Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jan 2011
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2011 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Photo: Coca
Referenced: The Coca Leaf
Referenced: Organised Crime in Central America


Let Them Chew Coca

Beware Talk of Victory in Latin America's Drug Wars

LOOKED at in one way, Mexico's drug warriors have cause for 
satisfaction. Over the past year or so its security forces have 
captured or killed 20 of the three dozen leaders of the cartels which 
dominate the business of supplying cocaine to the many Americans who 
like to consume it. The latest to fall was a founder of the Zetas, a 
particularly vicious mob, arrested this week. Until recently the drug 
barons could rely on tip-offs from corrupt police commanders, which 
is why they were able to turn parts of northern Mexico into private 
fiefs. Nowadays when the United States passes on real-time 
intelligence on the mobsters, the Mexicans--frequently marines, but 
sometimes even the federal police--tend to nab their man.

That counts as progress.

But it has come at a fearsome cost. Taking out the capos unleashes 
bloody turf wars. With over 15,000 killed, 2010 was by far the 
bloodiest year in Mexico since Felipe Calderon took office as 
president in December 2006 and launched his crackdown on the drug 
gangs. Officials argue that the death toll has begun to fall, that 
nearly all of the dead are gangsters, and that the killings are 
confined to a few hot spots.

But it is too early to conclude that the fall marks a turning-point. 
And the government's critics point out that a worrying number of the 
victims have been innocent bystanders. As the violence spreads to 
previously calm areas, the average Mexican feels less safe. Public 
support for Mr Calderon's crusade is flagging and the gains he has 
made may yet be lost. See our interactive map of drug-trafficking 
routes and "cartel" territories in Mexico

This suggests that Mr Calderon has got his priorities wrong.

Better everyday policing should have accompanied the elite anti-drug 
spearhead. Local forces need wholesale change, and the federal force 
should be both bigger and better. Related items

But even if Mr Calderon can reform the police, there is a second cost 
to his drug war. With their leaders under fire, the drug combines are 
moving into the poorer countries of Central America (see article). 
There, governments are even less equipped to deal with the gangs.

The politicians urgently need outside help--and this should be aimed 
at strengthening their police forces and courts, rather than their 
armies, which should not be drawn into law enforcement.

But to students of the drug wars, pyrrhic victories that merely 
displace the problem of the drug barons to the next country are 
depressingly familiar. They are the story of the past three decades 
in Latin America. It is no wonder that a growing number of wise heads 
in the region have concluded that the drug war is costlier than 
legalising drugs.

So have some brave souls in "consumer" countries (a distinction that 
has become blurred by rising drug consumption in Latin America and 
more synthetic drugs and cannabis cultivation in the United States, 
Canada and Europe). Sadly the converts tend not to include serving ministers.

An Indefensible Ban

The constraint on fresh thinking was on shameful display this week. A 
UN convention, reaffirmed in 2009, imposes a blanket prohibition on 
drugs. This includes even the traditional use of coca leaves (from 
which cocaine is extracted) by Andean Indians for chewing and tea. 
This ban has never been enforced and in 2009 Bolivia asked the UN to 
lift it--though not restrictions on coca cultivation for cocaine.

With a deadline of the end of this month, America has lodged an 
objection and Britain looks poised to follow (see article). 
Traditional uses of coca are not addictive and are as much part of 
Andean culture as a cuppa is in Britain or beer in Texas. One reason 
for objecting seems to be that approval might open up a wider debate 
about legalising drugs.

Yet the depressing news from Central America shows that this debate 
is long overdue.  
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake