Let's talk Latin America

Is Latin America’s ‘War on Drugs’ a futile struggle?

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Bristolatino’s Politics editor Kwame Lowe takes a look at the complex, ongoing struggle against drug trafficking in the Americas, and tells us where he thinks it’s going wrong.

Can the ‘War on Drugs’ be termed a war if there can be no winners or losers? There is merely perpetual destruction on both sides: the side responsible for law enforcement, and the side who are breaking the law through the production, trafficking and selling of illegal drugs. The fact that in 2010, federal, state and local governments in the US spent over $40 billion dollars on the ‘War on Drugs’- the equivalent of $1167 per second- adds a powerful financial, as well as strategic and humanitarian argument against the current approach to dealing with illegal drugs found in North, South and Central America. Furthermore, we have become accustomed to treating drug abuse and addiction as a legal problem as opposed to the medical problem it really is. Despite all these issues, David Cameron rejected calls from MPs and senior figures in the police and healthcare professions to consider making our own drug laws more similar to those found in Portugal, where drugs are decriminalised and rates of abuse and associated problems have fallen.

The drug which is most typically associated with the illegal drug trade is cocaine. The crackdown on cocaine poses a huge problem for the farmers whose livelihoods depend on coca, which is used to produce it. Unlike other crops, it is largely prohibited. Some argue that this has fuelled resentment towards the state, which has consequently fuelled instability in countries such as Peru. Here, the Shining Path (a guerrilla insurgent organisation) has been highly disruptive in the affected rural communities, and is widely condemned for its brutality. Similarly, further north in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala (the latter of which has just emerged from a 30-year civil war), groups involved in armed conflict with state authorities have been able to fund their activities by the smuggling of drugs through Central America to the North American border, where a lucrative market awaits them.

This market for illegal drugs is concentrated among the United States’ growing underclass, and so not only are levels of drug abuse higher in poorer (often Black and Hispanic) communities in the US, but so are the levels of violent crime necessary to sustain it. This has been most famously depicted by the critically-acclaimed series The Wire, set in Baltimore- a city where there were 35 murders per 100,000 people in 2012 (actually one of the lowest murder rates the city has seen in the last 30 years). This statistic is not so dissimilar to those observed in many other American cities with populations over 100,000. It was just over 30 years ago that Ronald Reagan declared the start of the ‘War on Drugs’, i.e. a more aggressive approach to dealing with drug abuse and distribution that we continue to witness today. The fact that this approach was followed by an increase in the problems associated with the illegal drug trade is no coincidence; it demonstrates the method’s thorough ineffectiveness. Whilst this trend cannot be solely attributed to the US government’s policy on drugs, it has surely been a major factor behind it. That the level of ‘hard’ drug abuse in Portugal has more than halved since its government decriminalised drugs in 2001 serves to further emphasise this point.

In order for reforms to the current drugs policy to be effective, they must be enacted uniformly across the Americas’, so as not to allow any more destruction through illicitly financing groups and individuals involved in violent crime. Once this has happened, it will be necessary to ask what will become of those whose livelihoods depend on the illegal drug trade, as the international economy has historically offered these people very little, if any, alternative.

Header photo: Huffington Post