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A Drug War on Auto-Pilot

THE HAGUE – The war in Afghanistan, now approaching its tenth year, may seem to many to have no end in sight, but Latin America has endured an even longer fight, one that has recently become much more bloody: the “war” against drug trafficking. So rote – and so violent – has that war become that many people in Latin America now wonder which side is suffering the more pathological addiction.

The new strategy that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been promoting to staunch the upward trend of narco-trafficking-related murders – which leaked Mexican government reports put at more than 22,000 since late 2006 – is to build “stronger, more resilient communities.” Ciudad Juárez, a sprawling Mexican border town that is now the homicide capital of the world, would have to be high on the list.

Four bridges and innumerable tunnels and drainage canals connect Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas. Rival cartels sparring for control of a plaza, the name given to any trafficking route, butcher each other and the security forces. There is apparently no shortage of young, unemployed men willing to join the carnage.

Addressing the deep-seated social and economic problems of a city like Juárez, however, is a lot harder than flooding its streets with 8,000 soldiers carrying assault rifles. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has, in this respect, remained faithful to the script written in previous theaters in the drug war, whether in Bolivia, Colombia, or Peru, where governments have used military force and extradition to placate the US and punish those with the least voice and influence.

But the language used by the Obama administration to describe the violence and state corruption that snakes from the Andes to the US border is starting to capture new thinking on narcotics. Three former Latin American presidents, Mexico’s second richest man, Ricardo Salinas, and the Supreme Court of Argentina, among others, have criticized the war on drugs as a manifest failure that has lowered street prices, fueled production, and undermined weak states.

More strikingly, both Bolivia and Ecuador are governed by presidents who suffered directly from the collateral insensitivities of the war on drugs. Bolivia’s Evo Morales rose to prominence as leader of the country’s coca growers during a brutal campaign to wipe out their crops, the so-called Dignity Plan. Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa’s father was jailed for smuggling drugs to the US when the future leader was five years old.

These leaders’ profound ambivalence toward the goal of a world free of illegal drugs is shared by the European Union, where restrictions on narcotics consumption have slackened over the past decade. The past three US presidents, furthermore, have all admitted to consuming – to one extent or another – illegal psychoactive substances, while seven million Americans, according to the United Nations, are regular cocaine users.

But the inertia of a bureaucratic drug-enforcement superstructure (worth approximately $40 billion each in the US and the EU), sustained by a deep-seated fear of the “threat” posed by drugs and cartels, appears to push policy repeatedly towards the familiar option of repressive auto-pilot.

For example, US support for Mexico’s campaign against the cartels looks set in stone, with Congress apparently ready to provide $300 million for another year of military and security upgrading. In Colombia, seven new joint military installations are planned, and support for US private contractors who have cornered the market in crop fumigation presumably will not be interrupted.

Nevertheless, as the flaws in the four-decade-old edifice of counter-narcotics become more visible, it is increasingly difficult to regard the risks of drug use as being greater than the damage done by repression.

Prohibition hikes the mark-up on prices – an astounding 15,000% in the case of cocaine traveling to Europe from Andean processing facilities. While the war on drugs focuses on bringing down cartels and their kingpins, it perversely aids the health of their markets, which nestle within legitimate trade flows and respond to price incentives.

Interviewed by the Mexican magazine Proceso this year, the second-in-command of the giant Sinaloa cartel, Ismael Zambada, made the point clearly: “The narco problem involves millions of people. How do you control it? The capos can be jailed, killed, or extradited, but their replacements are already wandering around.”

The emergence of Latin America’s powerful drug mafias cannot be traced to the radical evil of certain individuals. These people emerged under conditions created in deeply inequitable societies by a misapplied, inconsistent, and bureaucratic war.

Indeed, the furies of the Zetas in Mexico originate in the counter-insurgency training provided in the 1990’s to a select group of special-forces soldiers, who later deserted. The Zetas’ star recruits in recent years have come from the Guatemalan military’s special forces, whose infamous induction technique involved biting off the head of a live chicken. Meanwhile, in Jamaica and across the rural outposts of Central America, drug lords have become benefactors and heroes to the poor.

It is time for serious reconsideration of the status and regulation of illegal drugs, pointing to selective legalization, as well as reclassification of the market as a public-health, rather than a criminal, concern. For now, policymakers across the Americas are tiptoeing towards the obvious.

Read more from our "Breaking the Drug-War Habit" Focal Point.