Latin American statesmen question drugs war strategy

Men who fought against the drugs trade while in government are calling for change
Tom Hennigan
The Irish Times
Thursday, January 27, 2011

Three former Latin American presidents have declared the US-led “war on drugs” a failure and called for new strategies focusing on treatment to replace a repressive approach they say is discredited. The former presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil made their call at the launch of the Global Commission on Drugs Policies in Geneva this week. The three statesmen hope the new body will develop proposals that will move the global drugs debate away from prohibition and towards treating the issue as a public health problem.

César Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil all fought the drugs trade during their presidencies, when they maintained friendly relations with the United States, the most forceful global advocate for drug prohibition.

But now they are calling for a debate that examines the usefulness of a blanket ban.

“We have to decriminalise the use of all drugs. We have to look at people affected as patients and not as criminals, treat them in a humane manner and guarantee their fundamental rights,” said former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the new group.

César Gaviria, who fought against Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel during his four years as president of Colombia, said Latin America was tired of a prohibition which did not work and for which it paid a high price.

Last year more than 15,000 people were killed in drugs-related violence in Mexico, while Brazil’s army had to be brought in to retake slums controlled by heavily armed drug gangs in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Colombia, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, has suffered almost half a century of civil war largely funded by profits from the cocaine trade, even though it is the central focus of the US government’s anti-drug effort.

Despite a recent drop in Colombian coca leaf production – the main ingredient in cocaine – traffickers have made up the shortfall by expanding production in Bolivia and Peru, which last year surpassed Colombia as the biggest producer of coca.

Cocaine is more widely available globally today than at any time in the drug’s history.

Mr Cardoso explicitly criticised Washington’s policy of pouring billions of dollars in military aid into Colombia to combat the cocaine trade.

“The amount spent in the Americans’ so-called war against drugs is enormous, but it is money badly spent because it does not have effective results.

If it was used for health, medical treatment, education and publicity campaigns it would be better,” he said.

Also on the commission is former US secretary of state George Schultz, one of the minority of US statesmen openly opposed to the war on drugs. After leaving government in 1989 he said the war caused more harm around the world than the drug abuse it sought to combat.

Other members are the EU’s former foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Latin American intellectuals Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and businessman Richard Branson. The commission plans to present a first set of findings and proposals in six months’ time.

Critics of international drugs policy say the prominence of the commission’s members will, they hope, prompt more critics of the drugs war to speak out.

“Global drugs policy will not change overnight. But this effort by Latin American leaders who at various points aggressively tackled drugs in their own countries will create space to debate the real problems and dilemmas,” says John Walsh, who studies the drugs war for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“The idea that the US can silence a debate on drugs policy – that is done. These leaders are saying that we cannot afford that any more and we need a substantive debate.”

Cocaine traffickers have proven both vicious and resilient

US PRESIDENT Richard Nixon formally declared a war on drugs in 1971, but the current global architecture of prohibition dates back to 1961 with the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Since that attempt to ban the drug trade it has ballooned, spreading violence and corruption across large parts of the globe. In Latin America the war on drugs is specifically focused on combating the global cocaine trade. Coca, the drug’s main ingredient, is a traditional plant grown in the Andes and Colombia, Peru and Bolivia account for nearly all coca – and cocaine – production.

Despite billions spent on combating them the region’s drug traffickers have for decades outwitted the authorities, keeping consumers in North America and Europe supplied at a price and purity that remains remarkably consistent despite law enforcement officials around the world frequently heralding the dismantling of trafficking networks.

In a long established pattern, as soon as authorities close down one drug route traffickers open another. After US authorities largely shut down smuggling routes over the Caribbean in the 1980s traffickers switched to Mexico. Now the main entry point for cocaine into the US, the country is locked into a spiral of violence as powerful drug cartels battle each other for control of a multibillion dollar trade.

The Mexican government’s efforts to combat its cocaine problem are behind the spread of the trade into neighbouring Central America, bringing fresh violence to a region still recovering from the brutal civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. The traffickers’ ingenuity in meeting European demand has seen Venezuela and West African states emerge as major transhipment points in recent years.

The lure of huge profits has also fuelled regional corruption. An Argentine air force commodore was recently dismissed after a medical plane that left his base landed in Spain with almost a tonne of cocaine on board.