Why Is West Africa Repeating the Failures of the Latin American Drug War?

Once the frontlines of the U.S.-led war on drugs, Latin America is now leading the debate for alternative policy approaches to drug control. After decades of staggering violence, instability, and corruption—with little positive impact to show for its efforts—governments are rejecting the dominant narratives on drugs and demanding a rethink.

So drug warriors seem to be moving the frontlines to West Africa.

Sadly, as West African countries struggle with their own considerable trafficking problems, it appears that many of the same failed strategies from Latin America are being enthusiastically exported, according to a new briefing from the Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University.

The briefing, titled Telling the Story of Drugs in West Africa: The Newest Front in a Losing War?, investigates a narrative riddled with poor data and politically driven rhetoric that seem to push for greater securitization and even militarization of drugs, a strategy that cost the Latin American region hundreds of thousands of lives.

For example, the United States has presented new counternarcotic programs in West Africa as counterterrorism measures, making a politically charged connection between drugs and terrorism that does not seem to be supported by the limited facts on the ground. 

The report also investigates the data supporting this call to arms by the U.S. and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which continues to be trumpeted despite the lack of evidence that previous such campaigns had any success.

The report concludes that rather than a simple replication of often harmful and ineffective policy interventions applied in Latin America, the response to illicit drugs in West Africa should benefit from careful reflection about what has and has not worked in other parts of the world, particularly in places where repressive drug control measures have raised HIV risk and exacerbated poverty.

The drug war is now widely acknowledged to be a costly failure, as outlined in the above video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. Throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s, even as seizures and arrests increased, drugs have become cheaper and more potent. Moreover, drug-related violence has continued or even become more widespread in many regions.  

The briefing suggests that, even as the region struggles with the many harms of significant drug trafficking routes, responses to that trafficking must take account the failures of earlier militarized drug control.

Read the complete briefing, Telling the Story of Drugs in West Africa.

Add your voice