Home Topics Drugs & Narcotráfico The 'war' on drugs is an aberration: Raul Sohr

The ‘war’ on drugs is an aberration: Raul Sohr


The Chilean journalist and broadcaster Raul Sohr has made several studies of the military in Latin America. He is the author of Claves para entender la Guerra (2003) and La Guerra Fantasma: el Mundo Bajo la Amenaza Terrorista. In this interview he talks to LAB’s Mike Gatehouse about another ‘guerra fantasma’ —the ‘war on drugs’— declared by President Nixon 40 years ago, and still unwinnable.



army_favelas“The presence of the army lasted for a couple of weeks and then things reverted to absolutely the same conditions as they were before”LAB: US administrations since Nixon defined the effort to eliminate illegal drugs as a ‘war’. And in somewhat the same sense as they have used the term ‘The War on Terrorism’. Is this useful, in your judgement, or sensible, and what follows from it?

RS: Using the concept of ‘war’ is an aberration. Drugs are a very complex phenomenon which is made up of the producers who, in most Latin American countries, are poor peasants looking for an income; drug dealers who, again, are sectors excluded from society, and then you have consumers and in many countries consumption of drugs has been considered a disease. Hence, to refer to this very complex phenomenon as a ‘war’ in which certain rules of behaviour are accepted, along with the presence of armed forces trained for regular wars with heavy fire-power, is a complete misconception.

LAB: In several Latin American countries, especially Colombia and Mexico, the army has been deployed within the national territory to combat drug production and trade. Has this been successful and what have been the consequences?

RS: I have followed quite closely this phenomenon. I’ve been in Brazil when the Army was deployed for the first time in favelas in Rio de Janeiro and it was a complete failure. The presence of the army lasted for a couple of weeks and then things reverted to absolutely the same conditions as they were before. And the main problem with the regular armed forces is that they are a permanent institution and when you get those institutions corrupted then you have a big problem, as indeed has happened in Mexico. So, as they say, if you go to war you are likely to get shot (in Spanish you say: ‘al que va a la guerra le entran balas’). Well, in the same way, if you go into this, in inverted commas, “war against drug dealers”, you are likely to be corrupted. There is a joke that says that a young lieutenant is sent to the border and he sends his first report which says ‘I’ve been approached by drug dealers and they offered me $10,000 and I chased them, shooting at them.’ Next week he sends another report and says the same thing, ‘they have offered me $50,000.’ The third week he says ‘No more problems.’ 

LAB: Do you think that the scale of corruption in the armed forces, for instance of Mexico, is now very significant?

RS: It is difficult to get figures and precise information but every so often we get reports and the fact that the ‘super-czar’ of the fight against drugs in Mexico was a member of, or was connected to, one of the cartels speaks volumes about the dangers of this situation. And yes, one Mexican president said, ‘There is no general that can resist a 50,000 peso canonazo (shot)’.

LAB: But in Colombia, the Santos government has to some extent claimed success in the ‘war on drugs’. It claims to have reduced violence substantially. There are confused reports about why levels of violence have declined. But certainly some claim for success is being made and that is, rightly or wrongly, attributed to the use of the armed forces.

RS. I think the investment in Colombia to dealing with both drug dealing and the FARC has been massive. We are talking about over US$7 billion in what is known as the Plan Colombia, and the reinforcement of the armed forces in terms of transport capacity, helicopters and intelligence devices has been absolutely massive and the Colombian armed forces have nearly doubled in size and that has an effect, no doubt. And they managed to put the FARC on the defensive. Now whether that has really had a major impact on drug dealers, that is to be seen. Because both things, I think very deliberately, have been mixed and originally the Plan Colombia said it was only against drug dealing, but most of the effort by the armed forces has been to fight the FARC. Now, the FARC had certain links with drug dealers, in the same way as, if you say it in Spanish, you can speak of ‘narco-jueces, narco-militares, narco-periodistas’, you name it. Anyone who comes close to that is likely to be tainted or corrupted by the huge amounts that are moved by this industry. Now, the FARC has benefited to some extent from it and the army is involved systematically. I’ve seen it myself in the north of Colombia, doing a report in Chaco, near the border with Panama. The links between the paramilitaries and the army were absolutely explicit and I actually saw these paramilitary forces inside the barracks. There was no secret about it.

