The war on drugs: 50 years of death and failure

Colombia has witnessed the destruction of ecosystems and numerous assassinations despite the US offensive. The policy has not succeeded in curbing the sale of illegal substances, but it has squandered public funds

camión quemado por miembros del cartel Clan del Golfo en Antioquia, Colombia
A soldier stands guard next to a truck burned by members of the Clan del Golfo cartel in Antioquia, Colombia, on May 6, 2022.JOAQUIN SARMIENTO (AFP)

It is undeniable that the war on drugs has failed. In his speech at the United Nations, Colombian President Gustavo Petro fell short of offering what the world is still waiting for: a solution to the problem. In 2016, at a special UN assembly, former president Juan Manuel Santos also spoke about the lost war on drugs and emphasized the need to rethink the approach. The interventions of Petro and Santos are the first steps toward a possible solution.

The war on drugs began 50 years ago when US president Richard Nixon declared “an all-out offensive” against what he considered to be “enemy number one”: illegal drugs. This war was immediately extended to Colombia. In the 1970s, the South American country exported immense quantities of marijuana through the Caribbean, and criminal organizations later made the transition to cocaine. The war on drugs has sought to reduce the drug supply at all costs, based on the premise that if there were no drugs, there would be no consumers. Yet the production, sale and consumption of drugs have grown disproportionately. The effectiveness of the war on drugs can only be measured through the drug market, which is not slowing down anywhere in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report, around 284 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 consumed drugs in 2020, an increase of 26% from 2010.

Colombia is the largest producer of cocaine, which accounts for only 5% of global consumption of all drugs. None of the strategies to end coca production – including aerial spraying of glyphosate (a chemical that has been banned since 2015 because of its harmful effects, though Iván Duque’s government defended its use), forced eradication of the plant and replacement with licit crops – has managed to stop the increased trafficking of cocaine. Indeed, it reached its peak in 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic – according to the UNODC report, cocaine trafficking rose by 11% as compared to 2019, moving 1,982 tons of the drug.

guerra contra las drogas colombia
Special Forces after raiding the luxurious house of a drug trafficker in Cali, in 1996.Tom Stoddart Archive (Getty Images)

Global cocaine seizures have also increased. In 2020, a record 1,424 tons of the drug were impounded. Because of border closures between March 2020 and March 2021 and increased roadblocks, almost 90% of the cocaine confiscated around the world was trafficked in cargo containers or by sea. In fact, Colombia has recorded the most drug seizures, accounting for 41% of the drugs seized worldwide, followed by the United States at 11% and Ecuador at 6.5%.

In Colombia, the war on drugs has basically focused on the cocaine trade. Former justice minister Yesid Reyes explains that there is no global solution to the drug problem. “Each country has specific problems and must attack them differently; coca plantations are our main problem,” says Reyes, who is currently the chairperson of Externado University’s department of criminal law.

Reyes believes that Colombia’s strategy should focus on the illicit crop substitution program, not on the forced eradication of coca leaf. He notes that the “crops end up being replanted in half of the cases.” Reyes says that the replanting rate is 0.6%.

Killing powerful drug traffickers, such as Pablo Escobar, and the demise of large cartels such as the Norte del Valle cartel, have not ended – or even affected – cocaine trafficking; in fact, the market has grown both in terms of routes and in the number of criminal groups that manage the business. These strikes – which have caused significant casualties – are just a way for governments to show they are taking action, they have not dismantled criminal structures. When one drug lord falls, one or more automatically emerge to take over the business.

cuerpo sin vida de Pablo Escobar, sobre un tejado el Medellín
Pablo Escobar’s lifeless body on a rooftop in Medellin.EPA

In 2015, at a conference at the University of Uruguay, narcotics expert Felipe Tascón said that the war on drugs was set up to fail from the beginning: “They don’t tackle the causes, they are only interested in presenting the extradited [drug traffickers] to the North American public as the war’s ‘accomplishments.’”

Strikingly, according to the same UNODC report, coca leaf crops (the raw material for cocaine hydrochloride) have decreased in Colombia, but, paradoxically, drug production has increased by 8%. Colombia has about 143,000 hectares of land that cultivate coca leaf.

According to Catalina Gil Pinzón, the Drug Policy Program Officer at the Open Society Foundations, the war on drugs has been an operational failure, but it has been very successful at the narrative level. “All that propaganda that has told us that the war is confronting the world’s most serious threat, or that all the violence in Colombia is because of drug trafficking, has been quite successful and is very popular among citizens,” says Gil. She believes that the way forward is through the regulated legalization of drugs, not prohibition. “Regulation allows for reducing the risks and harms associated with consumption,” she says. Gil notes that under this formula, each substance would have a different regulatory framework.

The war’s cost is incalculable, although the figures reach billions of dollars. Drug policy has focused on prohibition and criminalization in drug-producing countries, but it doesn’t address the problem in the countries where the drugs are consumed.

Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias 'Otoniel,' leader of the Gulf clan with the Colombian military after being captured, in Turbo (Colombia), in October 2021.
Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias 'Otoniel,' leader of the Gulf clan with the Colombian military after being captured, in Turbo (Colombia), in October 2021.Ministerio de Defensa de Colombia

Juan Carlos Garzón, a researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, argues that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has not worked. “The expectation that there won’t be a demand for illegal drugs is unrealistic,” Garzón observes. He emphasizes that other drugs have far more impact than cocaine. Garzón believes that Petro’s policy is disruptive because it casts Colombia as a victim and fails to acknowledge the co-responsibility of Colombian elites in supporting the war. “In Colombia, the war on drugs has not occurred in a vacuum. It intersects with other wars; the war on drugs has served other purposes. So far, we’ve had a policy that treats the vulnerable very harshly but goes very lightly on those who have the most ability to be corrupt and violent,” he says.

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