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Six Reasons the Drug War is Disastrous for Latin America

by (Ret.) Detective Russell Jones

The American War on Drugs has contributed mightily to the violence and poverty individuals, families, and children must endure or escape just to survive in Latin America.  The region will never achieve full political and socio-economic stability until the US changes its policies at home.     1. The drug war is responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

The War on Drugs causes violence between criminal organizations, and drug prohibition creates a violent underground market in which the lives of both civilians and officers are endangered. In Colombia, 15,000 people were killed in a 20-year war against cartels, while the Mexican government’s war against cartels has led to more than 120,000 Mexican deaths and disappearances since 2006. Nevertheless, drug addiction rates in the U.S. have remained about the same.

2. The Balloon Effect: Hard-line prohibition forces the illegal drug market into new areas.“The Balloon Effect” explains why cartels are still powerful despite the military-grade pressure put on them: Squeezing one side of a balloon makes the balloon burst from the other side. Similarly, if the U.S. cracks down on drug production in one part of Latin America, the market will simply move to a new area, where it will cause long-term socio-economic damage. For example, in the early 2000s, the U.S. poured billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, and Colombia’s cocaine production dropped, so the production market moved to Peru and Bolivia.

3. Police corruption leads to devastating lawlessness. Cartels flourish in parts of Latin America with underfunded and poorly trained criminal justice systems because they corrupt the police with bribes and threats. In Mexico, it is estimated that 92% of crimes go unreported. In Colombia, the same police that have received billions of dollars in U.S. aid have long-standing ties to counter-revolutionary militias fueled by drug money called ‘paramilitary’ groups. As a Honduran pastor quoted in the New York Times said, “You never call the cops. The cops themselves will retaliate and kill you.”

4. Latin American children unable to seek refuge elsewhere are trapped. Indiscriminate aerial fumigation under Plan Colombia hit one family five times. Their eleven year-old boy, Javier, recalled the incidents, “You see the planes coming—four or five of them—from far away with a black cloud of spray behind them. They say they are trying to kill the coca, but they kill everything. After the fumigation, we’d go days without eating. Once the fumigation spray hit my little brother and me…. I was sick for a long time and my brother was sick even longer.” Cartels also recruit young children in schools, who are easily lured by the prospect of a high income and sense of community. In Ecuador, U.S. policy promises aid in return for a certain number of drug arrests, which has led to an increase in police targeting of low-level female drug mules. Because imprisoned mothers in Ecuador often bring their children to take care of, spikes in the populations of women’s prisons mean more children are living behind bars.

5. The drug war makes drugs more profitable, and for the wrong individuals. In Colombia, as Javier explains, people starve to death and there are no government assistance programs. People do not want to grow coca, but prohibition has ironically made illegal drugs the most lucrative crops. High value, low-weight processed coca is easier to transport through the underdeveloped road system, especially during the rainy season when produce trucks are easily stuck. “I know that if I was offered support, a government program that allowed me to farm and survive, I wouldn’t go back to coca,” says Javier.  Unfortunately, not many programs exist to help Latin Americans struggling with poverty. 

6. Catching the big fish doesn’t work either.  The notorious Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman recently escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico for the second time, once again proving the level of power and influence that cartels have over law enforcement and the government, and ultimately the futility of the drug war. He is guilty of many crimes and should certainly be behind bars, however his detention proved so ineffective not just because he escaped, but because the flow of drugs didn’t slow while he was locked up. Arresting drug consumers clearly hasn’t worked, so one might deduce that targeting producers is more effective. But if the goal of prohibition is to curtail the drug market, and arresting a man who sells more drugs than Pablo Escobar at the height of his infamy didn’t topple his empire, then why does prohibition continue?

Thankfully, the War on Drugs is also being fought from a more compassionate side, and we know there are successful alternatives to prohibition. Cartels are already being weakened economically by legalizing medical and recreational marijuana in a handful of U.S. states. Drug policy reform advocates across the globe are fighting for policies that prioritize treatment instead of punishment to ultimately reduce criminal activity and profits for cartels and their destructive impact on Latin America. 

Detective Russell Jones (Ret.) is a retired narcotics detective from New Braunfels, Texas, with 40 years of experience in enforcing the War on Drugs, and is now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). LEAP is a group of police and other criminal justice professionals working to end the American War on Drugs and the disastrous effects it has had in areas like Latin America. LEAP advocates for replacing prohibition with drug legalization, regulation, treatment, and education as a long-term solution to society’s drug problems. 


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