The fight against drugs dates back as far as 1880, when the United States and China signed an agreement prohibiting opium’s being shipped from one country to the other. However, it was specifically under Richard Nixon’s administration in the early 1970s that the domestic war on drugs sparked renewed interest in international enforcement of curtailing the supply of illicit drugs. Actions were especially successful in Turkey, but not in Mexico—a center of the drug trade that would only strengthen over the years.
Something other than interdiction efforts had to be done to upset the supply of drugs. This is when the kingpin strategy was adopted and began making the war on drugs much more international in scope, as U.S. DEA agents went after organizations, cartels, and drug lords who controlled major quantities of drugs on an international scope or gave military aid to governments that did so.
By 1995 this force would be 700 soldiers strong, with 125 specifically stationed, ready for combat, on the U.S.Mexican border; they killed the first suspected drug trafficker, Esequiel Hernandez, there in 1997. In 1991 the Posse Comitatus Act amendments allowed the military to train civilian police in counter-drug practices.
A decade later the U.S. Coast Guard was given machine guns and sniper rifles to assist in efforts to interdict drug traffickers. Shortly thereafter, efforts shifted beyond policing the U.S. borders for traffickers to sending assistance to policing efforts far from the borders. In July 2000 Congress earmarked $1.3 billion for Plan Colombia military aid—adding 60 combat helicopters, bringing the number of U.S. troops in Colombia to 500, and training the Colombian military to eradicate coca and fight the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the country’s largest rebel group.
Efforts in the international war on drugs were not limited to Colombia. U.S. forces worked with the Peruvian air force as part of the Air Bridge Denial (ABD) program. The program was implemented to shoot down aircraft, such as that belonging to the infamous Pablo Escobar (leader of the Medellín cartel). ABD was stopped shortly after the April 2001 shooting down of a civilian aircraft carrying a U.S. missionary and a child. It resumed again in Colombia in August 2003 and had forced down 24 drug-trafficking aircraft by 2004, according to U.S. congressman Mark Souder (R-IN).
While Mexico and Colombia have arguably been the center of attention in the international war on drugs, other frontline battles against heroin and opium production have occurred, including the countries of the historical and current leaders in the production of opium and its derivatives—morphine and heroin—in the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos, and Thailand) and the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan). In recent years, the White House Drug Control Policy Office has been working with China to prevent drug trafficking through China to the United States.
Many continue to argue that international drug wars to reduce supply are less successful and much more bloody than drug wars focused on reducing demand. Some argue that reducing demand is the only way to stop supply in the $400 billion (estimated) global narcotics business.