25-Year ‘War on Drugs’ Fails on the Streets

Neither its nearly quarter-century "war against drugs" nor the almost $3 billion Washington has spent since 2000 on Plan Colombia has resulted in higher prices on U.S. streets for cocaine or heroin, says a major report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released Tuesday.

The 400-page report [.pdf], which focuses mainly on the "collateral damage" inflicted on democratic institutions and stability in Mexico and Andean countries, called for a major reassessment of Washington’s efforts to cut the supply of drugs "at the source."

"After 25 years and $25 billion fighting drugs in Latin America, we are no closer to winning the war, the drug war – which is ultimately about reducing drug abuse," said WOLA Executive Director Joy Olson at the report’s release.

Indeed, as of mid-2003, the last date for which data was available, both the wholesale and retail prices of the two drugs were at or close to their lowest levels in the 22 years since statistics were first collected, according to the document.

"Present policy is not working," said Coletta Youngers, co-editor of the 400-page report, "Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy." "We found no evidence of a significant reduction of illicit drugs flowing out of Andean or other countries."

The most dramatic disclosure in the report, the product of a three-year investigation involving nearly 20 U.S. and Latin American researchers, is data on drug prices submitted by the RAND Corporation to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in early 2004.

U.S. drug-control policy aims primarily at reducing the supply of drugs into the United States, on the assumption that reduced supply will drive up prices and discourage people from buying or using drugs.

The latest data, which appears to have been kept under wraps by the ONDCP, showed that prices of cocaine and heroin in the United States – at both wholesale and retail levels – actually fell between 2000, the last year for which published government data are available, and June 2003.

"One can only conclude that cocaine and heroin remain widely available in the U.S.," said John Walsh, a WOLA analyst who contributed to the new book, and who suggested one reason that ONDCP has not published the latest data, which he said was obtained from a congressional office, may be because "prices are now lower than when Plan Colombia started."

But a senior ONDCP official told IPS the WOLA report "is filled with errors, irrelevancies, and misinterpretations."

"The impact of Plan Colombia wasn’t felt until August 2002, when President Uribe took charge in Colombia. By the end of 2003, there had been a 33-percent reduction in the coca crop in Colombia," added the official, who asked to be unidentified.

He also denied the office had delayed publishing the data. Normally it takes at least one year from the time such information is received until a report is published, particularly one that requires inter-agency clearance, added the official.

Under Plan Colombia, which must be re-funded by Congress in 2005, Washington has provided nearly $3 billion in assistance – most of it in aid to Colombian military and security forces – since 2000, making Bogotá the third biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt.

The plan, the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s efforts to cut the supply of cocaine and heroin into the United States, was originally designed to extend the Colombian government’s authority into parts of the country where coca and poppy cultivation had become particularly intense.

The strategy has relied heavily on the fumigation of vast areas of the countryside, drawing criticism by WOLA and other groups that it risked ruining the livelihoods of small farmers and destroying fragile ecosystems.

While the amount of area under cultivation has indeed been reduced as spraying has increased, according to the report, the strategy has failed to take into account the so-called "balloon effect," that suppressing coca production in one area leads to heightened cultivation somewhere else, not just in Colombia, but across borders.

"There has been a dramatic increase in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia," according to Gustavo Gorriti, an expert on the drug trade and co-director of Peru’s La Republica newspaper, who participated in the report’s release.

Moreover, he added, "spraying won’t happen in Peru or Bolivia," because of the political strength of the growers. "Behind these increases are very strong cocalero [coca growers’] movements that you haven’t seen before," Gorriti said.

Added Youngers, "The fumigation campaign has had a devastating impact on the livelihood of small farmers and contributes to the displacement of tens of thousands of Colombians, thrusting them even more deeply into poverty and insecurity."

The book, which is divided into case studies of the impact of the drug war on individual countries, argues that the collateral damage of U.S. drug-control policies has been extensive, and particularly harmful to democratic governments in the region.

"They have contributed to confusing military and law-enforcement functions, militarizing local police forces, and bringing the military into a domestic law enforcement role," said Youngers. "They have thus strengthened military forces at the expense of civilian authorities – in a region with a tragic history of military rule."

Similarly, the policies have led Washington to forge alliances with unscrupulous leaders, who, like Panamanian General Manuel Noriega and Vladimiro Montesinos in Peru, are heavily implicated in the drug trade themselves, in order to pursue short-term, anti-drug targets to the detriment of long-term democratic development, argues the report.

The repressive nature of the "drug war" has also generated significant social conflict and political instability, as in Bolivia where an elected president was overthrown by an opposition that included cocaleros last year, or in Colombia itself, which suffers from Latin America’s worst human-rights violations, many of them committed by various forces contending for control of drug production and trafficking.

"U.S. drug-control efforts have provoked a war on the poor and an assault on democratic institutions," said Olson. "We’ve spent billions on anti-drug efforts in Latin America and have nothing to show for it but collateral damage."

"We’ve been tough on drugs," she added, "now it’s time to get smart."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.