The reasons behind the effort to stop the flow of illegal drugs are vital. The slogan 'war on drugs' was simple and easy to understand, but it also had inherent shortcomings. Over time, its arguments became weak and oversimplified, but there is significant power and purpose behind 'countering violent transnational criminal organizations' (TCOs), 'enforcing the rule of law,' and 'ensuring border security.' These concepts are less simple to message but will survive intellectual rigor and time.
As government leaders promote enhanced counterdrug operations—now four decades into the ‘war on drugs’— how do Coast Guard personnel stay motivated for this mission that seems to have no end? How do we motivate our crews, while the national conversation around marijuana legalization has shifted so dramatically in the past decade? The “why” driving counterdrug operations is often confused, cursory, or non-existent. Many Coast Guardsmen are all in, but others work this problem more out of obligation than passion or a deeply held conviction that we can win. Simply put: the “why” is weaker than it needs to be. The underlying complexities of this complicated problem set demand a clear rationale so everyone involved, from the President down to the Coast Guard boarding teams, understand why we are doing what we are doing.
At best, the war on drugs has been ineffective at attacking the root causes of the problem; at worst, it has inherent strategic shortcomings and is steeped in fear and unintended consequences. But there is power and purpose behind countering violent transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), enforcing the rule of law, and ensuring border security—and we must stress those themes to be successful.
The war on drugs arguably began in the 1930’s when marijuana was made illegal. Societal norms were upended when the counter-culture revolution of the 1960’s exploded. As a result, drugs became powerful symbols of opposition to the status quo. In the 1980’s, Colombian cartels sent mountains of cocaine to the United States, resulting in bloodshed in cities such as Miami and throughout the country, as once disjointed smugglers became organized, violent, and effective. As distribution and demand grew, a crack epidemic then permeated inner cities, coupled with gang violence. President Ronald Reagan decided to act, and the ‘war on drugs’ was officially branded. Since the 1990’s, Mexican TCOs have largely replaced the Colombians as the top threat. Chinese gangs and companies have also entered the game, providing pre-cursor chemicals for methamphetamine and synthetic drugs and sourcing heroin and fentanyl. Other transnational gangs, such as MS-13 metastasized, increasing violence and chaos in their wake. Despite record seizures in recent years, drugs continue to flow. More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019, predominantly from the resurging opioid epidemic.
Drugs are inanimate, and it is hard to have a war against a commodity. Drugs themselves are not necessarily bad; it is how people use them that determines legality and negative or positive effects. For example, alcohol, sleeping pills, and anti-depressants are common legal drugs, but they can also ruin the lives of those who abuse them. Cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl are significantly more dangerous with fewer benefits, but even fentanyl has medical purposes for severe trauma. Marijuana has been demonized for years, but with legalization in varying forms in almost half of the states, this tide is turning, as the benefits for cancer patients, PTSD, stress, and even inflammation become more well-known. Psychedelic drugs are even seeing a resurgence as new studies tout counter-PTSD benefits and promising treatments for addiction. Psychedelics also have been used in religious ceremonies for millennia. More broadly, political conversations now debate the public good of battling addiction versus infringement of individual liberty and freedom. The point is the term ‘war on drugs’ is inherently misleading, as different drugs have different risks, benefits, and uses.
I would contend we are not in a ‘war’ against drugs; rather we are conducting a large-scale law enforcement operation against violent TCOs who violate U.S. and international laws and smuggle illicit goods across sovereign borders. In his seminal work On War, military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz argued that before you decide on your strategy, you must first understand the nature of the conflict you are in; otherwise you are doomed to failure before you even start. This is why the top three strategic priorities of the Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy make sense: combating networks, securing borders, and safeguarding commerce—not a war on drugs.
