By Felipe Morales Sierra, EL ESPECTADOR, May 7, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The former President, who in 2019 took office as a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, presents a report in which he points out the urgency of taking the profit out of drug trafficking by the mafias.
In 2009, former President César Gaviria, together with his colleagues Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of México, formed a team with another 17 public figures to develop a means of combating the drug problem. Thus was born the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which since then has been publishing an annual report on the subject. Last year former President Juan Manuel Santos joined the team, along with the former President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss; the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark; the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour; and the former Justice of India’s Supreme Court, Anand Grover.
The Commission, since its creation, has taken on the task of serving as a counterweight to the policy that tries to confront the drug problem with a punitive focus, the posture promoted by the United States, and which has now also been adopted by the United Nations. Santos, the new Commissioner, talked with El Espectador about some of the findings in the document. This year it concentrates on how the criminal organizations have been so “resilient” in the war on drugs. It defends the idea that voluntary substitution of illegal crops, and a focus on public health to deal with drug consumption, are the only solutions.
This report begins with the idea that prohibition of drug use strengthens the criminal organizations. Why?
I recently read a biography of Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, and when he traveled to the United States at the time when liquor was prohibited, he happened to arrive in California and he ordered a drink. They told him: “Mr. Churchill, that is prohibited.” So he said: “What a strange country this is. You turn over to the mafias the immense fortunes that come from the sale of liquor. In my country, we turn it over to the national Treasury.” Ever since then, prohibition is what has empowered the mafias and generated wealth for them. The statistics for the last ten years show that the number of drug users in the world has increased from 208 million to 275 million, and the value of the drug trafficking business increased from USD 320 billion to USD 625 billion. In this report we focus on the need for policies that are effective in fighting the mafias, because organized crime has a trans-sectorial and trans-national character.
Here is one concrete example: mining. The drug traffickers in Colombia, Perú, and Ecuador use illegal gold mining to launder their money. The same mafias also control the traffic of weapons and it’s the same with human trafficking. So we need a better understanding of how these large criminal organizations operate, in order to pursue them more effectively, but what happens is that we don’t catch the ones who are really responsible. We catch the high-middle or middle management, and most of the time the lowest levels.
In some cases, when they have focused on pursuing those who were most responsible, it has gone badly. For example, in México . . .
It’s not just going after the heads of the cartels, because if you cut off the head, they replace it immediately. It’s also going after the people that are protecting them: politicians, police, and judges. The first thing the mafias do, and always have, is protect themselves through corruption. It’s not enough to catch El Chapo Guzmán. You have to take down the whole organization. Besides, the drug trafficking business is one of many that the international mafias control. Often countries don’t understand that, and they don’t confront the business in its totality, but just confront the drugs. That’s why we have been fighting the drugs for 45 years and we’re worse off than when we started.
The report suggests we admit that the war on drugs has failed. For Colombia, doesn’t that mean losing millions of dollars in military support from the United States?
The amount of military aid from the United States has been greatly exaggerated. But the quality of the aid has been very helpful. For example, in intelligence equipment, which is now being used against journalists. But the quantity is not that much. The point is that, not just Colombia but the United States also have to understand that the war on drugs is a failure. Look what has happened with the opioids. It’s a failure of the war on drugs and of the punitive policy. That’s why the Commission says that the States need to understand that, in order to be more effective, we have to leave behind an idea that is politically attractive: toughness and repression. It brings a lot of applause, but it makes the problem worse. It makes it more violent and damaging, because of the collateral effects. If I ask you: where are the places where the problems of the pandemic are concentrated in Colombia?
In the prisons.
And you go to the prisons and what percentage of the prisoners are there for crimes related to drug trafficking, but nonviolent? The great majority. That is one example. Countries need to be aware that being tough, cracking down, will never solve the problem. Barack Obama understood that, and that’s why he supported it when the OAS (OEA in Spanish) issued a resolution asking for an international consensus on drugs and we took it to the United Nations General Assembly in 2016. But there we were up against fierce opposition from China, some other Arabic and Asiatic countries, and Russia. At that time Vladimir Putin wasn’t interested, but today the Russian mafias are extremely powerful, and they still continue the crackdown on drugs, whatever the cost.
Could the opposition to the regulation of drugs come from those powers that are coopted by criminal organizations?
Yes. There are powerful interests that prefer that things keep going as they are, because they earn more money this way. Why are they killing the leaders here who are promoting voluntary substitution? Because substitution was working pretty well; replanting, as proved by the UN, was practically zero and the criminals realized that this was going to eliminate their raw material, so they started killing the campesino leaders. There are powerful interests that are opposed to a change in the status quo.
In a country like Colombia, with so many regions where there is no government, how would legalization work?
That theory is highly relative. Of course, when there is no government, it will be replaced by other powers: revolvers and rifles. But if you go to cities with strong governments and there the mafias also move like fish in the water. Where do they get the supplies for their survival? Money. And how do they get money? The drug trade. It’s a basic message: if you take the control of the trafficking away from the mafias, regulate it and legalize it, you’re taking the money away from them. As long as the prohibition continues, it will generate money, and instead of the government getting the money, it will feed that vicious circle of organized crime.
If drugs are regulated, could that, for example, open the door for those organizations to move into other criminal activity?
That’s the challenge. If you take the money out of the drug business, I imagine they would concentrate on another activity. So you would have to apply a trans-sectorial focus. It’s not just drug trafficking, but rather understanding very well the relation between the trafficking of other illegal products and how the big mafias operate. This coronavirus pandemic could have two effects: if the countries are creative, they could advance their penetration of these mafias, because it’s obligating the drug traffickers to use different routes and different forms of communication. If the countries don’t catch on, the mafias could acquire immense power because they become much more sophisticated.
