The Role of the DEA in the Emergence of the Field of Anti-narcotics Policing in Latin America.

Author:Ricart, Carlos A. Perez

THE YEAR 1973 SAW THE FOUNDING OF THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINistration (DEA), an organization that concentrated police duties surrounding drug crimes in the United States at a federal level. The DEA's structure, duties, and a large part of its personnel were inherited from two precursor agencies--the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (1968-1973) and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930-1968)--and was a response to the need to establish a unit capable of confronting in a comprehensive and permanent manner what was then seen as the threat of drugs. (1)

Around the start of the 1970s, with the exception of the United States and France, anti-narcotics investigations in the rest of the world were carried out by small offices inside the judicial or national police forces of each country. (2) The extant anti-narcotics sections lacked autonomy and specialized training; they had floating personnel and worked on skimpy budgets. The arrival of the DEA model marked a watershed in the field of anti-narcotics policing.

Although set in the Department of Justice and legally subject to the attorney general's office, the DEA retained and developed a set of powers only partially enjoyed before by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN): the administration and regulation of chemical precursors and licit drugs for medical or scientific use; the application of federal laws relating to the consumption, transport, trade, and cultivation of drugs; and the advising of the State Department on the course of diplomacy in the area of narcotics. (3) The DEA introduced a double operational system based partially on the division of geographical space through district offices and partially on the prompt pursuit of networks of drug traffickers regardless of territorial bounds. It kept a strong influence on the formation of US foreign policy on drug issues as well as on the daily life of transnational institutions dedicated to them. In the United States, it created enduring professional associations and alliances with right-wing groups. Like the FBN, the DEA was scarcely exposed to congressional committee control, and it kept up a degree of antagonism with public health institutions, fighting to be granted de facto the right to the last word on everything concerning drug policy at local and federal levels. (4) But the most distinctive seal of the DEA was its strategy for internationalizing the war against drugs, one that led hundreds of its agents to operate abroad and deal with police forces and high commands of other countries. (5)

Scholarly literature has suggested that the DEA played a central role in the driving of a punitive and militarized drug policy around the world. (6) A similar claim has been made for Latin America. (7) According to this interpretation, the agency used a wide range of strategies--from soft forms of the diffusion of models up to mechanisms of outright pressure--to propel the emergence and reinforcement of police organizations similar to the DEA. Yet while this interpretation has hardly been refuted, neither has it been verified. Some studies have delineated the DEA's profile as a transnational political actor and its enormous influence in the field of anti-narcotics policies in specific periods and countries, (8) but to my knowledge, the agency's tangible role in the restructuring of anti-narcotics corps in Latin America through the 1970s has not been investigated. In this article, I seek to do just that. I also seek to contribute to a fuller understanding of the police in Latin America and the transnational sources of its structuring. In parallel, I aim to contribute to research into civil-military relations in Latin America during a complex moment marked by the establishment of de facto governments. Finally, I directly intervene in the agenda of the new institutional sociology centered not only on the similar forms acquired by organizations through processes of diffusion but also on the hybrid features these assume as the result of the combination of transnational flows and local contexts.

My core hypothesis unfolds in the following way: upon participating as a catalyst of three processes--the production of experts and specialists, the organization of specialized associations and networks, and the consolidation of a professional elite--the DEA acted as a central actor in the structuring process of the field of anti-narcotics policing in Latin America. Such processes led to a complex reconfiguration of the subcontinent's police organizations, characterized by the combination of homogenizing and local dynamics.

This article is organized as follows. First, I provide a conceptual frame that presents the image of the organizational field as an analytical unit, along with a brief review and summary of the mechanisms that explain institutional change. In that part, my idea is to connect the literature on organizational fields with more general discussions on the transfer and diffusion of policies. Next, I provide context, describing the emergence of the first police forces devoted to the drug issue in Latin America before 1973. Then, I analyze the role of the DEA in Latin America as a central organization of the field. After that, I describe the structuring of the anti-narcotics police field within Latin America in the years following the foundation of the US agency. Finally, I analyze the three aforementioned types of process--production of experts and specialists, organization of specialized associations and networks, and consolidation of a professional elite--propelled by the DEA. To conclude, I set out possible lines of future research and critically reflect on the role of the DEA as a diffuser and promoter of patterns of governance on the drug issue.

The Idea of the Organizational Field and the Mechanisms of Institutional Change

My argument is framed within the new institutionalism, a theoretical perspective with the explanatory power to identify the forms in which organizations are connected with their surrounding institutional environments. The contributions of Paul Dimaggio and Walter Powell may be taken up again as a starting point: change in the formal structure, program, practices, and objectives of an organization occur as the result of institutional dynamics and not of efficiency considerations. For Dimaggio and Powell, as for the neoinstitutional tradition in sociology, the key research focus is on the study of the processes of homogenization stemming from processes of diffusion among organizations--the so-called institutional isomorphism. At the heart of their approach is the concept of the organizational field--that is, "those organizations that, as a whole, constitute a recognized area of institutional life." (9) Since every approach inserts into the concept of the field, one sets off from the premise that the object of study cannot be explained only by its internal features or its physical localization, but rather by its defined social space.

Dimaggio and Powell maintain that, in the initial stages of the life cycle of an organizational field, organizations show "a considerable diversity of foci and forms." (10) However, the increase in their degree of interaction, the emergence of interorganizational structures of power, the increment in the flow of information, and "the development of a common awareness between the organizations participating in a common enterprise" lead to the institutionalization of the organizational field. The product of institutionalization is "an inexorable impulse towards homogenization." (11) Thus, according to this principle, to the degree that the organizational fields become more structured, the organizing models become more homogeneous. (12) But the process is multiform: while the peripheral organizations are much more exposed to the processes of homogenization, the central and older organizations, far from adjusting themselves to their environments, come to dominate them. (13)

In the quest to identify the forces operating behind the processes of homogenization, the neoinstitutional literature has singled out three types of mechanism: coercive, normative, and emulative. (14) Mechanisms of coercion refer to "formal and informal pressures some organizations exercise on others that depend on them." (15) They encompass all the interactions, both subtle and explicit, which oblige other organizations to modify their practices, program, structures, and objectives. Normative mechanisms refer to the processes of socialization to which key actors of each organization are exposed. Emphasis is put on the relevance of professional and epistemic networks in the diffusion of models and practices, in the normalization of expectations, and in the reproduction of commonly comprehended meanings. Finally, it is possible to explain institutional change from mimetic or emulative mechanisms. Although similar to the normative mechanisms, the diffusion in their case does not necessarily pass through a process of socialization, but rather through the copying of what is perceived as advanced, efficient, or morally correct. The literature concurs in pointing to the unleashing of mimetic mechanisms in situations of uncertainty and in contexts where, in the search to find answers to common problems, organizations--even when they do not understand the reasons for the others' success--end up imitating the models of the central organizations.

Here, I concentrate on exploring the functioning of normative and emulative mechanisms in the context of the emergence of the anti-narcotics policing field in Latin America. An examination of the mechanisms of coercion is left out of the analysis because these mechanisms have received the greatest attention in literature on drug relations between the United States and Latin America. (16) As has been pointed out, the DEA has resorted to "a well stocked and adequately documented catalog of...

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