Archive for the US-Latin America Relations Category

U.S. Intervention in Latin America 1970-Present

Posted in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , on April 16, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

There have been two phases of United States intervention in Latin America since 1970. The older, first phase is the Cold War in which the United States funded Latin military governments and their wars against communist insurgencies. The second phase is the War on Drugs through which the United States has pressured Latin American states into prohibitionist politics, helping to organize and fund anti-drug efforts across the Western Hemisphere. These two contexts are related to each other, they overlap and interact with each other in complex ways, but the justifications for why the United States has stayed so intimately involved in the domestic affairs of Latin America have changed over time, and it is important to understand the magnitude of impact the US has had on its neighbors to the South.

Cold War interventions in Central America date back to the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954. After what was regarded by the CIA as a massive success, they tried a similar approach with Cuba in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs invasion, this time with disastrous results. The Cuban situation was massively embarrassing, and it became necessary for the US to increase their commitment to fighting communism across the region. In the 1970s, the United States was very involved in aiding Central American militaries in their fight against communism. The United States supplied Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua with direct military aid to help in their dirty wars. The friendly regimes in Honduras and Panama were used as bases of operations to carry out U.S. assistance to these places. The regimes to which the U.S. supplied weapons, training, and financial aid were known to be abusers of human rights, but Cold War hawks in the United States regarded this as a necessary evil in the international war on communism. The Carter administration tried to change course by denying aid to gross human rights violators, but the successful Sandinista Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent election of Ronald Reagan changed this approach.

The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua was a watershed event, arguably as or more important to modern Central American history as was the Cuban Revolution. The communist insurgencies that existed in Guatemala and El Salvador turned into brutal Civil Wars, and the Reagan administration responded by providing billions in dollars of aid to the governments and paramilitaries fighting these communists. Though the Cold War ended in 1989, the legacy of the wars the United States fought in the name of anti-communism have had far-reaching impacts into today.

In the 1970’s, the United States had begun to get serious about the War on Drugs. In particular, the United States was targeting Mexico and the Sinaloa region that was supplying the marijuana that had fueled the counter-culture revolution. However, as the US targeted Mexico, production shifted to Colombia. The United States then became involved in fighting wars against the newly formed Colombian cartels and continued implementing crop eradication programs that disproportionately harmed poorer indigenous people. In Colombia, we see an acute intersection between the Cold War and the War on drugs. As the United States and the Colombian government fought the communist FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), they also fought the drug cartels who were pumping tons and tons of drugs into the United States. When the United States and Colombia finally defeated Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, the FARC took over coca-growing operations and made alliances with Mexican cartels, namely the Sinaloa cartel, who now controlled the trade.

The United States has continued to fight the War on Drugs at home and abroad. From discouraging coca production in the Andes to prosecuting corruption in Central America to helping the Mexican government fight a vicious war against the cartels to criminalizing the consumption and distribution of drugs here at home, the United States has remained invested in an expensive and ineffective multi-front war. The War on Drugs is not the only modern example of United States intervention. In 2009, the US was involved in the Honduran coup in which the Honduran military, who has enjoyed a close relationship with Washington over the years, ousted a democratically elected president. Most recently, US Ambassador John Bolton has been considering intervening militarily in Venezuela. The examples that have been discussed have largely been instances where the United States has directly intervened with military and financial aid, but it is also worth considering that the United States has used a variety of political and financial organizations to influence domestic and foreign policies of Latin American governments. A third phase, in addition to the Cold War and the War on Drugs, could be understood as a neo-liberal phase in which the United States ensured loans to governments who would pass more US-friendly laws. Suffice it to say that though the United States does does not completely dominate the hemisphere as they have at different points in history, the US remains embedded in Latin American economies and politics.


Stephen Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012

Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. policy towards Latin America, Harvard University Press, 2003.

Further Reading:

  1. For a brief history and timeline of US intervention in Latin America, see
  2. For more information on the CIA-sponsored coup and the subsequent Civil War on Guatemala, see
  3. For more information about the evolution of the drug trade and the war on drugs in Latin America, see
  4. To read more about the United States’ role in the 2009 Honduran coup and subsequent militarization and repression, see
  5. To read briefly about John Bolton’s policy towards Venezuela, see

