Recently Mexico’s president Felipe Caldéron joined the swelling ranks of leaders, economists, intellects and ex law enforcers to call for a rethink on the current so called “War on Drugs”. Having just returned to the UK having spent a year travelling through both central and South America I wholly support his request.
Felipe Calderon was one of the strongest supporters of the US initiative “War on Drugs” set up by Nixon nearly 40 years ago and having seen the consequences of this war he has come to a realisation that maybe just maybe there is a better way. He is not calling for an end to the War on Drugs but wants to open the debate to possible alternatives. Today, Mexico is effectively a war zone, with the city of Juarez being the homicide capital of the world. More people are murdered here than in Baghdad. Last year there were 7,724 drug related deaths in Mexico alone. Gangs sponsored by Cartels control the cities, towns, countryside, killing each other, the army and federal police in brutal reprise hits, all in order to control the supply of the currently illicit products to their wealthier neighbour. And unfortunately the picture in Mexico is being repeated throughout Central America as weak governments, high unemployment, poor harvests and social unrest is providing the perfect environment for drug gangs to flourish, all fighting to control their part of the supply chain of this hugely profitable and violent trade. Central America is still licking its wounds from decades of civil wars, where the US armed right winged rebels to fight socialist governments and drug cartels armed anyone. And the legacy remains; there is mistrust and more importantly readily available guns. Guatemala and El Salvador are riddled with gangs all intent on controlling the supply of drugs within Central America to the US and Europe. San Salvador is now one of the most dangerous places in the world for youths, as gang crime accounts for approximately 92 homicides per 100,000 youths (source: UN Development Program sponsored report). This can be somewhat also attributed to the US policy in the mid 1990s of repatriating the infamous MS13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gang members rather than keep them languishing in US jails courtesy of the US tax payer.
For the rest of Central America, there is violence and drugs, all along the Caribbean coast as locals wander the beaches at 3 am looking for packages of cocaine and money that have been thrown overboard during high speed air and sea chases. They keep their finds until the Cartels come back for them paying the islander a finder’s fee. This generates no real wealth or employment for these countries’ populations. Moving south onto Panama, it is thought that most if not all of the country is awash with laundered drug money that is being used to build huge vacant sky scrapers in Panama city, whilst the majority of the populace live in abject poverty.
Then we look at South America and see how the drug cartels are holding these countries to ransom. Evo Morales in Bolivia has taken the stand alongside Chavez and suspended the US DEA’s eradication policy and in fact encouraged farmers to grow the coca leaf. The leaf in itself has numerous positive properties and is drunk as a tea or chewed by locals and tourists to combat altitude sickness, lethargy and various ailments. The growing of other crops often requires the use of irrigation systems and pesticides, which have been unregulated. Their use has resulted in numerous early deaths amongst young men because of kidney failure; a direct result from being exposed to illegal and dangerous pesticides (Nemagon, DBCP and Fumazone). Guess what doesn’t need those pesticides? The coca plant. It grows naturally across parts of South America takes 2 years to mature and not only is grown it is also manufactured into cocaine at source. Cocaine is pretty much the only resource that South America not only grows but produces, it is an in-demand commodity and accounts for over half the income for Peru, Bolivia and Colombia and because the wealth is controlled by a few people, the vast majority in those countries don’t benefit from this extremely profitable product.
Bolivia has just taken over from Colombia as the largest grower of the coca leaf but is still the poorest country in South America. Thus showing that the money is not filtering through to the farmers who are often forced to grow the coca leaf. It is estimated that only 3 – 5% of the wealth generated from the cocaine industry remains in South America, the vast majority is shared amongst the Mafia, the drug smugglers and dealers of the US and Europe.
And then there’s Colombia, the country with the second highest number of displaced people in the world after Sudan and Darfur. Most Colombians, I met, have had at least one family member kidnapped if not killed by the Drug Cartels directly or indirectly by Cartel sponsored militia or revolutionists groups like FARC. They argue fluently and eloquently for the legalisation of the supply of Cocaine. They see the Drug Cartels as holding their country back, causing corruption and forcing the government to pay out huge sums of money in order to modernise Colombia. They cannot see Colombia as ever reaching first world status when all the real power remains in the hands of bandits, and gangs that profit from this currently illegal activity.
