“Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States” – the famous quote attributed to Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican President at the turn of the 20th century, has never seemed so appropriate.
Over 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico over the past six years since the Mexican government, under pressure from the US, launched an all-out war on the drugs cartels on its territory. The greatest demand for the cartel’s product comes from the US. Helpfully for the cartels, America’s ludicrously lax gun laws have also allowed them to assemble a staggering array of weaponry for use against their rivals and Mexican government forces.
Mexico has arrested and killed some major drug traffickers. Despite this success, and the huge economic and social cost of its anti-cartel campaign, there is little sign of any sustained disruption in the supply of narcotics to the US. This is because the “war on drugs” is essentially a horrifically violent game of whack-a-mole. When one cartel is taken out of action another inevitably pops up to seize the huge financial rewards on offer. And much of the drug smuggling was only diverted to Mexico in the first place by “successful” attempts to reduce trafficking from other countries such as Colombia. The heat being generated in Mexico is now in turn displacing some of the smuggling activity into other smaller, weaker Central American states that are hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle it.
The “War on Drugs” was started in earnest by President Nixon in the early 1970’s and cranked up considerably by President Reagan a decade later. But after four futile decades, demands for a change in approach are now growing. A crucial difference is the political and economic progress of Latin America. All of the states in the region have over recent years become established democracies. The days of nasty CIA-backed dictatorships doing the US’s bidding are long gone and many Latin American countries are becoming more confident in asserting their own independent interests.
The “war on drugs” is essentially a horrifically violent game of whack-a-mole.
The first significant signs of pressure building for an end to the “war on drugs” came in June last year when the Global Commission on Drug Policy (http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/about/ ) produced a report calling for the decriminalisation of drug use and experiments in the legal sale of some drugs, starting with cannabis. The Commission’s recommendations came as a surprise because its members are not natural radicals. The establishment of the Commission was driven by three right of centre former Latin American Presidents, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and César Gaviria of Colombia. They were joined by various global leaders, including Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State, George Schultz, and ex-US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Gaviria is a particularly significant figure as he was the Colombian President behind the destruction in the 1990s of the notorious Cali cartel and its leader, Pablo Escobar.
A cynic might argue that it is hardly unprecedented for former leaders in the “war on drugs” to change their minds and come out in favour of decriminalisation once they are safely retired and no longer campaigning for votes. But the assembly of such a large group of eminent persons to campaign actively for a change in policy is something new and significant.
There are growing signs that the Commission’s recommendations are having an influence on current political leaders in Latin America. Clear disquiet about the current approach has been expressed recently by heavy-hitters such as Presidents Calderon of Mexico and Santos of Colombia. Even more strikingly, President Perez Molina of Guatemala called openly at the weekend (in an article published in the “Observer”) for the legalisation of drug production and consumption. It is fair to say that the ex-General Perez Molina is no bleeding heart. He allegedly got his hands very dirty indeed as the commander of a brutal special forces unit, and Guatemalan military intelligence, during the Guatemalan civil war and, later, in the fight against the drugs trade. This dubious past gives Perez Molina’s views more force. If even someone like Perez Molina is exasperated by the violence produced by the “war on drugs” to no discernable effect on supply and consumption, then it might well be time to try something different.
Anti-narcotics policy was on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas, which brought the leaders of North and Latin America together in Colombia on 14-15 April. The discussions at the Summit are unlikely to bring about any instant changes in approach, not least because of the difficulty in overcoming the vested interests in the US behind the imprisonment of half-a-million people for mostly minor drug offences (compared with 40,000 in 1981) and an estimated (by “The Economist”) $40 billion budget for drugs control measures.
Despite this huge obstacle in the way of change, the presence of the subject on the Summit agenda at all suggests that the tide is turning. Much of the Latin American political establishment is now openly discussing a radical switch to treating drug abuse, and the trade that supplies it, as a public health problem, rather than a criminal justice one. This indicates that within the next few years the “war on drugs” may be dropped in the same dustbin of history as the “war on terror”.
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