Tag: drug trafficking

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Clever Hans vs. the Fourth Amendment

In the early 1900s, the German public was fascinated by a mathematical Mr. Ed named Clever Hans, an Orlov Trotter horse that seemed to be capable of counting, doing basic arithmetic, and even solving elementary word problems—which, lacking the dexterity to grasp a number two pencil, it would answer by stamping its hooves. Eventually, of course, it was proven that Hans was doing nothing of the sort: the horse was perceptive rather than clever, and had been picking up on subtle, subconscious cues from his handler that let him know when to begin stamping and when (having arrived at the correct answer) he should stop.

A century later, academic researchers have shown that even well-trained drug-sniffing dogs are subject to the “Clever Hans Effect,” often alerting to non-existent drugs or explosives in locations where their human handlers have been falsely told they were present. Nor are those findings strictly academic. A recent analysis by reporters at the Chicago Tribune found that field records showed that drug-sniffing dogs produced a disturbingly high level of false positives: in only 44 percent of cases where dogs alerted did a subsequent search turn up contraband. Their success rate was even lower when it came to certain minorities: when dogs alerted on a Hispanic driver, only 27 percent of ensuing searches found any drugs, suggesting that the pooches may be picking up on their handlers’ subconscious bias, effectively legitimizing a form of racial profiling.

All this should make the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today in Florida v. Harris disappointing to anyone who cares about the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Overturning a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, the decision holds that a well-trained drug dog’s alert during a traffic stop generally provides probable cause for a warrantless search of the vehicle—even though, as in this case, the dog repeatedly alerted at a car that turned out not to contain any of the chemicals it had been trained to detect. Urging the need for a “flexible” standard, the Court saw no need for police to maintain or provide any record of a dog’s reliability in the field—such as a count of false positives—and even suggested that apparent “false positives” might not be errors at all, since a dog might be picking up “residual odors” from drugs that had previously been in contact with the vehicle. Even if that’s true, however, it’s not clear why it cuts in the government’s direction here: if the dogs are that sensitive, it seems like an additional reason to doubt that an alert provides probable cause to believe contraband is currently present.

The bigger problem, however, is that the controlled conditions in which dogs are evaluated don’t typically match field conditions very well: the handlers there often know where on the test course drugs are located—and even when they don’t, have no incentive to want the dog to alert at any particular location, which removes those subconscious signals from the equation. Bizarrely, the Court nevertheless held that the “better measure of a dog’s reliability… comes away from the field, in controlled testing environments.” Worse, the opinion also provides police deparments with an added perverse incentive to avoid collecting data on the real-world reliability of their sniffers: while a dog’s alert provides prima facie probable cause for a search, the Court held, defendants must be given an opportunity to challenge the reliability of a particular search in court—with field performance as one potential grounds for challenge. But, of course, if that’s the case, keeping records of false positives can only serve to give defendants grounds to invalidate a search that would otherwise be presumed valid. In effect, then, the Court has handed police what may well be a blank check for pretextual searches, while discouraging the collection of data that might prove that’s what they’ve done.

The Balloon Effect in Cocaine Production in the Andes

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy story today [requires subscription] about the booming cocaine business in Peru, where production has skyrocketed in recent years. The report serves a reminder of the balloon effect in U.S.-led efforts to eradicate cocaine production in the Andean region. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, has repeatedly pointed out that production in Colombia dropped by 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But as the graph below illustrates, cocaine manufacturing has just moved back to Peru, which according to some estimates, might already be the world’s largest producer of cocaine:

* Average range of total production in the Andean region.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
 

As we can see, Peru was the world’s largest source of potential cocaine production back in the early 1990s, but production of coca moved to Colombia once the regime of Alberto Fujimori cracked down on drug trafficking. By 2000, Colombia was by far the largest producer. However, due to eradication efforts by then president Álvaro Uribe under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, production came down in that country. But it didn’t go away, it just moved back to Peru. Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.

Mr. Kerlikowske should present the whole picture next time he boasts about declining cocaine production in Colombia.

Drug Violence in Mexico

The apparent drug gang killings of U.S. consular employees this weekend in Juarez, Mexico are a bloody reminder that President Obama is getting the United States involved in yet another war it cannot win. Drug gang killings also occurred in Acapulco, with a total of 50 such fatalities nationwide over the weekend.

Unfortunately, Obama has responded to the latest incident by following the same failed strategy as his predecessors when confronted with drug war losses: a stronger fight against drugs.

Though the deaths are the first in which Mexican drug cartels appear to have so brazenly targeted and killed individuals linked to the U.S. government, illicit drug trade violence has killed some 18,000 people in Mexico since President Calderon came to power in December 2006—more than three times the number of American military personnel deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The carnage only shot up after Calderon declared an all-out war on drug trafficking upon taking office. After more than three years, the policy has failed to reduce drug trafficking or production, but it is weakening the institutions of Mexican democracy and civil society through corruption and bloodshed, which are the predictable products of prohibition.

The 29 people killed in drug-related violence this weekend in a 24 hour period in the state of Guerrero sets a dubious record for a Mexican state. And an increasing number of Mexicans, including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, are calling for a thorough rethinking of anti-drug policy in Mexico and the United States that includes legalization. Legalization would significantly reduce drug cartel revenue and put an end to an enormous black market and the social pathologies that it creates.

More Anti-Drug Aid to Mexico?

