More Drug-War Failures in Latin America

More Drug-War Failures in Latin America

After more than four decades and myriad failures, it's time to declare America's war on drugs a policy fiasco.

Two news stories over the past week underscore both the futility and the damaging side effects of the supply-side component of the war on drugs in Latin America. The degree of futility can be gauged from a lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal about the rebound of cocaine production in Peru. Just a few years ago, U.S. officials were hailing Peru as a great success story, noting that cocaine production there had been declining steadily since the early 1990s. What they conveniently forgot to mention is that during that same period, production in Colombia was soaring—more than doubling by 2001.

As my Cato Institute colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo points out, drug warriors typically ignore data that doesn’t fit their overall narrative that progress is being made in the campaign against the scourge of illegal drugs. White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, for example, likes to emphasize that cocaine production in Colombia dropped some 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But that decline merely reversed a portion of the surge that had taken place during the previous decade. The reality is that cocaine production coming out of Colombia is still more than twice what it was in 1990. That’s hardly a success story.

Moreover, as production in Colombia has sagged, it has been on the increase again not only in Peru but also in Bolivia. Utilizing data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Hidalgo shows clearly that overall cocaine production in the Andean region of South America is higher today than it was two decades ago. The only thing that has happened is an ebb and flow of output involving the various countries. When a crackdown (invariably in response to pressure from Washington) occurs in one producing country, that decline is offset by a boost in output from one or more of the other countries where the pressure is not as intense. This is the notorious “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect that has plagued drug warriors for decades. Despite periodic claims of success, as long as robust consumer demand exists for drugs, an adequate supply will emerge. Only the specific geographic source of the supply will vary.

The supply-side campaign’s futility is bad enough, but even worse is the damage that Washington’s obsession with waging a war on drugs has done to other countries. In previous writings, I’ve noted the havoc that policy has caused in Mexico. Increasingly, it is also creating problems for Mexico’s more fragile neighbors in Central America. Now, evidence is emerging that there is an extensive presence by the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as more than six hundred U.S. troops in Honduras. Washington’s assistance to that country’s security forces, which have long had a dubious human-rights record, has already led to the deaths of civilians and an outpouring of anger from the Honduran people.

It has now been more than four decades since President Richard Nixon declared a “war” on illegal drugs. There have been few positive results to show for that enormous effort. On the other hand, the United States has expended vast financial resources, filled America’s prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, enriched and empowered the brutal Mexican drug cartels, and caused bloody societal dislocations in several hemispheric neighbors. That is a good operational definition of a policy fiasco.