Fighting the War on Drugs with Bus Stops and Law Books: USAID in Bolivia

As the Cold War died down, U.S. assistance to Latin America shifted focus to a new war: the war on drugs. For many, the TV show Narcos, the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the dramatic showdown that led to his demise, summarizes this new focus of U.S. foreign policy—and emphasizes the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency. But Narcos doesn’t tell the whole story.

Militarized interventions characterized the war on drugs throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the Clinton administration attempted to shift that policy in the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on drug interdiction in the Caribbean basin, the United States would work to reduce coca production and develop anti-drug institutions in source countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, even as military assistance to Latin American countries continued. Reflecting the Clinton administration’s new philosophy, though, the U.S. Agency for International Development played a strong role in promoting the rule of law and encouraging coca growers to plant alternative crops.

USAID officer Lewis Lucke was assigned to Bolivia in 1992 as a Project Development Officer working on said issues. He became Deputy Mission Director shortly thereafter, and when the Mission Director was reassigned to El Salvador in 1995, Lucke became Mission Director until he departed for Jordan in 1996. Lucke had previously worked on similar projects in Costa Rica; he later became Ambassador to Swaziland and coordinated USAID’s response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Lewis Lucke was interviewed by Mark Tauber on November 16, 2016.

Read Lewis Lucke’s full oral history at