Further, wars typically require definite end-states. One of the problems the Department of Defense runs into when working the counter narcotics mission is that it wants to define mission success. Will we ever eliminate drug flow completely? Not likely. We can reduce the flow, increase street prices, dismantle networks, reduce violence, and potentially reduce overdoses with proper efforts on the demand side. It is a righteous endeavor, but it is not a war with easily defined end-states, or one that will likely ever end. When viewed through a law enforcement prism, however, this important issue becomes clearer. Just as police will never eliminate crime, it is nonetheless imperative that police enforce the law to uphold justice, maintain order, and prevent chaos.
When we focus on the networks instead of the commodity as the end, other effective options become more obvious. For example, attacking the finances of narcotics networks—one of their centers of gravity—becomes more appealing. The special operations community succeeded in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq after transitioning away from simply catching insurgents to instead focusing on gaining intelligence on the network. Special forces then changed their strategy from going after ‘the head of the snake,’ which often resulted in a new head popping up. Instead, they attacked multiple key nodes of the organization further down the chain, undercutting the effectiveness of the network.
Unfortunately, many Coast Guard and law enforcement partners are still focused on drug busts as the end result. Tactical questioning and intelligence collection for boarding teams is often a side effort and not a key line of effort. If we have information on a maritime drug shipment, the best course of action may not be to interdict it at sea, but rather to follow it or turn a crew member to get a more complete understanding of the network. This requires a change in mindset and how we build and share information across the interagency. Our measures of success should focus on how we are building an understanding of networks and dismantling them, not just the quantity of drugs seized. Understanding networks is harder to quantify and will take longer, but it will yield a more significant and lasting impact.
TCOs are not just the right target for our efforts, but the “why” to counter them is ever-growing. “Global yearly economic loss to TCOs in illegal drugs, human trafficking, and illegal fishing (combined) exceeds $750 billion. As a region, the Caribbean and Central America is one of the most violent in the world ...The United Nations… and the World Bank have identified drug trafficking by illicit networks as the primary driving factor of violent crime.” TCOs create chaos and violence in the Western Hemisphere, often driving desperate migrants to our borders.
Further, the Western Hemisphere Strategy reports, “networks that evolve . . . for one illicit purpose have shown an increasing propensity to diversify their nefarious activities . . . including drug smuggling, human trafficking, or terrorist activity,” amplified by increasing globalization. The possibility of terrorists linking up with TCOs is a concern that so far has not materialized—possibly because we are working against terrorist and TCO networks from both sides. The point is not to be alarmist, but to demonstrate that there is real potential, and vigilance is essential.
Society’s respect for the rule of law is essential. When a person infringes on another’s well-being, it is the trust in the state to bring justice to these crimes that compels the wronged individual not to retaliate. But when the population loses trust in the law or the enforcers start looking the other way, the social contract begins to break down, and violence increases. Countries with high levels of corruption (which TCOs contribute to greatly) and non-evenly enforced laws often have high levels of violence. The rule of law sounds more esoteric than border security, but it is arguably more important, with disastrous second and third order effects if unraveled. When these systems are founded on injustice or lack consent of the governed, we have a moral and practical necessity to re-align the laws. But ignoring the laws and allowing corruption to enter a system is corrosive. Countering TCOs and interdicting illegal goods across our border is about more than just drugs.
While most of U.S. counterdrug strategy documents refer to TCOs as the principal threat, at the working level this theme has not yet stuck. In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the authors argue that some ideas are “sticky” and stay with us because of their simplicity, upending of expectations, and underlying psychological triggers. The idea of a war on drugs stuck for this reason. It was sticky and simple. People understood it. As we continue to refine our efforts, we would be wise to find a way to message the fight against TCOs better.
As a law enforcement and military arm, it is imperative that the Coast Guard fight violent TCOs, enforce our sovereign border, and maintain the rule of law that holds our society together. We cannot rest, as the work will never be finished. If the nation decides to alter our drug laws, that may change but not end the overall effort. As Plato pronounced, we are the guardians of the Republic, but guardians are humans who need a visceral understanding of the “why” behind their mission. Coast Guardsmen need to understand they are fighting transnational criminals, protecting our borders, and upholding the law.