The Colombian and Mexican presidents, Gustavo Petro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have transformed the language of the fight against drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico. But beyond the speech, everything is much more difficult.
Changing the message is no small feat in the two countries most affected by the so-called “war on drugs” declared half a century ago by US President Richard Nixon and maintained since then by Republicans and Democrats.
This has consisted of the mass incarceration of drug users in the United States, military campaigns against traffickers in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, and the forced eradication of crops. Although five US states have already decriminalized marijuana production, prohibition remains in force for drugs such as cocaine.
The result: one million Latin Americans dead, according to the Colombian Government's calculations, and a constant increase in global supply and demand for cocaine.
For fifty years, Latin American governments have limited themselves to “repeating and repeating the discourse of world power, (…) they have been complicit in a genocide,” Petro denounced during the conference on drugs held last weekend in Cali, with representatives from 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
López Obrador – who based his electoral campaign in 2018 on the hopeful slogan “Hugs and not bullets” – agrees. “We must understand the causes and not just apply coercive measures,” he said in his own speech to the conference.
The failure of the war on drugs was clear in the data published this week by the UN agency responsible for monitoring illicit crops in Colombia.
Despite forced eradication policies – through fumigation or manual uprooting of plants – the Colombian area dedicated to coca broke records in 2022 – the last year of the old policies – to stand at 233,000 hectares, an increase of 15 % compared to 2021.
A Colombian farmer who chooses to produce coca only earns half a million pesos (230 euros) for each of the six harvests per year. It is very little at a time of rising prices of inputs such as fertilizers. But coca produces more than legal crops; for example coffee, whose current price is lower than the cost of production.
Petro's attempts to bring the narco-guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the FARC dissidents to the negotiating table are frustrated by the difficulties of disengaging them from the drug business. Negotiations will continue in Mexico next month after the last round in Caracas.
Petro has proposed reintegration agreements, part of the so-called total peace strategy. It has abandoned the forced eradication of illicit crops on small plots, although it maintains it for the so-called “industrial plantations.”
The Government intends to regenerate the peasant economy and redistribute millions of hectares of land. The goal, announced this week, is to reduce cocaine production in Colombia by 40% in the next three years.
After adopting a new anti-drug strategy described as “holistic and integrated,” the Democrats in power in Washington have been relatively understanding of the veteran leader of the Colombian left. The resumption of the US support program for Colombia – some 460 million dollars in 2022 and 2023 – seems assured.
However, with strong pressure against change in the US Congress, where the Miami lobby – closely linked to the Colombian right – has a lot of power, Joe Biden is asking for something in return. “Petro has used seizures to cushion pressure from Washington, but it is symbolic; For every kilo seized, more will be produced,” says Ricardo Vargas, an expert in anti-drug policy at the Transnational Institute in Bogotá.
The UN estimates that with the expansion in production recorded in 2022, more than 1,700 tons of cocaine hydrochloride can be produced. There is another problem: traffickers increasingly choose to export the base paste and manufacture the cocaine in the country of consumption.
As if that were not enough, Petro has inherited corruption problems in the plan to promote alternative crops and increase human development in areas dependent on the narcoeconomy. The land redistribution plan has been slower than expected.
In Mexico, which has replaced Colombia as the leading drug trafficking country, the gap between the new language and reality is even more striking. López Obrador highlighted in Cali that his government has created alternatives to the drug economy through a learning and employment program for 2.7 million young people and the “Sembrando vida” support plan for farmers. “We are removing the breeding ground for gangs that hook young people,” he said. Obrador has tried to pressure the US to reduce the entry of firearms into Mexico.
But the Mexican government's direct response to the growing influence of the cartels has been a mix of militarization and informal pacts with drug traffickers. The endemic violence in Mexico has not been contained, and in the six years of his presidency, homicides – the majority related to cartels – already exceed 150,000, even more than under previous presidents. “Mexico has opted for a militarized strategy,” says Vargas.
But, like the war on drugs made in the USA, it doesn't work. Obrador acknowledged that fentanyl trafficking – responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Americans last year and manufactured mainly in Mexico – is already a “moral crisis.”