Overview of the Latin American Drug Trade, 1970s-Present

Posted in US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

Today, people in the United States consume at least $100 billion in illicit drugs per year, making it easily the largest drug market in the world. The staples of the illicit drug economy have historically been marijuana, cocaine, heroin, with methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other prescription pills joining more recently. Drug culture and the drug trade in the United States has existed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but the episode most relevant to today’s circumstances involves the drug revolution of the 1960’s in which some US citizens increasingly consumed massive amounts of illicit substances, and their government responded by fighting a war against it. As the War on Drugs has played out, it has become increasingly apparent that governments across the hemisphere are losing this war (or unwilling to win it), as the demand has never been higher for illicit substances. Tracking how the drug trade has evolved and why it has been so difficult to stop are necessary considerations to understanding the current conflicts that exist in the US, Mexico, and Central America today.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the foreign actors who most capitalized on the potential of United States’ drug markets were the notorious Colombian cartels. Mexican smugglers, especially those from Sinaloa, had been smuggling contraband into the United States for decades. But when the United States targeted Sinaloa with crop eradication programs, production and distribution shifted to Colombia. The emergence of the Colombian cartels with their cocaine and marijuana signaled a significant development in the global drug trade, and the illicit cocaine trade to the United States exploded as organizations like the Medellin cartel started investing in mass coca production in the Andes during the 1970s and 1980s. As the Colombian cartels consolidated their trafficking operations, people in the United States were developing an insatiable demand for cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Most people know the basics of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellin cartel as they pumped drugs into the United States through Miami and made untold amounts of money, and many people know about his downfall and the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. The United States and the Colombian government worked in tandem to take down Escobar and his cartel as a part of the War on Drugs, but even as they took down the major cocaine kingpins in Colombia, the trade never ceased. In fact, despite spending billions of dollars trying to fight these cartels in an intensely violent chapter of Colombia, the cocaine trade from the Andes only increased over time. Instead of disappearing, the cocaine trade, as well as the marijuana and the heroin trade, evolved and adapted by moving drugs through the US-Mexico border as opposed to the coast of Florida. People who traded it became savvier and less traceable in their activities, and, ultimately,  the bulk of the drug trade was inherited by Mexican organizations after the fall of the Colombian cartels. This shift in power and profits from Colombians to Mexicans in the late 1980s- early 1990s is critical to understanding the modern drug trade.

Mexican families in Sinaloa have had a long history of trafficking marijuana and opium into the United States, but the formation of the modern cartel structure we see today did not begin until the Colombian kingpins had fallen, making drug profits up-for-grabs. As a result of US interference in the Colombian trade to the coast of Miami, Mexicans had picked up considerable influence in trafficking drugs across the expansive land border. As consumers in the United States continued buying drugs, drug trafficking corridors between the US and Mexico became priceless. Eventually, various cartels would fight for territory in a series of wars that has rocked Mexico since 2006, conflicts responsible for at least 160,000 deaths and tens of thousands of more disappearances.

A critical turn in the conflict was with the 2006 election of Felipe Calderón to the Mexican presidency. He declared that the government would fight the drug cartels, but this decision sparked an escalation in violence that has developed into the wars we’ve seen over the last decade-and-a-half. Despite all the efforts against it, violence continues to erupt around the drug trade, and the entire hemisphere is facing a series of crises related to drugs. Heroin, and now fentanyl, have never been more widely used in the United States. The cocaine trade remains one of the most profitable in the world. Mexican cartels still control the vast majority of the trade, but these cartels have fractured and splintered into more elusive, localized entities in response to conflict amongst each other and the governments of the US and Mexico. There is also some evidence that some of the profits from the trade might be flowing more towards central American gangs, but the relationship and differences between Mexican Cartels and Central American gangs is incredibly complex and ever-evolving.

Traditionally, Central America has played the transportista role in the cocaine trade from the Andes to the United States. When smuggling routes shifted from coastal routes to the US/Mexico land border, drug traffickers needed places and people in Central America to stash and move their drugs North. While the vast majority of profits went to the cartels responsible for transporting the drugs across the US border, the profits from these transportista networks were incentives enough for everyone from poor farmers to wealthy elite families to become involved with trafficking cocaine through Central America. Central American gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have a limited role in trafficking drugs. These organizations can serve as muscle for drug trafficking operations and can accumulate localized power, but the majority of the drug trade through Central America is run through well-connected, elite families who have operatives throughout the insidiously corrupt governments and are often tied to the former military regimes of these countries. For example, the Honduran president’s brother was arrested in Miami on drug trafficking charges.

As has been historically demonstrated, by the time there enough information to make conclusions about drug-trafficking organizations, their alliances, and their conflicts, the situations will have changed. Cartels and gangs who traffic drugs have embedded themselves in national political and economic structures across the region. Corruption and drug money in the Mexican federal government, police, and military is astoundingly profound. Central American governments are notoriously corrupted by the drug trade. US Customs and Border Patrol has also experienced serious problems with corruption. While there is emerging hope for a profound shift in US drug policy, efforts to pursue alternative approaches to the prohibitionist model remain quagmired. As it stands now, the drug trade and the violence that accompanies everyone and everywhere it encounters remains one of the most serious national security threats to nations across the Western Hemisphere, but it is clear that this problem can not be completely or even partially solved by the construction of a wall when the fact that around 80% of the drugs imported into the United States happens through legal US border checkpoints.

