Pubdate: Wed, 29 May 2013
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2013 The Toronto Star
Author: Robert Muggah
Note: Robert Muggah is research director of the Igarape Institute in 
Brazil and a principal of the SecDev Group in Canada. He is the 
co-author, with Ilona Szabo de Carvalho and Juan Garzon Vegara, of a 
new study on the failed drug war.


Canadians should acknowledge Latin Americans' very real grievances 
with the war on drugs, and our shared responsibility in addressing the problem.

The Canadian prime minister visited Colombia and Peru last week, two 
of the most productive economies in Latin America. Canada sees Latin 
America, and the Pacific Rim countries in particular, as gateways to 
freer trade. While extolling the virtues of enhanced trade ties, 
Harper failed to mention that Colombia and Peru are also two of the 
largest producers and exporters of cocaine on the planet. Also 
quietly avoided was any talk of the explosive levels of drug-related 
violence across the region. Yet Canadians should acknowledge Latin 
Americans' very real grievances with the war on drugs, and our shared 
responsibility in addressing the problem.

Leaders from Mexico, Central and South America are increasingly 
convinced that the war on drugs is failing. Many of them are urgently 
debating alternative approaches, including decriminalization, since 
the present strategy is broken. And it seems that at least one 
country in North America is starting to agree. President Obama's 
visit this month to Mexico and Central America presaged a shift in 
narrative from security to economic priorities. And a new report just 
released by the Organization of American States concurs, calling 
attention to the shortcomings of repressive anti-drug policies across 
the western hemisphere.

Latin Americans have long been critical of what they describe as the 
Yankee's war. Signs of their impatience surfaced during the 2012 
Summit of the Americas when presidents from Costa Rica, Guatemala and 
Colombia called for an end to prohibition. To their surprise, Obama 
showed openness to new approaches and Harper conceded that "the 
current approach is not working" and that alternatives were needed. 
Many now feel that this moment marked the beginning of the end of the drug war.

Today, many political leaders across Latin America are determined to 
refocus attention on growth, employment and tourism. They recognize 
that bad news sends out terrible signals to financial markets and 
would-be tourists. In the coming months we can expect more energetic 
discussion on access to energy, infrastructure, jobs, immigration and 
trade. Closer to home, there is also growing impatience with Canada's 
"tough on crime" approach, and calls for a change of direction.

It is hardly surprising that Latin Americans are changing their tune. 
They are heavily scarred by the fall-out from the drug war and their 
populations are demanding a new approach. In a bid to differentiate 
himself from his predecessor, Mexico's new president, Pena Nieto, is 
demanding that all U.S. assistance is channeled through a "single 
door" rather than through hundreds of federal and state-level 
agencies. President Obama's comments in Central America also suggest 
a retreat from a law and order approach to one that favours softer 
socio-economic priorities.

In spite of this shift in rhetoric, the fact is that the United 
States still privileges military solutions over developmental ones. 
Successive U.S. administrations have committed more than $14 billion 
toward military equipment and drug eradication efforts in Colombia, 
Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean since 2000. Analysts 
contend that it has blown more than a trillion dollars since the 
1960s. Now the United States is publicly calling for a more 
"balanced" approach since, as one drug enforcement official 
explained: "there are only so many black hawks [helicopters] we can sell them."

The refocusing of attention on the economic drivers of organized 
crime, including big time drug traffickers and organized gangs, is a 
welcome development. After years of pushing repression, there may now 
be space to discuss the underlying factors that animate supply and 
demand for drugs in the first place. Criminologists have long shown 
how poverty, inequality and weak public institutions give rise to 
violent criminal entrepreneurs. The novel emphasis of the presidents 
of Mexico and Central America on education and jobs for vulnerable 
youth is undoubtedly good news.

But a narrow focus on economic development alone will not diminish 
the region's drug and gang problems. Instead, it risks depoliticizing 
the debate, and concealing the ways in which corrupt elites keep the 
drug business thriving. What is really needed is a comprehensive 
strategy that elevates violence prevention as the goal of drug 
policy. This means investing not exclusively in police and judicial 
institutions as Canada is doing, but also increasing spending on 
prevention, including vocational training and job-placement for 
at-risk youth, supporting single mothers, and investing in poor 
under-serviced neighbourhoods.

It is high time that Canada and the United States re-think the 
metrics by which they measure success in dealing with illicit drug 
production, trafficking and consumption. This means moving beyond the 
amount of drug crops eradicated, suspects put in jail, or the price 
of cocaine in Toronto or New York. Good policy should be empirically 
measured in terms of its harm reduction effects, including fewer 
murders, overdoses and new cases of needle-related disease, and 
decreased prison populations. Policies shaped by evidence rather than 
ideology are needed now more than ever.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom