Drug Legalization in Latin America: Is the War Over?


EspañolThe war on drugs has been around for several decades now. It began in 1954, when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower created an ad hoc committee to “stamp out narcotics addiction” — but not until 1973 did the expression “War on Drugs” gain traction. At that time, former President Richard Nixon, who created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), declared “an all-out global war on the drug menace.”

In 1975, two years after the DEA was created, the United States focused its radar on cocaine production in Colombia. Drug traffickers had killed 40 people over a single weekend as revenge — the “Medellin Massacre” — after Colombian authorities seized 1,322 pounds of cocaine hidden in different containers.

Between the late 1990s and beginning of the 21 century, however, drug-trafficking had generated a cycle of violence in Latin America that no government could control. The violence affected the entire drug-chain, from its origins on Colombia’s plantations, through to Central America, Mexico, and finally the United States — its last point of distribution with the largest demand.

In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services released a survey (taken in 2010), and its results showed that more than 22 million US citizens — almost 9 percent of the country’s population — had used illegal drugs in the past month. That was up from 8.7 percent in 2009 and 8.0 percent in 2008.

With a growing business, the heads of the drug cartels have had a great amount of power in Central America, especially within each nation’s government institutions. In an attempt to face this issue, Mexico and other Central American countries have implemented policies to fight the so-called “War on Drugs”; however, all of them have failed. The problem is that these countries don’t have the institutional capacity to fight against this type of organized crime.

These leaders of the drug business have also become quite known outside Latin America. The most powerful drug trafficker is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, a Mexican billionaire, called Chicago’s Number One Public Enemy by Chicago’s Commission of Crime and the DEA. He was named after Al Capone, from the 1930’s famous and failed prohibition era.

We can aptly compare this ban on drugs with that prohibition of alcohol, which attempted to stop its consumption by banning its sale. This policy not only turned a formal business into an illegal one, it also fueled black markets, criminal gangs, and high levels of violence. With these mounting and severe consequences, the United States repealed the ban in 1933.

To this day, however, drugs like cocaine, heroine, ecstasy, opium, and marijuana are almost universally illegal across the continent. It’s exactly that same ban and illegality that makes drug trafficking a profitable business. Because of its outlaw condition, the cost of distribution, rather than production, inflates the price of these substances. In Latin America, especially in Central America and Mexico, this distribution network has generated uncontrolled violence that has taken millions of lives, from drug traffickers and consumers to innocent people who are not in the business but are “collateral damage.”

Countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have become the most violent places in the world because of drug trafficking. This is why a change in the strategy and drug policies is necessary. The president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, has realized this and has emphasized the importance of including drug legalization in the policy agenda of Latin-American governments.

Thus far, policies have focused solely on eradicating the drug supply, but as long as there is demand, this is an impossible foray. No matter how much effort and money governments have assigned to this war, these strategies have failed. Instead, they have generated a vicious cycle where only the most sophisticated, violent, and cruel criminals survive. Further — unlike terrorism, kidnapping, or extortion — the drug business entails citizen-consumers as accomplices to these criminal organizations. Of course, the purported crimes will continue to go unsolved when the policy fails to mitigate the very consumers of the illegality.

Fortunately, Uruguay now offers an alternative and an example of necessary drug policy reform for other nations to consider. Their parliament has legalized the production, commercialization, and distribution of cannabis — the first country in the world to do this. Even though they are a small country that’s not deeply affected by drug-related violence, compared to Mexico and countries in Central America, their marijuana legalization is a first step towards resolving this battle against a faceless enemy.

Legalization is the only way for the government to eliminate black markets, and therefore, have more control over the narcotics market. The drug production and sale can be also regulated and taxed, the same way as the tobacco and alcohol industries are. This way the violence generated by its prohibition can subside, while governments can raise higher revenues, and put an end to drug cartels.

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

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