[PODER Magazine, Miami edition
By David Adams
For the past two decades the drug war has been largely dictated by the
United States. That has meant a billions of dollars budgeted for efforts
to bust trafficking networks and interdict shiploads of cocaine on land,
in the air and on the high seas.
But a consensus has been growing that Washington’s counter-narcotics
policy is a failure. While few have in the past liked to talk publicly
about it—for risk of upsetting Washington—many politicians and analysts
have come to the private realization that U.S. drug policy not only has
failed to provide solutions, it may in fact be a large part of the problem.
“The supply reduction approach is widely considered to be a failure,”
says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading
drug policy reform group in the U.S. backed by the Open Society
Institute founded by billionaire investor George Soros.
Despite Colombia’s recent success on the battlefield against drug-fueled
left -wing insurgency, “there are as much drugs as before,” he adds.
“There’s a certain pragmatism that no-one is quite ready to talk about
openly in public. You can’t stop the flow of drugs. It’s going to come
from somewhere or other. So let’s focus on demand.”
Earlier this year the drug policy reform movement received a major boost
with the formation of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and
Democracy, an initiative backed by former presidents Fernando Henrique
Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico.
The commission, which is comprised of 18 members that include
distinguished authors, politicians and social activists, held its first
meeting in Rio de Janeiro on April 30, with a follow up meeting planned
in Bogota in September. A final report is scheduled to be issued in
Monterrey in February 2009. “It is necessary that the voice of Latin
America be heard in the global debate about a transnational problem that
affects everyone,” Cardoso told the commission’s inaugural meeting.
The former president stated that the increase in criminality because of
drug trafficking reduces the population’s confidence in institutions,
creating a “threat to democracy itself.”
The current rise of drug cartels in Mexico prompted the head of Mexico’s
intelligence service, Guillermo Valdes, to warn recently they were
“threatening the country’s democratic institutions,” including the
Mexican Congress. “Gangs have infiltrated police forces, justice
departments and government bodies…and drug traffickers [are] trying to
take over the power of the state,” he said.
Backed by several concerned groups in Latin America and the U.S., the
commission hopes to open a new debate about hemispheric drug policy as
part of global talks already underway at the United Nations.
The goal of the Commission is to evaluate the effectiveness and impact
of current drug policy in Latin America and to assist in the search for
more efficient, safe and humane policies. The idea grew out of
discussions in Brazil sponsored by the Democratic Platform that examined
how youths in Latin America view democracy. One of the issues that
emerged was how drug-fueled violence poses a threat to democratic
institutions. Yet criticism of existing drug policy was barely tolerated.
“We have to break of this cycle when prohibition has meant also the
prohibition to think,” said commission member Moisés Naím, director of
Foreign Policy magazine based in Washington, DC. “The Washington
consensus on drug policy rests on two pillars: current policies do not
work, and they cannot be changed,” he added, noting that this
nonsensical status quo has made it impossible for politicians to
challenge current policy for fear of being accused of being ‘soft on drugs’.
It’s no different in Latin America, say the commission organizers. “When
you question it, people look at you as having some kind of affinity with
crime,” said Rubem Cesar with Viva Rio, one of several groups in Brazil
promoting the commission. “We realized we need to discuss the issue
openly with the support of conservative, mainstream people who cannot be
The idea is to build an elite consensus among a wide variety of people
in order to kickstart a new debate on the issue, he said. That’s why
several members of the commission are drawn from important media
outlets, including Alejandro Junco, director of Reforma newspaper group
in Mexico, Enrique Santos Calderón from El Tiempo in Colombia, João
Roberto Marinho, vice-president of O Globo group in Brazil.
A key element of the effort to refocus the debate on drug policy is the
examination of European-style ‘harm reduction’ strategies that can
mitigate the impact of drug production and consumption. Exponents of
harm reduction use the examples of success in reducing the spread of
HIV-Aids among drug users by the free distribution of needles for
intravenous drug users.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 57
percent of AIDS cases among women are linked to injection drug use or
sex with partners who inject drugs. Overall, 36 percent of AIDS cases in
the United States can be traced back to intravenous drug use.
The illegal market for drugs also results in a lack of regulatory
control that leads to overdoses and death from drug impurities.
