After the ‘War on Drugs’: Drug Policy Reform in the Americas

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The apparent failure of the “war on drugs” in Latin America has led to calls for a wholesale change in strategy. But would this merely prompt the organized crime groups involved to diversify their activities?

Despite the many successes of the US-led “war on drugs” to date, the illicit drugs trade continues to be one of the primary sources of insecurity across Latin America. As such, proposals for a strategic change of direction — namely, the radical reform of drug policy in the Americas — continue to gain momentum. Yet the planned efforts to reduce the levels of violence and criminality tied to the drugs business could simply displace the problem to other industries as criminal gangs diversify their activities to recoup lost profits.

This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 33, No. 5, September 2013)

The illegal drugs trade is an unfortunate stain on the image of Latin America. According to the latest UN World Drug Report, released in May, large volumes of cocaine continue to be smuggled from South America to the United States and Canada via Ecuador (an important hub for the maritime trafficking of cocaine), Mexico and other Central American states. Brazil now also plays an important role in the global cocaine market as both a destination and transit country, owing to its extensive land borders with all three major source countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) and its access to the Atlantic Ocean for onward trafficking to Africa and Europe. Meanwhile, Mexico is the third-largest global producer and cultivator of opium after Afghanistan and Burma, and a key player in the production and trafficking of methamphetamines. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are also believed to be gaining influence in the synthetic drugs market, while the cultivation of cannabis is reportedly on the rise in the Americas as a whole. New psychoactive substances (NPS) are making similar inroads.

Although kidnapping and extortion are also lucrative activities for organized crime groups in the Americas, the multibillion-dollar drugs trade represents the primary source of income for the majority of criminal gangs. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Latin American countries are some of the world’s most dangerous, as intensified competition for market control has fuelled violence. This is most evident in Mexico, which has seen more than 60,000 drug-related killings in the last six years. It is also the case in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, all of which are strategic hotspots along narco-trafficking routes from South America to the United States. The murder rate in Honduras is particularly high, at 86 per 100,000 inhabitants, while its northwestern city of San Pedro Sula is the most dangerous in the world, with 173 murders per 100,000.

Disconcertingly, the proliferation of drug production and trafficking has continued apace despite broader counter-narcotic efforts as part of what has become known as the “war on drugs.” This policy was initiated by US President Nixon in 1973 with the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and delivered in partnership — with varying degrees of enthusiasm — with successive Latin American governments. Most notably, this has included the US-funded “Plan Colombia” initiative, focusing on the region’s largest cocaine producer. It has also comprised numerous US-backed campaigns launched under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, aimed at decapitating Mexican drug cartels.

This approach reflected the belief, prevalent among policy-makers in both the United States and a number of Latin American states for almost four decades, that harsh law-enforcement action against those involved in the production, distribution and use of illegal drugs would lead to a diminishing market for controlled substances and the eventual realization of a drug-free world. And, indeed, such efforts to reduce the supply of illicit drugs from producer countries to consumer markets in the US have not been a complete failure. The State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, for example, suggests that cocaine production in the Andean region has decreased by 41 per cent since 2001, partially as a result of numerous counter-narcotics initiatives.

However, they have nonetheless been insufficient to effectively curtail the supply and consumption of drugs as well as the attendant violence. While this may be attributed in part to the sheer determination of the traffickers and the high levels of corruption endemic to the region, it can also be ascribed to the innovation of the criminal gangs. This is evident, for example, in the use of semisubmersible vessels and narco-submarines capable of transporting several tons of cocaine from Colombia as far as Mexico.

Meanwhile, criticism of the hardline policies of the war on drugs — and in particular of drug prohibition — has been growing. In Latin America, this has traditionally been the domain of retired political leaders. These include respected former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo who, in a 2009 report entitled “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift,” declared the “war on drugs” a failure and demanded alternative approaches, starting with the legalization of some drugs. More recently, however, a number of serving presidents from across the Americas have begun to speak up on the issue of drug-policy reform.

SEE ALSO: Gorilla in the Room: Legalization and Decriminalization in the Americas

This reflects an emerging consensus, evident at the sixth Summit of the Americas, held in April 2012 in Colombia, when heads of state and government reached significant agreement on a number of basic concepts relating to the drug problem. Key among these was the recognition that, with its impact on public health, huge financial costs and attendant violence, the drug problem is one of the most important challenges facing the hemisphere and that the current approach, despite some important results, has not been sufficiently successful.

