The Heavy Mortality that Prohibition Has Wrought on Colombia

– Optimism over Merida Initiative with Mexico may prove to be unwarranted and premature
– Secretary of State Clinton’s mixed record on Mexican trip
– Colombia’s claim of triumph in its drug war seems groundless
– Evidence mounts that drug war is unwinnable and that a debate over legalization and decriminalization should not be met by presidential giggles

Back in 1979, Colombia´s former President Alberto Lleras Camargo made a remarkably accurate prediction. With eerie precision, he foresaw that the Colombians of the future would have their reputations stained by war and drugs, and this would largely be the fault of zealotry on the part of U.S. officials to enforce prohibition on the world. Some 30 years later, a growing consensus exists that Lleras was right: drug prohibition has been a catastrophe, one borne disproportionately by Latin American countries.

The issue has been raised to a new height in a report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, comprised of former Presidents César Gaviria (Colombia), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil). This document concluded with what many have known for years: that the war on illicit substances has failed in its stated objective of reducing the cultivation, commercialization and consumption of drugs, whilst creating a highly lucrative illegal industry based on a degree of violence that is worthy of securing the continent´s status as one of the most conflicted areas on the planet. From Colombia´s civil war to Central America´s maras, drug related economies have decimated local societies, wherever they have been touched by them, while at the same time corrupting their institutions and distorting their economies. True enough, little of this is particularly new; but recognition of such realities by orthodox political circles is finally bringing the debate into the political mainstream.

Prohibition in Colombia: A Deadly Legacy
If, out of all the countries in Latin America, one was forced to name one that had been particularly damaged by drug prohibition, that country would surely be Colombia. If it is true that neo-liberalism has been one “long night,” for Colombian society, then prohibition has been even longer, and far darker. Since the 1970´s, Colombia has become subject to the type of violence and distortions that could only exist in a world where drugs such as marijuana, opium and cocaine were aggressively prohibited. That is not to say that Colombia was not previously visited by violence, nor that it would have evolved into a peaceable kingdom without prohibition: indeed, most experts would argue that its violent legacy dates back to the assassination of populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948. The fury over the authorship of Gaitan´s death, along with the subsequent decades of a stifling, closed and narrowly-based democracy along with perpetual inequalities, led to the formation of armed communist insurgents like the FARC and ELN in the 1960´s, long before drugs has become a main issue. Few, however, would downplay the effect of prohibition from the 1970s onward: It invited new armed actors to enter the fray, and provided the impetus for aging ones to gain an influence far beyond what they could otherwise have expected.

The Growth of Drugs
During the 1980s, drugs-related violence swelled to an unprecedented level. During this period, the FARC was transformed from a relatively weak, ideologically committed leftist insurgent force of under a thousand, to becoming a multi-million dollar, ideologically-compromised force capable of holding onto broad swathes of Colombian territory and fully prepared to terrorize the local population. Rightist forces were then established by the political and business class as a response to the leftists, and used the revenue from drug trafficking (particularly by rightwing vigilantes) to spread fear across the Colombian countryside. Moreover, a new actor came to the fore, in the form of the Medellin and Cali drugs cartels. Under their watch, Colombia´s cities became some of the more gory battlefields in the world, with drugs-related assassinations, kidnappings and other abuses becoming the order of the day. In the 1990´s, the cartels were broken up by significant state efforts, leading some to think that Colombia had turned a corner. Unfortunately, the FARC and the right-wing AUC paramilitaries took advantage of the gaps left in the market, increasing their numbers to 18,000 and 16,000 men respectively, by the turn of the millennium.

The Cost-Benefits of Ghost Economies
Many Colombians have argued that the effect of drugs-related “ghost economies” has not been entirely negative. Particularly in the early years, peasants benefited quite considerably, in terms of their living standards, from growing marijuana. The massive profits created by shunning legal practices have, at times, allowed average Colombians to achieve the type of social and economic progress that they would otherwise only dream of, and it is little surprise that charismatic figures such as Pablo Escobar and David Murcia Guzmán have been lionized by sections of the population for appearing to redistribute the benefits of the trade. Some economists go as far as saying that the constant inflow of drug money in the 1980s was the primary reason the country never suffered from the debt crisis that engulfed the rest of the continent. Moreover, Colombia´s high economic growth rate prior to the outbreak of the international financial crisis appears to suggest that drug economies are not, in themselves, serious obstacles to the economic progress of the nation.