Sources: Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Benjamin, T. Smith. “The Rise and Fall of Narcopopulism: Drugs, Politics, and Society in Sinaloa, 1930-1980.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7, no. 2 (2013): 125-65. (JSTOR)

Linton, Magnus. “Pablo’s Party: The State Gets Cancer.” Translated by John Eason. In Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It, 107-59. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2014.

Further Reading:

  1. For brief estimates of how much the US spends on drugs, see
  2. For useful graphs that display trends in global drug use, see
  3. For more information about the history and development of the Sinaloa cartel, see
  4. To read more about Colombia’s cocaine production in the present day, see
  5. For a brief timeline with facts about the drug wars in Mexico, see
  6. For a detailed report on Mexican trafficking organizations and the present situation in Mexico’s Drug War, see June Beittels’s Congressional report
  7. For more information on Mexico’s Drug war with helpful maps, graphs, and explanations, see the Council on Foreign Relation’s report

CIA-Contra Connection

Posted in Nicaragua, US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , , on April 2, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

In 1979, the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the Nicaraguan government that the United States had supported. Many people in Washington, including the incoming president Ronald Reagan, thought Jimmy Carter had been too soft on communism in Nicaragua. The incoming administration vowed to fight Central American communism much more enthusiastically, and one of their goals was to overthrow the new Sandinista regime. Congress, however, had passed laws prohibiting the government from funding the Contras, the right-wing paramilitary resistance to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In order to circumvent licit funding from Congress, the Reagan administration devised illegal schemes to provide the funds necessary to continue their proxy war in Nicaragua. The most notable of these illegal schemes is the Iran-Contra affair in which Oliver North and the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran and then funneled the proceeds to the Contras without any Congressional oversight. The Contras were also linked to selling the first batches of cocaine that were turned into “crack,” or cocaine hydrochloride, in Los Angeles so that they could increase their war chest. Whether or not the CIA organized and directed these drug deals has been the subject of much inquiry and speculation since the Contra-crack connection has been established, and what can be concluded is that the CIA was complicit or extremely irresponsible in the Contras crack cocaine networks in the poorer communities of Los Angeles. The CIA-Contra connection is very important for a few reasons. It reveals truths about the Central American Cold War and the War on Drugs that are difficult to reconcile with the professed morality of such wars. While the Iran-Contra affair is obviously a massive chapter in modern US history, the Contra-cocaine connection has stunning implications for 1980s US-Central America relations.

The only reason we know about the Contra drug ring in Los Angeles is due to the reporting of Gary Webb. In 1995, Webb published a 3-part story in which he detailed the connections between the Contras and a man by the name of “Freeway” Rick Ross. As the story goes, Norwin Meneses and Oscar Blandon, two Contras, came to San Francisco with the direction to sell a bunch of cocaine. The Contras didn’t know how to sell the cocaine, so they tried their luck further south, in Los Angeles. Around the time the Contras were in Los Angeles, some people had begun experimenting with cooking cocaine into “crack,” or adding baking soda to cocaine in order to make a cheaper, smokable form of the drug. When the Contras got to Los Angeles, they encountered a young, street-wise entrepreneur names Rick Ross. Ross bought the Contras’ cocaine, cooked it into crack, and then sold it to gangs in Los Angeles, creating an infamous empire in the process. Thus, the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged Los Angeles and other black communities across the country was started, in part, by a Central American para-military that was sponsored by the CIA. Webb’s reporting never definitively established that CIA directed these activities or knew about the specific drug ring in Los Angeles, but there is evidence that the Reagan administration knew that the Contras were involved in drug-trafficking operations. There is much speculation as to how these Contras were able to transport the amount of drugs they did with the aircraft that they did and go unmolested by authorities in the United States for decades.

Here, we see what could be considered a paradoxical intersection between the Cold War and the War on Drugs in the 1980s. In one sense, you have the United States funding paramilitary activities against a Communist regime, which is normal and expected. On the other hand, the United States is involved in a regional, even global, War on Drugs in order to stop the flow of illicit substances into the United States. However, with the CIA-Contra scandal, the Reagan administration clearly violates it’s prohibitionist approach towards drugs and drug traffickers and uses them to help fund their unsuccessful war on communism in Nicaragua. At the same time that tens of thousands of black people across the county are suffering from an addiction to crack cocaine and being incarcerated for it by the US government, the CIA was working with the drug traffickers responsible for selling the cocaine that sparked the epidemic. For obvious reasons, this hypocrisy outraged the South Los Angeles community, and the response was so forceful that it required an unprecedented response from the CIA chief.

