Latin America’s political leaders are beginning to realise that the drugs ‘war’ is unwinnable and diverts enormous resources to a task that would be pointless if consumption were regulated like tobacco or alcohol
Michael Ware’s thought-provoking piece about drugs policy struck a chord with Public Finance’s only resident blogger in Central America. This is a region that is very much a victim of drug trafficking and where Michael would find his views reflected in high-level political comment.
Earlier this year the new president of Guatemala who – shall we say – is no trendy lefty, used a feature article in The Observer to express his frustration with current policy on drugs, its futility and the devastating effects on his and other countries. His views have been echoed or received sympathetically in several parts of Latin America, which is of course not only one of the main sources of illegal drugs but involves many countries that aren’t producers nevertheless having to cope with drug trafficking.
For example, the small country of Honduras now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, in part because it is a key staging point on the drugs route. This has led the US Drug Enforcement Administration to mount assaults on isolated communities there to detain drug traffickers. In May this resulted in the deaths of four innocent people, including two pregnant women.
Neither the US nor the Honduran government has paid much attention and nor have they offered help to the victims’ families. Imagine the reaction if foreign security forces had helicoptered into Texas and shot four people.
Quite apart from the deaths (at least 54,000 in Mexico alone, as Michael said) the illegal trade has a devastating effect on people’s lives. It has to be remembered that cocaine (for example) is almost worthless in itself, only achieving extortionate values on the streets of the United States or Europe. It is shipped in huge quantities – hundreds of kilograms – by all manner of means. That only a proportion of what is sent arrives at the point of sale is all part of the business and makes little difference to the drug cartels’ earnings.
But it leaves a trail of damage behind it. I have watched as a lorry carrying enormous piles of bananas in Nicaragua was patiently unloaded by police to reveal dozens of packages of cocaine, each the size of a ream of paper. No one was killed in the incident, but lives were ruined by it. The lorry driver, who did the job as his one chance of earning a significant amount of money, was condemned to years in jail and his lorry was confiscated.
Whether the collateral damage from the ‘war on drugs’ is murdered women bystanders in Honduras or imprisoned breadwinners in Nicaragua, families are being destroyed and neither the drug cartels nor the enormous drug enforcement industry does anything to mitigate the damage.
And those who pay least attention are the users themselves. It’s curious that there can be a degree of consumer awareness about the wages received by the Chinese workers who assemble iPads, whereas concern about the misery caused by drugs focuses on its effects on the users themselves and on their neighbours, not on the countries through which their drugs have passed.
One factor that Michael didn’t mention is that the cartels and the enforcers actually want drugs to be illegal. This is what forces up their price, keeps out legitimate potential suppliers and requires enormous government expenditure on weaponry to fight the drugs war.
Political leaders in Latin America are beginning to realise not only that the ‘war’ is unwinnable and hence futile, but it is diverting enormous resources to a task that would be pointless if drug consumption either ceased or was regulated, like tobacco or alcohol. Given that attempts to get people – many of whom should know better – to stop taking drugs don’t work, a regulated market looks a much better bet.
It could hardly be worse than the current situation. Pretending otherwise is yet another instance of rich countries not only exploiting poorer ones but blaming them for supplying a commodity whose market price is determined in New York or London, just like coffee or cocoa.