The past decade has been a dismal one for the global War on Drugs. In Mexico, cartels fighting the authorities and one another have claimed over 30,000 victims in four years. In Afghanistan, powerful heroin traffickers continue to hamper international efforts to build lasting peace and democracy. Partly in response to ongoing drug violence, several international political leaders, including a few Latin American former heads of state, have joined activists and academics in calling for a serious debate on the future of international drug policy. California, the world’s eighth largest economy, came remarkably close to legalizing marijuana earlier this year.
Amid this growing doubt and pessimism, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.-backed war on drug-funded armed groups has been a glimmer of hope for traditional restrictive drug policy. During Uribe’s eight years in office, homicide rates in the country fell roughly 50%. Drug cultivation in the country has also declined, and no individual Colombian criminal or syndicate today poses as serious a security threat as did Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in the early 1990s. In many ways, Colombia seems to be proving that the war on drug trafficking is, in fact, winnable.
The professionals who run drug rehab programs will keep on helping drug abusers who need treatment regardless of the outcome of the decades-long war on drugs.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons to doubt the conventional wisdom on the Colombian drug war. First, tough local law enforcement was by no means the only factor behind the relative decline of Colombian trafficking groups. By the mid-1990s, years before Plan Colombia and Uribe’s election, Mexican traffickers were taking a growing fraction of revenues from the transport of cocaine and heroin to the U.S. market. The most likely explanation for this shift is that an American-led crackdown on aerial and maritime Caribbean trafficking routes led Colombian criminals to increasingly rely on land-based routes, making Mexico a key transit point for billions of dollars worth of South American drugs. Another interpretation is that the drug trade had grown too visible in Colombia’s relatively small economy and would be far easier to disguise and protect in a large country such as Mexico. In any case, the relative weakening of Colombian mafias went hand-in-hand with the frightening rise of Mexican criminal organizations.
Second, despite significant progress in some areas, few countries would envy Colombia’s current problems with organized crime. At around 32 per 100,000 inhabitants, Colombia’s recent murder rate remains among the highest in the world and about twice as high as Mexico’s. Drug gangs have also retained a worrying ability to corrupt government and business leaders. Just in the past few years, dozens of congressmen and military leaders were found to have collaborated with such groups. Perhaps most importantly, Colombia is still the world’s top producer of cocaine and will, for the foreseeable future, remain a key transit point between other major producing countries and consumers in North America and Europe.
If anything, the recent evolution of the drug trade in the Americas supports the old critique that global demand for illicit drugs, which remains robust, has a much bigger influence on policy outcomes than government efforts to reduce supply.
The resilience of Colombian drug gangs is particularly worrying because new markets are quickly opening up for their product. Just as the world’s most successful corporations have taken advantage of global economic integration and the rapid growth of some developing economies, so too have powerful organized crime groups expanded into emerging drug markets. While profits from American consumption have increasingly accrued to Mexican smugglers, some South American drug networks have started developing consumer bases in places as diverse as Chile, China, Egypt, and South Africa.
This phenomenon has already had repercussions in Latin America and beyond. Paco and paste, affordable forms of cocaine analogous to crack in the U.S., have been linked to rising rates of violent crime in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. The American DEA recently claimed that Colombian traffickers and Al Qaeda were collaborating to smuggle drugs through North Africa. In some West African countries that serve as key transit points for South American drugs en route to Europe, the narcotics trade has undermined already weak political institutions. Several top officials in Guinea Bissau, including a former president killed last year in a coup, have been rumored to act as the country’s chief drug traffickers.
As Colombia looks to update its security and anti-drug efforts in 2011, its leaders should be mindful that they are not necessarily fighting a weakened enemy. In the coming years, deep changes in the global economy will provide Colombian traffickers with a growing and increasingly accessible international consumer base. The most creative and entrepreneurial smugglers will eagerly exploit new profit opportunities. Unfortunately, victory in Colombia’s decades-old drug war remains elusive.