For nearly four decades, the term
“war on drugs” has served
to demonize the issue and erase
the contours of the real problem.
organisms, where it can easily be reactivated. But rather
than treating the drug trade as a social disease, the U. S.,
which has always provided the largest single market for
illegal drugs, chose to see it as a battlefield enemy.
Until very recently, the U. S. called all the shots in discussions related to the drug problem. Rather than help
afflicted nations find their own solutions, Washington
imposed the so-called “war on drugs” (Richard Nixon’s
term) and then instituted a “certification” process, which
made foreign aid conditional on a given government’s
demonstrated commitment to fighting drugs on the
United States’ terms. With the perspective of time, we
can see that this 40-year-old policy has been worse than
useless. It has helped spread the drug trade from one
country to another, as traffickers migrate to Colombia,
let’s say, to escape extermination efforts in Peru.
Last year, the White House announced that it was
dropping the term “war on drugs.” Although it would
appear to be a simple issue of semantics, this shift is
very important. Words dictate how we feel about certain issues, and for nearly four decades, the term “war
on drugs” has served to demonize the issue and erase
the contours of the real problem. Perhaps now, thanks
to this late initiative on the part of the U. S. government,
we might finally be able to ask ourselves the only question that really matters: is it possible to end the illegal
traffic of drugs? There can be no reasonable and productive discussion about drug trafficking without first asking this question and seeking a realistic answer.
There are a few essentials in the conversation that
will follow from a discussion of this troublesome and
many-sided question. First of all, young people must
be the beneficiaries of whatever new policy is put into
place because they have been the principal victims of
both the drug trade and the war against it. Second, the
issue must be dealt with dispassionately. A neutral vo-
cabulary for the discussion must be accepted for use by
all. Third, concrete topics will have to be addressed, such
as the creation of a new educational system purged of
the corruption and inefficiency that poisons so many
school systems in the hemisphere. Fourth, efficient,
well-equipped and well-paid law enforcement agencies
will have to be created, whose officers see their role as
that of defending citizens and not of ransacking their
houses, threatening, extorting, or other wise offending
them. Fifth, a judicial system must be put in place that
is capable of investigating money laundering, corruption and murder and of bringing the guilty to trial no
matter how influential or threatening they might be.
And finally, new enterprises must be encouraged, protected and provided with incentives strictly on the basis of their ability to generate employment.
You will notice that the reforms capable of contributing to the elimination of the culture of clandestine
drugs—because that is what the “war on drugs” has
created—are the same social reforms that are urgently
needed every where in Latin America to reduce poverty
and inequality, strengthen democratic rule and empower
the young. These reforms are long overdue, but they are
extremely difficult to bring about. Money and leadership are equally lacking, and the roots of corruption
run very deep. And yet these solutions must be found,
because, I am convinced, there is no other way. We’re
lagging 40 years behind in this fight, but it’s never too
late to start a real revolution.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the
February launch of the Winter 2010 issue of Americas
Quarterly in New York.
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