Why do you worry about the “deep web” and the sophistication of the drug market?
Because it makes the fight against organized crime much more difficult. To the extent that they become more sophisticated and use all of the available technology for their businesses, if the governments don’t get up to date, the relative power of the mafias against the government increases.
How can you protect a plan that ends the war on drugs and then prevent another government from keeping on with the war?
Because of that issue, the Commission is promoting a change in international governance. That means, the treaties. In our report, we state: The United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime ought to be called the United Nations Office on Drugs and Health. That’s to say, merge the World Health Organization with the war on drugs, because ultimately, it’s a matter of public health. There also has to be an effort at the local level, which is very difficult. When I started studying this subject, as President, they attacked me, and they told me: “You’re trying to poison our children.” I went to a meeting and the mothers called me “miserable”. I asked them: “If your child got mixed up with drugs, would you want him to go to prison or to a medical center where he could be helped?” And they all answered: “To the center.” And I explained that that is what legalization is about. It’s very populist to make yourself into a tough guy; that’s why I say it’s easier to make war than to make peace. I was elected with the highest number of votes in the history of Colombia and this is why: because I was a war hero. When I went to make peace, look at what happened.
Why do people think it’s a problem to militarize the war on drugs?
The Commission has always taken the position of defending human rights, and first of all, the military ought not to take on the responsibilities of the police. Militarizing cities to control public order doesn’t work, because the soldiers are not trained for that. The police are. Now, to militarize a war on drugs, when they ought not to be illegal, provides an enormous violation of rights. That’s what is happening in the Philippines: a genocide against drug users and low level traffickers. There they seize them and kill them. That won’t solve anything. It only generates pain and violence.
If it isn’t militarization, then how do we fight it when there is also a drug factor in the context of the conflict that they call “narcoterrorism”?
“Narcoterrorism” was an expression used very skillfully, but it’s overblown. The mafias generally aren’t terrorists; they work in a different manner.. The word “narcoterrorism” was invented in Colombia by a North American Ambassador in the ‘90’s. He was an expert in war-related communication. Of course, it’s Pablo Escobar who used terrorism at a time when he was pretty desperate. Now, the most important tool to combat them is intelligence, and if there is collaboration among countries, it’s much more effective than sending soldiers to the villages. Look at what has happened in the last two years. When Duque took power in 2018 we had already eradicated 46,000 hectares. He ended up eradicating the remaining 80,000 hectares that had been planned, and in last December he said that they had eradicated 100,000, for a total of 180,000 hectares eradicated in the last two years. But in 2018 there were still 170,000 hectares of coca in the country according to the United Nations. Today there shouldn’t be any coca in Colombia. But that’s not the way it is: today there is more than there was a year ago. What’s starting to happen now is that the mafias and the government have both taken charge of slowing down the voluntary substitution of coca plantings.
A lot of what’s proposed in the report is already contained in the Peace Agreement, the part about reaching a solution to the problem of illegal drugs. How is that being implemented?
I believe that is the only solution. The only one. Because we have tried everything else. I don’t like to speak in the first person, but when I was Defense Minister, I was the one who sprayed the most hectares of coca in history, and the production just increased. We have captured all of the capos that there were, and the mafias are still operating here. In the coca plantings, the only thing that works, and the UN knows this, is giving the campesinos an alternative, because they, in the majority, would like to get out of the business. First, because it’s not making them rich, they are just surviving, and second, because it’s a hostile and violent atmosphere.
The Commission has been talking about this for a decade. What’s needed before the proposal can really come in for a landing?
The governments will have to admit that this drug policy, punitive and cracking down, will never succeed. We’ve spent 45 years and look at the results. They have to understand that it’s with the focus on public health and on regulation that we can manage the problem. Consumption of drugs will never stop. We have to learn how to manage it without the violent, disastrous, and counterproductive effects of prohibition.
Will that change of direction be possible without the United States?
Obama started to give his blessing to that procedure. Then we were able to take it to the UN General Assembly in 2016. There we were able to introduce some concepts: health, for the first time, and respect for human rights. Even though we came up against a high wall, we have to pursue that path, because it’s the only solution and because of that, the Commission will keep on persevering.
But you don’t have Obama now, but rather Donald Trump . . .
Yes, but Trump’s anti-drug policy has been an absolute and total failure. Look at the opioid crisis. We’re looking for an anti-drug policy that’s coherent. How is it possible that the greatest consumer of drugs in the world (the United States) can demand that the countries south of the border fight drug trafficking more effectively, when that country backs out of the treaty that controls weapons trafficking? That incoherence makes the war on drugs a joke. On the one hand they sell weapons to the drug traffickers, and on the other hand, they demand that a government fight them more effectively. Give me a break. This is a topic that concerns us a great deal, because Colombia is the proof of the failure of the war on drugs. The cost that we have taken on, the blood that we have shed, have cost us more than any other country and we just keep on being the greatest producer and exporter of cocaine.
What did you fail to do as President to change the war on drugs?
I have to admit that we failed to get very far in the UN General Assembly. We have to lobby more and do more diplomacy. In Colombia, we got a start toward decriminalizing consumption of marijuana, but we could have gone much further. If we had done that, marijuana might replace what we are losing now in coal and petroleum. But I think we also lacked sophisticated intelligence against the mafias that collaborate with other countries. However, the changes in government in other places slowed down an effort that could have been more effective.