Drug trafficking | 2/17/2009 12:00:00 AM
Former Latin American presidents Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo told the United States what it didn’t want to hear: that their fight against drugs has failed and that it’s time to seek another approach.
It all began as an initiative by Cardoso to develop a proposal from those countries in order to influence the big drug summit that the United Nations will hold this year in Geneva. For a year, several meetings have taken place in which the Colombian experience – having strictly followed the U.S. anti-drug policy -was examined above all. The conclusions were devastating. The commission found that the paradigm of prohibition of drug use supported by the United States is in crisis and that Latin America must seek other alternatives, because drug trafficking has become a threat of great proportions for institutions and for democracy.
Mexico is experiencing one of the worst crises of its history, because of drug cartels that have declared war on the government. Killings among drug trafficking gangs reached the chilling figure of 5,400 deaths in 2008. The cartels assassinated the commander of the Police and have Chihuahua, Baja California and Sinaloa among other Mexican states backed up against a wall. Hired killings have taken over the main cities of border states where journalists, judges and police have been the main victims. As if that were not enough, this crisis has exposed the extent of corruption of security and justice agencies. Every once in a while, the government has had to dismiss officials who filter information to traffickers or protect their activities. Facing the desperation, Mexico has established an alliance with the United States with their Plan Merida, which was inspired by Plan Colombia and which emphasizes the strengthening of the police and the extradition of drug traffickers.
Brazil faces a problem of great proportions because of the internal consumption of drugs. Drug traffickers, not unlike the Medellín cartel, control entire neighborhoods where young people are used to distribute drugs and are gunmen in vendettas between traffickers in Rio de Janeiro as well as in Sao Paulo, where there are favelas where not even the police dare enter.
Then there is Colombia, where, despite a 30 year bloody fight against drugs, the business is not only thriving but has also been able to infiltrate politics at the highest level, like what occurred in the “Proceso 8,000,” a massive scandal in which political campaigns were financed with drug money, and at the local level, as revealed by the ongoing para-politics scandal.
Central America is experiencing a similar situation. Mafias have penetrated institutional life. Recent political crimes in Honduras and in Guatemala were related to drug trafficking. But there has also been a social impact of the “maras,” a mostly Salvadoran phenomenon in which young people get involved in violent groups that sustain themselves by drug consumption and distribution.
In many of those countries, drug trafficking has gone from being a criminal matter to becoming a truly national security issue. Instead of merely armed gangs surrounding the drug business, today there are drug armies that can control entire portions of countries, with state of the art weapons and a surprising capacity for recruitment, which corrupts on a massive scale, puts their money in economic spheres that distort any calculation made by governments.
The reason drug trafficking is able to put some of the strongest countries in the region at risk is because the model of the fight against drugs promoted by the United States has failed- especially because of its prohibitionist focus. According to the document of the former presidents, today there are half a million people in prison in the U.S. because of crimes related to drugs. In 1980 that figure was less than 50,000.
Although in the corridors of Washington everyone says it, nobody dares starting an open debate about the issue. That is because, according to Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo, there is a taboo about such a debate. That could be because of the Calvinist and moralist tradition in the United States, where drugs are considered demons or because of electoral pressures, that do not allow for people in power to design policies in which they may appear as weak before on the issue of drugs, where the hard line remains popular. Despite the multiple studies that show evidence of the failure of the anti-drug policy, nobody dares to propose a profound change.
That is why the document of the former presidents is directed above all to the United States and it seeks to remove the issue from the ideological front and into the scientific and public health arenas. They hope that policies will be created that consider, for example, the differences there are between some drugs and others. Smoking a joint of marijuana is not the same as being addicted to heroin. That is why they proposed the decriminalization of marijuana, considered as a soft drug and in fact is legal in many places in the world. As Francisco Gutiérrez wrote in his column in El Espectador, “between the decriminalization and the prohibition of today there is a very ample terrain for the design of policies that could push policies towards more sensible attitudes.”
In reality, the tendency in all parts of the world is towards decriminalization of drugs, albeit less so in the United States. In Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe announced that he would insist in a law that would penalize the “personal dose,” a Constitutional Court ruling that stated people were entitled to a minimum amount of drugs for their own consumption.
If a demystification of the issue of drugs is achieved, then a healthy public and political debate could be made in order to seek different alternatives from failed policies. That is the case of the fight against illegal crops. The relation between what has been invested in fumigations and eradication and the successes obtained is quite disheartening not just for Colombia. In the United States, last year’s report from the Government Accounting Office ordered by rhe senator Joe Biden, recognizes that Plan Colombia was successful in strengthening and modernizing the armed forces, but ineffective in the fight against drugs.
Although last Friday the Colombian government answered the former presidents and assures that the fight against drugs hasn’t been a failure in Colombia because if they hadn’t had implemented it, institutions would have failed, what is certain is that after millions of tons of pesticides, the hundreds of burnings of coca laboratories and thousands of seizures, crops have grown. The cost-benefit analysis from this fight leaves it in the red.
Lastly, the problem persists in the issue of drugs, Latin America finds itself more and more isolated. The United States, in spite of its erratic policies, has less and less interest in the problem, as its security worries are in the Middle East and in the Arab world. Europe handles drugs as a public health issue, but does not touch the debate on the effect that the growing demand for drugs has on democracy of the drug producing countries.
That is why the document from the former presidents is even more pertinent. Because although the problem of drugs is global, local solutions are also required, and nobody has more experience than the very Latin Americans on this issue. That is because something has been learned in the past few years: that imagination needs to be put to use and that the U.S. model should not be copied, as it has been a resound failure.