By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, EL PAÍS, Spain,October 12, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Petro was right to demand at the United Nations that the irrational war on narcotics be ended. As the President of one of the countries with the most deaths suffered in this absurd conflict invented by others, he has every right.
People are still talking, not only in Colombia fortunately, about the speech President Gustavo Petro gave at the United Nations. And it’s a good thing that they are, because he said important things there, things that, for once, were of concern to all that were present, not only those he referred to in his speech. What Petro said is important and necessary; it’s true that when you hear it, you have to get through a jungle of excessive rhetoric, tangled thinking, and false equivalencies. But behind all of that, if you have the patience to deal with it, there is one of the messages that ought to be on the whole world’s policy agenda for the coming years. And that is this: the war on drugs has failed; we have to stop it immediately and change to something else. That is what Petro says in one of the few crystal-clear passages in this long-winded speech. And I think, as I have said before in the times of President Duque and President Santos and President Uribe, Petro is completely correct.
“The war on drugs has lasted forty years,” said the President. He was wrong about one detail, as it’s not 40, it’s 51. Starting on that day in 1971 when Richard Nixon called a press conference to declare that drug abuse was public enemy number one in the United States, and to announce a new offensive that would include new laws, new money–155 million dollars—and new worldwide strategies, leading with what he called “the supply problem.” To all intents and purposes, that was the moment that what we now call “the war on drugs” commenced.
Ever since then, the laws, the money, and the measures to cut off the supply were multiplied (which more than once, you have to say it, have served other purposes of the United States). And ever since then the problem has been growing. The mafias are richer, the corruption is more rampant, and the drug trafficking money is financing more violence. And drug abuse, the public health problem, continues as always, or has also increased. Unless you are thinking more what you would like to think than what the data show, nobody can fail to realize that here also—in the problem of consumption—this war has been a failure.
Seeing what we have seen in these years, Petro suggested what could happen if the war lasts another 40 years. He spoke of the million victims of the violence generated by the business; of the immense extensions of jungle poisoned by fumigation to eliminate the plants that are made into cocaine; of the millions of people, above all those with dark skins, who would be imprisoned uselessly. And after a week, we heard that Joe Biden, half a century after Nixon’s appearance, has announced his intention to pardon all of those convicted at the federal level for possession of marijuana. “Too many lives have been shortened by our mistaken approach to the subject of marijuana,” were the words he said, and I don’t remember such a direct phrase being spoken by any President of the United States. He said something that many people already know: that even though blacks and whites smoke marijuana at the same rate, it’s the blacks that are more frequently arrested, charged, and imprisoned. And I wasn’t the first to recall the hidden (or maybe not so hidden) racism that informed Nixon’s anti-drug policies, and that John Ehrlichman, the President’s assistant, confessed with dazzling clarity, and wasting no words, in an interview in the ‘70’s, that they also intended to combat, indirectly, the blacks and the left, which Nixon perceived as his enemies.
What I mean to say with all of this is that the origin of the war on drugs is a bizarre mix of cultural belligerences, struggle for political power, and a very North American Puritanism that confuses vices with crimes. One would have to make great efforts not to see this with clarity now, with so many years of perspective and, above all, when we consider the vision of those who have gone before.
Therefore, I would like to recall now, as an example, Antonio Escohotado, who in 1983 published an article in this newspaper about those matters that he knows better than anyone. The article included a compilation made some years before, entitled “In the Face of Fear”. There, Escohotado wrote with irony about the “benefits” of prohibitionism: a system “built since the ‘20’s on the shoulders of the then small-scale pharmaceutical industry, the mafia, the Salvation Army, and an increasing bureaucracy of psychotherapists, lawyers, and followers”. It was a system under which, in spite of its declared intentions and in spite of the money invested in it, the drug market and the quantity of drug addicts have done nothing but increase. “Prohibition,” says Escohotado, “stimulates not just the traffic in drugs (converting it into a very healthy business at every level), but it even stimulates consumption.”
Escohotado was right, of course. But what he didn’t see, what he couldn’t see when he was writing that accurate article, are the consequences of this thriving business. Three months after its publication in Spain, Pablo Escobar ordered the murder of Colombia’s Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, and so commenced that bloody decade, the consequences of which still brand us. Later came what we all know: the Medellín Cartel’s war against the Colombian government, the war between the cartels, a whole democracy destabilized, savage terrorism with bombs placed in airplanes in commercial aviation, and paying hitmen cash on the barrelhead for dead police officers.
And with time, there also came the transformation of the drugs into fuel for the war in Colombia: the source of financing for the guerrillas, of the paramilitaries, and even of corrupt institutions. Now that same violence persists with different actors: the criminal gangs have filled the spaces left when the guerrillas and the paramilitaries demobilized. And that’s what will happen every time an owner of the business drops out for any reason; a new owner takes his place.
Petro’s speech is hard to take in. It was written with prolixity and carelessness at the same time, but in reality, that is secondary. It’s true that the President said he was coming “from the land of the yellow butterflies and magic”, but I think that García Márquez’ work endures all things. No, the problem was equating drug trafficking and petroleum exploitation. The problem was collating, in one general brushstroke, all of the leaders of the contemporary administrations with the man that “created the gas chambers and the concentration camps politically”. (The adverb struck me; I am still wondering what he meant.)
And certainly, those excesses could obscure the important message of the speech. I don’t know if they have, but I do know that they gave those who disagree the perfect pretext to talk about something else. That is the risk that Petro is always running; because of his uncontrollable tendency to grandiloquence, and his coquetry with demagoguery. But later on, at the end of his presentation, he said: “I demand, from over here, from my wounded Latin America, an end the irrational war on drugs.” And in that he was not only correct. As the President of Colombia, one of the countries with the most death and suffering from this absurd war that has given rise to other wars, he has every right.