Source: Scott, Peter Dale and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 23-50

Further Reading:

  1. For a history of the Sandinista Revolution and its origins, motives, and consequences, see
  2. For access to an Iran-Contra affairs database compiled by Brown University that explains the facts and Congressional investigations, see
  3. To see the evidence that supports the conclusion that the US government was aware of the drug trafficking activities of the Contra army and explores memos written by government officials, as well as testimony from Contra drug dealers, see
  4. To read Gary Webb’s original reporting on the CIA-Contra-Los Angeles crack connections, see
  5. To read about how “Freeway” Rick Ross grew up in Los Angeles and built an empire from crack cocaine, see
  6. To read about the meeting between the Los Angeles community and the Chief of the CIA in 1996, see


U.S. Drug Policy in Latin America (1970-Present)

Posted in US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , , , , , on April 2, 2019 by dsmith41

Sarah Tosto

As the global demand for drugs by United States increased, who is now the number one consumer of drugs with 50% consumption of the $150 billion of the world drug supply, came the declaration of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s as drugs became a “national security threat.” Conveniently for the U.S. during this time period, most Latin American countries had been under severe economic stress and were in desperate need of debt relief. In addition to economic stress, these Latin American countries showed similar political instability and lack of government protection from the drug cartels. This failure of government led to the rise of leftist guerilla groups and paramilitaries.  From here on out, the United States implemented drug policies that economically incentivized the crack down of drug production in Latin America and helped Latin American countries fight opposition groups. This supply-side approach to drug eradication, however, resulted in failure due to the idiosyncratic nature of the drug economy in that demand never falters. These policies ended up highly militarizing the War on Drugs in Latin American, bringing unprecedented levels of violence.

Mexico and Colombia are two countries that have become increasingly violent after the United States’ foreign policy and aid. The article The U.S.- Mexico War on Narcotics: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, discusses the introduction of the Merida Initiative in 2007 in which the United States provided over $2.5 billion to the Mexican government for narcotics detection resources, training of justice sector personnel, crop eradication efforts, and other anti-narcotic strategies (Logia, 2017). Between 2008 and 2010 they received over $300 million in foreign military assistance which only moved through the corrupt government into the hands of the cartels (Logia, 2017). In response to this corruption, paramilitaries emerged and acted as a task force to protect citizens from cartel violence. This created a new wave of violence in Mexico after 2007 and has led to the deaths of over 200,000 since the help of the U.S. and the militarization of the drug war.

In Colombia, we see the Andean Initiative taking on a similar role in supply-side policy approach without the acknowledgement of paramilitary groups. The article Andean Regional Initiative: A Policy Fated to Fail discusses the 35-year history of internal conflict from leftist groups (the FARC) and guerilla groups (paramilitaries). The FARC came to power in the 1960’s during times of poverty, political exclusion of the masses, lack of confidence in the state, and violence towards the rural population. They protected the rural population against the government’s eradication efforts. In efforts to fight the FARC, the Colombian military, with the aid of the United States, allowed paramilitaries to escalate the violence and human rights abuses in order to comply with the drug eradication effort. The increased militarization, with the help of the U.S., has led to the doubling of politically motivated homicide between 1998 and 2000—to almost 20 murders per day (Amatangelo, 2005). In 2000, almost 85% of these murders were attributed to state agents and paramilitary groups, with the remaining 15% attributed to guerrilla groups (Amatangelo, 2005).

The United States was able to outsource their anti-drug efforts through economic incentives and increased military aid. These policies, however, proved to be a failure in the eradication of drugs and often led to increased violence, deaths, and human rights violations in Latin American countries. The failures of these policies can be attributed to the supply-side approach used by the United States. In the article US War on Drugs and Its Legacy in Latin America the article goes in depth about the issues created in Andean Countries as well as Mexico and suggests policy reform as a way to diminish violence in these areas.The United States should implement policy that acknowledges human rights violations and the victims of cartel violence (Huey, 2014). The U.S. should also soften their marijuana drug policy so task forces can focus resources on harder drugs (Huey, 2014). Latin American countries could also benefit from the taxation of marijuana for their economies and be less reliant on foreign aid (Huey, 2014). Without policy change, Latin American countries will continue to fight this war at the cost of their citizens.  


Amatangelo, G. (2005). Andean Regional Initiative: A Policy Fated to Fail. Foreign Policy in

Focus. Retrieved from

Huey, D. (2014). US War on Drugs and Its Legacy in Latin America. The Guardian.

Retrieved from

Logia, L. (2017). The U.S.-Mexico War on Narcotics: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Global Americans. Retrieved from


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