LAB: It’s also said that that part of the Plan Colombia which was dedicated to fumigation of crops, eradication using herbicides and so on was almost exclusively directed at FARC areas and ignored the very substantial areas of coca under the control of paramilitaries.

RS: Absolutely. In fact, furthermore, I would say the paramilitaries were a sort of force that created greater and greater areas for drug dealers. The paramilitaries were part of the drug dealers and there is a very, very detailed denunciation on how they operated, for example in the Alto Magdalena and in a number of regions in Colombia. But very detailed. And not only the military, also the civilian authorities. And of course there were a number of denunciations even against President Uribe and there was some evidence that he was involved in a paramilitary group, Convivir, in Medellín and that this group had links with the drug dealers.

LAB: Where the army has led campaigns against drug trafficking, or has been the main force combatting, allegedly, drug trafficking, certainly in Mexico and Colombia, what have been the implications for civilian police, the judiciary, local authorities such as mayors, and in general for democracy?

RS: It varies from place to place, but what has been interesting is that the military, for example in Mexico, or in Colombia, haven’t participated more in politics. One could have suspected that introducing the army or bringing the army out in the streets and participating in aspects of civilian life might have led to an increased militarism, but it hasn’t. That I think is something that ought to be looked at more closely. But on the whole it has increased intimidation, has deteriorated the democratic atmosphere both in Colombia and in Mexico. That’s absolutely evident. And the prestige of the armed forces, at least in Mexico, has decreased in an important way. By the way, I wrote a book some time ago, La Guerra Ambigua, and this deals absolutely with the armed forces and drug dealing. It has very clear detaled denunciations of the links between the army and the drug dealers in Colombia. It’s published by the Comisión Sudamericana de Paz.

LAB:Why does the war on drugs, so-called, appear only to be conducted within producer nations and not within the main consumers, starting with the United States and Europe?

RS: It’s a very good question. The paradox is that there is a huge production of marijuana in California. Most of this production happens in state forests. That is the level of tolerance! I haven’t heard that there has been any spraying or any campaign to eradicate in California in the way that is being done in Latin America, knowing that in Ecuador and Colombia it has affected a number of peasants in those regions. Now, we all know, might is right. Therefore the United States applies completely different rules to the elimination of drug production in the States and in Latin America.

LAB: Has the war on drugs, in your view, significantly changed or distorted US aid policy, both economic and military aid, to Latin America?

RS: The best example of that is the Plan Colombia. In the Plan Colombia, 70% was military, 30% was civilian aid. In the end, we’re talking about over US$7 billion, it was almost entirely military aid. As we know military aid means basically spending on US arms and equipment. So not much of that money came down to the region. For example, nothing has been done up to now, and it is difficult to evaluate to what extent President Santos’ policy of restitution of land has been implemented, whether land has been given to those peasants who were evicted by drug dealers and paramilitaries, which accounts for millions of people, and many of them have become refugees in the big towns, for example in Bogotá. He promised that there would be some form of land reform plus restitution of land. That has been going on very slowly. One must praise the intention but how successful it will be remains to be seen.

LAB: It’s said that however honest the intention may be, that the reality of attempting to take land away from whoever they are — drug traffickers, their clients, coca growers — to give it back to the original owners, is going to be exceedingly difficult just as it has been in Amazonas in Brazil with land not for drugs but for various other crops. 

RS: Yes, I think it will be extremely difficult. But even so, I think Santos at least shows an understanding of the problem that the FARC as a rebellious group won’t disappear until the causes that led them to fight disappear and as long as you have such blatant injustice in the Colombian countryside you will never ensure —  it doesn’t matter how much military success you have —  that the process won’t start again. Hence it is time for that it is understood that the problem is primarily a political one and not a military one.

