Latin Leaders Call Drug War a Failure 11/5/99

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This Wednesday (11/3), an open letter to the drug czars of the Western Hemispheres was released, calling on policy makers to "admit that after two decades the U.S. war on drugs -- both in Latin America and in the United States -- is a failure." The letter, which was signed by former presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harry Belafonte, among others, was presented at a well attended press conference in Washington, DC this morning, aired on C-Span and covered by the Associated Press as well as numerous Latin American media.

The letter, and drug czars summit to which it was addressed, come at a time when U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey is lobbying a hawkish Congress to pour more billions of dollars in the Andean drug war quagmire, including major new funding to the Colombian military, an institution which has been tied to massacres and other human rights abuses and which is embroiled in a protracted, unpopular civil war.

The press conference was organized by the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, with organizations including the Washington Office on Latin America and Institute for Policy Studies.

Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay and President of the Center for International Policy, responded to drug czar McCaffrey and Congress' casting of the Colombia issue in terms of "narcoguerrillas," saying, "The idea that you can target one group of people, in this case the guerrillas, and say that they are responsible, is naive and self-serving."

Michael Gelacek, former vice-chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission, offered words of caution for the drug policy officials gathered in Washington: "If you say we're winning the war on drugs, you're doing yourself and your citizens a tremendous disservice. We lost the war on drugs a long time ago," adding, "You're going to have to deal with the consequences of our policies, if you adopt them."

Rev. Bernard Keels, of the United Methodist Church in Baltimore, said, "The crisis of drug abuse needs real material solutions in America's cities... and a spiritual confrontation that does not attempt to blame others -- such as peasants in South America -- for our failings as individuals and as a society."

The final speakers may have been the most dramatic. Leonilda Vurita Vargas and Margarita Terun Gonzales, representatives of the coca growers union in the Chapare region of Bolivia, described the tragic consequences of drug war militarization and eradication programs on their community. Since April, said Vargas, 13 of them have been killed, including one small child who died from inhaling gases. The forces that are supposed to only eradicate coca have burned down 15 of their houses, as well as 8 hectares of pineapple, one of the alternative crops to coca. Vargas explained that while Bolivian officials come to the United States and claim to be making crop substitution work, it hasn't worked because they have no markets for the alternative crops.

Speaking at the drug czars summit, Pino Arlacchi, Director of the United Nations Drug Control Program, predicted drug production in Latin America will end in five years -- despite an increase Caribbean drug trafficking in the Caribbean and an estimated 15% increase in cocaine production in Colombia this year (see Arlacchi's chosen them at last year's UN Drug Summit was similarly utopian: "Drug Free in Ten -- We Can Do It!"

In related news, Human Rights Watch reported on Wednesday that two soldiers whom government investigators say murdered a Colombian senator in 1994 remain on the army payroll, despite overwhelming evidence against them.

The text of the open letter follows:

A Message to the Hemisphere's Drug Policy Makers:

As you meet to develop a hemispheric drug strategy, it is time to admit that after two decades the U.S. war on drugs -- both in Latin America and in the United States -- is a failure. Despite a 17-fold increase in U.S. drug war spending since 1980, record seizures, arrests, and incarcerations at home, and destruction abroad of hundreds of drug labs and coca and poppy crops, today in the U.S., illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent, and more easily available than two decades ago.

Under the banner of fighting drugs, U.S. military aid to Colombia has skyrocketed: today Colombia is by far the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere -- and the third largest in the world after Israel and Egypt. Yet, over the last decade, total drug production in Colombia has risen 260 percent. The escalation of a militarized drug war in Colombia and elsewhere in the Americas threatens regional stability, undermines efforts towards demilitarization and democracy, and has put U.S. arms and money into the hands of corrupt officials and military, police and intelligence units involved in human rights abuses.

Before escalating the war on drugs even further, an honest evaluation of the strategy is needed. Drug problems have not been solved because the approach taken -- prohibition enforced by a militarized drug war -- is fundamentally flawed:

  • U.S. drug policy disproportionately targets peasant farmers and fails to address the poverty and inequality, widespread throughout the Americas, which are at the root of drug cultivation.
  • The U.N. estimates that at least 75% of international drug shipments would need to be intercepted to substantially reduce the profitability of drug trafficking. Yet interdiction efforts intercept only 10-15% of the heroin and 30% of the cocaine, according to the most optimistic estimates.
  • Continued demand in the U.S. ensures that even if drug cultivation, processing and shipment are controlled in one area, they emerge in another.
  • U.S. prisons are overflowing with more than 400,000 drug offenders. The vast majority of those behind bars are low level dealers; for example, only 5 percent of those jailed for crack are high level dealers.
  • Current drug strategy can never work given the magnitude of profits from illicit drugs -- according to the U.S. government $57 billion annually in the U.S. alone. According to the United Nations, drug trafficking is a $400 billion per year industry, equaling 8% of the world's trade.
  • Has the policy of doing more of the same produced a better result? Clearly the answer is no.

    The problem is not insufficient funds, firepower or prisons. Rather, a totally new approach is needed. To be effective, U.S. drug control strategy must shift from militarized eradication and interdiction in Latin America and a law-enforcement dominated approach at home. As you meet to discuss the future direction of drug control, we urge you to consider the following points:

  • When it comes to reducing cocaine consumption, drug treatment is 7 times more cost effective than domestic law enforcement, 10 times more effective than interdiction and 23 times more effective than eradication, according to a RAND Corporation study.
  • Expanding the U.S. drug war to other countries will merely further expand the failure of drug control throughout the hemisphere while escalating killings and environmental destruction.
  • Emphasis should be placed on public health, economic development, protecting human rights and pragmatic approaches to reducing drug-related problems.
  • A long-term solution to the drug market needs to be developed by engaging in a dialogue with the countries and non-governmental organizations in this hemisphere that examines all options to the drug war.
  • Signed:
  • Antonio Aranibar, Former Foreign Minister of Bolivia
  • Oscar Arias, Former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
  • Harry Belafonte, Entertainer and Activist
  • Belisario Betancur, Former President of Colombia
  • Jorge Castaneda, Professor of Politics, New York University
  • Violeta Chamorro, Former President of Nicaragua
  • Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentine Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
  • Shirley Fingerhood, Former Justice of the New York State Supreme Court
  • James P. Gray, Judge of the Superior Court, Orange County, California
  • Dr. Howard Hiatt, Former Dean, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Cruz Reynoso, Former Justice of the California State Supreme Court
  • Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian writer and Politician
  • Robert E. White, President, Center for International Policy (former Ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay)
  • -- END --
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    Issue #115, 11/5/99 Medical Marijuana Wins Again! Maine Becomes 7th State to Shield Patients from Arrest | Justice Department Asks Appeals Court for Rehearing on Medical Marijuana Defense | Latin Leaders Call Drug War a Failure | Citizens Protest Drug Czars' Conference | Observations on ONDCP's Response to the Open Letter | District of Columbia Syringe Exchange Language Holds Up Appropriations Bill | Australia: Vatican KO's Nuns' Safe-Injecting Room Plan, but University Saves the Day | McWilliams and McCormick Trials Beginning This Month | Temporary Job Opportunity in Washington | Editorial: Guest Editorial: Why Is There a War in Colombia? Look to the Streets of Washington, DC
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