The new “little war” against drugs

The president of Colombia lowered his head, reached the nose, and inhaled a block of compressed marijuana. The image filled the press in Colombia on April 1, 2013. It was taken in the Bronx, one of the most violent and deprived areas of Bogota, after a police operation against drug sales took place. "Santos announced a war against the 'ollas' [1] ", and so was recorded the photo-opportunity at the heading of the country's largest newspaper.

In the event, surrounded by the Defense Minister and the chief of police, President Santos announced a plan to eliminate 24 ‘ollas’ in 60 days. Two months later, Santos announced another operation to end with other (or the same?) 25 ‘ollas’, and the promise to add 15.000 men to the police ranks to fights against small trafficking in Colombian cities. The total cost of the operation was announced at $200 million dollars.

Paradoxically, just a year ago, in Cartagena, Santos was together with the presidents of the region at the Summit of the Americas, saying the war on drugs had failed and called for a necessary discussion towards its reform. Other Latin American leaders, such as Mexico and Guatemala, supported this position. The result of the summit was a report commissioned by the Organization of American States (OAS) to discuss the issue. At the presentation of the report, in July this year, the Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, called to address the drug problem with a focus on "public health", and not by criminalizing drug users. In the air was posed an imminent paradigm shift in drug policy in Latin America.

And certainly there has been a rhetorical change. The term "war on drugs" devised and disseminated in Washington, has been eradicated of the bureaucratic language of Anglo American discipline. Washington is now looking the security issue starting in the Rio Grande down to the Patagonia with the lens of "public safety" and "transnational crime".

However, in the streets of Latin America, the supposed change of paradigm has not been yet seen. From the international war on drugs, it shifted to the war against "ollas" and "drug shops". Politicians in the region are still reacting with the same old strategies when facing the political pressure caused by insecurity. The most colorful case, from Colombia’s President, being at the same time the regional leader for a drug policy reform and, at the same time, a police officer seizing drugs at every street corner.

But the diffuse health approach has a different impact on problematic and non-problematic drug users, where official response remains an increase in the use of force, criminalization and repression.

There is some kind of consensus among experts and politicians that the reality of drug trafficking on the continent has changed. We are now exporters and transit countries, but also consumers. From former presidents to captains of drug-submarines, all are now speaking of the increasing problem of small trafficking mainly caused due to intermediary payments done with drugs.

But a new phenomenon it is been faced with the same old recipes. Recently, the news website of the criminal world Insight Crime did a review of the famous Colombian government offensive against small trafficking. After 1.600 detentions and almost 800.000 doses of drugs seized, the problem remained the same. Meanwhile, arbitrariness and abuses during these campaigns of public safety are reported. Frequently, those who are swelling official surveys are low-income youth, consumers or sellers of drugs in small amounts.

The new approach on public safety became the new vehicle for supporting the fight against drug trafficking from the United States on Latin America. Today, people are speaking about the Society of Public Security in Central America, a plan of about $160 million dollars a year. On the cooperation agendas with Mexico and Colombia, the fight against drug trafficking is now also called by this name.

In the end, it remains a feeling that a new language is being spoken but in reality nothing has changed. The debate has advanced more than anyone could have imagined a few years ago, but the consequences of the use of force are still a reality on the streets of Latin America. Although the recipe of a new approach is only partly outlined, the paradigm shift in which public health and human rights of drug users take a central role has already been recorded at the new public safety manuals.


[1] Public selling places where ilegal drugs are consumed.