Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A measured take on the War on Drugs

Jimmy Carter has now added his bit to the clamor against the War on Drugs: bad idea, through and through, a cause of violence, not a solution, etc., etc.. He is joining another bunch of ex-Presidents, this time from Latin America, who along with a few private sector big shots are now calling for social and health measures, decriminalization and a more narrow focus on transnational networks and organized crime instead of small-time traffickers.

This line is almost as old as the War on Drugs itself, which Richard Nixon launched in the 1970s. There is much to commend it and, for what it is worth, I agree with most of it, feeling in fact that decriminalization does not go far enough. This is not the point of this post, however.

I am more interested in understanding the War on Drugs, its prospects, and its impact on Latin America. From that angle, Carter's contribution, like most of the critics', does not help at all because they see it as one big integrated entreprise.

It is more useful to look at the War on Drugs through three distinct lenses: drug consumption as a health issue (or, for security buffs, as a "human security" problem), drug violence as a public security challenge, and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) as national security threats. If you then distinguish between North and Latin America and the Caribbean, you get six cells in which to give a mark of pass or fail. Doing so honestly, I would argue, should make you realize that the whole endeavour may not be as disastrous as it looks.

Let's start with North America: 1) Compared to the 1970s, drug consumption at first came down and then plateaued for about two decades, so on this one we are talking about a marginal pass or a marginal fail; 2) Drug violence as a public security challenge has been declining regularly throughout the United States and remains very low all over Canada. Cost has been high, but it is a bit difficult to argue that the effort has come to nought when homicide rates continue to decline year after year in the face of roughly stable levels of drug consumption; 3) The problem of drug trafficking organizations as national security threats was serious for a while in Colombia--South America's second-most populous country--when the FARC guerrilla, quite a significant military force, started to draw on drug revenues to sustain its activities. However, a policy of decapitation of the local DTOs and a massive military effort against the FARC have led to the destruction of the threat from the US' standpoint. A similar policy is being implemented with US support by the Calderon government and it is perfectly plausible to argue that soon enough, the possibility that Mexican DTOs could represent a national security threat to the United States, and even to Mexico, will vanish for good. Beyond Mexico, DTOs are unlikely to gain a degree of political influence in any major country of the region, except perhaps in Venezuela, although things are far from played out there. So, at least for now, we have an easy pass here. In other words, from a North-American standpoint and considering our three dimensions, the War on Drugs has been an expensive but largely successful endeavour...

The picture is less rosy in the rest of the hemisphere:. 1) Drug consumption is rising almost everywhere, although the levels remain much lower in most countries than in North America and Europe: fail. 2) Drug violence is a major challenge and in many places a growing public security threat: Colombia still has a murder rate that is higher than Mexico's and among the highest in the world; Brazil has seen homicide rates decline in the Sao Paulo and Rio area, but explode in the North and Northeast of the country. Meanwhile, Venezuela, the Caribbean and Central America's northern triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) now rank among the most violent countries on the planet: fail again. Finally, 3) DTOs have respectively been eliminated and are in the process of being weakened as national security threats in Colombia and Mexico but the story is very different in the British Caribbean and in Central America, where the prospects of narco-states are real. All in all, the region fails again.

The picture drawn above, in sum, looks very different from the one we usually see, most recently in Carter's op-ed: the War on drugs has been quite effective at containing drug violence and at eliminating national security threats to the United States; for Latin America, it has been relatively successful in Colombia and Mexico, though strictly from a national security standpoint, and a disaster from a public and human security perspectives. Everywhere else, it has been disastrous however you look at it. This more measured picture helps one make sense of a number of apparent paradox: 1) how the US has been able to mobilize for so long huge amounts of money and why many of the people involved, in the US, in Colombia and now in Mexico, continue to claim that the strategy is the right one and that is it working; 2) why the US, now that the national security threat is receding, is cutting by half its overall military and police assistance to the region, particularly to Colombia and Mexico; and 3) why most of the action now appears to be moving to Central America, where the World Bank is investing $1.2 billion dollars, and the US $300 million.

The really twisted implication of the success of the War from a national security standpoint is that as an option, it will remain part of the US policy repertoire, in spite of its massive negative implications for Latin American countries: the Americans will soon cut their financial support for Mexico's war effort, as they are doing for Colombia, and leave local governments to deal with the public and human security consequences of the strategy. In addition, as Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez recently suggested, a similar process is taking place within Mexico, where the federal government, having decapitated the large cartels that threaten national security, will now leave the public security problem, i.e. the management of the fragmented and possibly more violent remaining organizations, to states and municipalities, whose capacity to deal with them is limited.

In other words: the War on Drugs has been mostly bad, but too good for the US and not bad enough for Colombia and Mexico, to be doomed. Bet on it to survive the current onslaught.