The Failed War on Drugs in Latin America Could Decriminalization Be the Answer?

The massacre in Ciudad Juarez at the end of January made it clear that Mexico is losing the war on drugs. Narcotics-related violence is on the rise in other Latin American cities as well. An increasing number of voices are demanding that drugs be decriminalized.


The killers arrived in four or five SUVs. They quickly blocked off the road to Salvárcar, a working-class neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez, where 60 students were attending a birthday party.

The intruders, armed with automatic weapons, opened fire on the revelers. Sixteen people died in the hail of bullets two weekends ago. Most of them were adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19, and many were athletes, members of a local baseball team. One of them, José Adrián Encina, had only recently been named the best student in his class.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Escalation of Latin America's Drug Wars
It was the bloodiest weekend of the year to date in the notorious Mexican border city: Forty-three people died a violent death. According to the government, the massacre was related to feuds within the drug trade, but the families of the victims say that most were innocent students.

Other Mexican cities have also been rocked by violence in recent days. Seven bodies were found in the southwestern city of Iguala. The victims suffocated when the murderers wrapped their mouths and noses in strapping tape. In Quiroga in southwestern Mexico, the police chief and two officers were shot, while several plastic bags containing body parts were found in nearby Zitácuaro.

Seven Murders a Day

Mexico's drug war is becoming more and more brutal. President Felipe Calderón has deployed 45,000 soldiers and federal police in the government's fight against the drug mafia, and 5,000 of them patrol the streets of Ciudad Juarez alone.

Despite the government's stepped-up efforts, the death toll continues to rise. Before Calderón came into office in December 2006, an average of two people a day died a violent death in the border city. By 2008, the daily death toll had risen to five, and last year the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez was up to seven people a day. Since 2007, more than 15,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars.

Meanwhile, the drug business is booming. In 2009, Mexico became the world's second-largest marijuana producer, with poor, small farmers switching from corn and beans to cannabis. Frustrated government officials are convinced that they have already lost the drug war.

It is a defeat that affects all of Latin America, where the drug mafia is gaining ground from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande. In the former Colombian cocaine capital Medellín, which was considered "pacified" seven years ago after a bloody military campaign, the murder rate was up again last year, to more than 1,800 people. According to the government, most were victims of drug wars between what it calls "mini-cartels." The Shining Path terrorist organization is making a comeback in neighboring Peru, now that it has marched into the cocaine trade.

Drug Dealer Vendettas

By the end of 2008, the amount of farmland devoted to growing coca in Bolivia increased by almost 11 percent since the country's populist President Evo Morales took office. And in Argentina, gangs of dealers carry out their vendettas in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The gangsters are becoming increasingly bold and brutal. In Rio de Janeiro, which was chosen for the 2016 Summer Olympics, they recently shot down a police helicopter, and criminals control more than 300 slums there.

An entire generation of young Latin Americans is dying in the killing fields of the drug war. Many are hardly more than children, and most are poor and dark-skinned. Those who survive often end up in overcrowded prisons, which the drug mafia also controls.

"They are schools of crime," warns Rubem César Fernandes, director of the respected Brazilian aid organization Viva Rio. "The war against drugs can no longer be won with suppression."

Latin American governments spend billions of dollars a year to battle the drug cartels. In Mexico and Colombia, the armed forces have been deployed in the drug war, and for decades the United States has provided generous military assistance to South America. Nevertheless, the economic strength of the cartels remains unbroken. They have corrupted police officers and soldiers, bought off politicians and judges and even subverted entire countries, like Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico.

Indeed, three respected former presidents have declared the Washington-supported drug war to be a failure. Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Colombian President César Gaviria now say they support the controlled decriminalization of narcotics.

Growing Number of Addicts

This form of liberalization is already being pursued across the Atlantic in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Portugal, where drug use has not increased as a result of the lax laws. In the large Latin American countries, on the other hand, the number of addicts is growing.

In Mexico, the congress repealed a law last year that had criminalized the possession of small amounts of narcotics. In Argentina, the country's highest court has paved the way for the decriminalization of drug use. And in Brazil, where the possession of narcotics for personal use is permitted, Viva Rio and former President Henrique Cardoso have fashioned a cross-party alliance to support proposed legislation that would define permitted amounts of narcotics.

As it stands now, it is up to the police to decide whether someone they have arrested is a user or a drug dealer. "Light-skinned, middle-class Brazilians are released in return for bribes, while blacks from the Favelas are treated as dealers and end up in prison," says university Professor Jorge da Silva, a former captain in the military police and a former minister of security for the federal state of Rio de Janeiro.

Da Silva's former jobs involved fighting drug gangsters in the slums of Rio. "I was geared toward suppression," he says. Today he supports government control of the production and sale of narcotics, "the way it was done with alcohol in the United States after Prohibition had failed in the 1930s." Da Silva points out that the government could tax drugs, which would "deprive the drug mafia of its source of income."

'Break Apart This Alliance'

Cocaine in government-run shops? Hardly any Latin American politician is audacious enough to propose such ideas to the public. Not yet, at least. But experts agree that the drug trade will eventually have to be liberalized if consumption is legalized.

The problem is more complicated than that, however, because the "weapons and drug trades go hand-in-hand" in Latin America," says Viva Rio Director Fernandes. "We have to try to break apart this alliance."

But no Latin American country will be able to solve this problem on its own. Cooperation with the United States and other large consumer nations in Europe will be necessary.

In the US, some of the resistance to relaxing the drug laws comes from the prison system, which is partly privatized, explains Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, the director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Institute, based in Warsaw, Poland. "The lobby of prison operators is blocking such a program."

