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We have been 'winning' the war on drugs for 90 years

By Balzafire, Jul 24, 2010 | Updated: Jul 24, 2010 | |
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  1. Balzafire

    One can imagine how delighted the people at the Colombian Embassy were when they read the Globe and Mail last week. One article after another about their country -- and none focussed on drugs and murder.

    Instead, the theme was that after decades of civil war and criminal chaos Colombia has been transformed into a land of stability and optimism. The mood is "buoyant, hopeful, and utterly entrepreneurial," one story reported. Colombia is "an eco-paradise with bustling cities," another burbled.

    The people at the Mexican Embassy were probably much less pleased by what they read. "Suspected drug hit men stormed a private party and killed 17 people in the northern Mexican city of Torreon on Sunday in one of the deadliest attacks in Mexico's drug war," read one story. Another reported on a car bombing. Gangsters apparently dressed a bound man in a police uniform and called in a report of a wounded officer. When police, paramedics, and a doctor rushed to the man's aid, the bomb was detonated. At least three died.

    The contrast between the two countries is exaggerated, of course. Colombia continues to be the world's largest producer of cocaine, there are still leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, and human rights continue to be violated in many horrible ways; and despite the bad press Mexico is getting, much of the country is unscathed by the savage war with, and between, drug gangs.

    But it is true that Colombia is more stable and safer, for most, than it has been in decades. It is also true that Mexico is continuing its descent into the hell Colombia so recently exited.

    Inevitably, some are drawing the conclusion that Mexico must do whatever it was that Colombia did. And since what Colombia did was engage in a massive escalation of military and police power, supported by billions of dollars from the United States and elsewhere, that's the medicine Mexico needs.

    This is unspeakably foolish. And we can expect Canada will be asked to help fund this foolishness, as we did in Colombia. So let's get this straight now: What happened in Colombia is not a model for Mexico; what happened in Colombia is the cause of what's happening in Mexico.

    Let's go back to the 1970s. For decades, cocaine had been a relatively obscure jet-set drug produced in Bolivia and Peru and smuggled in small quantities by minor traffickers. But then its popularity soared -- especially in the United States and Canada. The scale of trafficking grew proportionately. Usually, the traffickers were Bolivian or Peruvian but Colombian marijuana smugglers increasingly acted as middlemen.

    By the early 1980s, the Bolivians and Peruvians were sticking mostly to production, selling shipments of cocaine to Colombians who transported the drugs through the Caribbean into Florida. Dominating the most profitable part of the trade, the Colombians got very rich. And powerful. Colombia increasingly resembled a "narco-state."

    In the mid-1980s, the American government poured interdiction resources into Florida and the Caribbean. Under pressure, the Colombians increasingly shipped cocaine to Mexico and hired Mexican gangsters to smuggle it across the border into the U.S.

    Meanwhile, American programs to suppress coca growing and cocaine production in Bolivia and Peru were ramped up and there were steep declines in exports by the early 1990s -- which were more than offset by exploding production in the many regions of Colombia where the government's hold was tenuous.

    About the same time, Colombian and American officials put the squeeze on Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. In the mid-1990s, the Cali cartel was targeted. Under pressure, the Colombians increasingly sold cocaine shipments to Mexican gangsters, who built their own smuggling and trafficking networks. By the end of the decade, all Colombia's major drug lords were dead or in prison but thanks to a proliferation of smaller networks, and the increasing involvement of Colombia's leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries in the drug trade, cocaine exports actually rose.

    Meanwhile, the wealth and power of the Mexican drug lords grew rapidly.
    See where this story is going? I was in Colombia and Mexico at the end of the 1990s, and I well remember Mexicans telling me how they feared "Colombianization." They were right to be worried. Several years later, the Mexican government took down all the major Mexican drug lords. What followed this "victory" was the war we see now -- a war pitting the government against gangsters, but also a war of gangsters against each other in a struggle for control of the fantastically profitable trade routes. "Colombianization," in other words.

    In the war on drugs, that's the way it always goes: Eliminate kingpins and gangsters battle to be the successor;
    drive down production in one place and it balloons in another; stamp out a smuggling route and new routes are created. The market will not
    denied. It's Economics 101.

    Look at Afghanistan. It was never a major heroin producer. But "victories" in West Asia and the Golden Triangle of southeast Asia pushed the drug trade into that sad country and now it's paying for weapons that kill Canadian soldiers. With victories like that we have been "winning" the war on drugs for 90 years -- and today the illicit drug trade is far bigger and far more destructive than ever.

    But editorialists, politicians, and drug cops never connect the dots. "More of the same," they urge. "More of the same."
    The last thing Mexico needs is more of the same. What it needs, desperately, is for governments to follow the advice of the Vienna Declaration, which I discussed Friday, and "undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies" -- followed by "a full policy reorientation." Until then, the madness will continue.


    By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen July 24, 2010
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