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Ending 40 years of drug war: the impact on Latin America

Today is the 40th anniversary of Nixon declaring a 'war on drugs.' Many Latin Americans are calling for an alternative strategy, but the short-term consequences could be dire for this region.

By Patrick CorcoranGuest blogger / June 17, 2011



The 40th anniversary of Washington's war on drugs has sparked calls for the decriminalization of narcotics, but what may seem like common sense for the US could spell disaster for Latin America.

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Pleas for reform have come from a wide variety of voices. David Simon, creator of the TV series "The Wire," recently published an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder offering a new season of the popular show in exchange for a reconsideration of the war on drugs. In The New York Times, Charles Blow called the war “an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice, and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives, and decimated communities.”

And, most notably, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which consists of 19 political and cultural titans from the US and other countries around the world, released a report on June 2 calling for the establishment of regulated marijuana markets and the decriminalization of recreational drugs.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

In developed nations like the US, where criminal groups don’t present a real threat to democratic institutions, the potential impact of decriminalization is relatively easy to consider: Would the benefits (lower incarceration rates, lower spending on anti-drug agencies, etc.) outweigh the costs (higher rates of drug use)? A growing number of observers say that they would.

But in Latin America – where public security is more precarious, criminal groups are far wealthier, drug use is lower, and government institutions are weaker – the calculus is different.

The key distinction is between the short- and long-term effects of an end to prohibition. Legalization of marijuana, cocaine, and the rest would, over time, cut the profits of Mexican criminal groups. This would, eventually, lead to smaller, weaker gangs. The criminal heirs to Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo," could not enjoy anything close to his notoriety and power if drugs were legalized.

However, this would be an evolutionary process, rather than an overnight switch. In the meantime, there would likely be panic in the Mexican underworld, as the 500,000 people who presently make their living from the drug trade would have to find another way to pay the bills. While a small number might take it as a cue to pursue a legitimate way of life, most, presumably, would not.

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