Canada’s secret war on drugs

Canadian navy joins U.S. in its Caribbean drug war escapades


Is Canada on the wrong side in the dust-up between the U.S. and Latin America over the future of the four-decades-old so-called war on drugs?

While it didn’t get much press, in late September the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, addressed the United Nations, calling for alternatives to the military assault on drug cartels that has done little to end the violence.

So where does Canada stand on attempts to reframe the drug issue? The answer appears to be we’re getting deeper into the war by the year.

Few Canadians are aware of the 2010 policy shift that now allows Canadian ships to transport and support the U.S. Coast Guard in the Caribbean as they attempt to catch drug smuggling craft on their way to U.S. ports.

It is solely the armed American officers who board vessels, hunt for drugs and detain alleged smugglers, but Canada’s backup role is increasingly important. The Royal Canadian Navy contributes ships, helicopters and an Aurora tracking plane, and provides data on suspicious vessels via surveillance tech back home.

According to former naval officer Ken Hansen, now a research fellow with Dalhousie’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, the prevailing argument seems to be: “If we’re going to be part of a common security perimeter [with the U.S.], we have to learn to understand their concerns even if they’re sometimes false.”

But Hansen is concerned about Canada’s potential “loss of sovereign authority,” given it’s participation in joint operations. “How does it affect our own national policies on security? How does it affect how we as Canadians approach problem solving, as opposed to the Americans?” he asks.

It’s not surprising that officers and academics in and around the Royal Canadian Navy are conversant with drug politics. In the post-Afghan war hangover, now that our army is recharging its batteries, our navy appears to be flexing its muscles in various missions with the U.S. Navy, like the one in Libyan waters in 2011.

This has made some wonder if the new armed coastal patrol vessels, featured in the navy’s multi-billion-dollar shopping list, aren’t part of a new orientation to the drug war. Philippe Lagassé, a U of Ottawa defence expert, thinks they could well be, since the new boats, in addition to their much-touted Arctic duties, will likely be sent to the Caribbean.

“The patrol ship is an odd [choice]. The problem lies with its capabilities. It’s not designed for year-round Arctic patrols.”

U of Alberta political scientist Julian Castro-Rea believes there’s insuf ficient debate in Canada about the way our military services buy exactly the same hardware the U.S. is adopting, like the controversial F-35 stealth fighters. “The Canadian Forces insist Canadian commanders will always be responsible for their forces. But if you build your forces around operating your military with your neighbour’s, your forces in the end won’t be autonomous.”

Certainly it’s an open question whether it’s in Canada’s interest to spend an unknown amount of money on anti-smuggler actions in the Caribbean. Sanho Tree, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, says high seas interdiction led years ago to the drug cartels’ transporting merchandise overland through Mexico and other Central American countries, creating upheaval, corruption and deaths.

Most of those caught on drug-smuggling craft by the U.S. are the “expendable” small fry who don’t have a lot of info about their employers to share with the feds, he tells NOW. “The drug cartels expect to lose a certain amount [of merchandise] through interdiction. It’s the cost of doing business.”

The outgoing president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, may have argued for a less “prohibitionist” strategy, but his military campaign against cartels – funded by the U.S. to the tune of $4 billion annually under the Mérida Initiative – is a human rights disaster. According to Amnesty International, 60,000 people have been killed in the crossfire.

Just last March, a quiet exchange of notes between Ottawa and Mexico City outlined plans for more defence-related discussions to deal with “criminal activities and other threats in the hemisphere.”

At the Department of Foreign Affairs, spokesperson Ian Trites explains that a portion of Canada’s $15 million annual investment in crime-fighting in the Americas has gone to “law enforcement training projects for Mexican police.” The goal, he says, is “to protect the rights of vulnerable groups in a manner consistent with international anti-crime and human rights obligations.”

But U of Alberta’s Castro-Rea says Canadian forces don’t have much interest in direct support for Mexico. Rather, the talks were “at the insistence of the U.S.”

These deepening trilateral ties, says the Rideau Institute’s Steven Staples, do not bode well. “Most Canadians would be alarmed if [they knew] our military was adopting the U.S. view that there is a military and police solution to drug trafficking. There is a real danger here. Canada and the U.S. have very distinct views on the problem.”

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