In Brazil, which has become the second largest consumer market of cocaine after the US, the Favelas control the supply. Young boys growing up in the Favelas expect a short and violent life, there are little to no ways out of the Favelas and surprisingly their expectations play out. Favela bosses are young adults in their early 20s with 100s of teenage foot soldiers willing to kill or be killed. There is no future, old age for these street kids. Deals are conducted at all times of the day and night and are so slick that cars don’t even have to stop in order for the drivers/ passengers to exchange money for drugs.
Not only is cocaine a valuable commodity – the estimated mark up is around 3000% it is because it is illegal that makes it one of the most fiercely defended and fought over products in the world. The main driver is the vast sums of money available to people who have no other hope of making that money legitimately. Because the business is illegal there are no boardroom coup, hostile take-overs, buy outs, there is only out and out war, death, destruction and violence. Employees are kept in check not through the threat of losing their jobs, but losing their lives.
So the war on drugs is working right? All evidence in Central and South America points to No. All evidence of being back in the UK and London points to No. Young, wealthy Londoners have dealers numbers programmed into their phone and after a coded message the Dealer will turn up at a convenient rendezvous; it could be the customer’s house, could be a pub, a street, anywhere. Competition is fierce amongst dealers because there are so many of them, seeing an easy way to make money. So this war on drugs what exactly is it achieving? It’s not stopping the supply nor countering the demand, so what is all the money being spent on prohibition, prosecution, prevention and confiscation actually achieving? Figures show that despite huge efforts and a multi billion annual budget (In 2010 the Obama administration set aside $15.5 billion for drug control), law enforcers are discovering and confiscating about 1 – 5% of illegal drugs at entry to the US. These percentage figures are replicated in the UK. So is that a really effective use of tax payer’s money? Then there is the prosecution of addicts who need treatment not prison. And normally it’s the inability to pay for the drugs that has caused them to commit petty crime because their pusher has increased the price.
Let us for a minute just imagine that drugs generated money for society. Let’s look at a world where drugs are legal.
Addicts would be treated as patients, not criminals as is the case in Switzerland and Portugal. Switzerland has been providing free heroin to their estimated 1,300 addicts in safe clinics and Portugal has decriminalised the personal use, urging addicts to attend a board of psychiatrists not magistrates. The money raised through taxing drugs could be ploughed into education and treatment. Drugs are bad. Ask any medical practitioner. Yes cannabis has been proven to have a positive impact on palliative care for cancer and MS patients amongst many others, but it also blamed for contributing to psychosis, paranoia, depression and other mental illnesses. Cocaine is detrimental to the health, increasing the heart rate to sometimes dangerous levels and pills have caused numerous deaths either because the user has drowned themselves by drinking too much water, as in the tragic case of Leah Betts or have had a bad reaction to a chemical that they didn’t know they were ingesting. Heroin users are 20 -30 times more likely to die prematurely than non-addicts and that doesn’t include those that contract Hepatitis or HIV from shared needles. There is no debate that drugs like alcohol and cigarettes, too much food, no exercise are bad for the body and yes in comparison to some of the above are far worse. But the blood being split in central and South America is criminal and a crisis on any humanitarian scale. 79,000 people have been murdered in the last 6 years in Central America alone.
If drugs were legalised, the drugs provided to users would be cleaner. Currently cocaine is cut about 8 – 12 times before it hits the streets of Europe and the US. And what is it cut with? Talcum powder, milk powder and brick dust, yes brick dust. Associated crime would fall. Again in Switzerland since the program of treating heroin addicts as patients the crime committed by addicts has fallen by over 60%. Gangs would no longer control the supply chain, murder rates would go down and wealth would be redistributed. Farmers would have a choice in whether to grow coca leaves, cannabis, poppies etc and be given a fair price for their crop. Imagine being able to buy fair trade cocaine. Factories processing the raw materials into drugs will be regulated and workers will have rights, including health and safety laws. Unemployed youths will have legitimate jobs, career prospects, options. Countries ravaged by gang warfare will be able to benefit from the trade, build much needed schools, roads and hospitals. The destruction of rain forest which is being cleared to grow coca plants will be monitored and hopefully prevented and drug cartels will have no more income, and thus no more indiscriminate power.
I’m not saying that legalising drugs will be the answer to all central and South America’s problems. I’m not saying that young men will automatically stop wanting to be in gangs, that they will become social and charity workers. I’m not saying that there won’t be problems in the US and Europe if all drugs are legalised. But something has to be done to reduce the bloodshed across the globe, especially in Central and South America. The situation cannot go on. Either the demand has to drastically decrease or those supplying the drugs are provided with alternative viable sources of income. But one thing is evident the war on drugs is definitely not working.