Two weeks ago, Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, announced that only in the last two years the street price for cocaine in America has gone from to $97 to $199.60 per gram—a staggering 104.5 per cent hike.

Quoting figures provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Santos said that during the same two-years period, Colombian cocaine hitting American largest cities showed a 23 percent decrease in purity, down from 67 percent to 44 percent.

According to Mr. Santos, those figures suggest growing difficulties for Colombian drug traffickers to reach American consumers—less pure, more expensive stuff—and imply what he deemed “successful” results of a three-decades old repressive policies promoted at the global level by the U.S. government.

Mr. Santos’s statement has an ironic, if unwilling, overtone that often comes up in most Latin American views on drug trafficking. The underlying theme is that drug addicts are mostly gringos while the dead by drug-related violence are all Latin Americans; so let gringos sniff themselves to death. Since the United States is considered the demand side of the problem, resentment towards what many Latin Americans consider “gringo hypocrisy” on the issue overlap with sincere and costly efforts to curb drug production and trafficking.

Yet Mr. Santos’ proud announcement failed to address one dramatic economic fact accompanying cocaine’s price hikes: the cost of producing and transporting cocaine into the United States represents only about 1 percent of its street price.

The main objective of the current “War on Drugs” should be to reduce the supply of illegal drugs, thus bringing about a price hike that ultimately reduces the amount of drugs people is willing to consume.

Such a strategy, however, has never proved successful. Indeed, cocaine may have turned more expensive but it is still widely available. Impurity of the final product only adds to widespread public health problems.

As Moisés Naím, author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijaking the Global Economy (Doubleday, 2005), puts it, “The United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy”. The U.S. emphasis on curtailing the supply in Latin America rather than lowering the demand abroad has had a most damaging effect throughout the region: a transfer of economic power from governments to criminals in many of our countries .

In too many places narco-traffickers are the major source of jobs, economic opportunities and, not the least, money for elecciones . The global economic crisis will only intensify those effects as Latin American national economies shrink and drug trafficking becomes the only way for millions of people to make a living.

To be sure, realistic evaluation of the war on drugs yields a dreadful view. Latin America remains the major global exporter of cocaine and cannabis. It has become a growing producer of opium and heroin, and is developing the capacity to produce synthetic drugs.

At present, 208 million people around the world use some kind of illicit drug at least once a year. Three South American countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) produce the sum total of the world’s cocaine supply. The global illicit drug trade is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The latest World Drug Report from UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)1 recognizes that implementation of the United Nations Conventions on illicit drugs has produced various unexpected negative consequences.

For instance, repression of production in one country resulted in its transfer to other regions, keeping global production stable. Colombia is a clear example of the shortcomings of the repressive policies hitherto advocated by the United States.

With an area of more 424.7 square miles and a population of 45.6 million, Colombia is currently the major coca leaf producing country in the world. A recent United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) report affirms that in 2006 Colombia produced 62% of the world’s cocaine supply.

The United States has given Colombia more than $5 billion in anti-terrorist aid over the last eight years. The main concern of both the U.S. and Colombian authorities is FARC (Spanish acronym for Colombian Revolutionaries Armed Forces), the infamous drug-trafficking self-proclaimed Marxist guerrilla, branded a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.

Ten years ago, FARC had roughly 17,000 heavily armed combatants on war footing. As of today, FARC’s ranks are believed to be as few as 8,000, partly because of huge incentives offered to get rebel fighters to desert. FARC’s soaring desertion rates are closely correlated with the security campaign’s incentives.

Now here is the big paradox: While FARC’s terrorist activity is ostensibly in a steep downturn, their partners—the coca cartels—are living their best times. Reduced terrorist activities of FARC has not resulted in reduced drug trafficking.

Despite Colombia’s significant achievements in fighting the drug cartels and lowering the levels of violence and crime, the areas of illegal cultivation are again expanding as well as the flow of drugs coming out of Colombia and the Andean region.

Massive bureaucracies still live off the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that fund the war on drugs. But after decades of crop eradication efforts that go from Colombia to Bolivia, neither the land acreage of land used to grow drugs nor the tonnage produced has shrunk.