LAB: Do you think that the US has been using the war against drugs as a cover for re-asserting influence and control over the armed forces and governments of Latin America, quite aside from the nominal intention about eliminating the drug trade?

RS: Not really. I wouldn’t say that there has been a pull to impose their hegemony or their influence in the armed forces. Most armed forces have been quite reluctant to be part of this war or campaigns against drug dealers. They see it as below their level. In most countries the armed forces prepare themselves for regular wars to fight for the sovereignty of the state, and to be involved in what they consider to be police actions, it’s below what they see as their mission. This has been the case in Argentina and in Chile. In Brazil to some extent they have been involved, but more on the question of border integrity, that the borders shouldn’t be violated. And, for example, the Bolivians experimented with something I think is quite useful, to create special armed units to fight against drug dealers. I think they were called UnoPar at the time, and not to involve the regular army. For the reason I gave at the beginning, which is that once the regular army gets contaminated, gets infiltrated, you have a real problem. You can end up with an army that to some extent is acting on behalf of drug dealers.

First we must clear that question that we are not talking about ‘war’. Every time we say war, we should say in inverted commas. The problem in essence is that the armed forces and the United States are not committed to it — this doesn’t apply to the whole society. We are talking about a marginal phenomenon which has a huge impact, but still it’s marginal. Drug dealers are not political animals. They’re not out to get power. They don’t want to control the state. They want to be left alone to do their business. The Pentagon and Washington interest is in power, in policies, where countries are going. And secondly, I don’t think Washington, with its present policy, is looking to influence the direction where states go via the armed forces.They are trying to contain the armed forces to their specific role, eventually involving them in the fight against drugs, but they are trying to have them confined to barracks and not in the pesidential palace.

LAB: The Obama administration distanced itself from the term ‘the war on drugs’ but has it made significant changes in actual drugs-related policy towards Latin America? When I read Obama’s words at the Summit of the Americas, in Cargagena, which were fairly ambivalent and at around the same time the news came that he’d authorised a further US$300 million of military aid to Colombia specifically for drug-related actions.

RS: I think there has been a change of emphasis, not a change of policy. There is less public discourse and aid has been going down. It’s down from its peak, in Colombia. They will go on providing some support and also in Peru, but I think the emphasis has changed and now it’s a lower level, it has increased.

LAB: Do you think, if Obama gets a second term, and there’s a convincing Democrat majority in Congress, which is clearly on the cards given the disarray of the Republicans, would you expect the policy, or at least the emphasis to change further?

RS: Most US policies are based on domestic interests. The fact that the US has just signed a free-trade agreement with Colombia has nothing to do with a substantial improvement in conditions in Colombia. Trade unionists go on being assassinated in large quantities. By no standard could you say that the situation is normal in Colombia. But in an electoral year and having pressure from the Republicans they decided to sign this agreement. It’s not because there was a real, substantial change in Colombia. The situation there for any objective observer is totally unacceptable, especially relating to trade unionists.

LAB: But after the US presidential elections, so after November this year, there could be a significant change in the balance of power within the US, certainly as between Republicans and Democrats, and Obama could have a somewhat freer hand.

RS: Yes, you are right, that might be the case. But the reason why they didn’t sign the free trade agreement in the past and they said that the abuses of human rights were unacceptable, wasn’t really the core cause. The core cause was the unions in the United States, which didn’t want to open the American market up to Colombian goods. So this will depend very much on the evolution of internal US policy. If it suits and is really what is best for the political forces that are in control at the moment, yes, there might be a change… or not, as the case may be.

LAB: A final question. Decriminalisation of drugs, in some sense, is currently being pursued both by Santos and by Otto Pérez Molina. They’ve made, both of them comparatively right-wing presidents, have made quite distinctive calls for essentially a new approach to the whole drugs issue. Do you think there is a real possibility that that will come about? Again, I noticed that Obama at the Summit of the Americas seemed to put a strong doubt about whether the US would consider such a change.