Needle exchange programs, safe-injection rooms and drug maintenance
therapies have all been proven to reduce overdose deaths and the spread
of communicable disease, the Drug Policy Alliance says. The group likes
to compare HIV rates among American states and foreign countries to make
its point. In the U.S., New Jersey has some of the toughest laws
prohibiting needle exchanges and pharmacy syringe sales. Not
coincidentally, New Jersey has some of the highest HIV rates in the
country. Spain, where needle exchanges were slow to be introduced, has
the highest prevalence of HIV among intravenous drug users (33.1percent)
Viva Rio and the other participating groups, including the Fernando
Henrique Cardoso Institute and the Edelstein Center for Social Research,
argue that the impact of the war on drugs touches on so many issues in
society, from health to violent crime, prison overcrowding, and
deforestation and forced migration, that it must be given a greater
priority on the social and political agenda. Drug-related killings are
of particular concern in Brazil, which leads the hemisphere in firearm
homicides. “We are losing a whole generation,” said Carvalho.
Brazil has 2.8 percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 11
percent of the world’s murders. An estimated 102 people die every day
due to firearms, according to a study by the Organization of Iberian
American States for Education, Science and Culture that showed the state
of Rio de Janeiro is the most dangerous place for children and
teenagers. It sees about 103 minors dead per year per 100,000
inhabitants. The high murder rate is largely attributed to drug bosses
who rule the favelas (slums) in the hills and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro,
heading their own well-armed militias.
The list of critics of current drug policy seems to grow steadily by the
year, from former presidents to pop stars, backed up by the longstanding
editorial line of the Economist magazine.
The modern debate over drug policy reform has a long history, dating as
far back as economist Milton Friedman’s calls for legalization in the
1970s. Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda was one of the
first leaders in Latin America to state it publicly in an op-ed article
for Newsweek magazine titled “How We Fight A Losing War.”
At the time, Castañeda argued that marijuana was more profitable than
any legal crop in Mexico’s impoverished countryside, just as cocaine was
in Colombia. Using a northsouth argument similar to that used in the
debate over global warming today, he asked why Latin American countries
should be asked to take action about production and supply of illegal
drugs when its wealthy neighbor wasn’t doing anything to address the
demand for them among its youth.
“What is the purpose of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the
fight against drugs, plunging countries into civil war, strengthening
guerrilla groups and unleashing enormous violence and corruption upon
entire societies, if American leaders can simply brush off questions
about drug use in their youth?” he wrote.
Castañeda proposed the debate start with a “coldblooded evaluation of
what has worked and what has failed.” Ways should be examined to see if
market and price mechanisms could be used to make the drug business less
profitable, thereby reducing its corruptive power.
Legalization should be considered as perhaps the only way to bring
prices down. “To many in the United States, for good reasons and bad,
legalization remains anathema; but its costs and benefits must be
assessed in the light of the pernicious, hypocritical and dysfunctional
status quo,” he concluded.
In November that year Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle added his voice
to calls for other Latin American leaders to join him in opposing U.S.
“If this powder was worth only ten cents, there would not be
organizations dedicated to make a billion dollars to fund armies in
Colombia,” said Batlle, speaking about cocaine policy at the 10th Latin
American Summit of Heads of State in Panama City. Batlle said other
countries must confront the question of legalization. “How do you create
the money that sustains all of this? Do you believe that while this
substance has this fantastic market value that there is any mechanism
that can impede its trafficking? How do you make this product lose value
so that nobody is interested anymore in this business?”
The Uruguayan leader, said that the countries of America “must stop
playing games and treat the theme of drugs seriously at its root. And if
I am wrong, then why are we afraid to ask ourselves the question?”
Batlle compared the drug problem to that caused by alcohol prohibition
in the United States in the early 20th century, saying that the drug
trafficking problem “will be resolved on the day that the consumers
announce that this cannot be fixed by any other manner than changing
this situation in the same way that was done with the ‘Dry Laws’.”
The war on drugs has until recently been focused largely on Colombia,
with eradication and interdiction efforts as well in Bolivia and Peru.
In 2000 the U.S. Congress approved a major intensification of the war by
passing ‘Plan Colombia,’ a $1.3 billion initiative designed to reduce
drug cultivation in Colombia by 50 percent within five years.
More than eight years later that goal still seems a long way off .
Instead, U.S. drug policy has only spread drug production in Colombia
more widely. “As coca cultivation and production have shifted within and
across borders, the environmental damage and violence that accompany the
illegal drug trade have also spread,” John Walsh, a drug policy expert
at the Washington Office on Latin America, told a congressional hearing
Walsh calculated that governments in the region have spent a total of
$800 billion on drug control policies.