Such claims, though, overlook the extent to which ghost economies provide a high incentive for corrupt practices and encourage clientelistic political structures (both legal and extralegal) which are contrary to democratic development. The recent DMG affair reveals the extent to which ghost economies can easily subvert political actors and institutions across the political spectrum. Revelations are still emerging, most recently tarnishing the leftist Mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno. Moreover, while the drug economy has at times benefited a broad range of Colombians, it has often done it in perverse ways: by concentrating in the hands of a few, encouraging a culture of “easy money” and/or complex patronage systems designed to consolidate drug traffickers´ power. Such rapid progress has created a nouveau riche class known as traquetos, renowned for their extravagant spending and conspicuous consumption.

Undoubtedly, a lot of the contempt shown by middle and upper class Colombians towards the traquetos can be explained by elitism and envy, but it is hard to see how this culture can be beneficial at a deeper level. It essentially sends out the message that money can, via drugs, be attained extremely quickly and relatively easily, even at the expense of the desiderata of a wider society. The majority of the profits accumulate in a few hands, and that has contributed to a concentration of land, as drug traffickers turned speculators buy up areas to safeguard their fortunes. The mere fact, therefore, of enriching a small number of Colombians cannot be in any way considered a desirable form of “development,” and does not in any way make up for the violence that has accompanied it.

The Murcía Initiative
David Murcía Guzmán´s enterprise can be seen as one of the few mechanisms that actually did allow average Colombians to benefit from the trade, and many did indeed use it to increase their welfare levels before the Government´s intervention in November 2008. However, while DMG was relatively egalitarian in its redistribution of the drug related wealth, this came at the cost of perpetuating the culture of easy money, and provided a cloak of legitimacy to a myriad of pyramid schemes intent on defrauding people of their savings.

Plan Colombia: Overwhelming Evidence of Failure
Plan Colombia represents by far the most intensive example of enforcing drug prohibition applied to the letter. It has received over $6 billion in 10 years, has received cutting edge technology, and has been implemented by a highly popular and effective president. To be blunt, if upholding prohibition fails in Colombia, it will fail anywhere. Last year, a UN study revealed a 27 percent increase of land used for cocaine production, despite the reported aerial spraying of 153,000 hectares. President Alvaro Uribe might point out that even after this rise, cocaine production still covers far less of the national territory than it did when he came to power. The total area recently under cultivation floats around the 100,000 hectares mark as opposed to 150,000 in 2001. Moreover, actual cocaine production did not rise significantly, as coca plantings have been reduced in high yielding regions like Meta and Guaviare. However, a broader analysis of statistics show that cocaine production spiked between 1999 and 2001, something largely explained by the FARC´s use of the demilitarized zone temporarily ceded to them to freely cultivate the coca plant. While the invasion of this area and the weakening of the FARC command structure reduced cultivation in the short term, Plan Colombia has not been able to drive cultivation figures down to the levels of the 1990´s. Instead, Colombia has retained its share of 60 percent of the world´s cocaine production, and 90 percent of the United States market.

The war on drugs, as is pointed out by Colombian economist Eduardo Sarmiento, fails to respond to two basic realities of the trade: production is highly elastic (eradication in one area promts cultivation in others) whereas demand is inelastic (higher prices caused by successful prohibition do not reduce demand). This means that any advances are short term, and producers and traffickers will react to any repressive measures with a speed and imagination that most legal capitalists could only dream of. Adam Isaacson of the Centre for International Policy claims that what the State Department refers to as “attempted coca production” (defined as eradicated plus un-eradicated coca) has actually doubled since 2000, suggesting a relentless effort on the part of small farmers and drug traffickers to keep cultivating regardless of impediments or pricing structure. Both aerial and manual eradication only seem to cause the well known “balloon effect,” whereby reduced production in one area is simply pushed into others.

