Colombia loses the drug war, like the rest of Latin America

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Thirty years ago, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and his associates were the most powerful criminals in the world, controlling an estimated 75% of cocaine shipments from Colombia. They took an entrepreneurial approach to lawless business, often choosing bribery over violence and using drug profits to buy legitimate businesses, from chain pharmacies to a soccer club in his hometown, América de Cali. . When he died on May 31 after 18 years in a US prison, Rodríguez was barely remembered in his country. However, the business he pioneered is stronger than ever, and the weariness of the “war” against him is evident throughout the Americas.

And it is a tiredness expressed in Colombia by the two candidates for the second round of the presidential elections, which will be held on June 19. Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, has called for the legalization of drugs. His left-wing rival, Gustavo Petro, says that his country must recognize that the war is lost. The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is in favor of a strategy of “hugs, not bullets” in relation to the rank-and-file soldiers of drug trafficking; recently, arrests of drug lords have continued to decline. US officials seem more concerned about the arrival of immigrants than cocaine. In that country, drug-related deaths continue to rise, but more than 60% are caused by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug that is largely manufactured in Mexico.


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Since the 1990s, anti-drug policies in the region have had three aspects: the eradication of coca, the raw material for cocaine; the promotion of alternative livelihoods through what has been called “integrated rural development”; and the seizure or destruction of drug shipments, laboratories, chemicals, and money.

The most visible and controversial of the three is the eradication of coca cultivation. This is a task worthy of Sisyphus. Between 2000 and 2006, Colombia halved the area devoted to coca cultivation; mainly by aerial spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide. However, plantations increased again during and after the peace talks between the government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas, who controlled much of the producing areas. In 2015, the government banned aerial spraying for legal and health reasons.

The economy of an illegal business conspires against those who fight drugs

Iván Duque, president of Colombia since 2018, is a prominent protagonist in the war on drugs. His government has eradicated more than 100,000 hectares of coca a year. Peru, the second largest producer, has also met its more modest eradication goals. Those achievements are illusory. In both countries, total coca production has risen inexorably. According to US government estimates, cocaine production in Latin America has more than doubled in the past decade, to 2,400 tons a year. This is partly a consequence of increased productivity, with denser planting, irrigation and better farming techniques. Coca has now been detected in Honduras and Venezuela, where it is a new crop. In Colombia, the effect of the repression has been to move the crop to remote mountainous areas, national parks and other protected areas, where it causes environmental damage and is more difficult to eradicate.

Experts agree that forced eradication does not lead to a sustained decline in supply. They are in favor of promoting legal alternatives to coca and relying on voluntary eradication. It is something easier said than done. “Moving from a consensus to the construction of public policies requires a lot of government capacity on the ground,” says criminologist Daniel Rico. In theory, Colombian governments have been trying since 2006 to reinforce security and the presence of the State in rural areas, but they have not succeeded. Instead, some aspects of the drug business have been subject to de facto legalization, says Rico. Farmers are rarely prosecuted for growing coca, and most money laundering and supply of chemical inputs goes unpunished.


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Honduran presidential candidate for the Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE) party, Xiomara Castro, delivers a speech during her campaign's closing event in Tegucigalpa, on November 21, 2021. - Hondurans will elect on November 28 a president, three vice-presidents, 298 mayors , 128 Congress deputies and 20 Central American (PARLACEN) deputies.  (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA / AFP)

The economy of an illegal business conspires against those who fight drugs. The retail price of cocaine is determined by risk, not cost, and is perhaps 60 times higher on a California street than on an Andean farm. Legalization would be the sensible solution. However, there is little evidence that it is politically feasible.

The consequence is that Latin American governments have to face the ugly reality of organized crime. The multiform mafias that traffic drugs consolidate or fragment, act with greater or lesser violence, according to tastes and local circumstances. What is constant is their accumulation of military, political and economic power, since cocaine has become a global business. Colombia’s next president could be more successful if, instead of uprooting coca plants, he succeeds in improving rural security and boosting legal economic activity.

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Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix

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