There are signs that the Obama administration could be ready to abandon the tough approaches taken by previous administrations. It has not raised any objections yet to the attempts by Latin Americans to liberalize drug possession. California recently legalized the production of marijuana for "medical use." And after her last visit to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested searching for alternatives in the war on drugs.

'The Lives of Our Sons and Daughters'

Obama issued a cautious signal last week, when he trimmed the budget for funding the drug war in Colombia and Mexico. The United States should begin "thinking the unthinkable: decriminalizing drug use," writes author George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexico.

A new strategy to fight the drug trade would also be in Washington's interest, because the drug war is destabilizing the country's most important neighbor. In Mexico, frustration over the gruesome murders associated with the drug cartels is increasingly turning into rage against President Calderón and his administration, close allies of Washington.

The most recent massacre in Ciudad Juarez has alarmed the border city and the entire Mexican republic once again. At the funeral of the 16 victims of last week's attack, family members placed signs and photos on the open caskets, demanding respect for the victims.

"At least let us bury our dead with dignity," a mourning mother said imploringly, directing her comments at politicians, "if you are unable to protect the lives of our sons and daughters."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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mulberrybank 02/10/2010
1. Please, let us stop this war now
I am a saddened American citizen. I do not believe in 'war' on everything. Nor am I saying that I approve of torture or drug-use. And maybe there should-be areas that the UN and we-all agree need military supervision. But raising the stakes to "war" upon X is self-defeating. As long as there are poor-people and a contraband item, there are people willing to accept the risk. Bringing a knife leads-to bringing a revolver, leads to a semi-automatic, leads to automatic weapons. One does not have to be too-smart to see that! I do not wish to live like oppressed peoples. I like my little piece of the Earth and my life and family. I wish ALL could have a safe calm place to attend-to. Please allow countries to exist as they wish: Tribal, "democratic", religious, whatever. Sure, express our opinions on liberalization, or inclusivness, let time work for peoples to decide for themselves how they wish to live. Let us use our military as the line against violence, not the ones DOING the violence, yes?
hhiser 02/11/2010
2. Freedom
I believe in freedom, the freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail, and the freedom to remain inert. America's war on drugs is a thinly veiled attempt to curtail the individuals freedom. It is not based upon reason, it is only based on the governments desire to impose a moral code upon the American people, which the leadership fails even to maintain. Yes decriminalization is the answer, in part to take the onus of the addict so that they can get treatment, and in part to make America an egalitarian society.
Monko 02/11/2010
3. It depends...
Cocaine and heroin will be decriminalized (legalized) only when they can be produced in USA and Europe. Drug business is driven by the european and american drug consumption (addiction). With no cocaine, heroine or opium, millions of wealthy european and american junkies could turn easily to inhale the fuel of their own cars.
Roque Nuevo 02/11/2010
4. Can the question mark: decriminalization is the answer
Thank you for posting this article. Many more are needed before anything positive ever happens. Revenues from the drug business represent the second greatest source of revenue for Mexico, ahead of tourism and behind the oil industry. If its revenue is of such a size, then it must employ comparable numbers of Mexicans as the other industries, i.e., millions. Revenues this size play an undeniable role in the development of the country. What sense is there in the government attacking such a large segment of its own people to eliminate such a large slice of the nation's revenue? A Mexican agricultural economist recently was fired for telling agri-business leaders to study the drug gangs sales and distribution strategies. He said they were true innovators in agri business practice. This common-sense analysis was enough to get him fired by a paranoid government that wants to move in lockstep into chaos. It's just a historical fact that the business of contraband has been the motor of economic innovation forever. The US was founded by traders who defied British monopoly law. The first drug war was in the early seventeenth century when James I banned tobacco. Traders is contraband played a key role in the independence of the US from Britain and in developing the capitalist economy, which has brought unimaginable prosperity to the masses of people. A Mexican economist with years of bipartisan experience in the drug-war establishment recently offered an original analysis of the situation: Mexico needs to make the US self-sufficient in marijuana. Marijuana is the drug cartels' bread and butter. It pays the payroll and the bills. It represents half of their earnings. It's low-cost since they own the land where the drug is cultivated and any losses can be quickly made up, in contrast to cocaine. This economist speculates that if marijuana is legalized in Mexico, the price of marijuana would drop to something comparable to parsley and the drug gangs would be forced to relocate to California, which offers closer ties to their distribution network. Once the US produces its own marijuana, then Mexico will be free to pursue development and not waste its resources on a fantasy drug war. He says that half-assed legalization, like in California, where possession for personal use is effectively decriminalized but sales and distribution are still penalized as felonies is the best of both worlds for the drug gangs: it eliminates the risk for users, thus increasing demand, but does nothing to eliminate risk for producers, thus inflating prices based on that risk. Somehow this has to stop. The most important problem in Mexico is endemic poverty, as even high school students know. Drug cultivators are mired in this ancestral poverty and drug cultivation gives them a way out. Instead of attacking poverty, the drug war attacks the poor. Instead of generating progress for the poor, it generates death and destruction. Instead of enhancing the government's legitimacy, it creates a true insurgency among the many millions whose livelihood is tied to the drug business. The government's poorly-planned drug war is effectively an invasion by the government of its own territory. And it's not even a smart invasion, like the Iraq surge. It's based on search-and-destroy, which is bound to fail like others before it (see: Vietnam). Even before the current edition of the drug war, Mexico was teetering on the brink of anarchy. The drug war adds fuel to the fire.
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