A new documentary shows the devastating impact that cocaine prohibition has on the poor world
Illegal drugs lag behind only oil and arms in terms of total global trade-value. They could be the dirtiest of the three, too. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Cocaine Unwrapped is a new documentary showing the string of harm caused during the drug’s journey along its transnational supply chain, and rarely considered by those at the end of the line. Although it’s subtitled “The real price of cocaine”, the film really shows the unintended negative consequences of the prohibition of the drug, as they are felt in producer, transit and consumer countries.
As director Rachel Seifert put it after the screening at the Soho Curzon cinema on 29 November: “It’s about the lives of the poor people being done over by this policy.”
In Colombia, the government has attempted to eradicate the coca leaf, the ultimate source of cocaine. Much of this has taken the form of indiscriminate aerial spraying of herbicide, the war on drugs’s own form of carpet bombing, which kills yuca and banana plants as well as coca, often denying the local farmers a chance of any livelihood at all. The chemicals used pollute water supplies and have been linked with birth defects.
Now, manual methods are preferred: fully armed soldiers intrude on the beautiful countryside and uproot the plants by hand. It’s not uncommon for coca to simply be replanted: it’s one of the only sources of a decent income for some desperately poor people.
In neighbouring Ecuador, 75% of all the women in prison are there for drug-trafficking offences, nebulously defined and incentivised by American grant money being dependent on meeting conviction targets. Again often becoming drug mules due to economic imperatives, the women are stuffed into prisons designed and built for half their capacity and condemned to long sentences during which they often miss their children growing up.
The Mexican city of Juárez, standing facing El Paso, Texas across the Río Grande, has become an almost literal warzone. An ostensibly well-intentioned, but ill-advised, intervention by a corrupt military into rival gangs’ turf war has seen the murder rate skyrocket, with more than 3000 killed in 2010 – in a town maybe a fifth the size of London. The city’s children recount tales of yet another death matter-of-factly; reformed gang members tell of horrific past deeds likewise.
Further south in the country’s capital, thousands of street children are using drugs, including eight-year-olds on crack.
Mexico is a transit point for maybe 90% of all the cocaine entering the US. The final stage of its journey, as depicted here, is Baltimore, the drug problems of which are familiar to many through the TV series The Wire. Those in the know describe the cop show as being closer to a fictionalised documentary. Deindustrialisation and unemployment not only spurred high levels of addiction but also led many young men into choosing to make money the only way they felt they could – by selling drugs – and a generation of fathers were lost to the ‘correctional’ system. Those convicted on drug charges might be deprived of their freedom for a quarter century while murderers and child-molesters get out of prison before them.
And because of the price mark-up that prohibition creates, a refined agricultural product that should by worth only pennies becomes a commodity for which some will fight and kill.
(As an aside, The Wire’s David Simon mentions in his first book, Homicide, that the surge in the murder rate in Baltimore, which sees 250-300 violent deaths a year, coincided with the emergence of cocaine in the 1980s.)
As difficult as it is for a devotee of the written word to admit, film is the ideal medium in which to make this argument and convey this story. It facilitates the showing, as opposed to telling, of all the damage that the discredited policy of prohibition has wreaked: The Colombian campesino literally weeping at what the military has done to his livelihood, and to his friends. A district of a city in the richest country in the world reduced to something more closely resembling early-90s Sarajevo. The corpse on a Mexican street, and the crowd gathered in morbid fascination.
Not seen visually but heard in voiceovers backdropped by shots of London are some of the more affluent cocaine consumers. They form a microscopically tiny proportion of a total of 11 million in the west, 90% of whom are casual recreational users. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that they share the blame for the misery inflicted on the victims of the drug trade.
But the idea of a drug-free planet can only seriously be met with snorts of derision. The reality we face is one in which human beings have sought out psychoactive substances since before history cares to record. While one might wish that cocaine users would give up their vice out of ethical concerns, it’s unlikely to happen.
This doesn’t absolve those users of their fair proportion of guilt. But regulation of cocaine – and indeed all drugs – would allow the production of them to occur in an ethical and responsible way. Not only this, but freeing up the $100bn currently spent on enforcement globally might just help tackle the poverty and inequality that is a further cause of some of the problems in the regions under discussion.
