Our Right to Poison: Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs
The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives -- but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization. Following the journey of cocaine from a farm in Colombia to a user in Berlin sheds light on why.
"Pablo Escobar said to me: 'One shot to the head isn't enough. It has to be two shots, just above the eyes.'"
Jhon Velásquez, nicknamed "Popeye," is sitting on a white plastic chair in the prison yard. "You can survive one shot, but never two. I cut up the bodies and threw them in the river. Or I just left them there. I often drove through Medellín, where I kidnapped and raped women. Then I shot them and threw them in the trash."
Three guards are standing next to him. He is the only prisoner in the giant building. The watchtower, the security door systems, the surveillance cameras -- it's all for him. The warden of the Cómbita maximum-security prison, a three-hour drive northeast of the Colombian capital Bogotá, has given Popeye one hour to tell his story.
The experience is like opening a door into hell.
Popeye was the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia's Medellín cartel. Until his death in 1993, Escobar was the most powerful drug lord in the world. He industrialized cocaine production, controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and became one of the richest people on the planet. The cartel ordered the killings of 30 judges, about 450 police officers and many more civilians. As Escobar's head of security, Popeye was an expert at kidnapping, torture and murder.
Velásquez acquired the nickname Popeye while working as a cabin boy in the Colombian navy. He kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, the then-candidate for mayor of Bogotá and later president. He obtained the weapon that was used to fatally shoot Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. He was involved in a bombing attack that was intended to kill former Colombian President César Gaviria. Popeye, acting on the orders of Escobar, El Patrón, even had his beauty-queen girlfriend Wendy murdered.
"I've killed about 250 people, and I cut many of them into pieces. But I don't know exactly how many," Popeye says. "Only psychopaths count their kills."
Popeye is a pale, 50-year-old man with a shrill voice -- a psychopath who doesn't count his kills.
The longer Popeye talks -- about his murders, the drug war and the havoc he and Escobar wreaked and that is currently being repeated in Mexico -- the less important my prepared questions about this war become. I realize that I might as well throw away my notepad, because it all boils down to one question: How can we stop people like you, Popeye?
He pauses for a moment before saying: "People like me can't be stopped. It's a war. They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you'll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don't know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I've been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to me made. Never."
I'm sitting face to face with a killer: Popeye, an evil product of hell. And I'm afraid that the killer could be right.
The drug war is the longest war in recent history, underway for more than 40 years. It is a never-ending struggle against a $500 billion (378 billion) industry.
A Global War on Drugs
On July 17, 1971, then-US President Richard Nixon announced: "America's public enemy No. 1 is drug abuse." A new archenemy had been born: drugs. It was the opening salvo in the "war on drugs."
To this day, the war on drugs is being waged against anyone who comes into contact with cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs. It is being fought against coca farmers in Colombia, poppy growers in Afghanistan and drug mules who smuggle drugs by the kilogram (2.2 pounds), sometimes concealed in their stomachs. It is being fought against crystal meth labs in Eastern Europe, kids addicted to crack cocaine in Los Angeles and people who are caught with a gram of marijuana in their pockets, just as it is being fought against the drug cartels in Mexico and killers like Popeye. There is almost no place on earth today where the war is not being waged. Indeed, the war on drugs is as global as McDonald's.
In 2010, about 200 million people took illegal drugs. The numbers have remained relatively constant for years, as has the estimated annual volume of drugs produced worldwide: 40,000 tons of marijuana, 800 tons of cocaine and 500 tons of heroin. What has increased, however, is the cost of this endless war.
In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration pumped about $100 million into drug control. Today, under President Barack Obama, that figure is $15 billion -- more than 30 times as much when adjusted for inflation. There is even a rough estimate of the direct and indirect costs of the 40-plus years of the drug war: $1 trillion in the United States alone.
In Mexico, some 60,000 people have died in the drug war in the last six years. US prisons are full of marijuana smokers, the Taliban in Afghanistan still use drug money to pay for their weapons, and experts say China is the drug country of the future.
Is Legalization the Answer?
One of the best ways to understand why, after more than 40 years, this is still an unwinnable war is to track one of the invincible enemies.
Take cocaine, for example. The story begins with a coca farmer in the Colombian jungle, then leads to smugglers on the Caribbean island of Aruba, past soldiers and drug cops, across the Atlantic to Europe in a ship's hold, then to Berlin, where the drugs end up in the brains of those whose demand is constantly refueling the business: we, the consumers.
It's also helpful to examine an idea that could change the world, an idea being contemplated by presidents, turned over in the minds of influential politicians and studied in a New York office. The idea is the regulated legalization of drugs.
After decades of the war on drugs, the desire for an alternative is greater than ever. The eternal front in the war is crumbling.
When about 30 national leaders met in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012 for the Summit of the Americas, there was only big, behind-the-scenes topic: a new drug policy. Suddenly Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was saying: "If the world decides to legalize (drugs) and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that."
General Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala, wrote: "Consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions."
Uruguayan President José Mujica said: "What scares me is drug trafficking, not drugs".
Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, wanted to wage the "mother of all wars" against organized crime, sending the Mexican army into the drug war. Today, Fox says that the war was a "total failure."
The possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a crime in Portugal. After studying drug policy in Great Britain, an independent commission concluded that a policy of stiff penalties is just as costly as it is ineffective. Although the report does not advocate the legalization of drugs, it does call for a rethinking of drug policy. Too rarely "do lawmakers admit (that) not all drug use creates problems," the report's authors write. They argue that the possession of smaller amounts should no longer be a punishable offense and that cannabis cultivation by ordinary consumers should be decriminalized and perhaps even legalized.
Drug Anxiety in Germany
A new way of thinking is beginning to take root: If a war can't be won, and if the enemy has remained invincible for 40 years, why not take the peaceful approach?
German officials take a decidedly cool stance toward these developments. No top politician with a major German party is about to call for a new drug policy or even the legalization of marijuana. Drugs are not a winning issue, because it's too easy to get burned.
Martin Lindner, the deputy head of the pro-business Free Democrats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, recently triggered a scandal when he lit up a joint on a talk show. The headline of a recent cover story in the Berliner Kurier daily newspaper read: "Has Martin Lindner gone off the deep end?"
"The subject is still completely taboo. When someone tries to relax the rules, he is immediately accused of not protecting our children," says Gerhart Baum, the German interior minister from 1978 to 1982. During his tenure, Baum experienced the so-called "heroin years," when the number of addicts in Germany exploded, images of young junkies were on cover pages and the film "Christiane F - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" ("We Children from Zoo Station") was playing in theaters.
This period shaped German drug policy, and it also affected how Germans feel about drugs: anxious, for the most part.
For many people, legalization sounds like an invitation to more drug use and addiction as well as a capitulating country that no longer performs its protective function.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
- Fotos [M] Getty images, AFP
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles