The Impact of United States Drug Policy on Mexico and Colombia
Drugs are not new to this Earth. Mankind has grown and consumed drugs for millennia. Marijuana, or more appropriately Cannabis, is indigenous to Central and South Asia, and has been consumed widely since 3000 B.C.E. (ElSohly 8). In more recent times (1938), Albert Hoffman synthesized Lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD, while searching for treatments for psychiatric diseases (Hoffman). Initially, many drugs were used in religious/spiritual functions. In several instances, the strong fibers of the Cannabis plant were used for building, much like jute, and the narcotic aspects of the plants were not even explored (ElSohly 8). However, today, drugs are frequently used recreationally, and as a result are highly profitable commodities. It is common knowledge that across the world, the vast majority of drugs are illegal or are restricted in some way. Almost nightly, proponents for the legalization of drugs, decriminalization of certain drugs, and the continued ban on drugs debate their positions through the media.
This debate is a hot button issue that is almost entirely centered upon the views and policies of the world’s largest drug consumer, the United States of America (CIA Factbook).
Governments and the media very often focus on drug consumption trends and drug flow into the United States, while largely ignoring Latin American perspectives and impacts on Latin America. Though drug production and drug use are major concerns, the negative impact of
drug policy on Mexico and Colombia must be brought forth and into consideration when making drug policies in the United States.
On June 17th, 1971, United States President Richard M. Nixon addressed Congress, talking about “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control” thus initiating the ‘War on Drugs’ (American Presidency Project). This American ‘War on Drugs’ sought to “rehabilitate” Americans who were already addicted to drugs, provide “education” to prevent future drug use, and quite simply to cut “off root and branch” the problem of drugs “at the source” (Presidency). In order to cut “off” drug flow “at the source,” the producing countries of drugs were targeted. Nixon stated to Congress:
When traffic in narcotics is no longer profitable, then that traffic will cease. Increased enforcement and vigorous application of the fullest penalties provided by law are two of the steps in rendering narcotics trade unprofitable. But as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand. So we must also act to destroy the market for drugs, and this means the prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those who are addicted (Presidency).
To implement this ‘War on Drugs’ several policies were enacted to meet the goals of the program. Nixon furthered his remarks:
…we must recognize that cooperation in control of dangerous drugs works both ways. While the sources of our chief narcotics problem are foreign, the United States is a source of illegal psychotropic drugs which afflict other nations. If we expect other governments to help stop the flow of heroin to our shores, we must act with equal vigor to prevent equally dangerous substances from going into their nations from our own. Accordingly, I am submitting to the Senate for its advice and consent the Convention on Psychotropic Substances which was recently signed by the United States and 22 other nations. In addition, I will submit to the Congress any legislation made necessary by the Convention including the complete licensing, inspection, and control of the manufacture, distribution, and trade in dangerous synthetic drugs (Presidency).
It is clear that initially, the ‘War on Drugs’ did not focus exclusively on any one area of the world. With heroin as the main preliminary target of the ‘War on Drugs,’ major producers in South Asia, as well as Afghanistan who was and remains to be the “world’s largest producer of opium” (CIA) were targeted by United States drug policy. However, in more recent times, the focus has shifted to Latin America. Though as previously noted, Cannabis is indigenous to Asia, Latin America is now the largest producer of the plant (CNN). In addition, Colombia is the “world’s leading coca cultivator,” and Mexico is the “second-largest opium-poppy cultivator” (CIA).
In order to explore how drug policy adversely affects Mexico and Colombia, and furthermore why those effects necessitate further thought in policy making, we must first seek to understand why Mexico and Colombia are so targeted in the first place. In the May 12, 2011 article released by the Congressional Research Service “Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit Drug Trafficking and U.S. Counterdrug Programs,” several key statistics are presented to reinforce the United States’ reasoning for focusing on Mexico and Colombia:
In recent decades, Latin America has played a central role in several major global illicit drug markets. Multiple aspects of the drug supply chain take place in the region, including drug crop cultivation, drug production, drug trafficking, and, ultimately, drug
consumption. Today, South America is the sole producer of cocaine for the global market; Mexico and Colombia are the primary sources of opiates in the United States; Mexico and the Caribbean are major foreign sources of cannabis (marijuana) consumed in the United States; and Mexico is the primary source of foreign methamphetamine in the United States (Congressional Research Service 1).
