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A Peaceful End to the War on Drugs?

The international war on drugs isn’t stopping drug use or trafficking—but it is ruining lives. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree on what we can do differently.
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Colombia Fumigation, courtesy Sanho Tree

Aerial spraying is meant to eradicate illegal coca crops, but often kills legal crops as well.

Photo courtesy of Sanho Tree.

Earlier this month tens of thousands of people marched in Mexico City to protest a war that has left more than 35,000 people dead in the last four and a half years. When elected president of Mexico in 2006, Felipe Calderón vowed to crack down on drug trafficking in his country. With the support of U.S. policies like the Merida Initiative [pdf], he executed a military crackdown that has only increased drug-related violence.

In Colombia, campesino farmers continue to be displaced by a U.S.-backed civil war that has gone on for decades. The pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement [pdf] threatens to further displace these farmers by making it impossible to compete with large agricultural producers receiving U.S. subsidies. Cocaine production has become one of very few options for farmers merely trying to feed their families. The Colombian and U.S. governments deal with this by sending military forces to eradicate coca crops by spraying toxic herbicides from helicopters—an imprecise practice that has also eradicated many legal crops and caused health problems in the communities they hit. In spite of the crackdowns, the percentage of cocaine imported to the United States that comes from Colombia has increased from 90 to 97 percent in the last decade.

With just five percent of the world's population, the United States consumes roughly two-thirds of the world's illicit drugs.

Understanding the international war on drugs means examining a complex web of interactions. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, describes the international drug war as one of the most interdisciplinary problems he’s ever encountered. It involves police and prosecutors, drug trafficking gangs and peasant farmers, addicts and casual users. It involves those wealthy enough to consume the drugs, and also those poor enough to risk producing them. It involves everything from the prison, education, and health care systems to policies dealing with foreign aid, economic growth, and military spending. And it involves the high demand coming from the United States: With just five percent of the world's population, our country consumes roughly two-thirds of the world's illicit drugs.

The good news is people are waking up to the counterproductive policies and ideas promoted by the drug wars. Several former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria, and Ernesto Zedillo of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico respectively—have publicly condemned the approach of the U.S. and Latin American drug wars and have called for a paradigm shift that “must focus on health and education—not repression.” The evidence against this war is hard to deny—the challenge now lies in putting sustainable alternatives into action.

In his work on drug policy reform, Sanho Tree has traveled throughout Latin America and has seen the devastating effects U.S. policies and influence have abroad. He speaks and writes to educate people on the real costs of the drug war—and how we can move beyond it.

If This is a War, Who’s Winning?

Rebecca Leisher: Recently you've said the drug war in Latin America is rivaling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s going on here—in what sense is this a war, and whose interests are being served?

Sanho Tree: Not many people's interests are served by this. It's not good for the cartels that are fighting each other, it's not good for the state, it's not good for the people. It's not even good for the drug warriors because this is not success, this is not something we can be proud of. But what you have is something driven by the economics of drug prohibition, and it all descends from that. The traffickers are doing what's in their self-interest to do—their bottom line is to maximize profits.

They're carrying out, in Mexico for instance, a turf war. These drug trafficking organizations are fighting over turf because the U.S. is the biggest consumer of drugs, and Mexico is in between the production and the demand, so the conduits—these trafficking corridors—are incredibly profitable. There are only so many strategic choke points, so they're fighting over control of that because it's so lucrative. 

Drug War Protest, photo by Fronteras DeskMexicans Reject U.S.-Backed Drug War
Led by a popular poet, tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Mexico to speak out against the war on drugs.

So President Calderón of Mexico gets elected in December of 2006 with the most razor thin of margins. He thought he would do something bold and decisive, and he rushed himself into an ill-conceived war. It's counterintuitive, but when you have a turf war brewing, the worst thing the state can do is get in between it. Calderón thought he could throw 50,000 troops at this problem and solve it. Turf wars usually have a beginning, a middle and an end, but what Calderón has done is make sure that we have a very long middle and no end in sight. As soon as he attacks one cartel, the others think, “Oh, they've been weakened, we can go after their turf now." And then he goes and attacks another one, and then suddenly the balance switches and then they fight over there, and back and forth, back and forth.

