational phenomena, this tendency becomes problematic and can lead to misconceptions.

Firstly, there is the inclination to see the problem in terms of state borders and consequently this is where a state’s legitimacy, responsibility and resources may wind up being concentrated. However, illicit markets like the drug trade are agile and state borders are increasingly permeable; this recommends a policy approach that is formulated above and below the national level, but not necessarily, and assuredly not primarily, on the state-national level itself.

Other geographical divisions may also be magnified in a detrimental way, such as the false distinction between those states which deal with drug production within their borders, those states which deal mainly with drug usage and those states which contend with both production and usage. In other words, the global drug trade may be perceived in terms of a divide between developing and developed states that does not cohere with the reality on the ground. The narcotics system is whole and interdependent; transnational problems require holistic solutions. A focus on borders can lead to burdens of blame rather than international partnerships built on a genuine sense of shared responsibility. Similarly, a focus on production routes in developing countries fails to address the demand-side of the economic equation.

This could partly account for why American-led efforts to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan have been unable to stem the rise of poppy yields, despite the protracted war effort and significant funding that has now run into billions of dollars. Jobs creation and narcotics policing within Afghanistan are essential approaches, yes, but the incentives to engage in the opium trade within remote Afghan regions will not be fully curtailed until the demand for heroin in western societies is reduced in tandem with the supply. In the absence of an overarching, global response that connects production to use, supply to demand, opium profits continue to fuel instability, exacerbate corruption and, not least, finance international terror.

Wars without End

It is a clear sign of how much the security environment has changed in the twenty-first century that the global drugs trade and terrorism are now two of the gravest threats to stability. The state’s monopoly on the use of force has been broken. Drug trafficking and radicalisation permeate easily and rapidly through sovereign borders; and the evasive wars these phenomena have given rise to are increasingly fought above, below and through states and their frontiers. For this reason, innovation concerning the role of the state and its ability to address the major security threats of the day will be ever more necessary and, when this innovation comes, it cannot be based purely on the sophistication of war technology in the form of drones and surveillance techniques. Social policies that focus on issues of alienation, addiction and radicalisation will be paramount, as will economic policies that advocate openness, shedding light far into the shadow markets that enable the interrelated systems of terror and narcotics.

War has always had a devastating personal resonance, from heroic sacrifice to the families that grieve their loved ones. However, the wars of today seem personal in a different way in that they are now played out within our streets and our communities, involving perpetrators and victims who are for the most part civilians. As a result, it can often seem like states are at war with their own societies. If such a war were allowed to fully materialise, it would indeed be a war without end.

Author Biography

Heather Emond is an MSc graduate in International Relations from the London School of Economics, with a focus in advanced international security, European security and defence policy and Arab-Israeli Relations. Upon graduation, she worked in the fields of economic development and external affairs for local government in Edinburgh, assisting with a number of EU, international and telecommunications projects. More recently, Heather has collaborated with the United Nations Association of Edinburgh and is currently based in Northern Chile volunteering for a teaching programme co-delivered by the Chilean Ministry of Education and UN Development Programme.

Twitter: @HGEmond

*Cover image ‘Secretary of the Navy with Peruvian navy official‘ by the US Navy


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