The global War on Drugs, championed and funded primarily by the United States, has had extreme consequences in Latin America. Prohibition created a black market for drugs—a black market that cartels were eager to dominate. As cartels grew in power and influence they came to control entire regions in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and other countries in Central and South America. The cartels are able to dominate using fear, violence, and by taking advantage of corrupt officials. Since 2007, there have been over 164,000 homicide victims in Mexico alone, where most of the violence has shifted to over the past decade, and experts estimate that drug-related organized crime could amount to 60% of total homicides.
U.S. involvement in countering drug trafficking in the region began with a focus on Colombia, but a “balloon effect” soon occurred where cartels found new locations to produce drugs after one spot was discovered, often moving into nearby countries. This has made it impossible to halt drug trafficking, as the number of targets grows faster than law enforcement can keep up with. Despite spending more and more resources on countering drug cartels, positive results are not being seen—the violence continues, drugs are still smuggled into the US on a daily basis, and a humanitarian disaster was created in this process.
On September 26, 2014, forty-three students went missing on their way to a student protest in Iguala, Mexico. The students were allegedly abducted by corrupt police officers and turned over to a local drug cartel. It is believed that the police, several of whom were secretly working with the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang, kidnapped the students because they were told they belonged to a rival cartel. The former mayor of Iguala, arrested after the incident, was also revealed to have ties to the gang. An international outcry erupted following the kidnapping, claiming the Mexican government was slow to respond, did not conduct a proper investigation, and was fraught with corruption.
Months afterwards, the Mexican government said that the students were most likely killed, incinerated, and buried in a mass grave that was discovered in the state of Guerrero, where Iguala is located. Yet officials were only able to identify one of the 129 bodies in the grave as belonging to one of the Iguala protesters; the rest of the remains and ashes contained no identifiable DNA. Many people, including the students’ families and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, do not believe this is the whole story; they’ve questioned the government’s evidence and reports and drawn attention to collusion between authorities and criminals leading to the abduction.
This was not the first time that people disappeared at the hands of a cartel: according to the Mexican government, over 26,000 people disappeared between 2006-2012. Despite calls for a solution to the violence, few policy changes have been made which would actually accomplish this. The United States continues to support the anti-drug-trade effort in Latin America with both funding and military power, providing over $20 billion in the last decade—this includes guns, satellites, radar equipment, tear gas, and other militarized weapons designed to eradicate cartels and stop illegal drugs from flowing into the U.S. Unfortunately, the weapons often end up in the very hands of the people they were designed to kill, and drugs still make their way across the border. Moreover, as the United States and other countries fight drug cartels more fiercely, the cartels react more fiercely as well.
A few U.S. officials, including the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotic and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, feel that increased violence demonstrates success: “When the drug war turns bloody, the strategy is working.” Yet this callous mindset is nothing more than a byproduct of failed diplomacy, propaganda, and power-hungry politicians, and could never lead to stability in the region or a de-escalation of the conflict.
The only real solution to removing Latin American drug cartels from power and stopping the violence is to remove the value from the commodities they trade in—drugs—and make those commodities available in countries where the cartels are currently smuggling them to. For example, if cocaine could be produced and sold legally in the United States, the demand for black market cocaine from Latin America would decrease and cartels would be forced to invest less effort into a failing business model. They would also have less money to spend on weapons and with which to bribe local police. Such an effect is already being seen with marijuana: following the recent legalization of cannabis in Colorado and Washington, followed by Oregon, D.C., and Alaska, U.S. border patrol reported seizing less marijuana at the border and homicides in Mexico fell from a high of 23,000 in 2011 to 15,649 in 2014.
The United States must not turn a blind eye to how our drug policies affect the rest of the world, nor should we be imposing our values on other nations. The International Drug Control Conventions should be revised to reflect the devastating effect that the Global War on Drugs has had on society and the scientific evidence that has emerged regarding the psychology of addiction and the relative harms of illicit substances. Most importantly, the emphasis should be on human rights rather than on achieving a “bottom-line” objective.
Lauren Mendelsohn is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).