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The drugs trade

The problem of the drugs trade has taken centre stage in Latin America. Since the time when drugs were only a police and law and order matter to the present debate about the possible legalisation and control of certain drugs, much water – and blood – has passed under the bridge. It is 40 years since the then USA president Richard Nixon coined the term “war on drugs”. During the past four decades, drug trafficking has increased, corruption has become rampant and Mexico and Central America have become the centre of a tug of war among drug cartels. Last year the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a damning report on the so-called “war on drugs”, which concluded simply that it had failed. Nobody can suspect the commission’s members of being friends of the cartels: Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo (former presidents, respectively of Brazil and Mexico), César Gaviria, authors Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, and British businessman Richard Branson. They simply reported the facts, and those were devastating enough: death, instability, corruption.

More recently, César Gaviria, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo have published an article in the Huffington Post arguing  that “The taboo that has long prevented open debate about drug policies has been broken — thanks to a steadily deteriorating situation on the ground and the courageous stand taken by presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica.” Read more.

LAB’s Javier Farje examines this new approach. While some countries, like Argentina and Mexico, have introduced some reforms, these have not been enough because they have not tackled the main problem which is, as the OAS says, that drug trafficking threatens Latin America’s democratic process. Read more.

Raul Sohr is a respected Chilean journalist and analyst of international affairs. In an interview with LAB’s Mike Gatehouse, he says that the term “war on drugs” is an “aberration” and it has misled governments into involving the military directly, with disastrous consequences. As a result, in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, says Sohr, the armed forces have become both corrupted and discredited. Read more.

On the libertarian right, calls for legalisation of drugs are nothing new. From the far-right Cato Institute, Costa Rican political commentator Juan Carlos Hidalgo presents ‘Ten reasons to legalise drugs’. Read more

Researcher Talli Nauman argues strongly that the US approach to combating drug-trafficking has failed. Despite millions of dollars poured into Plan Colombia, this country still produces, says Nauman, 95% of the cocaine seized in the USA. The war among drug cartels in Mexico, which is causing death and destruction, is spilling into Central America. Nauman believes that the USA has to change its policies in Central America in order to help these countries fight the Mexican drug cartels. Read more.

The activities of Mexican drug cartels in Central America are affecting almost all the countries in the region. In Guatemala, whole towns are controlled by those gangs. However, Costa Rica, the most stable Central American democracy, and a country without an army, has seen consumption of drugs double in the last few years. Violent crimes related to drugs have also increased. For a country which relies heavily on tourism, this is indeed very bad news, and many Costa Ricans fear that things will get even worse. Read more.

However, militarisation continues: Spanish daily El País reports that Guatemala has decided to deploy elite troops to the border with Mexico in order to fight Mexican drug cartels, which have taken control of many towns in the area. Read more.

The National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the USA for the “right” to own arms. They use an article in the US constitution originally designed to promote individual and community self-defence against the overweening power of state and colonial armies. Led at some point by the late Charlton Heston, the NRA resists any attempts to limit the ownership of machine guns and pistols. According to Mexican President Felipe Calderón, most of the 140,000 weapons confiscated during his government were legally acquired in arms shops in the USA. There are thousands of such stores operating close to the US-Mexican border. Read more.

As we prepared this newsletter, we reached two clear conclusions: the existing ‘war against drugs’ model of prohibition, criminalisation and, where necessary, military intervention has failed and commands less and less support. But no-one has a clear idea about what to do instead, or how to undo the damage wrought by 40 years of a misguided ‘war’. LAB would like to invite our partners and readers in the region to contribute their ideas and details of their own experience. We will publish a follow-up newsletter in a few weeks, aiming to carry the voices of those on the front-line.

We are particularly interested in:

1.       Would partial decriminalisation of ‘soft’ drugs such as marijuana significantly affect the drugs trade?

2.       What would be the effect on local, especially urban communities of full legalisation of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and how could their use be minimised?

3.       What can be done to help producers of drug crops to earn sufficient and stable income from production of food and other non-drug crops?

4.       How can the massive corruption by the drugs trade of state and local government institutions be combated?

5.       How can local communities be empowered and funded to combat drug use, violence and drug-related gang culture without resort to vigilantism?

6.       What can and should the US government do to regulate and constrain the demand for drugs which fuels the trade?