Shawn Smallman on The Concept of Security: The U.S. Drug War, Mexico, and Portugal

We welcome a guest post today from Shawn Smallman, coauthor (with Kimberley Brown) of Introduction to International and Global StudiesTheir new book is a thematic introduction to the intellectual and structural underpinnings of globalization.  Here, Smallman shows how increased regulation and security can actually exacerbate the issues of the international drug war that those measures try to quell. -Alex

Security is a foundational issue in international affairs. Certainly, one of the first writers in this area was the Greek Thucydides, who described the paradox that it was the Athenians’ drive to create security through the construction of great walls that contributed to a conflict with Sparta. National leaders, generals and citizens have had to wrestle with this problem ever since, because actions that states undertake to improve their security–such as missile defense or alliances with neighbors–can actually heighten insecurity or lead to conflict. Many different visions and concepts of security exist that define the problem to be addressed in a very different manner.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the current “drug war” in Mexico. The United States has long supported a militarized approach to fighting drug usage by focusing on the organizations in Latin America that produce and transport these drugs. Arguably, “Plan Colombia” succeeded in that nation, where Pablo Escobar was killed and the major drug cartels were smashed in the 1990s with massive U.S. financial aid. While this did little to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States or to diminish its cost on the market, it did diminish the threat to the Colombian state. As a result, the major drug trafficking routes shifted to the north. In Mexico, President Calderon began the conflict in December 2006 by using the military to attack the major drug producing cartels. The ensuing warfare has killed over 30,000 people, led to the collapse of the state in some border communities, and created to significant tensions within the armed forces between the army and the navy. Now, however, there seems to be little sign that the situation in Mexico is improving, and Mexican armed forces reportedly believe that this struggle will last seven to ten years. And if the Mexican state succeeds, it is not clear why the trading routes will not shift to poorer and less powerful states, particularly those of Central America. After decades of effort, little evidence exists that the militarized drug war has served U.S. security issues, or that the Mexican government’s approach to the problem is improving national security.

In contrast, some European states are now defining drug usage as a public health concern rather than a security issue. Foremost amongst these is Portugal, which decriminalized the private possession of drugs in 2001. As an article in Time Magazine describes, Portugal is a socially conservative society and many commentators predicted that drug use would increase, and that the nation would become a focus for drug tourism  In fact, nothing of the sort took place. Instead, as the conservative Cato organization described, the number of people seeking treatment increased, HIV infections fell, and overall drug usage dropped. Nor has Portugal become the center of a booming drug tourism industry. Reading the Cato report, it is difficult not to be stunned by the statistics on falling drug usage among youth in particular. There has never been a comparable drop in drug usage in the United States, despite some limited gains in some areas. Both Spain and Italy have also decriminalized the personal possession of drugs, although dealing drugs remains illegal. Within the United States, however, there has been virtually no discussion within the major branches of the federal government that fight drug usage, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In part, the U.S. government is reluctant to consider the possibility of decriminalization because of the strength of the realism within security thinking in the United States. This approach to security issues focuses on the danger posed by nation-states, and emphasizes military force as the best means to address security issues. In contrast, human security tends to focus on individuals and populations, and the threats that may come from other actors than foreign states. In this framework, drug usage may be best thought of as a public health threat, which is better addressed through decriminalization and treatment. In this sense, the drug war embodies the philosophical differences between two different visions of security, and the power that these two paradigms of security entail.

Shawn Smallman is professor of international studies at Portland State University and coauthor of Introduction to International and Global Studies. Information about the book, including an instructor’s manual and supplementary chapter, are available at


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  2. I am so glad that I live in australia away from the druglords that brazenly take on any government that stands between them and a bag of money. My heart goes out to these people who have to wake up each morning wondering what will happen that day and whether their kids will be safe. It must be awful!

    • Yeah, Neville, I’m pretty lucky, too: although a US citizen, I haven’t lived there in nearly thirty years, so, like you, I appreciate the feeling of objective security you describe.

      Couldn’t agree more with your sentiment of sympathy for those suffering on the ground there, but I’d point out another which is actually more important: you can imagine how terrible those people must feel, knowing their children are not safe, but can you imagine how much they must hate the US for creating and perpetuating the situation?

      Poor America – what a mess they’ve made for themselves! You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, but how do you unscramble eggs when you realise one you’ve put into the mix is bad. That’s the problem in America: in working so hard to make this mess they’ve made it very difficult for themselves to fix it. How do you unscramble an egg?

  3. From what I saw on the war on coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, successful drug interdiction has to be waged or addressed at all levels: From military and police targeting or interdicting cultivation, production, refinement, transportation, distribution, street sales, law enforcement, the judicial system, and drug education in our schools. It is not an “either or” proposition. Declaring that drugs are a health issue is commendable, may have initial merit, and may be another tier of the interdiction effort still left to be tried. However, you still have to limit the insatiable thirst of narco-lords to enrich themselves and distribute their toxic wares. Portugal may be an example of the effectiveness of this benevolent approach, but what is the extent of Portugal’s existing cocaine abuse problem within its society? Is it comparable to the levels in the US? What is the ratio of cocaine drug users to the general population?
    However, more importantly, I certainly disagree with the statement that, “As a result [of the success of Plan Colombia] the major drug trafficking routes shifted to the north…[as] President Calderon began the conflict in December 2006 by using the military to attack the major drug producing cartels.” Cocaine trafficking routes have always existed in Central America, Mexico, and the US. They have not all of a sudden shifted north. What changed is that the Mexican drug lords were emboldened by their success in muscleing their way into the Mexican/US drug market and decided to take over the already existing and former Colombian drug routes in that country. Like the FARC in Colombia, the Mexican drug lords decided to cash in on the cocaine profits and moved from providing security to running their own operations. President Calderon poked a hornet’s nest in declaring an open war on cocaine in his country which, unfortunately, has elevated the level of violence and retribution against authorities and anyone caught in the middle of the hornets swarm. I applaud the efforts of the Mexican government to attempt to take on this menace. It is the only way to put the drug lords in their place…behind bars..or dead.
    Colombia went through a similar transition in which a concerted armed government response to the drug problem resulted in skyrocketing drug-related crimes. Today, the country is experiencing a dramatic rebirth with decreased drug-related crime and the distinction of no longer holding the title as the homicide capital of the world. Even now, Colombians see their future in terms of more stability, growth, and less violence. The Mexican government has made note of this and we should too by doubling our efforts to assist our good neighbor to the south. It is in our best national security interests. See More at:

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