The military-style offensive endorsed by the U.S. was a failure, and regional leaders have yet to agree on an alternative. But at least they’re looking for new answers
It turns out there just might be a solution to the bloody drug wars now haunting much of Latin America, and the answer can be found in the heart of Canada’s largest city.
Consider the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, a place where there is significant use of illicit drugs, but nobody gets kidnapped and nobody gets killed.
The drug traffickers who supply the campus know that any trouble, especially violent trouble, would bring the police storming in. That would not be good for business, so the local merchants of marijuana and other narcotics are careful to ensure that everything stays calm.
As long as peace prevails, the police tend to stand back and look the other way.
The result might not be ideal but, on the whole, it works — and it’s better than the alternatives.
The U of T model is far from unique. In fact, it’s just one among countless examples of a similar phenomenon that might be described as “informal tolerance” of illegal drugs.
“That’s how we manage it,” says Jean Daudelin, a Latin America expert at Carleton University. “That’s exactly what we do. Look at any university campus in North America. Lots of drugs. No violence.”
He believes a similar strategy could be applied in at least some parts of Latin America. It obviously would not stop the drug trade — which appears to be unstoppable — and might even have the opposite effect. But it could put a damper on the industry of death that, at times, seems to be the principal subsidiary of the narcotics trade in the Americas.
Since the end of 2006, approximately 70,000 people are thought to have perished in drug-related violence in Mexico alone, during a period that has roughly coincided with that country’s frontal assault on the drug cartels. The military-style offensive widely known as the War on Drugs is now generally deemed to have been an extremely lethal flop.
“There is a growing consensus that the war against drugs has failed,” says Daniel Mejia, director of the Security and Drugs Study Centre at the University of the Andes in Bogota. “In Latin America, we are paying a high cost so that drugs don’t reach the consuming countries. We can’t go on paying this price.”
Instead, regional leaders are examining a range of less violent alternatives to the knocking-heads strategy that has dominated the official response to the narcotics business in Latin America in recent years, an approach adopted largely at U.S. behest.
Even that seems to be changing, as Washington tones down its once blistering rhetoric on prohibition.
“You have the ability now to talk about decriminalization,” says Carlo Dade of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. “A few years ago, the United States would have come down on you like a ton of bricks.”
Not any more, and that alone marks a big switch.
It isn’t clear where official policy on illegal drugs is headed in the Western Hemisphere, but the ground is definitely shifting.
The changes are perhaps especially notable in the U.S., where voters in two states, Washington and Colorado, have opted to legalize possession of marijuana for personal use. These measures plainly violate federal law but they are being implemented nonetheless, so far without interference from the White House.
As a result, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama finds itself in an awkward position. How can theyanquis lecture Latin Americans on the prohibition of narcotics when they themselves seem to be moving in the opposite direction? There’s a word for that in Spanish: hipocresia.
“A peasant cultivating marijuana in Colombia or Mexico is going to jail,” says Mejia, “while the United States is legalizing the consumption of marijuana?”
You can see the problem. But what’s the solution?
That’s the question, and so far there’s no unified answer. Still, there does seem to be general agreement among Latin Americans that the way ahead should not involve guns.
Until recently, political leaders in the region have gone along with the hard-nosed anti-narcotics strategy long promoted by Washington, a shoot-’em-up doctrine rooted in military firepower, strong-arm police tactics, and the unilateral destruction of illegal plantations (thereby punishing impoverished Latino peasants for the indulgences of North American drug users).
This approach has exacted a huge cost in lives, while sapping popular support from co-operating politicians and transforming significant tracts of Mexico, Guatemala and other countries into virtual fiefdoms for drug lords, regions where legitimate political authority has all but collapsed.
Perhaps especially in Central America, the corrupting effects of the drug trade have hobbled civic institutions that were already weak — the police, the judicial system — and now pose a direct threat to the viability of entire states.
“It’s very alarming,” says Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “I think everybody recognizes there are tremendous risks of state capture.”
In other words: government of the drug lords, by the drug lords, for the drug lords.
A meeting of hemispheric foreign ministers in the colonial Guatemalan city of Antigua last month failed to produce an agreement on drug strategy for the region, but that doesn’t mean new ideas are not being considered — and tested.
Some experts advocate an almost complete reversal in tactics, including the outright legalization of narcotics. They argue that the consequences of such an approach could not possibly be worse, and might well be better, than the carnage, mayhem and corruption that prohibition has so far wrought in Mexico and elsewhere.
At least among politicians, the region’s leading champion of this view is Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who proposes to legalize the production and distribution of marijuana in his country. (Its possession for personal use is already legal.) He believes this strategy will help to sever the links between marijuana and harder substances such as cocaine and heroin.
Meanwhile, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina favours removing penalties for possession of narcotics. Several countries, including Colombia, already permit citizens to possess small amounts of marijuana or cocaine for personal use and may relax these policies even further.
On the whole, however, Latin American leaders are not racing pell-mell toward the decriminalization — much less the legalization — of narcotics. Some regard such a policy as capitulation to the drug traffickers. Besides, it simply isn’t popular politically, or not yet.
“Every survey I’ve seen in Mexico shows a high percentage of respondents against decriminalizing drugs,” says John Bailey, a Mexico expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “I think Pena Nieto reads the same polls I do.”
He’s referring to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Elected a year ago, the new Mexican leader is certainly not advocating the legalization of narcotics, but he does seem to be charting a substantially less confrontational course on drugs than the open warfare unleashed in parts of the country by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
“There’s a shift in the rhetoric,” says Bailey. “The folks in the (Mexican) interior ministry want to rely less on the military.”
Meanwhile, there is a growing perception in the region that the drug cartels are not going to be vanquished anyway, not with firearms, not with social programs, and probably not with any other measures that spring readily to mind.
In Mexico, the big drug rings have already transformed themselves into highly diversified enterprises — call them conglomerates of criminality — that are likely to survive no matter what sanctions are imposed.
“These are large organizations with lots of moving parts,” says Dade. “They use a lot of consultants. Think of General Electric.”
If they somehow lost narcotics as a source of revenue, it would certainly hurt. But the cartels would still have profitable enterprises to fall back on — human trafficking, prostitution, extortion, protection rackets, you name it. Even in the most extreme scenarios, they would likely adapt rather than disappear.
“It’s not a war that can be won,” says Daudelin at Carleton University, reflecting an increasingly prevalent view. “So let’s try to get the violence under control and not let the cartels be too powerful politically.”
Daudelin advocates flexibility above all, an array of mainly peaceful tactics that might vary from country to country, or even from city to city, but would all be aimed at managing the drug trade rather than seeking to eradicate it, which is more or less the way that North American police forces tend to approach drug trafficking and consumption on university campuses.
These and similar proposals might seem extreme, but at least new ideas are being discussed, promoted and even implemented — and that alone is a huge shift from the past.
“Ten years ago, this kind of talk would have been shut down completely by the United States,” says Olson at the Wilson Center. “The pendulum is beginning to swing in a different direction.”