While we regard the drug as socially acceptable, cocaine wreaks havoc in the countries that produce it
Britons are snorting 30 tonnes of cocaine a year and consider the drug to be a socially acceptable part of a night out, a House of Commons report lamented last week. The Home Affairs Select Committee accused law enforcement agencies of intercepting too few shipments and of arresting too few people, allowing the price of the class A drug to fall to as little as £2 a line.
But there is a part of the world which is not getting away with cocaine and is not inclined to consider it glamorous, socially acceptable or normal. It is called Latin America, where the coca leaf is grown, turned into paste and powder, and trafficked. And here is where narco-related violence and corruption is exacting a terrible price.
Last week brought fresh horrors. In Mexico, authorities found the dismembered body of a journalist, Rodolfo Rincon Taracena, who disappeared in 2007. His articles on the drug trade had prompted his brutal murder. More than 16,000 people have died in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels in December 2006.
In Guatemala, the national police chief, Baltazar Gonzalez, and anti-drug czar, Nelly Bonilla, were detained in a case of stolen cocaine that led to the deaths of five police agents. In a tale too bloody for The Wire, it seems that the agents were killed while trying to steal a stash from members of the Zetas, a group of hit men linked to Mexico's powerful Gulf cartel.
There was more grim news from the US International Narcotics Control strategy report, which said that traffickers were annually sending $8bn to $25bn from the United States, expanding production in Bolivia and finding new routes through Venezuela.
Peru's Shining Path insurgency, once almost extinct, has revived in recent months: the guerrillas have learned from Colombia's Farc how to use cocaine revenue to perpetuate a conflict.
Calls for decriminalisation are growing; former presidents from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have swelled the chorus. Latin America can only hope that Europe and the US, the main markets, will one day figure out a way to curb demand.
March 7, 2010
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Britain's love of cheap cocaine: the view from Latin America