Drug wars and the balloon effect
Why have billions of dollars and thousands of anti-narcotics agents around the world failed to throttle the global traffic in cocaine, heroin and marijuana? Blame wrong-headed policies, largely driven by the United States, and what experts call the balloon effect.
Squeezing a balloon in one place makes it expand in another. Destroy drug crops in one region and cultivation moves to another. Cut a supply route in one place and another one springs up. Take the example of Colombia and Mexico, at present a focus of U.S. attention because of large-scale violence that threatens to spill across the border.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, almost all the cocaine consumed in the United States was grown in Colombia and shipped to South Florida along a variety of sea and air routes. Colombian traffickers fighting for market share turned Miami into a city where shootouts, contract killings and kidnappings became part of daily life.
That began to change when enraged citizens appealed to the federal government for help to crack down on the “cocaine cowboys.” Then President Ronald Reagan established a special force to cut the cocaine pipelines and end the violence. “The Mexicans must rue the day the South Florida Task Force was set up,” said Peter Reuter, a scholar at the University of Maryland. “That was the beginning of the problems it faces today.”
Within weeks of its formation in 1982, the task force scored several spectacular successes. A string of seizures of large quantities of cocaine and marijuana prompted Colombian trafficking organisations to shift their smuggling routes to Mexico, where they partnered with criminal networks.
By 1988, the balloon effect had become obvious: The Mexican Defence Ministry reported it had discovered 4.8 tonnes of cocaine in a cave in Chihuahua near the U.S. border. It was then the world’s biggest seizure of the drug. Its Colombian origin was not in doubt — Mexico produced no cocaine of its own.
Now, two decades later, the U.S. State Department estimates that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States comes through Mexico, which is also a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The State Department’s estimates speak volumes about the failure of policies that emphasised crop eradication, interdiction and punishment for drug users.
FARTHER AWAY THAN EVER
As a Latin American commission led by three former presidents (of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil) put it recently: “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther away than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”
If it were possible to seal the border, there would be no reason for Mexico’s drug mafias to wage war against each other. They are fighting for access to the main gateways into the U.S. In one border city alone, Ciudad Juarez, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the first two months of the year.
There has been growing criticism of the war on drugs, and not only from advocates of legalization who argue that drugs should be sold and regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco is now regulated.
On a visit to Mexico this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” Though it was a statement of the obvious — the drug trade is driven by the laws of supply and demand — officials of previous administrations have not been nearly as blunt.
Discussing the drug problem as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama he said he believed in “shifting the paradigm, shifting the model so that we can focus more on a public health approach.”
The public health approach, know as “harm reduction” in a global dispute over drug strategies, means treating drug addicts not as criminals who participate in an illegal market but as patients who deserve care in the public health system. Most of Europe favors harm reduction over filling the prisons with drug abusers, the standard procedure in the United States.
On any give day, about half a million people are behind bars in the United States for drug offences. Obama’s choice of drug czar, Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowski, signals a new direction, at least in the drug war at home. Seattle has been on the forefront of drug reform developments, including a needle exchange program for addicts. And for Seattle police, marijuana arrests have been the lowest law enforcement priority.
The drug czar heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a 130-member group which sets anti-drug policy. “The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them,” Kerlikowske said after his nomination.
Reducing demand for illicit drugs in the United States, the world’s largest market, is an ambitious goal. Earlier attempts have failed, including Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. A program still active called DARE — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — aimed at high school students is drawing mixed reviews.
But optimists point to the success of campaigns to discourage smoking by making it socially unacceptable. It took a long time. But it worked.