Petro and López Obrador announce the end of the war on drugs

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.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 September 2023 Sunday 11:12
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Petro and López Obrador announce the end of the war on drugs

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 thing in the two countries most harmed by the so-called "war on drugs" declared half a century ago by the President of the United States Richard Nixon and maintained since then by Republicans and Democrats.

This has included 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 the production of marijuana, prohibitionism remains in place for drugs such as cocaine.

The result: one million dead Latin Americans, according to the calculations of the Colombian Government, and a constant increase in the global supply and demand for cocaine.

For fifty years, Latin American governments have limited themselves to "repeating and repeating the speech of world power, (...) they have been complicit in a genocide", denounced Petro during the conference on drugs held this weekend in Cali, with representatives from seventeen Latin American and Caribbean countries.

López Obrador – who based his electoral campaign in 2018 on the hopeful slogan “Abrazos y no balazos” – agrees. "We need to understand the causes and not just apply coercive measures", he said in his same speech at the conference.

The failure of the war on drugs was made clear in the data published this week by the UN agency responsible for monitoring illicit crops in Colombia.

Despite the policies of forced eradication - by fumigation or manual uprooting of the plants -, the Colombian surface devoted to coca broke records in 2022 - the last year of the old policies - to stand at 233,000 hectares, an increase of 15% for 2021.

A Colombian farmer who chooses to produce coca only earns half a million pesos (230 euros) for each of the six harvests a year. It is very little at a time of price increases for inputs such as fertilizers. But coca yields more than licit crops; for example, the current price of coffee is lower than the cost of production.

Petro's attempts to bring the narco-guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN) to the negotiating table and the dissidents of the FARC are frustrated by the difficulties of detaching 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 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% over 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 sympathetic to 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 pressures against change in the United States 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 the confiscations to dampen pressure from Washington, but it is symbolic; for every kilo confiscated, more will be produced", says Ricardo Vargas, an expert in anti-narcotics policy at the Transnational Institute in Bogotá.

The UN estimates that with the expansion of registered production in 2022, more than 1,700 tons of cocaine hydrochloride can be produced. There is another problem: traffickers are increasingly choosing to export the base paste and manufacture the cocaine in the country of consumption.

To make matters worse, Petro has inherited corruption problems in the plan to promote alternative crops and raise human development in areas dependent on the drug economy. The land redistribution plan has been slower than wanted.

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 emphasized 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 "Sembrant vida" support plan for farmers. "We are removing the seedlings from the gangs that hook young people", he said. Obrador has tried to pressure the US to reduce the entry of firearms into Mexico.

But the direct response of the Mexican Government to the growing influence of the cartels has been a mixture of militarization and informal pacts with the narcos. The endemic violence in Mexico has not been contained and in the six years of his presidency, homicides – most related to the cartels – already exceed 150,000, even more than under previous presidents. "Mexico has opted for a militarized strategy," says Vargas.

But just like the war on drugs, made in the USA, it doesn't work. Obrador acknowledged that the fentanyl trade - responsible for the death of 100,000 Americans last year and manufactured mainly in Mexico - is already a "moral crisis".