The extent to which the drug economy is too dynamic for officials to control is shown by the massive discrepancy that exists between purportedly official statistics. Bogotá, for example, regularly reports eradication of a far greater area of cultivation than that which supposedly existed from the previous year, meanwhile cultivation in new areas still manages to exceed the eradicated areas. Moreover, the UN´s estimate differs worryingly from that of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, which estimates a staggering 167,000 hectares for 2007, far higher than the UN´s projection.

Beyond simply failing, of course, eradication campaigns have brought on a human rights blight. For all the Government talk about “alternative development” programs, the net effect of Plan Colombia has been to force the displacement of thousands of peasants, many of whom have been pushed into even more marginal zones. Logically, such people form a hostile attitude towards the Government, blaming it for denying them of the basic right to make a living. Aerial eradication does not just destroy coca, it destroys the other crops which peasants grow for their subsistence, and causes significant ancillary environmental damage. Government attempts to convince peasants to grow other crops are doomed to failure while the coca remains so incredibly profitable. Any remotely successful substitute programs are confined to experiments, meanwhile, do not pay a significant amount of money in comparison to growing coca.

The Outlook May be Brighter but Clouds are Never Far Off
Supporters point out that Plan Colombia has indeed been successful by drastically improving the security of the country´s citizens. Indeed, Colombia in 2009 has certainly improved in many ways. Cities like Medellin and Bogotá have seen their crime rates plummet, albeit probably more due to improved local governance rather than Plan Colombia, while the FARC is a shadow of its former self.

In comparison to a time when the FARC seemed capable of overwhelming the country, its cadres now find themselves numerically reduced and pressured into ever more marginal regions of the country. Such success has rewarded Uribe with consistently high approval ratings. Moreover, it is hard to see how any of this could have been achieved simply by negotiations, as was proposed by his opponents. How can it be that Plan Colombia has been so remarkably successful in one respect, and such a failure in the other?

Clearly, the waging of war on a multifaceted, dynamic and flexible industry is an entirely different proposition to focusing on a particular armed group. The drug trade does not depend on any particular actor, and the weakening of the FARC in 2009 will not damage the drug trade any more than the defeat of the cartels in the early 90´s. Even if we accept the government thesis that the FARC is in terminal decline, there will still be impoverished peasants willing to grow coca, and there will always be opportunistic criminals (political or apolitical) who will be willing to traffic it.

Look beyond the surface, and it is clear that the prohibition of drugs places a ceiling on the country´s progress, and continues to distort its society. Thanks largely to drug revenue, supposedly demobilized paramilitaries are rapidly reforming as “Aguilas Negras,” and currently operate in 246 of the country´s 1,100 municipalities, picking up the mantel where Carlos Castaño´s murderous Autodefensas left off. In a related development, the legacy of Pablo Escobar and the Rodriguez brothers is sustained by smaller, nimbler groups, capable of forming links with formidable cartels in Mexico and subverting West African countries to seek out new trade routes. Both the “aguilas” and the drug trafficking groups have read their history well: they understand that by maintaining a more decentralized structure with no clear leaders and a lower profile, they can control the drug trade without inviting Pablo Escobar´s grim fate. Beyond this, Colombia´s internal consumption of all drugs is rising, and drug-related delinquency continues to blight its cities. The DMG scandal demonstrated the extent to which drug-related money laundering is rife, and as capable as ever of exercising influence over broad sectors of society.