“Those who support continued forced eradication efforts argue that
production of illicit drugs would be even worse without the programs
presently in place. But this assessment fails to account for the
significant negative and counterproductive effects of forced crop
eradication. The eradication of crops upon which farmers and their
families depend pushes people deeper into poverty, and thereby
reinforces their reliance on illicit crops.” When U.S.-financed aerial
spray planes began eradicating the country’s largest coca plantations in
the south of Colombia in 2001 and 2002, drug producers simply moved to
smaller plots dotted around the country.
Experts dubbed it the “mercury effect,” imitating the way a ball of
liquid mercury splits into lots of tiny balls when pressure is applied.
Coca began to appear in areas where it had rarely been seen before.
“There was an adaptation and decentralization. Drug cultivation has gone
from four departments to 25 departments,” said Bruce Bagley, a drug
policy expert at the University of Miami.
Farmers began using new hybrid plants with higher yields, allowing them
to get more coca from less land. Peasants also began protecting their
crops against the spray campaign with a “guarapo” sugar-cane solution
that protects the coca leaves. The spray campaign uses a common
glyphosate-based herbicide, Round Up, mixed with a “surfactant” to help
the poison penetrate the leaves of the plant to get into its roots. But
the peasants are always one step ahead of the eradication program,
Bagley points out. The guarapo prevents the glyphosate from sticking to
the plant leaves. Instead, it washes off into the soil, where the
phosphate-based glyphosate instead acts as a fertilizer. “We have seen
some impressive crop yield increases,” said Bagley.
“Fumigating an area is no substitute for governing it,” said Adam
Isacson, who monitors Colombia policy for the Center for International
Policy in Washington, highlighting the weak state presence in the
affected areas, havens for left-wing guerrillas and rival paramilitary
forces. Instead, he said, more effort should go into promoting
alternative development to encourage coca farmers to plant other crops.
In addition, critics say, crop substitution has been woefully underfunded.
Critics of the spray campaign say it was never as precise as U.S.
counter-narcotics officials claimed, and often wiped out legitimate
crops planted alongside or close to coca crops.
Critics also insisted that eradication would never work unless it was
accompanied by funding for alternative crops to wean peasants away from
coca. While some effort at crop-substitution was made in southern
Colombia, it was poorly-funded and was hampered by a general lack of
security which made it hard for government officials to monitor. Many
areas, such as the infamous Guamuez valley in Putumayo, were heavily
influenced by left-wing guerrillas of the FARC, as well as right-wing
paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Last year, the Colombian government accepted partial defeat in the spray
campaign and said it would switch to manual eradication of crops.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress also began to get the message, switching
its $500 million in aid this year away from military support for the
counternarcotics to focus more on social solutions, such as alternative
agriculture and rural infrastructure such as roads.
Plan Colombia II offers more hope, Bagley believes. Important military
victories against the FARC and the demilitarization of the AUC have
greatly improved security in the country, “but you can’t solve the
problem with military means alone,” he said. “Plan Colombia II is just
what the doctor ordered.”
The plan hinges on a concerted government campaign to promote
alternative agriculture through credits and federal investment in the
kind of state infrastructure that historically has been lacking in rural
areas. “They need an alternative way of life,” Bagley said. “You really
need to be prepared to pay their salaries for a couple of years. If you
are going to eradicate their crops you have to give them something to
The new legislation “looks good on paper,” agrees Isaacson. “If you can
get an actual state presence in those areas you will see levels of
cocaine go down in the next 10 years.”
All of the money and effort on supply control over the past few decades
has had little effect on the availability of drugs in the United States,
In 2007 the White House claimed a “historic” breakthrough in the drug
war, citing “an unprecedented decline” in U.S. cocaine supplies and
sharp increases in prices for the drug. The average price of a gram of
cocaine on U.S. streets rose 24 percent from January to June to $118.70,
its highest level in at least five years, according the White House
Office of National Drug Control Policy. That was accompanied by an 11
percent drop in cocaine purity in the same period, as well as a 16
percent decline in positive drug tests at workplaces.
But drug war skeptics question the government’s claims. “Long term
demand for cocaine has not altered,” said John Carnevale, a former
planning director in White House drug policy office. “These price
increases are a fluctuating thing. We have never seen any long term
effect of price increase.”
