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In Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, World Policy Institute Senior Fellow Ian Bremmer illustrates a historic shift in the international system and the world economy—and an unprecedented moment of global uncertainty.
By Robert Valencia
Recently, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, shared what he considered great news: According to numbers from the White House, potential cocaine production in Colombia had dropped by 72 percent since 2001. This ranks the country third in production of the substance, behind neighbors Peru and Bolivia. During a conference in Washington DC on July 30, 2012, Kerlikowske explained that potential production of pure cocaine in Colombia was “down to 195 metric tons (in 2011) from 700 metrics tons in 2001,” the lowest production level since 1994. He underscored that since 1995, Colombia has been producing “less cocaine” than Peru and Bolivia.
While Kerlikowske praises Colombia’s efforts to reduce drug production and recognizes the challenge the Mexican cartels pose, there’s one point he misses. So long as there is a high demand for drugs in the United States or elsewhere, it makes little to no difference which country holds the position of top coca producer.
During the same conference, the Director also praised Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S.-backed effort that has helped four administrations (from the Andrés Pastrana to Alvaro Uribe’s two terms to the current Santos era) crackdown on both guerrilla and drug cartel. He claimed that these unprecedented results are a milestone in the fight against drugs in the Western Hemisphere. Once these results were made public, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration corroborated the decline in drug production, citing the successful strategy of tackling funding sources for drug traffickers.
It is indisputable that Plan Colombia has helped overhaul Colombia’s military buildup, and in turn, diminished guerrilla- and drug-related antics. However, the Santos administration also recognized during the Summit of the Americas that the shift in drug production and trafficking was similar to a “balloon effect”: when a latex balloon is squeezed in one side the air shifts to the other, but no air escapes. In this case, Plan Colombia has helped “squeeze” drug trafficking, with production and alternate routes shifting to other South and Central American countries. A few reported “balloon effects” include the movement of former members of the Colombian Norte del Valle cartel to Bolivia, alleged connections of Mexican drug cartels working with factions of Peru’s Shining Path to ship cocaine from the Peruvian highlands to the Pacific, and the transportation of cocaine from Argentina to Europe.
Though Kerlikowske’s message on drug policy is optimistic, its results seem contradictory to other official reports. According to a United Nations report published last June, cocaine crops increased in Colombia for the first time in five years. Yet both the U.S. administration and the United Nations agree—in broad terms—that cocaine production is falling in Colombia and on the rise in Peru and Bolivia. Kerlikowske also claims that there’s a significant amount of international solidarity on cutting the supply of drugs and reducing its demand. Meanwhile Kerlikowske also admits that in the last couple of years Latin American leaders whose administrations grapple with drug-related violence are mulling over the possibility of drug legalization—a policy the U.S. administration is reluctant to adopt.
A day before Kerlikowske’s remarks, Uruguay unveiled a plan to regulate and legalize marijuana—joining the ranks of Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina, and top politicians in Colombia, Belize, and Mexico who have also called for an overt discussion in relaxing draconian drug laws during the Summit of the Americas. Argentina, Costa Rica, and Ecuador have blamed the United States for the bloodbath on the U.S.-Mexico border, which they say stems from the prohibitionist strategies known as the “War on Drugs,” launched by the Nixon administration 41 years ago.
Kerlikowske argues that this type of public discourse “thrives on the simplicity of sound bites.” Nevertheless, more leaders are singing from the same hymnbook. Former presidents Henrique Cardozo from Brazil, Colombia’s Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, have joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy in an attempt to reevaluate the current, and not so successful approach on the drug war.
The same White House numbers indicate that, in the past three years, $31 billion has been invested to support drug education and treatment programs both nationally and internationally and nearly $1 billion to alternative development. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, interdiction efforts make up the lion’s share of the budget (79 percent), compared to treatment (39 percent), prevention (31 percent), domestic law enforcement (33 percent) and international cooperation (35 percent).
Unfortunately, the United States is oblivious that the War on Drugs is also a human rights matter. The U.S. involvement in the international cooperation has been mired with controversy after American and Honduran forces killed villagers on a Honduran river in April 2012 during a drug smuggler raid. Despite the incident, the United States remains adamant in preserving its drug policy measures, which have only fueled more animosity across Latin America. The Global Commission on Drug Policy also claims that HIV transmission—another human rights and a public health challenge—and other life-threatening ailments, are exacerbated by the ongoing criminalization of drug use. These organizations argue that for fear of being arrested, drug users shy away from health services and share dirty needles.
One valuable thesis Kerlikowske proposed was that the world must unite in pursuing drug policies that are balanced, realistic, and focused on public health and safety. But as long as there is a high demand for illicit substances—be it stateside or abroad—and the United States disregards drug trafficking as a global commodities market and a threat to human rights, it truly does not make a difference who hands over the nefarious top spot in worldwide coca production. As the United States keeps turning a blind eye to reexamining its draconian drug laws, the dissonance between Latin American leaders and the U.S. administration on this policy will continue. Not only does this pose as a great obstacle for true cooperation, it also puts the effectiveness of rehabilitation and prevention programs at peril.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.
[Photo courtesy of Ildi Papp]