Wednesday, June 22, 2011

To Fight or not To Fight: The War on Drugs’ Quagmire Turns 40

Pablo Escobar, unquestionable
symbol of the War on Drugs.

By Robert Valencia

(A new version of this article also appears on the World Policy Institute website) 

In light of his new book where he praises 
Latin America’s latest advancements, Chilean writer Raúl Rivera Andueza said in an interview  that drug trafficking is more of a problem in the developed world than in Latin America, due to the “first world’s” role as the main consumers of a product they have declared illegal in an attempt to mitigate their population’s drug consumption. His theory is based on the fact that neither the Cali nor the Ciudad Juarez cartels make as much money as the ones who act as middle men to sell drugs on American streets.

But if we are evaluating the cost of the war on drugs, though, the hundreds of thousands of fatalities in the last four decades have to be taken into consideration. Precisely, this month marks 40 years since the Nixon administration declared “war” against “America’s number one enemy.” Yet the casualties and high drug use registered as of today lead Americans to raise this question: Is it still worth fighting?

In 1971 the Nixon administration earmarked $155 million to control drug smuggling and use. Today it’s more than $15 billion, 17 times higher than and it was 40 years ago. Ever since the drug consumption skyrocketed stateside, the remnants of that war cast a heavy shadow in Latin America in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla’s assassination at the hands of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel marked the onset of the worst bloodbath in Colombia’s history: hundreds of thousands of law enforcement casualties, the 1985 left wing-induced siege of the Justice Palace to halt a U.S.-Colombia kingpin extradition agreement, the deaths of presidential hopefuls and lawmakers, and car bombings in main cities that almost pushed the country to the brink of a failed state. 

Despite the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, the dismantlement of the Cali Cartels in the mid-1990s, and the so-called “Plan Colombia,” which seeks to curb drug smuggling and left-wing insurgency activities, the Andean nation is still a major starting point of narco-traffic to the United States. The aftermath of drug trafficking rooted into Colombia’s society so deeply it has even tainted its politics, from former President Ernesto Samper’s campaign funds from the Cali cartels to the 2006 paramilitary-Congress scandal

In addition, Mexico has arguably become the most affected by the U.S. War on Drugs. Since President Felipe Calderón  declared war against the Juárez Cartels, as well as the Zetas and La Familia Michoacana, this country never experienced such an unprecedented violence surge, exacerbated by the influx of guns from the United States, coupled with gang activities and sex trafficking. As a result, violence has also spilled over Central America, a region that still experiences complications on how to strengthen its law enforcement, particularly in a peaceful country like Costa Rica. 

In my previous articles regarding this matter, many of the readers’ comments called for a legalization of drugs in the United States. And it seems that the Global Commission on Drug Policy  has heard their claims. Led by former presidents Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Colombia’s Cesar Gaviria, and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, the Commission underscores that the war on drugs has indeed failed due to the increasing consumption of opiates and cocaine worldwide --27 percent and 34 percent, respectively.  Decriminalizing drugs, the report goes, and investing more in treatment will assuage its consumption, end the criminalization and stigmatization of those who use drugs but that don’t harm anyone, reduce prison overcrowding, and diminish the devastating power of drug cartels. These findings back up what the RAND Corporation published in the mid-1990s, when a study found that using drug-user treatment to diminish drug consumption is seven times more cost-effective than law enforcement efforts alone, and “it could potentially cut consumption by a third.”  

In the wake of this report, the White House’s Office of National Drug Consumption quickly stated that the War on Drugs is working. According to the statement, drug use in the United States has dropped substantially as the consumption “is roughly half the rate it was in the late 70s,” cocaine production in Colombia dropped “by almost two-thirds,” and the number of non-violent offenders into treatment has increased. Needless to say, the Commission disagrees, and some experts believe that, albeit the Obama administration’s considerably improved direction to tackle this problem, a lot of this has stayed at the level of strategy and rhetoric. 

As the Commission members George Schultz and Paul Volcker pointed out, contemplating drug legalization like in several European countries is not the safest approach, but it is necessary to open a frank discussion as to how the problem of drugs must be addressed “by breaking the taboo on debate and reform.” Opening such a debate must be on two different fronts: 1) how to cope with drug consumption in the United States by discussing the pros and cons of implementing the aforementioned suggestions from the Commission and 2) how drug-exporting countries must tackle corruption in their rank-and-file law enforcement, as well as demanding the full deployment of the $1 billion- Merida Initiative funds and its ensuing distribution. Without this combined effort at both sides of the border, every June we will be commemorating a war that still takes a toll on citizens’ lives. 

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