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Newsweek International

September 6, 1999

How We Fight A Losing War

The time is right for Latin and North Americans
to rethink a failed drug policy

By Jorge G. Castaneda

In the central-western canyons of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, where waterfalls and abandoned mines blend in with secret landing strips and vertical mountain plots, the few remaining peasants have a choice. They can cultivate corn on barren cliffs, or they can receive 300 pesos for each kilo of marijuana they grow on their own land, paid by the pilots who will deliver the cargo to the border of the United States, a few hundred miles to the north. The farmers' cut may not seem much, and it is certainly a great deal less than the 5,000 pesos per kilo that the plane crews obtain for their work. Still, marijuana is more profitable than any legal crop in a countryside that is breathtaking in its beauty but not really meant for men and women to live on. For the pilots the payoff is much more substantial. A small single-engine plane can carry half a ton of marijuana; the profit margins are huge, and the risks, at least on the Mexican side of the border, are virtually nil. There are dozens of 200- or 300-meter strips in the area, and the planes fly so low that they cannot be picked up by radar, balloons or any other surveillance mechanism. Once near the border, the cargo is offloaded onto trucks, cars, buses and nearly anything that moves, on its way north, east and west into the United States. Delivering the goods is tougher work, more dangerous but better paid. And that, of course, is the point; at every stage in the chain of supply, there is an opportunity for someone to make more money dabbling in drugs than he would from legal work. This battle of the war on drugs in Mexico was lost before it began.

Such also seems to be the case in Colombia. The country was not traditionally a coca-leaf-producing nation; the crops were grown in Peru and Bolivia, harvested there and then shipped on to Colombia, where further refining took place. But since Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori imposed a virtual no-fly zone along his borders, shooting down anything that flew or moved, the cartelitos have sown vast fields of coca leaf in Colombia. On some estimates, there are now 110,000 hectares of coca in Colombia, and to that can be added a large poppy crop, used to produce heroin, and traditional marijuana plantations. Colombia is now taking full advantage of its resources and climate; there, too, the war on drugs is being lost.

It's hard to find a place where the war on drugs is being won. Certainly not in Miami, where charges were brought last week against more than 50 American Airlines and Miami International Airport employees, accused of smuggling drugs into the United States in food bins, ashtrays and garbage bags. And there are no winners, either, in Austin, Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush's travails have led Latin Americans to wonder where all the hypocrisy on drugs leads. What is the purpose of investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against drugs, plunging countries into civil war, strengthening guerrilla groups and unleashing enormous violence and corruption upon entire societies, if American leaders can simply brush off questions about drug use in their youth?

The issue here is not whether such questions relate to private matters (they undoubtedly do), nor whether small-time peccadilloes 30 years ago should disqualify someone from contending for the White House (they clearly should not). The point is that according to the polls, none of the debate about what Bush may have ingested, when, seems to worry the voters. But if that is so, why should Latin Americans get worked up about drug abuse in the United States, either by statesmen in the White House or teenagers in the ghettos? Either cocaine and marijuana are terribly dangerous substances, and breaking the law by consuming them is a major offense that should be severely punished, or these are minor, personal matters that do not really count in the big picture of a man's life. If the latter is the case, then the rationale for a bloody, costly and futile war against drugs simply disappears.

Indeed, the time is uniquely propitious for a wide-ranging debate between North and Latin Americans on this absurd war that no one really wants to wage. The United States has a Republican candidate bothered by awkward questions about past drug use, a squeaky-clean Democratic candidate and an open-minded lame-duck incumbent; in Latin America, particularly in Colombia and Mexico, the whole question of drugs now engenders a growing sense of despair. This may be the moment for rethinking the war on drugs.

Such a debate should start with a coldblooded evaluation of what has worked and what has failed. Talks could then move on to examining ways in which market and price mechanisms can be brought to bear on the drug business in order to make it less lucrative, and so to align its relative prices with those of other goods - which would reduce the trade's propensity to engender corruption. Finally, the legal implications of such market mechanisms should be examined. In the end, legalization of certain substances may be the only way to bring prices down, and doing so may be the only remedy to some of the worst aspects of the drug plagueviolence, corruption and the collapse of the rule of law. To many in the United States, for good reasons and bad, legalization remains anathema; but its costs and benefits must be assessed in the light of the pernicious, hypocritical and dysfunctional status quo. Using present tactics, the war on drugs is being lost; it is long past time to reassess a failed policy.

Castaneda teaches political science at New York University.

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