The global War on Drugs - like so many other government initiatives that begin with a noble, limited and understandable purpose - has swelled in time to become a costly, vague and chaotic operation of monstrous and bloody proportions.
In the US, a relatively new international force that operates alongside the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been drawing criticism for its counter-productive and, frankly, illegal activities in this self-proclaimed ‘war’. The agency in question is known (in the characteristically blustering lingo of neo-imperialism) as FAST - the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team.
This group, which operates on the shadowy, but ostensibly-benevolent ‘counter-terrorist’ outskirts of international law, has increasingly been drawing condemnation for its aggressive response to the illegal drugs market in foreign countries. Whilst FAST denies that they are part of the US Army, their operations – burning drugs crops and homes, making arrests, attacking compounds – are undeniably militaristic and have resulted in a number of mistaken casualties.
Created in 2005, FAST initially announced that its purpose was to investigate ‘Taliban-linked drug traffickers in Afghanistan’. Since then, however, it has broadened its scope and has been silently setting up commando-style squads in a number of Western Hemisphere countries, including Belize, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Under Federal Law, FAST teams are not allowed to arrest foreign nationals on their own soil. As a result they operate alongside local security officers in non-US countries to disrupt the drugs trade. In ‘exigent circumstances’, they are permitted to fire upon suspects if they believe their own lives are at immediate risk. Naturally, there is a wide scope for interpretation at play when such slippery definitions of what kind of force is appropriate are feebly mumbled.
Bruce Bagley, a professor at Miami University who specializes in Latin America and counternarcotics, explains that the way that FAST functions is potentially extremely dangerous. ‘It could lead to a nationalist backlash in the countries involved,’ he said. ‘If an American is killed, the administration and the DEA could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings. Taking out kingpins could fragment the organization and lead to more violence. And it won’t permanently stop trafficking unless a country also has capable institutions, which often don’t exist in Central America.’
According to the New York Times, FAST commandoes have also been deployed at least 15 times to Latin America’. Operations have certainly not been bloodless. Raids on drugs lords and arrest missions in Haiti and Honduras have left a number of DEA agents wounded or dead. In a recent firefight against cocaine smugglers in Honduras, one Honduran officer and two drugs smugglers were killed. Following the mission, Honduran Security Officer Oscar Alvarez spoke in shock at the unquestioning boldness of the operation. ‘I don’t want to say it was Vietnam-style’, he said, ‘but it (the operation) was typical of war action’. Alvarez did not want to say whether or not the American FAST team had been responsible for the shootings, but a number of witnesses said that they were.
The New York Times has pointed out that incidents like these demonstrate that ‘(US) policy makers….are blurring the line between law enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the ‘war on drugs’ with the ‘war on terrorism.’
If FAST continues to be encouraged to extend its dubious and bloody operations, Obama’s administration will prove to be as damaging for countries in South America as Reagan’s government proved to be two decades ago. However, the frustrating lack of reporting on DEA and FAST involvement in countries like Honduras, Colombia and Afghanistan has served to conceal their activities, and should be a cause for alarm.
FAST has become a fully-fledged, internationally-active arm of the Department for Justice and the DEA. The uncomfortable fact is that, through their deeply renegade nature, they operate independently of any formal, clear and open authorization from Congress. The analyst James Boswell mutters sarcastically on his blog that ‘it’s up to the good guys (that’s the US) to be more transparent about their activities’ with regards to what's going on with FAST.
Explains Michael Tennant of the New American, there is an inherent and inescapable flaw in the fact that the FAST team operate in a manner that is –no matter what the DEA says – fundamentally military. FAST officers are, as military personnel, ‘trained to shoot first and ask questions later’. They are not, he points out, treated as law-enforcement officers, ‘obliged to respect the rights of suspects, treating them as innocent until proven guilty and using deadly force only when absolutely necessary.’ The deliberate blurring of this distinction, explains Tennant, ‘has already had detrimental effects domestically, and it cannot be good for citizens of foreign countries where FAST operates largely free of any oversight’.