Conspiracy Theories are Wrong, but Understandable
Some on the left, for example Noam Chomsky, have argued that the discrepancy between the FARC´s diminution and the failure to eradicate drugs is not coincidental. According to this theory, prohibition was never really the objective, rather it was a cover for the United States´ more ambitious campaign to secure the region´s resources and repress voices for social change. However, the theory overestimates the importance of Colombia´s resources, and underestimates the fanaticism of drug-war warriors, be they in the White House or Casa Nariño. Using prohibition as a cover to fight the FARC would be a highly irrational proposition, given that the group benefits significantly from the illegality of drugs. Colombia is indeed a resource-rich country, but it is still relatively insignificant in comparison with neighboring Venezuela. If, as James Petras claims, Plan Colombia can be best understood in the context of the USA´s geopolitical project to exert control over the entire region, then it has been a remarkable failure. Since the beginning of Plan Colombia, Washington´s influence in the region has dwindled to the extent that Colombia is one of its few allies in Latin America. There is little evidence that the U.S., via Colombia, exerts any significant influence over events in Venezuela or Ecuador, certainly not enough to justify the massive amount of expenditure. If anything, Plan Colombia has only served to further reduce the United States’ reputation in the region. On the other hand, such conspiracy theories, whilst misplaced, are still understandable: the central concept of Plan Colombia is so utterly irrational that it is hard to believe there isn´t a secret agenda to its working.

Missing the Point: The Colombian Government and the “Shared Responsibility” Campaign
The Colombian government’s response to these failures has been to launch a “shared responsibility” campaign in Western Europe and the United States, which attempts to wake up consumers’ consciences about the damage caused by their demand for cocaine. Many might sympathize with such efforts. There is, indeed, something almost hypocritical about liberal-minded Americans and Europeans who make a lot of noise about “ethical spending” schemes such as free trade coffee, without pausing to think about the havoc created just to get that gram of cocaine from the Colombian countryside to their trendy cocktail parties. However, the Colombian government’s position is illogical, and doomed to fail. It is not going to convince many people to give up cocaine on ethical principals while it remains patently obvious that the worst effects of the trade are indirect, and caused by its prohibition. Most recently, Colombia´s vice president toured Europe, proclaiming that for every gram of cocaine consumed, 4 square meters of rainforest are destroyed. It is unlikely, however, that this will wash; Like most of the other problems associated with drugs, environmental destruction is primarily caused by prohibition, as coca is only grown in the rainforest largely because it is eradicated elsewhere. Moreover, the argument is rather flawed coming from a Government which has no qualms about promoting highly environmentally damaging policies, from biofuel cultivation to the very aerial spraying used to kill the coca plant. Even if the “shared responsibility” campaign has convinced some people to give up consumption, the idea that it could ever significantly reduce demand for the drug is delusional. The type of liberal, environmentally-conscious cocaine consumers are only a fraction of the regular cocaine-consuming populations of the developed world, and it is hard to see many making an “ethical choice,” while no certified legal cocaine exists as an alternative.

Legalization will be Messy, but Prohibition is Immoral
Prohibition has failed in Colombia, just as it has failed in the rest of the world. While the country has come a long way in reducing its levels of violence, its progress will always be limited as long as prohibition remains the international paradigm. Meanwhile the inherent violence of prohibition continues to spread across the continent, blighting an entire generation of young men in Mexico, El Salvador and Venezuela, to name just a few of the affected countries. And all this, because governments in developed countries have so little faith in their own societies that they can´t bear the thought of accepting the reality of drug consumption. Their prohibitionist arguments are fundamentally unjust and small minded.

Although it is rarely stated, the commitment of the developed world to the prohibition of cocaine and other drugs, and the enforcement of this policy via schemes like Plan Colombia imply a fundamental injustice: that the corruption, violence and impunity endured by drug producing and intermediary countries in the developing world, are prices worth paying to keep rich societies safe. If the prohibition-related violence wrought on Latin American societies was killing Americans or Europeans, cocaine and marijuana would have been legalized years ago. UN drug czar Antonio Maria Acosta claims that legalization would be an “emotional” reaction. He is wrong. As the Economist has claimed, legalization would not be a panacea and would be fraught with problems, but it would still be the most moral, rational response to the blind narrow mindedness of prohibition. Rightly, the debate should not be whether or not to legalize; rather, it should focus on the best way to do so.