The recent escape of Mexican drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, from an alleged high-security prison reflects on more than just the dramatic state of corruption and the vast power of organized crime in Mexico. That is only the tip of the iceberg of a larger phenomenon: the underlying question has been and is prohibition. Twenty three years ago, on July 1992, Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, also slipped out of an apparently maximum-security prison. Escobar was finally killed and Guzman will probably end up dead or in a new jail. Then and now the drug business has been flourishing with a few winners like national anti-drug bureaucrats, international delinquents, money-laundering tycoons, and narco-warlords and many losers who are found everywhere and across ages, classes, genders, and cultures. Yesterday and today the core of the drug problem rests with the same cause; the moral chimera of searching for abstinence. This objective is unrealistic and unattainable.
Currently Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, (always) Colombia and several countries of the Andean ridge and increasingly the nations of the Southern Cone have been the key battlefields of global prohibition. The central premises of the “war on drugs” in Latin America have been both simplistic and flawed: the notion drug problems arise from the supply of narcotics; the idea that a personal and social habit such as drug use (supposedly originating due to the supply of narcotics from the region) constitutes a security threat; and the conception that any alternative other than an “iron fist” policy is a sign of weakness and a prelude to becoming a renegade in the fight against drugs.
During the last half-century these premises have materialized in a series of specific policies. Throughout Latin America illicit crop eradication, mostly through force and in some places by means of aerial fumigation with dangerous chemicals has been a regular practice. Over the years there has been a “balloon effect”: the coercive pressure in one country has led to a partial movement of the illegal plantation to another country but, sooner or later, the crops return to where the conditions have weakened in terms of law enforcement. In addition, the dismantling of large drug-trafficking organizations has been a common practice.
The “success” in this area has been pyrrhic: in several countries there are fewer domestic, big drug cartels and more small, cell-like, transnationally-linked, “boutique” cartels. A key component of militant prohibition in the region that Washington demanded as compulsory has led to the involvement of the armed forces in combatting drugs. This is probably the worst tactic because it has had very damaging consequences and led to more unbalanced civil-military relations, high levels of human rights abuses, growing corruption, low morale and “resource addiction” by the security forces favoring a continuation of the “war on drugs,” among others. Finally, the countries that have been more traumatized by drug-related violence extradited their nationals to the United States with negligible domestic and international results. The local justice systems have not been improved and sending the drug barons to America has not been a deterrent because there is always someone willing to take the risks in order to become rich quickly and the overall, lucrative drug emporium has not been altered at all.
Drug prohibition has been disastrous for the world in general and for Latin America in particular. The solution does not rest in promoting a new “coalition of the willing” to help Mexico strengthen its version of a protracted “war on drugs.” A more reasonable and humane alternative lies in generating a broad state and a non-governmental alliance, a sort of “coalition of the healing,” which would favor bold and enlightened proposals to challenge and change the prohibitionist paradigm.