Colombia’s production of the coca leaf may have fallen by two-thirds but that just means production has ballooned elsewhere, writes TOM HENNIGAN in Bogotá
THE UNITED Nations celebrated another pyrrhic victory this week in the long-lost war on drugs.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Colombian production of the coca leaf, the main ingredient in cocaine, has fallen 60 per cent in the last decade. This is good news for Colombia.
Cocaine did not cause its various conflicts, but it helped fund them and make them far more violent and unstable than they might otherwise have been.
But in terms of the wider war on drugs the news from Colombia merely represents a shift in the battlefield. The country still produced 410 tonnes of the powder in 2009, despite receiving more than $5 billion in US aid to combat production during the last decade. And as production fell there it rose elsewhere, up 55 per cent in Peru in the last decade while doubling in Bolivia during that time. It is what is called the balloon effect – squeeze production in one place and it will balloon somewhere else.
Colombia only became top producer in the mid-1990s because of a crackdown in Peru. Now that Colombia itself is cracking down, production is surging again further down the Andes.
It is little to show for the billions spent on combating drug trafficking since US president Richard Nixon formally declared a war on drugs in 1971. Since then illegal narcotics have become ever more widely available and cheaper in Europe and the United States.
Major defeats along the way include Bolivia electing the head of the country’s biggest coca-growers’ union its president. Since doing so Evo Morales has thrown out the US Drug Enforcement Agency and eradication efforts have come to a halt even though national coca production is far above what is needed for traditional chewing and coca tea.
Meanwhile, the cocaine front in the war on drugs has spread and looking at the news it is clear the authorities are not winning. When the US succeeded in closing drug routes over the Caribbean in the early 1990s traffickers turned to Mexico. Now the cartels are deeply entrenched in the country and a four-year government offensive against them has left 23,000 dead but no sign that their grip on trade has been broken.
Indeed the concern is that traffickers there are increasingly spreading into other countries in the region. Guatemala has seen a surge in violence in recent years, much of it linked with the spread of the drug underworld into the country.
Killings last year were more than the yearly average during its bloody civil war. In May Jamaica suffered dozens of deaths as the army attempted to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke, a suspected trafficker wanted in the US – police said yesterday they had arrested him.
It would be wrong to blame all the problems in these countries on the coke habits of middle-class drug users in rich countries. They had complex and often corrupt and violent histories before cocaine became the West’s drug of choice.
But cocaine trafficking is exacerbating these problems and often making them spiral out of control. And there is no end in sight because the rich countries that are the motor of the world’s cocaine trade prefer to focus on supply rather than deal with demand.
This weekend it is 14 years since Veronica Guerin was murdered. In the shocked aftermath there was a real sense of purpose among politicians and public that it was time to curb Ireland’s drug gangs.
Legislation was introduced, assets were seized and arrests made. But a simple way of gauging the success of the authorities’ efforts to stem supply would be to ask is there more or less hash and cocaine on sale in Ireland today than 14 years ago. For the traffickers the economics are elementary. According to the UN, a kilo of cocaine cost $2,147 in Colombia last year, compared with a wholesale price of $34,700 in the US. Its street price was $120,000.
Human nature being what it is you do not need to come from a region as poor as Latin America to find people willing to take a punt on those sorts of numbers.
It is hard to believe that the pointless, expensive, endless war on drugs, which exacts a higher cost on Latin America than even the worst drug-blighted ghetto in Europe, will ever wind down unless all countries that consume cocaine, but particularly those in the wealthy North whose markets traffickers most covet, turn from trying to stamp out supply to finding ways to weaken demand.
Until that happens we will continue to hear from leaders like US president Barack Obama, who recently promised a “new push” against Latin American drug cartels as if he were a first World War general.
No doubt in the years ahead we will hear about more successes in the war on drugs, but do not let that blind you to the fact that it has long since been lost.
The Irish Times
Thursday, June 24, 2010