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September 18, 2014
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The long war goes on and on

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City. Guzmán, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, was captured in the beach resort town of Mazatlán.
By James Neilson
For the Herald

Nobody has a solution for the drug-trafficking problem

Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman likes nothing better than berating the US for its many failings, so he could hardly resist the chance the State Department gave him when, in its annual survey of how things are going in the endless “war on drugs” the superpower has been waging since 1971, when president Richard Nixon proclaimed that the time had come for a “new, all-out offensive”, it said the enemy was making inroads in Argentina. In reply, Timerman pointed out that, were it not for the apparently insatiable appetite of North Americans for hard drugs, the situation both here and elsewhere would be very different.

His comments may have been unkind and, for a variety of reasons, politically unwise, but the facts are indisputable. After more that forty years of often brutal fighting in which many thousands of people have died and, in the US alone, about half a million have been incarcerated in the world’s most populous prison system, consumption is reportedly higher than ever.

As the US is such a lucrative market, supplying it with what it so eagerly demands is a highly profitable business. Not surprisingly, it attracts large numbers of individuals throughout the world ranging from billionaire cartel bosses who murder at will and are reputed to have entire governments in their pay to humble Afghan poppy-growers and “mules,” the usually nondescript men and women who, for a relatively small amount of money, carry drugs from country to country: some make it, others are caught and, in Singapore, Indonesia and many other countries, are liable to get put to death.

In Latin America, the battles for control of the trade routes into the US have had appalling consequences. On the Mexican front of the war on drugs, in the last six years over 50,000 have been slain. In Colombia, drug lords have long worked in tandem with the Marxist guerrilla hoodlums that have plagued that country for decades. So far Argentina has been spared the worst, but the now routine drug-related killings in Rosario and the spread of narcotics in the Buenos Aires slum belt do not encourage optimism. With plenty of money to spend, traffickers have found it all to easy to bribe crooked cops, politicians and, it is alleged, judges. That is one reason why Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti is worried.

So, what can be done? There are those who say that the war on drugs has already been lost and that, in any case, it was ill-conceived from the very beginning. They think consumption should be decriminalized, as has happened with marijuana in some parts of the world, including Uruguay and several North American states, making addiction an exclusively medical problem. Others say the results of such a permissive policy would be catastrophic; large numbers of young people could find drug-consumption, even if the dealers were prim doctors who warned them against it, too glamorous to resist.

As things currently stand, that could well prove to be the case. When, just over a month ago, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin, cocaine and other substances he mixed at home, few condemned him for breaking the law. Instead, most treated him as a “victim” who, before meeting his end, had bravely “struggled” against his addiction.

It is unfortunate that, for many years, a taste for drugs was by and large limited to a small minority of individuals such as poets and painters who hoped they would be mind-expanding. That helped make them irresistible to people who wanted to be part of a “counterculture” radically different from the stodgy old established one. As the business became more democratic, as it were, commercial interests, in the shape of organized crime, weighed in. They made the most of the unconcealed sympathy many would-be rebels felt for just about anything that met with the disapproval of respectable folk. One result of this is that even men and women who would never dream of injecting addictive substances into their veins are reluctant to criticize those who, like Seymour Hoffman, are only too happy to do so, and thereby help nudge less talented young people towards what, for millions of them, is almost certain to be a most unpleasant fate.

Some may end up consuming a flesh-eating potion called “krokodil”, the drug of choice among down-and-outs in Russia that, apparently, has reached the US and Western Europe, and within a couple of years kills users after rotting them from inside. Will they be dissuaded by knowledge of what it is certain to do to them? Probably not. If awareness of the effects hard drugs have on addicts were enough to make much of a difference, only the suicidal would have anything to do with them.

Timerman is right when he blames drug trafficking, and the many murderous activities it gives rise to, on the US, but that does not mean the US government can afford to overlook what is happening beyond its borders. Though its traditional tendency to moralize can be galling to Latin Americans who are paying an extremely high price for a phenomenon connected with the darker side of North American culture, in the anthropological sense of the word, US officials have to do what they can in an effort to choke off supply, while also striving to clamp down on demand back home. If both prove impossible, they could try a radically new approach, as so many people recommend, but because that would entail the risk of making a wretched situation even worse, they are understandably reluctant to admit defeat in the “war on drugs” and let the victors enjoy the spoils.

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