The Never-Ending War on Drugs

Cocaine consumption is on the rise in Latin America and Asia while stabilizing in Europe and experiencing a slight decrease in the US. Heroine use grows in Asia (central and southwest) and Europe (east and southeast), and decreases in Europe. The UNODC World Drug Report 2013 launched June 26th presents a global market of illegal drugs with only one drastic change: the rising availability, variety and consumption rates of new psycho-active substances, many of them (still) legal and sold by Internet: the so-called ‘legal highs’.

Western media tend to concentrate attention over these trends and figures, due to their implications for Law enforcement and public health. But a global vision of the phenomenon of illicit drugs must have into account production and traffic, the politics of the war on drugs and the global prohibitionist regime, as well as the role of organized crime. All of them have huge implications for peace and international security.

The global business of illicit drugs has a global reach and an estimated annual value around 870 billion dollars. It is six times the amount of the total official development assistance (ODA) and 1.5% of the global GDP. Illegality leaves it in the hands of organized crime groups, non-State transnational armed actors that reap huge revenues by applying innovative tactics to all the steps of this global chain. OC groups are now organized as networks and have the ability to adapt and learn, constantly looking for new production areas, new trafficking routes and transport means, and new products and consumer markets. In doing so they connect the production of coca leaves of a small peasant in a remote area of Colombia with consumers in the streets of Washington or London.

Production of coca and its commercial derivative, hydrochloride, is concentrated in 3 Andean countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru). In 2012 the size of the cultivation area remained stable, with a 12% decrease in Bolivia and parallel increases in Colombia and Peru. The Andean region has long been the main example of the ‘balloon effect’: if cultivation drops in one country the immediate effect is growth in one or two of the others. Even when the global aggregate drops, production figures do not change thanks to new plant varieties with more alkaloid potential. Precise estimates are difficult to obtain for an illicit business but total production of cocaine in 2012 was in the range of 776-1000 tm, according to the UN.

If production moves, the same happens to routes and transport means. When the Caribbean routes from Colombia to the US became closed due to increased surveillance and monitoring, traffic moved to the continent. Some Central American countries and Mexico still suffer the consequences. More recently, the direct routes from Colombia to Europe have given place to new itineraries. Drugs are now transported to Brazil and by sea to West African countries (Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Nigeria, etc.). Guinea Bissau has been qualified as a narco-State due to the involvement of high officials in this traffic.

The financial capacity of narco-traffickers has a direct impact on peace, security and development. Illicit drugs and organized crime show their more corrosive effects in weak or fragile States, conflict situations and post-conflict transitions. They can corrupt and/or co-opt parts of States, especially in weak and fragile settings. In conflict areas, drugs are the most prominent example of illegal economies that fuel and perpetuate violence. Drug traffic revenues finance non-State armed groups and sectors of the State (from Afghanistan to Colombia), allowing them to pay combatants and buy arms and weapons. At the end, it makes violence worse and provides incentives to continue fighting. When parties reach a peace accord, the illegal economies that flourished during the conflict persist, as state and non-state actors involved in them find few incentives in peace and may act as spoilers of the whole process. Even if political violence is downgraded or eliminated, other forms of violence connected to the illegal economy may persist, as well as corruption and governance problems.

Counter-drug international policies have been for decades based on two building blocks. First, the UN Conventions that set the prohibition of certain psychotropic substances; second, the ‘war on drugs’ conducted and promoted by the US since the beginning of the 70’s. The drug war is based in a militarized and supply-side approach that promotes enforcement and incarceration against drug production and traffic. Its effects are gravest in production and transit countries, while prevention and education efforts to address demand receive much less attention.

Countries involved in the war on drugs receive military aid from Washington to eradicate crops (frequently by force and even using aerial spraying); to dismantle OC groups and capture and extradite their bosses (the ‘kingpin strategy’) and, to a much lesser extent, to institution building and alternative development. It is in this framework that Colombia has fumigated million hectares during the past decade. Mexico has become involved in a fight against organized crime that has caused around 60.000 deaths in six years. Drones (unarmed so far) are monitoring trafficking routes in Latin America.

The prohibitionist regime and the ‘war on drugs’ have not been able to put an end to the drug business and trade but have spread their negative impacts on peace, development and human rights. Those policies have been instrumental in creating a hugely lucrative black market; have derived resources from prevention, education and public health towards security, militarization and law enforcement; and have promoted a continuous displacement of production, routes and markets. The old mafia-style groups have given place to nimble, adaptable and flexible networks, whose main features are innovative tactics and structural adaptation. As the drug trade and the enforcement approach reach new countries, they promote instability and negative consequences in terms of human rights, peace and development.

Positive results remain elusive and the negative ones become clearer every day. But the drug ‘war’ paradigm has remained untouchable for decades. Civil society groups have long advocated rejection of current approaches and calls for alternatives. But now the range of the critics has widened and includes international institutions, former Latin American and European presidents (and even active presidents).

Alternatives proposed include the promotion of development (so that peasants are not restricted to illicit crop cultivation as their only coping and survival strategy); promotion of institution building, democracy and governance (to minimize corruption and co-option of State parts); and more emphasis in the fight against money laundering and connections between the legal and the illegal economy (instead of the detention of people and the disruption of groups that are quickly replaced by others). Some civil society groups go further and question the very prohibition that is the baseline of the current regime.

Any new approach will find a long road ahead, since this is a highly controversial topic in political terms. But the debate should be welcomed, especially if it is honest, open and rooted in scientific evidence. Its level and dissemination may have now reached a point of no return.

Mabel González Bustelo

27th, July 2013

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