Private Contractors Making a Killing off the Drug War

As tens of thousands of corpses continue to pile up as a result of the US-led “War on Drugs” in Latin America, private contractors are benefiting from lucrative federal counter-narcotics contracts amounting to billions of dollars, without worry of oversight or accountability.

U.S. contractors in Latin America are paid by the Defense and State Departments to supply countries with services that include intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, training, and equipment.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government’s use of contractors, have largely failed,” said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, chair of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight which released a report on counter-narcotics contracts in Latin America this month. “Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we’re getting in return.”

Washington doled out $3.1 billion dollars between 2005 and 2009, with spending having increased 32 percent over the five year period. DynCorp International was the big winner, racking in $1.1 billion, or 36 percent of total counter-narcotics contract spending in the region by the Defense and State Departments. Other contractors benefiting from the spending include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC.

“The federal government does not have any uniform systems in place to track or evaluate whether counter-narcotics contracts are achieving their goals,” the report states.

The June 7th Senate Report was released less than a week after an international drug commission declared the “War on Drugs” a failure. The commission included former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria.

The lack of transparency, oversight and accountability by the Defense and State Departments on counter-narcotics contracts was brought to light last year in a May 2010 hearing McCaskill held in which the Defense Department provided incomplete accounting on how “Drug War” money was spent on private contractors. Remarkably, it was revealed that the Defense Department actually outsourced their audit to a private contractor for the hearing. In response, the frustrated Senator said at the time that she “will not hesitate to use subpoenas” in order to obtain accurate information.

This laissez-faire approach Washington takes with private contractors often leads to crimes and human rights abuses in foreign countries. For example, DynCorp, the company Washington has entrusted with a majority of taxpayer-funded counter-narcotics dollars, has been mired in scandals over the years, that include: employees allegedly having sex with teenage girls in Bosnia and selling them as sex-slaves; pimping out young “dancing boys” in Afghanistan; and spraying toxic chemicals in Colombia that drifted into Ecuador and is believed to have caused “massive health problems, numerous deaths and widespread environmental damage.”

In response to criticisms, a Pentagon Spokesman told the the L.A Times that counter-narcotics efforts “have been among the most successful and cost-effective programs” in decades and that “the U.S. has received ample strategic national security benefits in return for its investments in this area.” Some of these “benefits” might include U.S. military bases in Colombia, a law enforcement academy in El Salvador run by American “trainers” that critics fear could become another “School of the Americas“, and securing commercial access to oil. But one of these benefits definitely does not include significantly curtailing the amount of drugs reaching the United States, as the Rand Corporation’s Peter Chalk recently pointed out in his report on Latin America’s drug trade, an analysis sponsored by the U.S. Air Force.

Clearly the US-led war on drugs is failing as a policy to stop the production and trafficking of drugs. And it’s not as though there are not numerous viable solutions being provided by people across the hemisphere. Javier Sicilia, Mexican poet and leading activist against drug war-related violence in his country, told journalist Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program, “The United States must go back to the drawing board, listen to what citizens are demanding, and the United States should remember, as a democratic country, that sovereignty lies in the citizens, not in government officials.”

While there is an anti-drug war movement budding in Mexico, we need to grow our own here in the United States and to start making our demands for humane and nonviolent policy alternatives.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at He can be reached at Read other articles by Cyril.