According to the New York Times, late July this year, the Honduran Air Force shot down two planes suspected of transporting illicit drugs in the Caribbean. Controversy has arisen over the lack of government confirmation on the death toll and cargo of the intercepted planes. In fact, the two planes were never found after they had been fired upon. These two incidents are the latest addition to the saga of multinational cooperation in the illicit drug conflict. In light of the two planes that have been shot down, there are once again questions about the effectiveness of joint-law enforcement operations between the United States and Central and South American countries. In addition, there is growing concern about the degree of force used in these operations because the shoot downs were in violation of certain international laws.
The law enforcement effort to diminish illicit drug trade has often been called a war on drugs. The phrase war on drugs, however, is to some extent misleading. The conflict over the trafficking and trade of illicit drugs is not exactly an armed military conflict as much as it is a law enforcement problem. The U.S. has clearly taken on a leading role in the efforts to deter drug trafficking. Many partnering countries, however, is not equipped with the same law enforcement capabilities to effectively handle the drug trade in their territory. Even though U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the DEA and the Department of State are providing assistance, such as intelligence sharing, the U.S. does not have enough resources to sufficiently assist everyone. In addition, there are jurisdictional limits on how much and what the U.S. can do.
The illicit drug conflict is also a policy problem. For example, some have argued that the passage of NAFTA spurred the drug trade because it made smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border much easier. Even though NAFTA was intended to spur economic development in the region, it had negative side effects. Theoretically, a better economy should improve livelihood for people in regions where the drug conflict is highly problematic and, consequently, provide drug trade participants with alternative sources of income. In reality, it is unlikely that any of the economic alternatives provided as a result of NAFTA would be more lucrative than the drug trade. Policymakers should take into consideration every possible negative side effect that policies can have. They should also look into more aggressive use of policies to deal with the drug conflict. For example, educational reform could make a more profound difference than short term economic reform.