When politicians see this kind of disorder, the temptation is to throw water onto the fire. That’s a common sense solution, but if you've ever had a grease fire in your kitchen or an electrical fire, throwing water—I don't recommend it. It makes it explode. That's the problem we have here, because this fire in Mexico is a prohibition-related fire. They're fighting because prohibition makes these drugs so valuable. And keep in mind that this bloodshed is really over the right to traffic and distribute minimally processed agricultural commodities. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin—they're easy to produce, there's nothing exotic about them, they're just plant byproducts.

A Broken Social Contract

Rebecca Leisher: So why do we keep this going, on Calderón's end, and in the U.S.?

Sanho Tree: As long as the U.S. is here, as long as the U.S. demands these drugs, Mexico will always be a conduit. So at the end of all this bloodshed, there will still be drug trafficking through Mexico. And so the question has to be asked: To what end are we waging this war?

The root causes on both the supply and demand side are rooted in problems of poverty, despair, and alienation.

Aside from the human cost of this—the now 36,000 dead in Mexico since the beginning of 2007—the other cost of this is much harder to quantify. What has been destroyed is the social contract. The idea that the state could guarantee safety, to allow basic life to continue, has been shattered as a result of drug prohibition-related violence. The social contract is something that can be destroyed rather quickly and easily, but it can take generations or decades to rebuild.

Rebecca Leisher: Why don’t we expand the conversation to Colombia and other areas in Latin America. You’ve traveled a lot throughout those areas in your work toward drug policy reform. In the short documentary Shoveling Water, you visit a coca farm in Colombia to show the devastation caused by what are largely U.S. policies, like crop spraying to eradicate coca plants. From an international perspective, what are some of the actual effects of these types of crackdown methods?

Fumigation painting, courtesy Sanho Tree

A Colombian children's painting shows the effects of the fumigation aimed at eradicating coca crops.

Photo courtesy of Sanho Tree.

Sanho Tree: It has alienated people from the government. We're talking about people who are eking out a living with the illicit crops in very remote areas of the country, people who have been historically abandoned by the state. And the state continues to alienate them. Instead of saying, "we'd rather you didn't grow these illicit crops, we'd rather you did something different, we are going to help you find an alternative, we'll offer you something better," instead we've been punishing them. We view them simply as criminals, and we send crop dusters escorted by helicopter gunships to eradicate their coca crops.

The aerial spraying basically creates a giant gas cloud. It hangs like vapor, and it will get carried by the crosswinds. It then falls and coats the coca leaves and causes the coca plant to drop its leaves and possibly die. But coca's a fairly hardy plant, and other plants are much more susceptible. Corn and yucca especially—they instantly turn brown and die. It destroys grasslands, it destroys fish ponds—aquaculture being one of few success stories down there. It will kill the fish, and there's lots of rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and infant deaths attributed to these chemicals. They're learning to associate the state with death, destruction, and suffering.

This is what it means to be alienated from your own government. And in the midst of a four and a decades-old civil war, this is not a good way to win hearts and minds.

Rebecca Leisher: Who are the people growing the coca, and what are their circumstances?

Sanho Tree: They're living away from any kind of major state presence—no roads, no infrastructure that would allow them to grow legal crops and process and sell them at a profit. These are people who have been—some of them—forced off their lands in other parts of Colombia after four and a half decades of civil war. Basically these are the people who the state has forgotten.

Guaviare road, courtesy Sanho Tree

A main road in Guaviare, Colombia shows the lack of infrastructure that contributes to many displaced farmers resorting to coca production.

Photo courtesy Sanho Tree.

This [photo at left] is a major road in Guaviare that comes from the provincial capitol and is connected to the rest of the province. So if you want to reach the rest of Colombia you have to cross that road. And the lucky campesinos will have farms next to that road, but most of them are many kilometers away. You have to haul tons of yucca and pineapples and other crops from your remote farm down these dirt paths and hope that you have enough money or that some truck will come by with room that will help you get it to the nearest city to sell, and get there and sell it at a profit before it rots. So in this context, would you rather be hauling cattle or tons of fruits or vegetables, or a kilo of coca paste? That's the problem.

The pending free trade agreement (FTA) is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on small-scale farmers in Colombia, and these are precisely the people we want to keep from turning to illicit crops. How can they compete with ADM and Cargill? A lot of these farmers want to be the kinds of farmers that grow corn and other crops.

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