It can be easily deduced that the areas of highest drug production would receive the highest amount of attention. As previously stated, “South America is the sole producer of cocaine” making it a logical conclusion that efforts to suppress coca and cocaine would be focused on South America (Congressional 1). According to the same report, “95% of all cocaine entering
the United States flows through Mexico or its territorial waters,” implying a need to work in Mexico not only to control “the primary source of foreign methamphetamine” but to negate the effects of Colombian cocaine (Congressional 2). It must be remembered that drugs have become highly profitable commodities. Furthermore, the price of the drug itself has many factors. Therefore, when we see the illegality of drugs, and the efforts to control their distribution and consumption, we must explore the other areas that influence their pricing, and therefore their profitability, and in turn their market as a whole.
Distribution and market control. These two factors are perhaps the key players in drug pricing, and also serve as the chief reasons for focusing on Mexico and Colombia. These two countries play integral roles in both aspects of the drug economy, in addition to their role as producers. Mexico’s “proximity to the United States” makes drug smuggling into the country easy and profitable. Using Central America as a link, Colombia is able to pass Coca through Mexico, and into the United States (Congressional 2-3). The rationale is simple. Colombia is one
of the only places in which coca can be produced, and Mexico is adjacent to the largest cocaine consumer. It simply follows that these two countries are integral not only to policy focus, but to the drug trade itself.
However, it is not only the proximity or geography that is of concern to the United States, but the origin of and methods of drug distribution. It is a seemingly constant news headline term: ‘cartel.’ According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a cartel is a “combination of independent commercial or industrial enterprises designed to limit competition or fix prices” (Merriam-Webster). Drug cartels are organizations that do just that. They control drug production, distribution, sales, and trafficking. These cartels often operate violently, disrupting local and global life. These cartels, also referred to as “Drug Trafficking Organizations” mostly “are of Mexican and Colombian origin.” They operate on a scale of “between $18 billion and $39 billion” annually (Congressional 4). This enormous revenue is used by cartels to exert pressure on the market while expanding the drug trade:
Seven major Mexican drug trafficking organizations control trafficking routes into the United States, including the Arellano Felix Organization (Tijuana), Beltran Leyva Organization, Los Zetas, Sinaloa (La Federacion), Carillo Fuentes Organization (Juarez), Gulf, and La Familia Michoacana (Congressional 4-5).
Prior to the Mexican drug trafficking organizations’ rise to prominence, Colombian DTOs, primarily the Cali and Medellin drug cartels, reigned (Congressional 4-5).
Though the cartels seek to control production and fix prices, they do not always seek to work together:
The brutality of the Mexican DTOs has escalated as an increasing number of groups have
battled each other and the Calderon government for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes into the United States (Congressional 4).
And in this we see a main problem of United States drug policy. Now that we understand the crucial role that Mexico and Colombia play in the drug trade, we may explore the profound impact the drug trade has had on the countries themselves. As mentioned in the Congressional Research Service article, “Mexican DTOs” “have battled each other and the Calderon government” (Congressional 4). This power struggle has spilled over however, affecting common citizens. According to a 2009 report by the Trans-Border Institute (written by David A. Shirk), titled “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis from 2001-2009,” there were approximately “7,724 drug-related killings in 2009” in Mexico (Shirk 1). The report states that “the Mexican newspaper Milenio” “reported that there were 8,281 drug-related killings in 2009” in Mexico (Shirk 1). The report notes that both the definition of “drug-related” killings and the nature of crime make it difficult to note the exact number of people killed (Shirk 1). Yet, regardless of the exact number, it is highly apparent that the cartel related death toll, be it 5000, or 10,000, is staggering. Not only is the number massive; it has grown and continues to grow. In 2001, the report cites the annual drug-related killings death toll to be “1080.” In 2006, that number was “2120.” By 2008, it was “5153” people killed per year (Shirk 4). This nearly exponential growth in violence indicates that at the least, efforts to end drug trafficking have not helped violence, and it is suggested in the Trans-Border report that this increase in violence may even be “a result of” anti-DTO efforts (Shirk 3).