The alternative, eschewing a move to regulation and entrenching ourselves further in the ‘war on drugs’, will inevitably mean continuing to do all this damage. When Ronald Reagan introduced the term back in 1971, it was likely intended as populist tough-guy rhetoric. But consider the essential nature of war: the prosecuting state negatively impacts on a foreign nation, as well as a proportion of its own population – usually from the lower socio-economic classes, since they’re overwhelmingly more likely to end up as cannon fodder – for some benefit to itself.
This is precisely what is happening with drug prohibition. Latin America and parts of western inner-cities are being destroyed in an attempt to keep our own citizens away from the potential dangers of cocaine – an attempt that manifestly doesn’t work anyway.
At the question-and-answer session following the screening, the former UK deputy drug czar Mike Trace, who was interviewed for the film, claimed that in private the G8 leaders accept that current global drug policy is going very wrong – but that, given the economy, they have too much on their plates. Every day they delay prolongs the disaster their predecessors created. This film should help to make that clearer than ever.
Update 1 December 2011: Parts of this post not affecting the outcome have been edited for the purpose of not looking like an illiterate fool.
How has the war on drugs led Mexico to become so violent?
Last week, some friends made their way from the southern US into neighbouring Mexico.
They went by air after the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pointed out to them that crossing the border by land is inadvisable now that the "war on drugs" has evolved from tough-sounding metaphor into literal bloodbath.
I will admit to having been slightly apprehensive before they went. Who could look at this map, and the figures underneath it, and not be?
Since this blog doesn't have the budget to go and find out, forming any sort of picture of what's going on is dependent on media reports, or, as journalists are increasingly fearful of covering the stories, on El Blog del Narco [Spanish].
Perhaps it's been overblown. But I'm reading about this from the relative quiet of London. Even if the capital has one of the highest crime rates in the UK, it's still so averse to violence that fewer than 30 knife murders of teenagers a few years ago prompted handwringing and hysteria that lasted for months before the recession came along, and youth crime disappeared off the news agenda quicker than you can say "bailout".
Here we have maybe 150 homicides a year. If the per-capita rate were as high as Mexico's, there would be nearer 1000.
Those numbers should speak for themselves. Nearly 40,000 Mexicans dead since President Calderón sent in the armed forces against the cartels at the end of 2006. Many of them innocent civilians; around 1000 of them children, thousands more of whom have been orphaned. Car bombs. Grenades thrown into nightclubs. Rival cartel members decapitated.
That prohibition foments violence as rival criminals vie for control has been plainly obvious since 1920s Chicago, and that increased enforcement makes it worse is becoming accepted too. But this is not gang conflict as it's seen in the US or UK: it's terrorism.
How did this happen?
"It's understood in terms of Mexico's socioeconomic and political context," says José Luis Piñeyro, an expert in public and national security at the Independent Metropolitan University, San Pablo. That is, the heavy involvement of armed forces that aren't always entirely honest, in a developing country with a vastly richer and more powerful neighbour that has both a high demand and disdain for drugs. Mexico is a thoroughfare for a around 70% of the drugs overall, and 90% of the cocaine, that enters the US. (For those coming to the UK, we can substitute West Africa, about which we hear less because they're not on our doorstep and because they're essentially already failed states.)
Carlos Flores, a visiting scholar at the University of Connecticut's Institute of Human Rights and the author of El Estado En Crisis (State in Crisis) blames corruption and authoritarianism for the escalation of violence.
"Drug-trafficking organizations did not grow up just by themselves, but they did it with a close support from high ranking politicians and public officials who obtained relevant amounts of irregular money, protecting the business," he says. "They used the security institutions as enforcers, to push the drug traffickers to accept this extortion, or else, they would be punished."
Flores says that until around the 90s, the country's authoritarian regime trammeled the state and local governments and concentrated power in the federal executive, while the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 70 years or so, hijacked any and every social organisation and used them to channel support to the government. "Through different institutions, the regime controlled every relevant social actor, from workers to criminals," he says. "In this last case, such control was exerted through security institutions."
The lack of proper accountability spread corruption, particularly within security institutions, which began to protect the cartels. Since local government and security organisations were subordinated to the national ones due to local politicians' depending on the goodwill of their Mexico City counterparts, the federal security forces ran things as they pleased. "With this kind of collusion, Mexican drug trafficking organizations grew up impressively, because they were patroned by public officials," says Flores.
Political liberalisation continued through the 90s, and the PRI eventually lost the presidential election to the National Action Party, first under Vicente Fox and latterly Felipe Calderón. The old corruption didn't disappear, but simply fragmented, and the cartels began to dispute one another's areas of control. This was not fighting over turf in different areas of a city, but regions within the country.