RS: There again, I think that’s a domestic American issue. It will depend very much on how it is done… If the decision is taken in California, it is likely to happen. If it’s taken in Texas it’s likely not to happen. That depends very much on American internal policies. I think that the United States overall cares very little about what goes on in Latin America. Their attitudes are shaped by what China is doing in the region and whether to contain or not China in Latin America or in the past most of their positions were conditioned by the Cold War and their respect for democracy in Chile or other places was irrelevant. It was more to do with the Soviet Union and how they thought they were coping with that and now they are sort of focussing on China and other issues. To a lesser extent, perhaps some countries are beginning to get more serious attention, like Brazil, but for the rest, Guatemala, and even Mexico, I think it’s quite irrelevant for them.

LAB: That’s from the United States angle. But from the Latin American end, if people like Santos and Pérez Molina are starting to call for some degree of decriminalisation, is it possible for Latin America to implement that in any sense without the green light from the United States?

RS: Yes, I think so, very much so. Argentina has decided to legalise, depenalise, well, not legalise, but they have taken a more liberal attitude towards marijuana and consumption of small amounts. The Supreme Court has cleared that. So, yes, it is possible.

LAB: But there’s a big difference between minor changes in law and the application of law to individual consumers, which have already been experimented with in various ways in Europe and the United States. It’s a different question when you ask, ‘Will it be legal for a farmer to grow a field of coca (which, in Bolivia it is)?

RS: I think it is most unlikely to happen in Latin America. I don’t think that will come through. We have to remember that even these right-wing governments like Molina have been toying with the idea. But it’s my impression that he sees it more as a bargaining chip in international terms than a frank commitment to those policies.

LAB: And the big companies that one might suppose would get involved in the trade were it to be legalised, Phillip Morris & co, they haven’t got little departments beavering away, considering how they would commercialise coca, for instance.

RS: Coca is yet another level. What is true to say is that Latin American societies have suffered enormously from this drug and the impact on especially the poorer sectors as consumers in Latin America has been as bad and serious as in the States or anywhere else. A very large percentage of petty crime in most of these countries comes precisely from drug addicts. So it’s a very complex issue. One thing is to have a sort of liberal attitude and say everyone should be able to use their body in the way they like, it’s their body, if they want to consume drugs, it’s up to them and who is the state or anyone else to define what you can consume or not; and another, quite different, is the social impact this is having, not just in the huge fortunes that move around and that as you rightly say, if it went to Phillip Morris or any other large tobacco company, then at least you could control it, and it would be better than having all these criminals profiting from this and spending much of that fortune on weapons or killing their adversaries or whatever. But there are very large campaigns in Latin America to eradicate tobacco. I think it would be a huge step backward to begin to release or make publicly available other drugs that have even worse impact than tobacco.

LAB: So, if you were in some way, a ‘czar’, this notional wise person that is in charge of pollicy, if you were in charge of drugs policy, what would you recommend?

RS: I would rather be a general secretary rather than a czar! I would recommend to deal with drugs as a social phenomenon to deal with drug addicts as people who need treatment, they should go to clinics and not to jail. I would deal with the producers in a way where we can offer an alternative and spend much of the money that now is being given to armies, to put that money to good use helping the peasants to get a decent life. And in those countries where there is an ancient native consumption, like in Bolivia, I would let them be, the way they are. Bolivia is one of the healthiest societies in many respects, with a very low crime rate, it’s a very integrated society and they have had coca for centuries, so the coca is not the problem. It is the social phenomenon that is created around it. So that would be my line.

LAB: Thank you so much. Is there anything you would like to add, that I haven’t touched on.

RS: About the link that has been made with another fake war, which is the ‘war on terror’. I think both are fabrications, complete fabrications, and there isn’t such a thing as a war against terror. You can have war against something concrete. Terror is a method, a fighting method, that can be used by the extreme right, the extreme left, religious fanatics, anyone can use terror, which is basically a clandestine method of carrying out warfare. In the same way, drugs are not an enemy. There are people who consume drugs, there are people who profit from drug trafficking and so on. But you have a war against a state, against an army, people who are armed and that you can define clearly, so it is like having a war against poverty. So do we now send the army to fight poverty? So it is a complete misconception.