Drug policy. We have seen why Mexico and Colombia are so integral to the discussion of drug policy, and we have begun to look at the terrible effects of the drug trade on the countries.
Though the human death toll in Mexico is staggerring and attrocious, it is only part of the negativity attributed to the drug trade, and consequently the policies that affect it. When we see the case of Colombia, we begin to understand the farreaching impact of United States drug policy.
In Timothy Plowman’s “Botanical Perspectives on Coca” it is said that coca “has played an important role in the lives of South American Indians for thousands of years” (Plowman 103). It is commonly used medicinally, notably for altitude sickness. It has been cultivated in areas of South America, such as Colombia without issue for millenia, and perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that “only two” out of nearly twenty strains of coca contain “sufficiently large amounts of cocaine to warrant mastication” (Plowman 104). Therefore, we must immediately realize that very little of Colombia’s coca is worth addressing. The vast majority of coca acts as a mere mild, medicinal herb. Yet, when it comes to United States drug policy, this is not the view. Coca is not singled out plant by plant, strain by strain. It is to be eradicated wholesale. All drugs are to be destroyed. Very simply, the United States policy on drugs is eradication. Dr. Bruce Michael Bagley noted in his 2001 article “Drug Trafficking, Political Violence And U.S. Policy in Colombia in the 1990s” that Peruvian “coca cultivation decreased by 27 percent between 1996 and 1997 alone, dropping from 96,000 hectares to 70,000 hectares. In 1999, fewer than 50,000 hectares of coca were cultivated in Peru. As a direct result, total Peruvian cocaine production also declined precipitously over the 1990s, from a high point of 606 metric tons in 1992 to 264 tons in 1998” (Bagley 2). In the case of Peru, the wholesale destruction of coca achieved the United States’ goal of lowering cocaine production and flow. However, the policies devastated Colombia, while not even working in principle. “Between 1989 and 1998, Colombian coca leaf production increased by 140 percent, from 33, 900 to 81,400 metric tons” (Bagley 1). Not only did United States policy outright fail in Colombia, in fact having a reverse effect, the eradication campaign may have encouraged more people to grow coca.
In a simple supply-and-demand analysis of the situation, the destruction of Peruvian coca significantly lowered overall supply, but did not change demand. When there is a high demand for a good, but a low supply of said good, people are willing to pay more for the commodity. As follows, this increased coca prices greatly. As the peasants of the region lacked the resources to survive in a struggling Colombian economy marred by political corruption and instability, the destruction of coca, due to its illegality, increased the profitability of producing and selling coca, and therefore, increased the allure of producing it (Bagley 3). Initially, as seen in Bagley’s article, Colombian cartels used the Carribean as a drug trafficking route. When the United States cracked down on these routes, large and prominent cartels such as the Medellin and Cali cartels transferred their cocaine business to a Central American route, collaborating with Mexican cartels (Bagley 4-5). The United States continued to support anti-DTO efforts in Colombia, even weakening the major cartels of the region. Yet, guerilla forces such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) stepped in to fill the void, warring with the weakened cartels for control of the drug trade (Bagley 10). These guerilla forces profited from the drug trade and unstable Colombian government, seeking ‘Godfather-like protection money’ and “revolutionary “taxes”” from peasants, and proceeds from drug trafficking and sales itself. It is estimated that the FARC earned an “annual income” of “US $900 million” in the year 1999 (Bagley 10).
