UN Report Enforces Orthodox Drug Strategy

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The UN’s latest annual report on drug trafficking offers a bleak assessment of efforts to fight drug trafficking and presents some sharp criticism for the growing number of countries in the region questioning the US-led “war on drugs,” a response which risks making the organization looking irrelevant.

The United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its annual report on Tuesday, which documents the successes won and challenges faced by governments worldwide as they struggle to crack down on drug trafficking. The study paints a gloomy picture of the fight against the global drug trade, describing it as “a problem that has gathered enormous momentum” and which threatens “health, educational, criminal justice, social welfare, economic and, in some instances, political systems in countries around the globe.”

According to UN researchers, the situation is especially problematic in Central America, where “maras” (gangs) contribute to unparalleled levels of drug-related violence. InSight Crime has documented the issue of gang violence in Central America extensively in the past, especially in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. These three countries alone have a combined average homicide rate (63.2 per 100,000 inhabitants) that is more than twice that of Latin America as a whole.

Some of the main drivers of this violence in Central America are street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The INCB claims that there are more than 900 different gangs active in Central America today, with a combined total of more than 70,000 members.

As the INCB report points out, this wave of violence has been worsened by the presence of Mexico-based drug traffickers, who have deepened their operations in Central America in recent years in response to increased pressure from law enforcement. Remarking on the INCB report, UN representative Antonio Mazzitelli noted that cocaine seizures in Mexico are down, and claimed that this is proof that drug traffickers are moving less of their product through Mexico. According to him, “More law enforcement presence on the territory, increased control on the US border, plus infights among criminal groups make moving large consignments of cocaine [through Mexico] quite risky in economic terms.”

But while it is true that there has been a marked drop in drug seizures in that country, it is unlikely that this reflects a major change in the regional flow of cocaine. US drug officials maintain that the vast majority of cocaine smuggled into the country passes through Mexico first. The drop in seizures, then, more likely reflects larger problems within Mexico’s security forces.

Still, while the INCB report couches Mexico’s security push in positive terms, it does not contain such praise for other countries in the region. Bolivia, for instance, is severely criticized for its decision to temporarily withdraw from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, before rejoining it in January 2011, with the caveat that it would not recognize the portion of the treaty dealing with coca. The INCB says it was “concerned that, while the denunciation itself may be technically permitted under the Convention, it is contrary to the fundamental object and spirit of the Convention.” The UN body claimed that it set a dangerous precedent and that, if other countries followed suit, “The integrity of the international drug control system would be undermined and the achievements of the past 100 years in drug control would be compromised.”

The report also addressed the recent trend of Latin American leaders calling for a discussion on drug legalization. In recent months the current presidents of both Colombia and Guatemala have announced that they would welcome debate the decriminalization of drugs. The government of Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos have said that they will raise the topic at the upcoming Summit of the Americas meeting, while Guatemala’s Otto Perez is also pursuing a regional discussion on the matter.

Although these efforts were not specifically mentioned, in his forward to the report, INCB president Hamid Ghodse noted that “some individuals have expressed doubts regarding the effectiveness of the current international drug control conventions and proposed legalization of drugs.” Ghodse called these arguments “deeply flawed,” and claimed that the current drug control system is the best option for governments.

As dissatisfaction with the decades-old “war on drugs” grows, more countries are likely to adopt individual approaches like Bolivia’s, or join the search for alternatives. It could be a mistake for the UN to issue a blanket rejection of drug liberalization initiatives. In a joint press release with the Washington Office on Latin America, the Transnational Institute’s Martin Jelsma said that the INCB’s response to Bolivia is a “clear sign that the UN drug control regime is under strain,” and that the INCB “is in distress and no longer capable of responding to challenges in a rational manner.”

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