Cocaine, Colombia and Collateral Damage

Photo by wesmagruder

In 1971, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “war on drugs,” proclaiming that drug abuse was public enemy #1. And every president since Nixon has continued this rhetoric, up to and including Barack Obama, who has overseen the expansion of the counter drug program of the National Defense Authorization Act to an annual budget of $100 million.

We’re now fighting drug wars in thirty-five countries around the world. So how is that war going?

Olga Reyes says that it is going miserably. She should know. She is a victim of the war, though she is on neither side of the war.

Which raises the question – who are we fighting exactly? Because you can’t fight a war against an object; we would never wage a battle against a field of coca leaves. So who is the enemy?

Is the enemy those who grow and produce the crops from which cocaine is made? If so, then we should be drawing up battle plans against poor peasant farmers in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Honduras who are growing coca plants because it’s the only chance they have to feed their kids and hope for a better future. Surely they are not our enemies. In fact, our military strategy actually aims to destroy their crops, which has the consequence of ruining their livelihoods.

Is the enemy those who manufacture the drugs from the leaves and plants? Perhaps. These are the shadowy groups in the same countries which pick up the coca leaves from the farmers and disappear into the night. Then there is an incredibly complex supply line from these countries in Central America all the way north to the USA where these drugs are bought and consumed, at great profit to those who facilitate the movement of the drugs. The supply line includes drug cartels, government officials, “mules,” and soldiers.

The US government has clearly chosen sides in this supply line; since 2000, the US has provided more than $10 billion of counter-narcotics assistance to the governments of Mexico, Colombia and other Central American countries. The US has essentially decided to wage war against the drug cartels, figuring that they are the enemies.

But it’s not nearly that simple. As has been proven in each of the countries where the US has provided aid, the military ends up being bought out by various cartels, and becomes one link in the supply chain. And here is where the collateral damage occurs — on the streets, in the alleys, in the neighborhoods of Mexico.

Is the enemy those who are addicted to these drugs in the US? In a sense, they are most to blame. Without the demand, there would be no supply. But if you have ever met a heroin addict, you would be hard pressed to identify him or her as an enemy. You might not feel anger, but rather pity.

So who are we fighting exactly?

And isn’t a military solution inappropriate to the problem of drug abuse and addiction?

Of course talk about a war on drugs is rhetoric — it’s the language of metaphor. But this language is loaded with emotionally-charged implications. When people die in war, we say, “Well, war is hell, but that’s what happens.”  When we hear news reports of yet more violence in Juarez, we assume that these are the necessary costs of war. We are saddened, of course, but not surprised. We may even rationalize the violence by thinking to ourselves, “They must have been involved in the drug trade …” We allow for collateral damage; we know it will happen, but we convince ourselves that the costs are necessary. We must fight, because that is the only way the enemy will be defeated. And we refuse to back down until the war is won, whatever that means, because defeat is simply unacceptable.

If this is the way that we choose to speak about the drug trade, then we have a bigger problem than we think.

I would suggest that we need to frame the entire problem differently. We don’t have a war on our hands; we have a massive public health problem. And the solution to a health problem is … a health solution! When someone has a drug addiction, we don’t rush at them with a gun, we treat them for the addiction.

In 1986, the Department of Defense authorized the rather-conservative think tank RAND Corporation to conduct a two-year study of the drug problem. The study found that “the use of armed forces to interdict drugs coming into the United States will have little or no effect on cocaine traffic and might, in fact, raise the profits of cocaine cartels.” Eight years later, the same think tank concluded that prevention and treatment of drug addictions were 23 times more cost-effective than the military measures being taken by the US.

It’s time to end the war on drugs, because it isn’t working, it begets more violence, and … because of Olga.

Mexico is neither a provider nor a consumer of drugs. But because of its geographical location smack dab between provider and consumer, it is caught in a deadly game.

As former Mexican President Felipe Calderon once said, “We are living in the same building and our neighbor is the largest consumer of drugs in the world. Everybody wants to sell him drugs through our doors and windows. If the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions – including market alternatives.”

And fewer military ones.

We have accepted the idea of a “war on drugs” because the battles are not fought on our own land. They are fought elsewhere. They are fought in Colombia and Honduras and Mexico. They are fought in Olga’s backyard.

And because most of our wars are fought somewhere else, we simply don’t care quite as much as we should.

Now that I’ve met Olga, however, I care.



  1. Kirk VanGilder

    Wes, in another way, the war on drugs IS being fought within US borders though. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, lays bare the way a supposedly ‘colorblind’ roundup and incarceration system that is the war on drugs has created an undercaste of people of color while crime rates and drug use rates have remained entirely stable throughout the entire war on drugs. Local police practices have been militarized with federal funding support to the point where a large portion of their budget, training, and equipment is dependent on arrests. I just finished reading this with a group on campus and while I “knew this was going on” I’d not seen it laid out as a systemic onslaught against civil rights and the creation of a permanent undercaste.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s