New Internationalist

A remarkable failure

June 2009

Drug prohibition in Latin America has been a catastrophe, argues Rachel Godfrey Wood. It’s time to learn from past mistakes and turn to legalization instead.

Back in 1979, Colombia’s former President Alberto Lleras Camargo made a remarkably accurate prediction: that the Colombians of the future would have their reputations stained by war and drugs, and that this would largely be the fault of zealotry on the part of US officials bent on enforcing 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 in a recent report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which concluded 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 violence, which has decimated local societies.

A deadly legacy

Colombia has been particularly damaged by drug prohibition. Already struggling with a legacy of violence and inequality, a narrow-based democracy and armed communist insurgent groups, since the introduction of prohibition in the 1970s it has seen the type of violence and distortions that could only exist in a world where drugs such as marijuana, opium and cocaine are aggressively prohibited. Prohibition invited new armed actors to enter the fray, and provided the impetus for ageing ones to gain an influence far beyond what they could otherwise have expected.

If the prohibition-related violence wrought on Latin American societies was killing North Americans or Europeans, cocaine and marijuana would have been legalized years ago

During the 1980s, drugs-related violence swelled to an unprecedented level. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was transformed from a relatively weak, ideologically committed leftist insurgent group into a multi-million dollar, ideologically compromised force, 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 to spread fear across the Colombian countryside. Under the watch of the drugs cartels, Colombia’s cities became gory battlefields, with drugs-related assassinations and kidnappings. In the 1990s, 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 (United Self-Defence Units of Colombia) paramilitaries took advantage of the gaps left in the market, increasing their numbers to 18,000 and 16,000 respectively by the turn of the millennium.

Many Colombians have argued that the effect of drugs-related ‘ghost economies’ has not been entirely negative. Particularly in the early years, farmers benefited considerably from growing marijuana. Some economists go so far as to say 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 current international financial crisis appears to suggest that drug economies are not, in themselves, serious obstacles to economic progress.

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 drug economy has concentrated wealth 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. This culture sends out the message that money can be attained extremely quickly and relatively easily via drugs.

Plan Colombia

In 1998 the Colombian President Andres Pastrana and US President Bill Clinton agreed a new anti-drug strategy. Plan Colombia represents by far the most intensive example of enforcing drug prohibition. It has received over $6 billion in 10 years, but a 2008 UN study revealed a 27 per cent increase in land used for cocaine production, despite the reported aerial spraying of 153,000 hectares. President Alvaro Uribe might point out that cocaine production still covers a third less of the national territory than it did when he came to power in 2002, and that actual cocaine production has not risen significantly, since coca plantings have been reduced in high-yielding regions like Meta and Guaviare. However, a broader analysis of statistics tells a different story. Cocaine production spiked between 1999 and 2001, but this is 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 1990s. Instead, Colombia has retained its share of 60 per cent of the world’s cocaine production, and 90 per cent of the US market.

The war on drugs, as Colombian economist Eduardo Sarmiento points out, fails to respond to two basic realities of the trade: production is highly elastic (eradication in one area prompts 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 speed and imagination. Adam Isaacson of the US Center 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.

Beyond simply failing, eradication campaigns have brought on a human rights blight. For all the government talk about ‘alternative development’ programmes, the net effect of Plan Colombia has been to displace thousands of people from their land into even more marginal zones. Aerial eradication does not just destroy coca, it destroys subsistence crops and causes significant environmental damage. Government attempts to convince farmers to grow other crops are doomed to failure while coca remains so profitable, and the only remotely successful substitute programmes have been confined to small-scale experiments.

Supporters point out that Plan Colombia has drastically improved the security of the country’s citizens. Cities like Medellin and Bogotá have seen their crime rates plummet, albeit due to improved local governance rather than Plan Colombia, and the FARC is a shadow of its former self.

But 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 did the defeat of the cartels in the early 1990s. Even if we accept the government thesis that the FARC is in terminal decline, there will still be impoverished farmers willing to grow coca, and there will always be opportunistic criminals (political or apolitical) 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 (Black Eagles), and currently operate in 246 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities. Both the Aguilas and the drug-trafficking groups understand that by maintaining a decentralized structure with no clear leaders and a low profile, they can control the drug trade. Beyond this, Colombia’s internal consumption of all drugs is rising, and drug-related delinquency continues to blight its cities.

Conspiracy theories

Some on the Left, such as 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, but rather a cover for the US’s more ambitious campaign to secure the region’s resources and repress voices for social change. This theory overestimates the importance of Colombia’s resources, however, 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. If Plan Colombia is to be understood in the context of the US’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.

The Colombian Government’s response to these failures has been to launch a ‘shared responsibility’ campaign in Western Europe and the US, which attempts to wake up consumers’ consciences to the damage caused by their demand for cocaine. However, the Colombian Government is not going to convince many people to give up cocaine on ethical principles while it remains patently obvious that the worst effects of the trade are indirect, and caused by its prohibition. Recently Colombia’s Vice-President toured Europe, proclaiming that for every gram of cocaine consumed, four square metres 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 because it is eradicated elsewhere. Moreover, this argument comes from a Government which has no qualms about promoting environmentally damaging policies, from biofuel cultivation to the very aerial spraying used to kill the coca plant.


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. 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.

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 a price worth paying to keep rich societies safe. If the prohibition-related violence wrought on Latin American societies were killing North 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. The debate should not be whether or not to legalize drugs: rather, it should focus on the best way to do so.

Rachel Godfrey Wood is a research fellow at COHA, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

This column was published in the June 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Peace Activist 17 Mar 11

    I think this is one of the most important issues in the world today. One thing that has often run though my my mind is how the price of drugs is inadvertently globally controlled by actions of law enforcement. This has in the past applied to a few other things in the same way. I've followed Professor Nuts views on this issue with some interest. I'm certainly no expert on these sorts of things; but take a layman's interest in the things around me. One point I would make about this article; is the fact that I would certainly not perceive any of Professor Noam Chomsky's views as 'conspiracy theories', I believe him to be a most knowledgeable person. Noam Chomsky seems to have the ability to look at the world from a distance; without any political, financial or personal influences clouding his judgment. I really do consider this an issue where we must take infinite care not to write off, anomalies as conspiracy theories. To understand some of this thinking we must look back to the second world war. Britain was in a desperate situation, after a time the US came into the war and in due course we came to the closing stages of the war. By this time the Soviet Union had become perceived as the new and terrible danger; but we had little real insight into the Soviet mindset. The answer came in the form of German war criminals, men with a proven record of barbarism. These where turned into the warriors of the cold war. When too many questions where asked about these people they were sent on the 'rat run' to South America out of sight and mind. There they did what they did best; building far right governments, cracking down on descent and filling their bank accounts with drug money. At the same time keeping out any commies and forming partnerships with US corporations. The people where kept silent and the money kept rolling in. Of course there is much more that contributes to the problem, poverty and bad government seem to be a major factor. From what information I've come across it would seem that it's hard to tell the bad guys from the good guys. In that part of the world you can be beaten up and robbed by robbers or the police, or maybe the army. This sort of situation makes progress towards any kind of stability doubtful.

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