As a matter of fact, many drug traffickers have substituted other related opportunities in Colombia. Thus, it is fair to say that U.S. taxpayers are at present paying for job-training programs that would allow former drug-trafficking guerrillas who are not wanted by criminal prosecutors to “reinsert” themselves into Colombian society. Meanwhile, the drug lords have moved their labs into neighboring Venezuela, my own country.2

The traumatic Colombian experience is a valuable reference for countries to not make the mistake of adopting naively prohibitionist policies. Among the costs of maintaining prohibition are enormous increases in levels of violence. Drug trafficking inordinately corrupts institutions and democracy. It transforms millions of poor people into hostages of organized crime.

Mexico has quickly become the other epicenter of the violence activities carried out by criminal organizations associated with drug trafficking. Mexican drug cartels have come to supplant the Colombian traffickers as the main suppliers of illicit drugs to the U.S. market.

Mexico’s attorney general reckons that U.S. consumers buy U.S. $10 billion worth of drugs from his country’s cartels each year. All that money allows the two main cartels to arm, equip and pay for a highly motivated army of 100,000 that almost equals Mexico’s armed forces in size and often outguns them.

“Americans are understandably focused on the flow of drugs and migrants into the U.S. from Mexico,” says Andreas Peter, author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. “But too often glossed over in the border security debate is the flow of weapons across the border into Mexico,” he told in a statement via the Internet.3 Mexican authorities say 90 percent of smuggled weapons come from the United States.

The cartels are obtaining arms from America by using straw-man buyers, who legally purchase weapons at gun shops and gun shows in the United States. The weapons cross into Mexico, where border security is much weaker heading south of the border than it is going north.

Successful border raids do occur, with striking results. In only one raid, last November, Mexican federal agents captured 540 assault rifles, more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 150 grenades, 14 cartridges of dynamite, 98 fragmentation grenades, 67 bulletproof vests, seven Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles and a Light Anti Tank (LAW) rocket.

The mounting strength of the Mexican cartels has allowed them to establish operations in 195 American cities. At times, fears that Mexico might eventually become a failed state, with neither sovereignty nor law-enforcing jurisdiction over its own territory, have not at all been groundless.

To make matters worse, major changes in illicit drug policies do not seem foreseeable, since conventional wisdom on these hemispheric issues has stood for long on two widely shared beliefs: a) war on drugs is a failure and b) it cannot be changed.

Again, Mr. Naím provides a powerful insight on the matter:

Americans are a can-do people. They tend to believe that if something does not work, it needs to be fixed. Unless, that is, they are talking about the war on drugs. On this politically fraught issue, Washington’s elites and, indeed, the majority of the population, believe two contradictory things. First, 76 percent of Americans think the war on drugs launched in 1971 by President Richard Nixon has failed. Yet only 19 percent believe the central focus of antidrug efforts should be shifted from interdiction and incarceration to treatment and education. A full 73 percent of Americans are against legalizing any kind of drugs.

This “it doesn’t work, but don’t change it” incongruity is not just a quirk of the U.S. public. It is a manifestation of how the prohibition on drugs has led to a prohibition of rational thought. “Most of my colleagues know that the war on drugs is bankrupt”, a U.S. senator told me, “but for many of us, supporting any form of decriminalization of drugs has long been politically suicidal.”4

Prejudice and ideological biases have thus far inhibited public debate about policies that more often than not proved ineffectual in Latin America and elsewhere.

In a 1998 NY Times article, Milton Friedman criticized the war on drugs on several grounds, not the least important being the dubious morality involved in harming foreign countries.5 “Can any policy,” he asked” however high-minded, be moral if it leads to widespread corruption, has so racist an effect, destroys our inner cities, wreaks havoc on misguided and vulnerable individuals, and bring death and destruction to foreign countries?”

Almost forty years after its inception under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the main consequence of a war on drugs in our region is the widespread corruption of Latin American public and political life. Is it not high time to re-examine the policies and their implementations?


Annual Report, 2009, Covering Activities in 2008. UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Ibsen Martínez, FARC Politics, FARConomics, Econlib, July 7, 2008.

Moisés Naím, Wasted , Foreign Policy, May/June 2009.

“There’s No Justice in the War on Drugs,” by Milton Friedman. NY Times, Jan. 11, 1998.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.