"As the old arbiter was not in a condition to settle basic rules to the business, violence grew quickly," says Flores. "[Because] some of these organisations seem to have allied themselves with local powers, which often belong to disputing political parties, both the rule of law and coordination between authorities have been hampered, whether by political disputes or confronted criminal-political engagements.
"Inasmuch as many organisations are aware of the existence of such collusive links, they target not only their traditional rivals, but also public officials, whether federal or local, because they regard them as part of the assets of their rivals."
Calderón's attempt to eradicate the cartels with force only made them push back harder. There were fewer than 100 drug-related murders in 2006, the year at the end of which the president's crackdown began. Now there are thousands annually.
Ultimately, whatever the specifics, the increasing conflict all boils down to the violence that inevitably accompanies the attempted prohibition of a commodity for which there is a demand.
The "war on drugs" is in many ways a self-enacting phenomenon. Treating a public-health issue as a security problem has led it to become a security problem. In a futile attempt to protect people from themselves, Calderón and his US puppet-masters have ended up with an awful lot of blood on their hands.
Is drug-law reform a matter of "when", rather than "if"?
There are signs of a move toward reform of drug policy in much of the world, according to Steve Rolles, the senior policy analyst at the thinktank Transform.
At the second of two debates held at King's College, London, on Wednesday, Rolles said that reform was not only likely but inevitable, and that the debate around drug policy is not whether we should reform but when it will occur and what reform will look like.
"Generally there's a very positive trajectory of change within public discourse," he said.
The other speakers were Tom Lloyd, formerly Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police and now a consultant for the International Drug Policy Consortium, and the Colombian Ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera.
Lloyd described programmes that have been tried in the US that move away from a strict approach of criminal justice and punishment, and Rodríguez summed up views on drug policy from around the world – both for and against reform.
The event, "How the world's view of the drug war is changing", was organised by the University of Bedfordshire's Tilda Goldberg Centre.
Rolles said that there were five main factors driving reform: ground-level changes such as reduced punishment of offenders, increasing support from establishment figures, greater engagement from NGOs, the visible failure of the status quo, and the global economic crisis.
He added that some reforms, such as a less punitive approach to drug users or decriminalisation for personal use, can take place within the framework of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, while international law forbids others.
A number of countries are moving away from punitive measures for personal use, he said, including around half of Europe. "Sometimes it's on the books; sometimes it's just a shift in importance and policies aren't enforced," he added.
He said: "The effect is that personal possession is being widely decriminalised across Europe, and there's a similar trend unfolding across much of Latin America. Even in the US, the spiritual home of the 'war on drugs', 13 or 14 states are decriminalising cannabis."
In the US this is sometimes on a more local basis than at the level of state law, and may involve fines, drug treatment or changing the priorities of the relevant police forces.
Rolles mentioned other countries taking similar approaches, including certain states in Australia as well as in Israel, and Kyrgyzstan, jokingly referring to the latter as the "world leader in drug law reform". New Zealand has also added a new class D to its Misuse of Drugs Act, although there aren't yet any drugs listed in it.
Rolles also mentioned some harm-reduction programmes, such as supervised use of drugs in some countries, that "challenge the spirit and letter" of the UN convention. "They're pushing the boundaries of what's permissible and intellectually viable," he said.
Speaking of attempts in California to fully legalise non-medical cannabis, he said that this would be "the real crack in the wall of UN prohibition".
"Essentially there is a line in the sand," he said. "You can go so far in terms of decriminalisation, but you may not cross this line in legally regulating supply. There are a few people now who are just daring to poke their toes over that red line.
"Not only are we looking at a ceasefire in the war on drugs, but we're actually, hopefully, moving beyond that to some total reconstruction."
Chief Constable Lloyd said that he was there because the 30 years he spent as a police officer had shown him that the war on drugs is ineffective. His work as a consultant now takes him to various countries around the world and he said that his background as a police officer gives him the opportunity to "engage with the 'warriors' in war on drugs" and get them talking to the NGOs.
"There's often a clash in apparent interest, but when talk to people you find that they've got a lot more in common than they think there is," he said.
He gave two examples of where different approaches have been tried, both of them from the US.
Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) involved giving a warning to people prosecuted for possession of drugs, but, if they break the terms of their probation, giving them immediate, but brief, punishment. If one of their drug tests was positive, they'd be arrested and brought before Judge Steven Alm, who launched the programme, and imprisoned for five days – or if they had a job, then perhaps for the weekend.
