What Does Departure of Top US Anti-Drug Diplomat Mean for LatAm Policy?

The planned resignation of the US State Department’s top anti-drug official raises further questions about the future of US counternarcotics efforts in Latin America, against a backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the policy preferences of the administration of President Donald Trump.

William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) since January 2011, told State Department staff that he would resign by the end of September, Foreign Policy reported on August 27.

The long-time State Department official will reportedly join what the news outlet called an “exodus that is thinning the ranks of America’s most experienced career diplomats” amid planned budgetary cuts and structural changes that have strained relations between the US diplomatic apparatus and the White House.

Brownfield, who previously served as ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela and Chile, has long been an advocate of traditional anti-narcotic measures focused on interdiction and eradication efforts.

“He’s been a staunch drug warrior and a true believer in a lot of the traditional doctrine of drug eradication [and] interdiction, the same kind of metrics that drug warriors have been using for so many decades,” said Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) who has followed Brownfield’s career for years.

Other experts consulted by InSight Crime did not question Brownfield’s commitment to this basic policy framework, but also credited him with expanding the focus of US anti-drug efforts beyond enforcement alone to include more holistic approaches to the issue.

What is undeniable is that Brownfield oversaw an important evolution in US counternarcotics policies in recent years. The question now is what comes next.

Mixed Legacy

Brownfield’s six-year stint as the head of INL saw significant shifts in US anti-drug policies abroad, and led to the development of what some have called the “Brownfield Doctrine.”

Rather than blindly enforcing international drug control treaties that many consider outdated or too enforcement-centric, the head of INL called for a more flexible and comprehensive approach to the transnational drug issue.

“Things have changed since 1961,” Brownfield said in a 2014 speech at the United Nations, referring to the year the UN adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the backbone of the international drug control regime.

“We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies … to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs,” he added.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

However, this type of rhetoric sometimes seemed at odds with the concrete manifestations of US anti-drug policy during Brownfield’s tenure.

For example, he told the New York Times in 2012 that ignoring so-called “soft side” aspects of drug control would be a mistake.

“If your drug policy is an exclusively ‘hard side’ negative policy, it will not succeed … There has to be a positive side: providing alternative economic livelihoods, clinics, roads — the sorts of things that actually give poor communities a stake in their future so they do not participate in narcotics trafficking,” Brownfield said.

But he also praised US cooperation with the Honduran military and law enforcement on efforts to disrupt drug trafficking through the Central American country, despite the fact that an operation led by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) at the time was causing outcry in Honduras over the deaths of several civilians in an apparently botched raid.  

And at times, Brownfield outright advocated for US partner nations to take tougher stances on drug control.

For instance, he cautioned in a recent US congressional hearing that “bilateral problems” could result from a failure on the part of Colombian authorities to implement more heavy-handed measures to eradicate increasing coca cultivation, which has contributed to rising cocaine production.

Although Brownfield highlighted the need to incentivize “participation in the government’s crop substitution effort,” he also called on Colombian officials to “limit the number of voluntary eradication agreements they negotiate.” And pointing to anti-eradication demonstrations by coca farmers, he suggested offering greater authority to security forces to use force in the course of eradication efforts.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Tree, the IPS fellow, critiqued Brownfield’s backing of these types of policies. However, he also acknowledged that the diplomat did not create the decades-old drug policy framework, but rather inherited it. And other powerful actors such as the US congress also played a role in shaping its evolution.

Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a non-profit, made similar comments.

Shifter acknowledged that “there was a disjuncture between a lot of the rhetoric and what was done on the ground,” though he added he believes this was more likely the result of bureaucratic barriers than Brownfield’s lack of action.

“I think he understood the importance of a broader approach [even as] he emphasized the traditional policies,” Shifter told InSight Crime.

Eric Olson, the Deputy Director for the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, told InSight Crime that while Brownfield was certainly a “big believer” in traditional anti-drug measures, he also oversaw a broadening of counternarcotics efforts to include the strengthening of local justice and law enforcement forces as part of INL’s mandate.

“He was a transitional figure within the INL. There was a time in which INL was only about narcotics, a lot of ‘IN’ and very little ‘L’,” Olson said.

What’s Next?

With cocaine consumption and overdoses on the rise and an increasing number of deaths related to the opioid crisis in the United States, drug policy has once again taken a central place in US political conversations. But the Trump administration so far has generally struggled to formulate a coherent approach to the issue, and Brownfield’s reported resignation adds to uncertainty about the future of US counternarcotics policy in Latin America.

Tree said it is unlikely that a potential Brownfield successor under Trump would expand on the INL head’s legacy of pushing for more holistic approaches to drugs, especially given the administration’s seeming preference for tough talk on security issues. In fact, Tree pointed to the possibility that actors in favor of traditional anti-narcotic measures could exploit the current institutional turmoil at the State Department and a broader context of political volatility in the White House in order to jockey for a more prominent place in the wake of Brownfield’s departure.

“It will either stay the same, or it will change for the worse … in terms of more enlightened or progressive policies,” Tree said.

Olson and Shifter both said they suspect US anti-drug policy in Latin America will stay on “autopilot” after Brownfield leaves as a result of bureaucratic inertia and other factors that tend to militate against sudden, drastic changes to longstanding national security policies.

There has been speculation that Brownfield might be leaving his post at INL to move to the position of assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs, where he would focus more specifically on Latin America but less specifically on the drug issue. However, an unnamed “senior official” who spoke to Foreign Policy told the news outlet it was “unlikely that Brownfield … would be taking on any other top posts in the administration.”