Rethinking the War on Drugs in South America

For many years Latin America has been associated with narcotrafficking and violence as tales of drug lords and atrocities dominate media coverage of the region, with ‘El Patrón’ (Pablo Escobar Gaviria), Christopher ‘Dudas’ Coke and the forty-nine mutilated bodies discovered in San Juan, Mexico last May to name but a few examples. Unfortunately, despite the amount of media attention on the subject there is still no effective solution for problems on either side of the US border. Drug-related offences were the highest cause of arrest in the US in 2011 (12% of the total) and figures from the UNODC World Drug Report suggest that there was actually a rise in trafficking in the noughties[1]. This not only means that the millions of dollars ($4,000 million in 2010 by the US alone) spent in the war on drugs have failed to yield commensurate results, but that the consumer-producer dichotomy between North and South America is putting increased pressure on an already tense relationship. Each US stipulation or interference in Latin America simply increases a feeling in the southern continent that their northern neighbour is threatening their security, economy, traditions, and independence.

Image courtesy of Mathews Straubmiller, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Mathews Straubmiller, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Last September Bolivian President Evo Morales declared “The US has no moral authority” and that “the moment they eradicate the cocaine market [in their own country] our coca leaf will stop being diverted to illegal markets”. His rejection of foreign interference in domestic drug laws is now shared by many Uruguayans who resent the UN’s condemnation last week of the country’s plans to legalise marijuana.  While the US is by no means the only culprit, the fact that according to UN estimates 40% of South American cocaine and 60% of Mexico’s marijuana is consumed by Americans shows the hypocrisy of its accusatory and inflexible attitude towards the Latin American drugs trade: in January it was the most vocal objector to Bolivia’s re-admittance to the UN anti-narcotics convention due to Bolivia’s continued use of the sacred coca leaf, an ancient and apparently harmless remedy for altitude sickness and tiredness.

While the US is clearly acting in good faith, it should bear in mind that interference in Latin America is beginning to look like the next chapter in a series where US interventions and influence in South America have a devastating effect on the local population at little cost to itself; previous episodes being US support of brutal dictators like Augusto Pinochet Guarte in Chile and Anastasio Somoza García in Nicaragua.

Aside from the more apparent social issues, ineffective drug controls are the cause of some serious economic problems. While prohibition is designed to make prices fall and consequently convince farmers that it is inadvisable to farm coca, this method only works if profitable crop alternatives are provided and the sheer quantity of coca farms makes it impossible to replace them all with quinoa crops, as was once suggested. Furthermore, in his book Bolivia and Coca: A Study in Dependency, James Painter argues that prohibition impedes taxation that could direct some of the takings into better infrastructure or ensure a fairer distribution of profits as only 2% of the multimillion dollar profit goes to farmers[2]. Prohibition is also causing long-term problems as inflation, forged banknotes and money laundering are necessary to integrate drug profits into the economy, practices that can be seen in the cheap electronics markets of La Paz, Bolivia and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

On a political level the policies are also proving counter-productive as some suspect that statistics on drug seizure and production are doctored by Latin American countries so that they will receive more USAID; indeed many question whether such donations are even used to fight the ‘war on drugs’ or if they simply fund ineffective bureaucracies. What is more, given that there are no signs of eradicating the drug market in the near future, governments in Mexico, Peru and Bolivia have found it more constructive to cooperate with narcotraffickers. For instance in many areas of the Amazon where narcotraffickers dominate, the only way to impose any government control is to make under-the-table deals with cartels, as governments simply do not have the funds to compensate the farmers who currently sell to the cartels. Thus the old mano dura approach is not only inept at preventing the drug trade but is forcing governments and citizens in South America into illegal and clandestine activities.

Yet there are signs that the US is beginning to view the situation from a new perspective as recent popular media such as 2000 film Traffic and the television series Breaking Bad emphasise the culpability of the US in narcotrafficking. It appears that this view is becoming more than just a peripheral liberalist apologia as it is gaining recognition in the political sphere. Perhaps the most significant development was last December when 55% of voters in Colorado and Washington opted to legalise marijuana: a marijuana market which is taxed and to an extent controlled by the US government could drastically reduce the influx of lower quality, cartel produced Mexican marijuana and hopefully decrease the violence and social problems for both countries. This liberalist trend was continued by plans for the legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay and the abovementioned UN approval of chewing coca leaves in Bolivia.

Of course there are still major concerns over reconsideration of drug policies and simply legalising all drugs tomorrow is neither a likely nor an advisable solution. Nevertheless, blanket bans simply encourage crime, deny realities and prevent control and taxation of a worldwide market; all problems that affect Latin American countries far more than they do the United States. With Latin America’s increasing influence in world politics due to its vast resources and overall economic growth, it is advisable that the US takes steps to forge an amicable relationship while it still has the political weight to negotiate terms – finding an alternative to the outdated ‘war on drugs’ which is ravaging its southern neighbour would be an ideal first step. While Barack Obama has shown his desire to form a better relationship with Latin America, most evidently in his policies towards Cuba, successful results in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay may be what is needed to coax conservatives into rethinking their drugs policy and beginning a new relationship with Latin America.

[1] As statistics are mainly based on seizure, it is almost impossible to get undisputed figures

[2] Bolivia and Coca: A Study in Dependency, James Painter (London 1994) p.139