On the use of instant punishment, Lloyd said: "Anybody who's a parent here, you'll know that you don't let a child get away with a misdemeanor all week and then suddenly on Saturday say 'That's it: you're gated'. You actually do it at the time, then and there."
Lloyd said that the programme meant that those who were targeted were the most problematic users and it successfully changed their behaviour – and it's cheaper than prison.
A report published in January last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Institute for Justice found that participants in HOPE were "55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked".
The second example Lloyd gave came from High Point, North Carolina, where the police had become frustrated with locking up drug dealers only to have new ones take their place.
He said that rather than continue with a popular but failing strategy, the police chief James Fealy engaged with the community and gathered enough evidence so that they could have arrested the dealers, but instead invited 20-30 of them to a meeting and implored them to stop carrying out their trade in the open and "creating an impossible neighbourhood" to live in.
High Point had experienced problems with a primarily white police force prosecuting largely black drug offenders. Lloyd said: "It doesn't matter what colour your skin is, or what your religion is, or whatever you background or ethnic origin is. You want a quiet life, to get on with it and be free of crime. And that's standard. This guy understood that. He engaged with the community and did some very good police work.
"Almost overnight, overt drug dealing stopped and the community became a place in which you could live, and play, and kids were out on their tricycles or whatever they're on nowadays."
Lloyd added that there were still some arrests of dealers who were violent or who decided to "chance it", and that the trade did continue, but covertly.
He said that drug-dealing can't be entirely stopped unless there are major legal changes, but that law enforcement can approach things differently. "What the police can do, and the judges, and the community as a whole, is think 'Is there a different way we can tackle this?' rather than just spinning that revolving door of criminal justice."
Lloyd added that these two examples are stories that UK politicians could tell, as they wouldn't be accused of going soft on drugs but would be talking about successful measures that reduced harm.
Ambassador Rodríguez said that it is the position of the Colombian Government that we need to have a "profound and respectful" discussion about all the possible alternative approaches to the drug problem. He added that for this to happen there would need to be rigorous research carried out, and that the debate needs to global.
"This does not mean that we would be automatically in favour of legalisation, because we don't yet know which is the best alternative," he said. "That is why we insist on the need to have a global summit such as Copenhagen and Cancún on the issue of climate change as soon as the proper research has been concluded."
He said that thousands of innocent people had died in Colombia due to the violence created by drug-trafficking organisations, but that in the past 10 years the murder rate has been reduced by more than 50%.
Rodríguez said that the production of drugs has moved from Colombia to other countries in Latin America and in West Africa. "As long as there is demand, there will be supply coming from somewhere," he said.
He summed up some of the positions of various countries in the world, from those moving towards decriminalisation to those continuing with harsh penalties for possession such as Singapore and Iran, where violations of the drug laws can carry the death penalty.
Rodríguez acknowledged that finding consensus would be difficult, and suggested that the debate should be held within the structure of the UN. Lloyd and Rolles disagreed with this, with the former describing the UN as being part of a "church of prohibition" that won't accept any evidence that a different approach might be successful.
He said: "If you're discussing things like education policy, or the National Health Service, or transport, then there's usually a pretty open debate, and a fairly heated debate, particularly about the National Health Service. But at least there's an open debate with both sides being brought forward, and nobody's suggesting that the answer's going to be perfect in those areas, but they want it to be a bit better for the next generation.
"It seems to me that the test applied to any drug policy reform is that it's got to be perfect. And that's not going to happen. That seems to me to be something uniquely applied to this area, because some people describe the whole drug-prohibition movement as being rather like a church."
Referring to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's meeting in March, he added: "The elders gather once a year in Vienna, and their job as the leaders of the church is not to listen to evidence which contradicts their belief in the Almighty. It's to explain everything that happens in terms of their existing beliefs. Whether or not you agree with them, it does start suggesting that evidence is not that important."
This attitude was not replicated in the audience at King's College, where a quick straw poll found a majority in favour of legalisation.
Rolles observed that it's difficult to gather evidence on whether legalisation could reduce harm because international law prevents countries from even experimenting.
Speaking after the debate, Peter Reynolds, the leader of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, said: "The most notable thing was the unanimity. There's a lot of optimism, but it's just a question of how long [legalisation] is going to take. I think that we need something radical to create a breakthrough."
He mentioned the large number of US states considering legalising cannabis, adding: "When that happens, that's what will start it."