The debate was taken a step further in May 2013 with the release of the Organization of American States’ eagerly awaited “Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas.” Also aimed at addressing growing dissatisfaction with the vast cost of the war on drugs and the increasing levels of drug related violence, the report utilized four different lenses — labeled “Together,” “Pathways,” “Resilience” and “Disruption” – to explore both the causes of the problem and a range of alternative policy responses to guide Latin American leaders over the next decade.

This ground-breaking report opened up the previously deadlocked debate on the best way to tackle drugs and organized crime. In particular, in considering alternatives to established policy, it set standards for an evidence based discussion and a common understanding of the challenges facing affected countries. For example, rather than concentrating on the problems of individual countries, the report sought to convey the intricacies and interdependencies of the drug economy as it affects the Americas as a whole. It also challenged the mainstream view of drug use and addiction as criminal offences that should be punished, instead positioning them as a public health issue requiring appropriate treatment and prevention policies. In doing so, the report questioned the current “prohibitionist” approach as the only viable option. As such, while it refrained from offering a roadmap for the formulation of a viable alternative to the war on drugs, it marked a major milestone in the current debate. It will no doubt inform the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem — a key forum in which the future strategic direction of global drug policy is likely to be decided.

InSight Crime Map: Legalization, Decriminalization in the Americas  


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Ongoing debate around drug-policy reform and the likely implementation of alternative legal and regulatory regimes (such as the recent move to legalize cannabis in Uruguay) therefore appear set to place additional pressure on the drug trade. Yet this could potentially displace the problem, affecting other industries across Latin America, as criminal gangs diversify their activities to offset lost income. Such activities might include, for example, criminal mining, illegal logging, oil theft, people trafficking and money laundering.

SEE ALSO: Uruguay: Marijuana, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

Amongst these, gold mining is a particularly susceptible industry, most notably in Colombia. Here, armed groups such as left-wing guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other criminal gangs such as the Urabeños and the Rastrojos (collectively referred to by the Colombian government as “bandas criminales” or “BACRIM”) are already believed to either be leveraging extortion fees from or have direct control over gold mines in a third of municipalities. The FARC’s 16th Front, based in the eastern departments of Guainia and Vichada, is also believed to be extorting fees from miners across the border in Venezuela, where it is expanding into coltan mining. And according to some sources, the FARC’s income from illegal gold mining has even exceeded that from coca production in eight of Colombia’s thirty-two provinces.

There are a number of security concerns — especially environmental and economic — attached to the growth of such activities. One of the biggest challenges associated with illegal mining is mercury poisoning, as miners use liquid mercury to separate gold from river sediments. Furthermore, the growing involvement of criminal groups in the mining sector could reduce the attractiveness of the sector to foreign investment, thereby undermining national efforts to use the industry as a locomotive for fiscal growth.

Meanwhile, the expansion of criminal groups into people trafficking is of major concern. In a 2012 report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warned that human trafficking was likely to become an increasingly lucrative revenue stream for Central America’s drug cartels. And while governments across the region have recently revised anti-trafficking legislation, they continue to be outpaced by the growing power and ingenuity of the cartels. For example, the Mexican army recently rescued 165 people who had been travelling as undocumented migrants when they were kidnapped by a drug cartel near the US border, with numerous other instances likely going undetected. Should drug-policy reforms force criminal groups to seek other forms of income, there is likely to be an upturn in this profitable trade.

Other significant challenges remain, which will impede the further implementation of meaningful drug policy reform in the Americas. These include a lack of resources and capacity on the part of local governments and NGOs, the need to rebuild state institutions in the face of opposition from entrenched interests, and the challenge of managing the risks involved in experimentation, especially in allowing drugs to be sold in regulated markets. There is also the risk of conflicts emerging over violations of existing international treaties. At the same time, while a strategic rethink of the way in which governments should address the problem could eventually result in reduced levels of addiction, incarceration and drug-related violence, it could also feed into the current trend of diversification of organized criminal activity. Against this backdrop, revenue generated through other sectors, such as illegal gold mining and people trafficking, could begin to rival the drugs trade as a leading driver of regional insecurity in the future.

*This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 33, No. 5, September 2013)

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