The FARC and other guerrilla forces had such a profound impact on the history of Colombia, that the violent story of the cartel, guerilla, and United States supported anti-drug government forces was captured in the popular historical fiction novel, The Armies, by Evelio Rosero. The novel depicts the attrocities of the guerrilas and DTOs on the common people. The novel itself is centered upon the story of Ismael Pasos, whose wife is “disappeared” (kidnapped). Ismael’s town descends into chaos as paramilitary forces (guerrillas) clash with locals, the US sponsored government, the cartels, and within themselves (Rosero). Though the novel is fictional, the events are all too reminiscent of 1980s and 1990s Colombia, where an illegal drug market ravaged a country and an entire continent.
As we have seen, the United States’ drug policy is to attempt to rid the world of drugs. It is to eradicate all drugs, particularly ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin and cocaine. It does so by maintaining an illegal status for all drugs, promoting and funding the eradication of drug cultivation, and militarily intervening in order to fight drug trafficking. Yet, we also saw that despite these policies, coca cultivation grew exponentially in Colombia, perhaps because it is illegal. The preexisting political turmoil in Colombia was compounded by the conflict between cartels and paramilitary organizations, seeing an even larger increase in violence with the introduction of anti-drug enforcement soldiers (Bagley). Socially, the banning of coca cultivation upturned Colombian indigenous tradition, as peoples who had farmed coca for millennia (Plowman) were suddenly made criminals at the behest of the United States. Colombia was hugely adversely impacted by the American ‘War on Drugs.’ As we leave Colombia, we may explore one more link to Colombia, while furthering the view that the drug policies of the United States negatively impacted Mexico.
In Bagley’s article, it was seen that United States action, though it did not lower violence, did in fact weaken Colombian cartels. However, it was also seen that these cartles collaborated with Mexican ones. As the Colombian cartels weakened, Mexican cartels increased their role in the drug trade:
The Mexican’s expanded role in the Colombian cocaine trade
over the 1990s increased their illicit profits exponentially and led to the consolidation of
several Mexican cartels (e.g., the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel and the Gulf cartel) that
soon rivaled the Colombian organizations in size, profitability and violence. Indeed,
during the second half of the decade the emergence of these powerful new Mexican
criminal organizations unleashed an unprecedented wave of drug-related violence and
corruption in Mexico that seriously threatened the country’s fledgling process of
democratization (Bagley 5).
In this we see another negative, albeit unintentional, result of United States drug policy. As the United States attempted to combat drug trafficking and production in one country (Colombia), they created a new system of illegal operations in a different country (Mexico). It of course can be argued with the case of Peru, and even in the reduction of the Colombian cartels that US policy had positive effects on the region. But when we remember that the reduction of Peruvian coca may have encouraged an increase in Colombian coca production (Bagley), and that the reduction in Colombian cartels simply grew Mexican ones, the negatives appear to outweigh the positives.
Much as though the situation in Peru prompted Colombian drug cultivation, the illegality of drugs prompts the poor in Mexico to join cartels for pay. As seen in a Wired article, many of these impoverished cartel recruits are “as young as eleven years old” (Robert Beckhusen). As corruption and political instability have gripped Mexico, some of the poorest citizens may earn “as little as $298 a month” while a “single murder [as a job for a cartel] can be worth” “$78,” with some ‘hitmen’ making “between $390 and $468 every two weeks” (Beckhusen). It is no surprise that many who are impoverished choose to take advantage of the drug trade and associated jobs, despite all the risks. As drug-related violence has increased in Mexico, so have cartel jobs, both in number and type. Child soldiers, such as the ones referenced in the Wired article are becoming more prevalent, being used “as cannon fodder” (Beckhusen). The amount of murders has reached such an alarming level that one cartel job is solely to dispose of corpses.
