Twenty years ago this month, U.S. authorities helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Washington’s global war on drugs has not let up. In fact, it has become costlier, bloodier, more widespread and futile.
Escobar died in a hail of bullets on Dec. 2, 1993, fleeing from police on a rooftop in his native city of Medellin. It took a 3,000-strong elite force of Colombian police — supported by U.S. intelligence agencies and $73 million in aid that year alone — to bring down the drug baron.
Today, the war on drugs costs U.S. taxpayers more than $51 billion a year. Colombia itself has received more than $10 billion in military assistance from Washington since Escobar’s death.
But U.S. authorities have almost nothing to show for it. In fact, a major study published by a British medical journal this fall showed that illegal drugs have actually become cheaper and more potent over the last 20 years.
Like any lucrative industry, the drug trade exhibits Hydra-like resiliency: Cut off one head and two more sprout in its place.
After Escobar’s demise, for instance, Colombia’s cocaine business fragmented into micro-cartels controlled by armed militias, giving Mexican cartels a stronger foothold in the global supply chain. Although Colombia and Peru are the world’s top producers of cocaine, it’s the Mexican cartels that move the product into the United States.
And the drug business is expanding geographically — in part, due to the supposed success of anti-drug efforts. So, business is not just booming; it’s moving. Analysts call it the balloon effect: Squeeze the trade in one place and it simply bulges up elsewhere.
With Caribbean maritime routes heavily patrolled by the Pentagon, the cartels have made Central America their main transshipment point. One reflection of the shift is that Honduras is now home to the murder capital of the world — a title once held by Escobar’s hometown of Medellin.
Today’s violence is unprecedented, even when compared to the bloodiest days of the Medellin cartel. Since 2006, drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people in Mexico alone. And the murder rate in Guatemala is now higher than it was during the country’s 36-year civil war, which was a globally recognized genocide.
Desperate for an end to the carnage, Latin American leaders have increasingly clamored for a paradigm shift in drug policy. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, for example, they made a collective call for drug control to be handled internationally as a public health issue with a focus on human rights and harm reduction.
But Washington has stubbornly defended the status quo, which will only ensure that we will be endlessly battling the Pablo Escobars of the future.
Teo Ballve lives in Colombia and is a fellow of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright Teo Ballve.
Photo: Flickr user Jorge Lacar, creative commons licensed.