As drug cartels wreak murderous havoc from Mexico to Panama, the Obama administration is unable to show that the billions of dollars spent in the war on drugs have significantly stemmed the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States, according to two government reports and outside experts.
The reports specifically criticize the government's growing use of U.S. contractors, which were paid more than $3 billion to train local prosecutors and police, help eradicate fields of coca, operate surveillance equipment and otherwise battle the widening drug trade in Latin America over the last five years.
"We are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we are getting in return," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that wrote one of the reports, which was released Wednesday.
"I think we have wasted our money hugely," agreed Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counter-narcotics efforts and chairs international studies at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. "The effort has had corrosive effects on every country it has touched."
Obama administration officials strongly deny that U.S. efforts have failed to reduce drug production or smuggling in Latin America.
White House officials say the expanding U.S. counter-narcotics effort occupies a growing portion of time for President Obama's national security team even though it garners few headlines or congressional hearings in Washington.
The majority of U.S. counter-narcotics contracts are awarded to five companies: DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT and ARINC, according to the report for the contracting oversight subcommittee, part of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Counter-narcotics contract spending increased 32% over the five-year period, from $482 million in 2005 to $635 million in 2009. DynCorp, based in Falls Church, Va., received the largest total, $1.1 billion.
Among other jobs, the U.S. contractors train local police and investigators, provide logistical support to intelligence collection centers and fly airplanes and helicopters that spray herbicides to eradicate coca crops grown to produce cocaine.
The Department of Defense has spent $6.1 billion since 2005 to help detect planes and boats heading to the U.S. with drug payloads, as well as on surveillance and other intelligence operations.
Senate staff members described some of the expenses as "difficult to characterize." The Army spent $75,000 for paintball supplies for training exercises in 2007, for example, and $5,000 for what the military calls "rubber ducks." The ducks are rubber replicas of M-16 rifles that are used in training exercises, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The Defense Department described its own system for tracking those contracts as "error prone," according to the Senate report. The report also said the Defense Department doesn't have reliable data about how successful its efforts have been.
A separate report last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that the State Department "does not have a centralized inventory of counter-narcotics contracts" and said the department does not evaluate the overall success of its counter-narcotics program.
"It's become 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," McCaskill said.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on U.S. drug policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said the U.S. military and other government agencies, not private contractors, should take the lead in training foreign armies and police in drug eradication and control.
"But unless we are able to resource our government properly, that is the only way we can do it," Felbab-Brown said.
The latest assault on the United States' counter-narcotics strategy comes a week after a high-profile group of world leaders called the global war on drugs a costly failure.
The group, which included former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, recommended that regional governments try legalizing and regulating drugs to help stop the flood of cash going to drug mafias and other organized crime groups.
But James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department's efforts against the drug trade "have been among the most successful and cost-effective programs" in decades. He cited the U.S. success in the 1980s in stopping cocaine shipments from Colombia that had been inundating Florida, and the efforts in the 1990s at helping Colombia overcome a drug-fueled insurgency.
"By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. has received ample strategic national security benefits in return for its investments in this area," he said.
Administration officials say that the counter-narcotics program is producing more recent benefits as well.
Along the Mexican border, increased patrols and other efforts have helped seize 31% more drugs, 75% more cash and 64% more weapons during the first 21/2 years of the Obama administration than in the previous 21/2 years, the Homeland Security Department says.
After a decade of U.S. assistance to Colombia and years of using U.S. contractors there, annual cocaine production in Colombia has fallen 60% since 2001, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Some of that cocaine production has shifted to Peru, however.
Backed by the U.S., Mexico's stepped-up offensive against drug cartels similarly has had the unintended effect of pushing them deeper into Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Violence has soared in those countries.
One result has been a new emphasis on surveillance technology and intelligence collection.
In particular, the U.S. effort has focused on improving efforts to intercept cellphone and Internet traffic of drug cartels in the region, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
During a visit to El Salvador in February, the head of the State Department's counter-narcotics programs, William Brownfield, opened a wiretapping center in San Salvador, as well as a regional office to share fingerprints and other data with U.S. law enforcement. El Salvador is the hub for U.S. law enforcement efforts in Central America.