Corruption the Lifeblood of Unwinnable Drug War


EspañolGovernments like Venezuela’s in the days of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have created links with drug trafficking as if it were official state policy. Instead of taking steps to actually resolve the problem, they have endorsed organized crime and have seen in it a very profitable opportunity. Other governments that present themselves as champions of the war on drugs have similarly not been able to avoid this unspoken pact between state officials and drug traffickers.

The story of how Los Zetas, one of the most bloodthirsty cartels in Mexico and the surrounding region, was formed 15 years ago reflects a reality that occurs at all levels of government. The complicity between those who claim to fight against drug trafficking and the illegal networks themselves is inherent in the war on drugs.

Los Zetas have their roots in the Mexican military, when in 1997 a group of 31 members of the Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE), an elite division of the Mexican army, deserted and swore their allegiance to the Gulf Cartel. These deserters formed the armed enforcer wing of one of the most prominent cartels of the last century and worked as hit men, bodyguards, or carriers.

The fall of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén in 2003 weakened his group and marked the rise of Los Zetas. The group of former military men became one of the most brutal, cruel, and vicious criminal organizations in the country’s history. Its operations include human trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion, in addition to drug smuggling.

The beginnings of Los Zetas is a clear example of how the lines in this war are blurred. State officials and drug traffickers, ostensibly the two opposing sides in this conflict, collude with one another regularly. A global market of billions of dollars — estimated between US$50 billion and $320 billion — offers lucrative opportunities to those willing to become corrupted, accept bribes, or participate directly in a criminal group. Combined with the immunity that often comes with a government-issued badge, the explosion of drug-related corruption is no surprise at all.

There is no shortage of examples. One occurred as recently as last week, involving Arnaldo Urbina Soto, the mayor of the small Honduran town of Yoro. The National Bureau of Narcotics in Honduras has accused the mayor of being the ringleader behind a band of criminals responsible for 137 murders and 45 disappearances. According to the allegations, the mayor maintained a drug-running operation using “narco-planes” and a group of armed young men recruited by his brothers, responsible for providing logistical support.

In Argentina, three pharmacy owners belonging to the so-called medicine mafia, murdered in 2008, were revealed to have been contributors to the presidential campaign of then candidate Cristina Kirchner. The “medicine mafia” was allegedly responsible for the diversion of ephedrine — a precursor for synthetic drugs — to drug dealers, and the case eventually led to accusations levied against former Interior minister and current Senator Aníbal Fernández. Last month, the former director of the Secretariat for the Prevention of Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking (Sedronar), José Ramón Granero, was found to be a “prima facie necessary accomplice to the crime” in this case.

No country tied up in the drug war is exempt from having their own scandalous cases of government officials involved in drug trafficking. Corruption is a hallmark of the war on drugs, from Guinea Bissau to the United States, on through Chile, Mexico, and any other corner of the world where this futile war is being fought.

In Latin America, corruption is visible within every country of the region. Sometimes the ties between criminal gangs and government officials become public knowledge, and in other cases the corruption may occur at lower levels. In either case, the lesson is clear: the war on drugs cannot be won, because both sides stand to gain from the existence of the other. While the heads of police departments and armed forces mount spectacular operations from time to time, various members of that chain of command — from the highest level to the lowest — also benefit from their supposed adversaries.

On the one hand, corrupt officials may benefit through bribery, providing cover, or by becoming directly involved in drug-running operations. On the other, the war on drugs is the perfect excuse for local police chiefs and federal agencies to request larger budgets and widen their scope of authority. They can then target low-level drug dealers and fill up local prisons, feeding both the so-called police-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex. Private companies in the security sector are lining up to meet the increased demand for equipment and firepower. In the United States, private prisons have also been observed to lead to higher incarceration rates.

When faced with the level of corruption that the drug war breeds, solutions that are offered often come in the way of government reform. The numbers, however, indicate that no amount of reform will be enough to repair the damage that has been done. The effects of the war on drugs have been disastrous, from its effects on press freedoms to the breakup of families.

The persecution of individuals engaged in a peaceful activity has turned everything surrounding it into a violent industry where billions of dollars are wasted every year. What’s more, its all done in the name of public health and safety, and yet the war on drugs has caused infinitely more damage that it could have ever hoped to prevent in both of these areas.

Sooner than later, drug prohibition will earn its proper place in history as one of the most destructive periods in our time. Future generations will one day discuss the “war on drugs” with the same horror and disbelief that we now express when looking back on slavery.

Translated by Rebeca Morla.

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