Is The War on Drugs a Humanitarian Crisis?


In Latin America, the four-decade long War on Drugs has had devastating impacts on the health, safety and wellbeing of rural communities, and imposed de facto states of siege in heavily militarized urban areas where government forces engage narco-trafficking groups. In reflecting on the legacies of disappearances, murders and displacement, the Drug Policy Alliance calls the Drug War ‘a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions’. In October 2015, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office declared that fighting between paramilitaries over drug trade routes was causing a humanitarian crisis. Such instances reflect how the War on Drugs in Latin America has encouraged a highly militarized yet unsuccessful approach to drug control, leading to violence, displacement and human suffering throughout the region.

Yet contrary to past decades, the War on Drugs is increasingly seen as unwinnable. Seeking a set of plausible post-prohibition frameworks, governments and stakeholders increasingly look to reframe the issue of narcotics trafficking around a human rights and public health centred approach that emphasizes decriminalization, legalization and harm reduction. In May 2013 a pathbreaking report was launched by the Organization of American States (OAS) calling for the legalization of the drug trade, and considerable expectations surround the April 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs.

The War on Drugs and the Humanitarian Frame

Despite their remits and imperatives to offer assistance in times of crisis, humanitarian agencies are businesses that need to economically justify their existence. Here Gilles Carbonnier speaks of ‘the Transformative Power of Humanitarian Crises (2016), and such sentiments are increasingly relevant to how humanitarian organizations are reframing their relevance in the Americas. Facing the decline of civil conflicts and the need for humanitarian intervention in the region, agencies are facing an existential crisis on the continent. In response agencies have increasingly begun to frame the War on Drugs in the language of “humanitarian crises”. The phrase “humanitarian crisis” most often appears in relation to the War on Drugs in Colombia, referencing violent actions by drug producers and traffickers, and the human cost of government prohibition. Yet other contexts are also being labelled as crises. Mexican cartel violence and the State’s war against it is seen to have contributed to a humanitarian emergency; Central American transshipment corridors are viewed as experiencing crises of forced migration and displacement; and flows of unaccompanied child migrants at the US border was described as a humanitarian crisis resulting from the War on Drugs.

Therefore, while humanitarian ‘crises’ often traditionally invoke rural violence and displacement in drug producing and transshipment areas, humanitarian organizations are increasingly linked to a War on Drugs narrative to justify engaging in contexts of urban violence under the moniker of “non-conventional violence”. Moreover, the relabeling of narco-related violence particularly in Latin American cities as complex urban emergencies represents a reimagining of the humanitarian project and the “remaking” of humanitarian institutional relevance in Latin-America. In doing so, agencies are facilitating new spaces of humanitarian entry into contexts in which they may be ill-suited to operate.

Consequences of a Humanitarian Frame

Interpreting the War on Drugs through a humanitarian frame is therefore not a neutral description but a political position with an attendant set of consequences. While it presents certain advantages by involving organizations with experience in negotiating with local armed actors and in humanitarian or disaster relief, the approach also presents significant costs and challenges:

  • The perceived neutrality of humanitarian framing may enable governments to avoid political responsibility encourage an abdication of state responsibility for policy choices that may exacerbate the consequences of the War on Drugs.
  • A humanitarian frame may also minimize or invisibilize the range of available policy choices, and rather than encourage multi-sectorial, integrated violence reduction policies, the frame may restrict responses to some narrow combination of military and humanitarian approaches.
  • The humanitarian frame also depoliticizes international responsibility for the problems of narcotics related violence in Latin America, and rather than driving post-prohibition framework discussions forward, a humanitarian framing of the War on Drugs risks contributing to the postponement of these debates.
  • The ‘apolitical neutrality’ of humanitarian engagement can also overlook the critical importance of local or grassroots governance structures. Humanitarian actors can risk unwittingly upending or deeply misreading local logics of power and may fracture civil societies or undermine forms of social mobilization, resistance or mediation.

Implications and Considerations

We remain unconvinced that humanitarianism is the adequate frame to understand the War on Drugs in Latin America. Beyond discussions of legalization at UNGASS 2016 and subsequent fora, policy makers should consider the implications of a humanitarian framing of the War on Drugs. Governments in the Americas should recognize that militarized approaches to drug prohibition and interdiction are failing, and should actively consider the attendant human suffering as a structural health and welfare issue. Moreover, parties at UNGASS and beyond should continue serious discussions about developing a post-prohibition framework, with the War on Drugs emphasized as a collective challenge demanding international responsibility.

We also observe that a humanitarian frame is increasingly used to justify and facilitate entry of humanitarian agencies into urban areas. With a series of negative consequences possible, humanitarian organizations and concerned stakeholders must acknowledge and address the costs brought about by framing of the War on Drugs as a humanitarian concern; and carefully consider the capacity of agencies to responsibly engage in contexts of urban violence. If choosing to engage, humanitarian actors should prepare for greater complexity of operations; be highly sensitive of, and responsive to, local political economies; devise longer-term programming approaches; and support existing civil society efforts to address violence. Failing to do so will only exacerbate the already tragic human costs the War on Drugs has burdened on the region.

Note: This entry, written by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and , was originally posted on the ATHA blog and is derived from the authors’ policy brief Is the War on Drugs a “Humanitarian Crisis”?. The brief was published by PRIO and is an output of the the research project Brazil’s Rise to the Global Stage.