The effects of the drug trade and the blanket illegality of all drugs is very clearly apparent, particularly in Mexico and Colombia. It is fair that the United States focus on the two countries, as each country is vital to the drug trade. It is crucial that we look at these two countries in our analysis of drug policy. But it is of utmost importance that we look at the effects the policies have had on the drug trade and the countries when we judge American drug policy, the ‘War on Drugs,’ and potential future policies. Quite simply, the policies have failed. Before even looking at the Latin American perspective, we may deduce that the ‘War on Drugs’ and its policies, have failed, particularly if the goal of the policies was to lower drug trafficking and consumption. The United States is and is on pace to remain the world’s largest consumer of drugs. Colombia, despite US intervention, remains the world’s largest producer of coca (CIA). Mexico is plagued by increasing cartel violence, and has seen an expansion of the cartel, yet again, despite US monetary and military aid (Shirk). Without even looking at the Latin American perspective, we see that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed.
When we do look at the Latin American perspective, and read into the effects of the blanket illegality of drugs, we see that the ‘War on Drugs’ has not only failed, but perhaps, has even proven U.S. drug policy to be counterproductive. Illegality creates black markets. As was perhaps most clearly seen during The Prohibition (of alcohol) in the United States, when something is outlawed, with nothing actively affecting demand, only supply is changed. This does not reduce demand, and in truth, does not change supply. Supply merely goes from a legal supply, to an illegal one. Not only is demand not reduced, but similar to Bagley’s Peruvian model (Bagley 3), demand (due to price increases due to risks associated with illegality) may increase due to those yearning to make a profit. Of course, it should be remembered that the United States backed up the illegality of drugs (namely coca) with massive eradication campaigns, meaning that supply was affected overall (Bagley). However, if the goal was to lower the supply and beat the drug trade, that was not achieved. The drug trade and violence increased, not decreased. Colombian coca production and exports multiplied, and Mexican cartel violence increased, even spilling into the United States (Bagley, Beckhusen).
So if the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed, possibly been counterproductive, and inspired violent conflict and social upheaval in Mexico and Colombia, what must be done? It is clear that there must be policy changes, citing the turmoil that the current policies have at the least done nothing to negate, if not caused. Perhaps it is time to seek the opinion of Latin American leaders in this debate.
In a the Guardian article by Jamie Doward, it was stated “Colombia’s president has called for governments around the world, including the UK, to debate legalising certain drugs – even cocaine” (Doward). Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president “calls for a new approach to” take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalising, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it. I’m not against it”” (Doward). Though legalizing all drugs, especially including ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin and cocaine may not be conducive to world health, nor is it guaranteed to reduce drug-related crime and killings, perhaps decriminilization of certain drugs is a necessary step. “Violent profit” certainly has accompanied “drug trafficking” and drug trafficking has been necessitated by blanket criminalization of drugs (Doward, Bagley). Drug price comes not only from the drug itself, but from the risk associated in producing, transporting, possessing, and consuming it while illegal. The illegality of drugs keeps drug prices high, and therefore drug profits high, yet again reinforcing the desire of many to be in the drug business. Perhaps, as Santos thinks, decriminalizing or legalizing certain drugs will lower drug prices and the value of the drug trade. Perhaps, that in turn, will erode the drug market as a whole.
It is likely, that as is with most things on Earth, there is no one answer, no one way to solve the conundrum that is the global problem of and with drugs. However it is absolutely certain that Latin America, particularly Colombia and Mexico were negatively impacted by both the drug trade and United States drug policies. It is quite probable that a change in American drug policy is necessary, and it is imperative that whatever changes occur, be with Colombia and Mexico in mind. Furthermore, they must be made with Latin American perspectives in mind.
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Beckhusen, Robert. “How Mexico’s Drug Cartels Recruit Child Soldiers as Young as 11.” (2013): n. page. Print
Brice, Arthur. “Mexico, Paraguay top pot producers, U.N. report says.” (2008): n. page. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
Doward, Jamie. “Colombian president calls for global rethink on drugs.” (2011): n. page. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
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Hoffman, Albert. “LSD: Completely Personal.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. 1996: n. page. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
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