Recently, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, met with President Obama and members of Congress in Washington, DC. Winning the U.S.-declared “War on Drugs” was surely on their agenda. In Mexico alone, nearly 50,000 have died in the past six years from drug war violence.
Instead of focusing on stronger security ties to tackle the problem, though, President Nieto highlighted economic cooperation. The U.S. should take note that it is time to re-orient the hemispheric counter-narcotics strategy. Ecuador provides a successful model of how this can be achieved. Yet the U.S. seems set to end a major program that is enabling this success, the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), at a time when the region needs it most.
U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in the Americas are insufficient because they narrowly focus on “source eradication” — targeting drug producers and their crops, which only replaces old producers with new — and cutting U.S drug demand. After 40 years, it is clear that these strategies aren’t working because they don’t address the increasing lack of viable, legal job opportunities and social programs in the region.
In Ecuador, a new potential model of counter-narcotics cooperation has emerged as an “alternative” to fighting the Latin American drug business: the implementation of U.S. trade preference programs like the ATPDEA to provide economic alternatives to narco-trafficking. The imminent lapse of the ATPDEA will cost jobs in both our countries and threaten security in the region.
Ecuador is located next to some of the world’s most dangerous drug-producing countries — Colombia and Peru — but it is not one itself. This is not by accident, rather the result of the Ecuadorean government implementing strong security initiatives combined with unique economic incentives and access to education and social programs that provide valuable alternative sources of income for Ecuadoreans.
The ATPDEA is designed to support such efforts by providing preferential U.S. trade preferences for key Andean products, including those that flourish near Ecuador’s north-central Colombian border (flowers, broccoli, artichokes, and others). The growth of these products has helped displace drug production, supporting legal economic development for marginalized sectors of the population such as women heads of households.
According to a 2012 U.S. Trade Representative report, the ATPDEA continues to have a “positive” effect on drug-crop eradication and crop substitution, as well as on job growth in export-oriented industries in the Andean region.
This increased economic development has helped Ecuador invest significant government resources to combating drug trafficking, which continues to affect our precariously located country, particularly along the northern borders. As part of these efforts, we have launched aggressive operations to dismantle camps run by Colombia’s rebel FARC groups, who work alongside various other drug traffickers.
The U.S. Trade Representative Office further noted, “Ecuador maintains an active drug detection and interdiction program” and “has continued to reinforce its security presence in the northern border area with an increased number of military operations since 2007.” These counter-narcotics efforts were also recognized in the latest U.S. Department of State International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which found a substantial decrease in cocaine seizures from 2010 to 2011.
Today, the ATPDEA, along with other national economic and social development programs, is an extremely effective counter-narcotics tool for our two countries. The program shows that, while source eradication and decreasing demand are important, we must undermine economic incentives for drug production and trafficking by providing viable economic alternatives.
The ATPDEA is up for renewal by the U.S. government in early 2013. While President Rafael Correa has made it clear that he will continue pursuing strong economic, social, and security initiatives regardless of the continuation of this program, it is clearly in our countries’ shared interests to maintain this proven strategy for success.
Even when our two countries differ on other matters of policy, we recognize that our commitment to addressing the drug problem is essential to our hemisphere’s well-being. While the full potential of Ecuador’s model remains to be seen, the progress achieved thus far proves that this “alternative” approach is a formidable weapon to end this four decades old war.
Nathalie Cely Suárez is Ambassador of Ecuador to the United States.