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Defunding America’s forces of death

Aug 17,2020 - Last updated at Aug 17,2020

NEW YORK — The mass protests in response to George Floyd’s death in May at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer have ignited and accelerated demands for radical reform of law-enforcement procedures and funding across America. As pressure grows to shift domestic government spending away from punitive policing, policymakers in Washington, DC should be doing the same with US international aid.

Such a rethink is long overdue. For decades, the US government has spent lavishly to help allies build repressive security regimes in the name of ensuring stability, if not democracy. All too often, however, US assistance has fuelled violence and repression, when the security threats would have been better addressed by improved healthcare, social services and economic programmes. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the federal government has spent over $250 billion on police and military forces around the world, with troublingly mixed results. Some of these efforts have even been counterproductive to America’s stated interests, because they exacerbated corruption, human-rights violations and misconduct by security forces. In the Philippines, for example, President Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly placed the military in charge of enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns. 

More than 30,000 quarantine violators have been arrested and Duterte has ordered security forces to shoot dead those disobeying stay-at-home orders. Yet, the US government recently announced a $2 billion sale of attack helicopters to the Philippines. With the Duterte government’s war on illegal drugs already resulting in some 30,000 extrajudicial killings, the sale would merely worsen the country’s terrible human-rights record.US training and security assistance has long supported repression abroad. 

The notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia — renamed in 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — has trained over 80,000 Latin American military and police officers, including some of the continent’s worst human-rights violators. Moreover, US international security assistance reflects the influence of domestic failed policing strategies. For example, Duterte’s “war on drugs” is a US export, funded around the world by the US Agency for International Development and the state, defence, and justice departments, among others. US President Donald Trump’s budget for 2018 alone included $1.4 billion for international drug control. And one study found that between 2000 and 2017, the US spent $20.5 billion on security assistance to Latin America, with $17 billion of that amount coming through programmes established as part of the war on drugs.

While the full financial cost of this war may never be known, the human cost is all too clear. Relying on violence and force to win the drug war has aided and abetted repressive regimes, fuelled the growth of criminal organisations, and enabled state and non-state violence that has decimated communities, especially those with many young, poor, and Afro-descendent inhabitants.

This approach has clearly failed. Between 2000 and 2017, Colombia, for example, received $9.5 billion in US military assistance, the largest amount that America has granted to a single country to fight the war on drugs. But all this money and effort failed to end Colombia’s drug trade, and instead hurt some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. In Brazil, state-sanctioned violence in the name of the war on drugs has led to thousands of deaths — mostly of young, Afro-Brazilian residents of favelas. In Rio de Janeiro, military police killed 1,814 people, most of them black, in 2019. Although US security assistance is less prominent in Brazil than in many other Latin American countries, President Jair Bolsonaro has embraced the US-propagated drug war wholeheartedly — resulting in increased arrests for low-level offenses, higher incarceration rates, and further growth of private prisons. Furthermore, the US government unintentionally made thousands of assault rifles available to Mexican drug cartels in 2009 as a result of a botched drug crackdown along the US-Mexican border. A 2018 study found that 70 per cent of guns recovered and traced at crime scenes in Mexico came from the US, whether legally or illegally. In 2019, more than 35,000 Mexicans were murdered in drug-war-related violence. And an estimated 150,000 intentional homicides in Mexico since 2006 have been tied to organised crime. This violence has been fuelled in part by millions of dollars in US aid, provided through a complex web of federal funding. Following pressure from human-rights groups, the US Congress has taken steps to prevent the federal government from providing unfettered aid to corrupt and abusive military and police units abroad. The “Leahy Law”, which prohibits the federal government from funding personnel and units accused of gross human-rights violations, is now permanent, and thus no longer needs to be attached to the annual budget appropriations for the Departments of State and Defence. 

The Open Society Foundations previously issued a set of recommendations aimed at helping US government agencies involved in providing security-sector assistance formulate better policy, strengthen implementation and coordination, and enhance data collection and tracking. Each of these is crucial to ensuring greater integrity in US international assistance and minimising the risk of counterproductive outcomes.

In particular, the US should channel its international spending towards community-based solutions that could be scaled nationally, and that focus on improving people’s health and safety. In Cali, Colombia, for example, the previous city government cooperated with public-health practitioners to provide psychological and social support for young people in violent neighbourhoods, with the aim of reducing drug-related gang violence. As a result, homicides in these neighbourhoods declined by 80 per cent from 2015 to 2018. And in Pernambuco, Brazil, programmes have focused on providing housing, health services, and economic programmes to those most at risk of experiencing violence, particularly people experiencing homelessness and using crack cocaine, without requiring them to stop using drugs. The programme increased the health of Pernambuco’s most vulnerable drug users, and reduced violence. For too long, the US has failed to invest in nonlethal approaches to promoting security at home and abroad. But relying on strategies and agents of punishment and death has merely meant more punishment and more death. Policymakers must now take steps to defund this failed approach.


Marc Krupanski is a senior programme officer at the Open Society Public Health Programme, and leads the portfolio focused on law enforcement, community safety and harm reduction. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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