The release of the new drug figures came as the White House was
preparing to announce a $1-billion aid package to help Mexico fight drug
cartels, the largest U.S. overseas antidrug program since the 2000
launch of Plan Colombia.
Officials say a military offensive against drug gangs launched by
Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon is disrupting Mexican smugglers
crossing the border. Calderon has deployed some 25,000 army troops to
crack down on drug gangs since he took office in late 2006. But while
experts say the flow of drugs may indeed have been reduced in recent
months, it is unlikely to stay that way for long.
“These are short term successes, isolated battle victories in the
endless war on drugs,” Bagley said. Colombian and Mexican drug lords are
notoriously adaptable and can switch routes and transportation methods,
analysts say. Besides moving drugs via Central America and Mexico,
traffickers have traditionally smuggled their drug loads by boat and
plane using Caribbean routes from South America into the United States,
as well as to Europe and increasingly to Africa.
Part of the reason for this is the impossibility of denying traffickers
access to international commerce and the enormous flow of legal goods
across national borders. For example, Mexico ranks as the third largest
importer into the United States ($211 billion, trailing only China and
Canada), and is the second largest export market for the United States
($136 billion, trailing only Canada).
“Legal commerce on this scale presents drug traffickers with nearly
boundless opportunities to smuggle their product into the United States,
and as detection technologies are improved, traffickers adapt with new
smuggling techniques and routes,” Walsh told Congress in June. “Unless
this enormous influx of commercial goods into the country is
dramatically curtailed (a scenario both unforeseen and unwelcome), drug
seizure statistics will mean little as measures of ultimate drug control
The 300-400 metric tons of cocaine that enter the United States each
year is comparatively just a tiny fraction of the legitimate commerce,
making interdiction difficult.
“Rather than continue the search for the silver bullet, policy makers
would do well to recognize that illicit drugs pose a perennial problem
that cannot be eliminated, but can be managed significantly better than
we have done thus far,” Walsh concluded. “This entails adopting a harm
reduction approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to minimize the harms
associated with illicit drug production, distribution and use, but also
to minimize the harms generated by policies meant to control illicit drugs.”
These are the kind of issues that the commission is expected to examine
when it next meets in Bogota. How the debate moves from there remains
unclear. The commission says it is fully aware challenging conventional
thinking on the issue is not an easy task. But it’s important to get the
“In one year the commission does not aim to be able to solve things,”
said Ilona Carvalho, also with Viva Rio. “We know it’s for the future,
but at least it’s a beginning.”
Colombian Ex-President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo’s, Remarks on the
Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy
These days, the reality and the specific dynamics of policies
established to combat the spread, production, consumption and sale of
narcotic and psychotropic drugs as well as their derivatives on the
international scene should enter into a period of serious analysis and
reflection. This stems from the discernable fact that while past efforts
led by the international community have been ambitious, they have also
fallen short in terms of effectiveness.
We all recall the special United Nations session of 1998 convened with
the purpose of laying the groundwork for developing an effective plan of
attack to combat the production and consumption of drugs. The proposals
and initiatives were extremely ambitious. The spirit of those who took
part was attuned to the realities at hand…[and] attending nations
appeared focused on the need to employ all means necessary to stop drug
trafficking within this community of nations.
However, today’s reality is different, as drug traffic continues, demand
drives increased production. And while the bosses have changed, new ones
direct their organizations to seek out new routes and new allies.
Colombia has made the most efforts, and has paid the highest price for
this scourge while these criminal organizations nurture the terrorist
acts of groups operating beyond the limits of the law, putting at risk
the harmony of our institutions, our clear democratic tradition and the
values that are the basis of our society.
Colombia has always had clear aims, even as the actions of those
involved in consumption don’t seem to coincide with our efforts. At this
time it’s worth asking if the existing model for combating the
production and consumption of drugs has been effective. Are more severe
laws needed to find the Achilles heel of narco-trafficking? Are the
current tools used in the fight strategically pertinent? What should be
the strategy for the combined Latin-American effort which would allow us
to make it through the 21st century on the right path against the
production and consumption of drugs? These questions and many others
give current life to the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and
Democracy, within which, together with ex-presidents Cardoso and
Zedillo, we are committing ourselves to the work of founding, giving it
shape and energy, with a view to developing a targeted approach against
drug production and consumption.