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Colombia’s Petro: Let's bury the violent drug war for good

Colombia’s Petro: Let's bury the violent drug war for good

The new president wants to create an alliance for less militarized policies. Biden should buy in.

Analysis | Latin America

The American public almost unanimously agrees that the nation’s War on Drugs has been a huge failure. Now, South American leaders have a plan to form an alliance with key nations to initiate a new, non-violent approach to drug crime. This is a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to combat organized crime while regaining geopolitical credibility by promoting peace.

Since the United States’ War on Drugs began more than five decades ago, the nation has spent over a trillion dollars enforcing drug policies domestically since 1971.

Meanwhile, the number of drug cartels in the Americas has only increased, as have the casualties.

The U.S. is not alone in these failed efforts. Both drug-related violent crime and drug trafficking itself are at record highs in a number of countries around the hemisphere. According to InSight Crime, cocaine trafficking is at historic highs, and the homicide rate in Andean countries is skyrocketing. Clearly, violent efforts to combat drug use and trafficking are ineffective. Fortunately, some South American politicians are suggesting a new solution.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro recently proposed the creation of an alliance between Latin American and Caribbean states looking for a different way to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. In his speech at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs on September 9th, Petro argued that “it is time to rebuild hope and not repeat the bloody and ferocious wars, the ill-named ‘war on drugs’, viewing drugs as a military problem and not as a health problem for society.” Petro likened the policy to “genocide” against the Colombian people, with more than 200,000 civilians dying in the country as a direct result of the civil conflict — including drug violence — since 1958.

Presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil have already supported this new approach, at least rhetorically. At the conference, representatives from 17 countries signed a statement agreeing to the need to “rethink the global war on drugs” and focus on “life, peace, and development.”

Unfortunately, some countries in Latin America have taken the opposite perspective, embracing militarization and “mano dura” (hard hand) policies based on the record of autocrat Nayib Bukele of El Salvador. Many U.S. policymakers promote similar tactics, including a ludicrous U.S. invasion of Mexico. Ecuador and Honduras, in response to rising homicide rates, chose to militarize counternarcotics, leading to more death, instability, and democratic backsliding.

But these violent tactics have never worked. Not only did the U.S.-led War on Drugs fail miserably, but the nation also played a large role in inciting violence in Central America by supporting violent groups and governments in the hopes of tackling drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas in the region. The security infrastructure in most Central American countries is a direct result of U.S. involvement during the Cold War.

By promoting a violent solution to the drug crisis and emboldening anti-drug militias, the U.S. has created more drug cartels. According to records from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Colombian paramilitaries have become the largest domestic drug producers and traffickers in Colombia. They were originally propped up, funded, and armed by the United States.

Under the Reagan administration, Latin American factions and dictators engaging in drug trafficking, including the Contras in Nicaragua, and Manuel Noriega in Panama, were also supported by the U.S. In Mexico, the U.S. and Mexican governments’ policy of decapitation — removing top leaders from cartels — led to fractionalization and the creation of more cartels battling over resources and power, making Mexico a narco-state with hundreds of groups.

In light of the negative influence that Washington has had on the War on Drugs throughout the American regions, the Biden administration should extend an olive branch to Petro and support his new alliance. By inviting Petro and other sympathetic Latin American leaders to the White House, or to a Latin American city with a connection to the War on Drugs, Biden could discuss a regional, non-violent approach that would repair international ties with South and Central American countries and renew the nations’ vision for reducing drug crime. Involving the U.S. publicly would give weight to the transition and bring international media attention to the drug problem.

The alliance’s members and leading in-country experts could then come up with a list of policies to be implemented across the hemisphere in line with the new non-violent approach. Those policies should then pass the legislatures and become law in the respective countries.

The list could include harm-reduction programs to reduce consumption, scholarship programs for youths in high-risk areas, public education programs, housing subsidies, negotiation with drug-trafficking organizations, reintegration programs for former members, funding for public mental health counseling, and large-scale investment in public projects to boost employment in low-income communities.

Examples of the far-reaching success of these policies should be included to support their validity and implementation.

In addition, regimes that continue their hardline policies should be isolated and condemned by alliance members. El Salvador, Honduras, and Ecuador have suspended constitutional rights and liberties to bolster the rights of the security state. In doing so, they have sacrificed civilian life, institutional stability, democracy, and human rights in exchange for temporary security. The United States should put diplomatic pressure on political leaders like Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Xiomara Castro for militarized drug policies that perpetuate this behavior.

Unifying the Americas around this approach would help equalize the burden of the drug problem while sharing the benefits of the new approach’s success. Leaders of the alliance should publicly call out problematic policies within these regimes. Petro has already done this with El Salvador.

Other countries wanting to adopt the “hard hand” approach to counternarcotics should beware of the political, diplomatic, and economic consequences of adopting illiberal and unsuccessful drug policies. Proposing an invasion of Mexico won’t help tackle the drug problem, promote U.S. security interests, or restore U.S. influence around the region. Supporting a new South American alliance would do this and more.

Gustavo Petro gestures during his swearing-in ceremony at Plaza Bolivar, in Bogota, Colombia August 7, 2022. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
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