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Our Perverse War on Drugs

Perhaps the most humiliating legacy of our nation-building venture in Afghanistan is the stubborn narco-state flourishing under our noses. The opium crop in Afghanistan has doubled since US forces deposed the Taliban, and the drug trade threatens to dominate the country as never before when our forces leave in 2014. How did this happen?

By and large, it seems US forces followed a policy of turning a blind eye to the opium crop, on the premise that poor farmers are not our main enemies in Afghanistan, and attacking their livelihood would turn them to the Taliban. To combat opium production, our principal initiatives included helping farmers cultivate alternate crops, and setting up an independent court system to try traffickers. While these have shown some promise, progress has been slow, and funding for these programs is drying up. Crop eradication was on our minds, too, but we charged the Afghan forces with that task. Their efforts, however, have been undermined by political corruption on the ground.

Underscoring the futility of our drug war in Afghanistan is the impact of the current blight on opium poppies in the country. At first glance, this might sound like a God-send: crop eradication at its best. However, something happened that we American capitalists should have anticipated. With opium supply suddenly scarce, the price of the crop soared. This has in turn enriched –and entrenched—the big dealers, inspired farmers to double down on next year’s crop to make up for current losses, and likely attracted more people to the drug trade in a very poor country. The result of this blight illuminates the main problem of crop eradication: it drives up prices, providing more incentives surrounding the drug trade.

In Latin America, our anti-narcotic efforts have largely featured interdiction, eradication, and assaulting the drug gangs. Our tactics on this front were recently highlighted by reports of a bloody incident in Honduras where local forces, with US financing and support, have been intercepting drug traffickers from South America in the remote Honduran jungle. The Honduran forces mistakenly killed unarmed civilians while intercepting a drug shipment. Notable in our efforts in Honduras is the extensive involvement of the US military. The Honduran forces who conducted this raid flew out of one of the three bases the US military operates in that country. The forces were tipped off by our military’s Southern Command in Miami, carried to the location by State Department helicopters, and accompanied by DEA agents. For all intents and purposes, the US seems to be waging war in Latin America.

So far it seems the most obvious result of our aggressive approach in Latin America is increasingly grotesque violence. Since Mexico started its crack down on the drug cartels, thanks to US prodding and support, the country has suffered 50,000 deaths. Mexican cartels have exploded, resorting to mass killings, beheadings, mutilation—body parts found in bags in public squares—assassinations of government officials. Savage violence surrounding the drug trade is spreading through the countries of Central America as we ramp up interdiction efforts there. The brazen and pervasive violence is testimony to what’s at stake, namely, the incredibly lucrative US drug market. The sum total of our efforts in Latin America compounds the problem.

As the New York Times Magazine explained in a recent expose on the Mexican drug cartels (“The Snow Kings of Mexico”, 6/17/12), the cost of drugs on the street is largely determined by the amount of risk assumed in getting the product to market. So: make the risk greater and the prices rise; more dealers get involved, and jockey (or kill) for a piece of the action.

This is why, our former ambassador to Colombia has argued, we must pair our negative policies with economic development in Latin America. If we build schools and hospitals, and help develop businesses in the region, we can reduce incentives to enter the drug trade. And yet, as long as the drug trade remains so lucrative, it’s reasonable to suppose, incentives to enter it will always be powerful.

What strikes me in the many prongs of our current war on drugs is how we seem to focus on everything but ourselves—and go to great efforts in so doing. We monitor the nations our drugs come from, and toil to frustrate traffickers thousands of miles from our borders. We work to change the economic conditions on the ground in very poor nations—no small task—while poor neighborhoods at home beg for attention. We enlist our military, the largest in the world, to stem the flow of drugs northward. And none of it works. These efforts have the opposite effect of what we intend, for they drive up prices and stoke the drug trade. The traffickers will do anything to get the product to market as a result: Colombian gangs have built submarines for this purpose; the Mexican cartels use catapults to launch drugs over our multi-million dollar border fences.

We’d rather do anything but zero in on demand here, but it’s so clear this would be the cheapest, most direct, most effective, most humane solution. It makes you wonder if we want to win the war on drugs at all.

Firmin DeBrabander is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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