The Washington Post reports that despite reports of widespread violence and human rights abuses since Mexico increased its fight against the drug trade, the U.S. government is considering pumping more money to their failing efforts:

The Obama administration has concluded that Mexico is working hard to protect human rights while its army and police battle the drug cartels, paving the way for the release of millions of dollars in additional federal aid.

The Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion assistance program passed by Congress to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, requires the State Department to state that the country is taking steps to protect human rights and to punish police officers and soldiers who violate civil guarantees. Congress may withhold 15 percent of the annual funds – about $100 million so far – until the Obama administration offers its seal of approval for Mexico’s reform efforts.

…In recent weeks, after detailed allegations in the media of human rights abuses, the Mexican military said that it has received 1,508 complaints of human rights abuses in 2008 and 2009. It did not say how the cases were resolved, but said that the most serious cases involved forced disappearances, murder, rape, robbery, illegal searches and arbitrary arrests. Human rights groups contend that only a few cases have been successfully prosecuted.

Sending additional anti-drug aid to Mexico is a case of pouring more money into a hopelessly flawed strategy. President Felipe Calderon’s decision to make the military the lead agency in the drug war–a decision the United States backed enthusiastically–has backfired. Not only has that strategy led to a dramatic increase in violence, but contrary to the State Department report, the Mexican military has committed serious human rights abuses. Even worse, the military is now playing a much larger role in the country’s affairs. Until now, Mexico was one of the few nations in Latin America that did not have to worry about the military posing a threat to civilian rule. That can no longer be an automatic assumption.

Washington needs to stop pressuring its neighbor to do the impossible. As long as the United States and other countries foolishly continue the prohibition model with regard to marijuana, cocaine, and other currently illegal drugs, a vast black market premium will exist, and the Mexican drug cartels will grow in power. At a minimum, the United States should encourage Calderon to abandon his disastrous confrontational strategy toward the cartels. Better yet, the United States should take the lead in de-funding the cartels by legalizing drugs and eliminating the multi-billion-dollar black market premium.

Drug Policy Debate Is Under Way in Latin America. What About the U.S.?

The First Latin American Conference on Drug Policies was held last week in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was a high-profile event sponsored by the United Nations, the Pan-American Health Organization, the Anti-Drug Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, the Open Society Foundation Institute, and the Dutch and British embassies. Among the participants were high ranking government officials and experts from Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

According to the Buenos Aires Herald, the main conclusion of the conference was that:

The tough approach adopted by Latin America and the US over the past two decades to combat drug trafficking and consumption has failed miserably and a new,  more humanitarian view focused on decriminalizing possession for personal consumption and helping addicts while concentrating efforts in fighting large traffickers must be adopted.

My colleague Ian Vásquez and I have written before on how Latin Americans are increasingly getting fed up with the War on Drugs. A serious and open debate about the future of drug policy in Latin America seems to be underway. The question remains on whether Washington is paying any attention to this.

The Price of the Drug War

Critics of the drug war long have pointed out how criminalizing drug use creates crime.  America has been through this experience before, with Prohibition.  Just look at Prohibition-era Chicago with pervasive corruption and mob warfare.

Unfortunately, the experience is being repeated in Mexico.  And the violence is spilling over the border into the U.S.  Reports the New York Times:

Sgt. David Azuelo stepped gingerly over the specks of blood on the floor, took note of the bullet hole through the bedroom skylight, raised an eyebrow at the lack of furniture in the ranch-style house and turned to his squad of detectives investigating one of the latest home invasions in this southern Arizona city.

A 21-year-old man had been pistol-whipped throughout the house, the gun discharging at one point, as the attackers demanded money, the victim reported. His wife had been bathing their 3-month-old son when the intruders arrived.

“At least they didn’t put the gun in the baby’s mouth like we’ve seen before,” Sergeant Azuelo said. That same afternoon this month, his squad was called to the scene of another home invasion, one involving the abduction of a 14-year-old boy.

This city, an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border, is coping with a wave of drug crime the police suspect is tied to the bloody battles between Mexico’s drug cartels and the efforts to stamp them out.

Since officials here formed a special squad last year to deal with home invasions, they have counted more than 200 of them, with more than three-quarters linked to the drug trade. In one case, the intruders burst into the wrong house, shooting and injuring a woman watching television on her couch. In another, in a nearby suburb, a man the police described as a drug dealer was taken from his home at gunpoint and is still missing.

Tucson is hardly alone in feeling the impact of Mexico’s drug cartels and their trade. In the past few years, the cartels and other drug trafficking organizations have extended their reach across the United States and into Canada. Law enforcement authorities say they believe traffickers distributing the cartels’ marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs are responsible for a rash of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix, brutal assaults in Birmingham, Ala., and much more.

United States law enforcement officials have identified 230 cities, including Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston and Billings, Mont., where Mexican cartels and their affiliates “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors,” as a Justice Department report put it in December. The figure rose from 100 cities reported three years earlier, though Justice Department officials said that may be because of better data collection methods as well as the spread of the organizations.

Washington officials want to believe that throwing more money at the Mexican government will solve the problem.  But there’s nothing in the experience of Afghanistan, Colombia, or many other drug production and smuggling centers to suggest that more enforcement, especially by a government as weak as that in Mexico City, will end the drug trade.

Only taking money out of drug production and sales will end the violence.  And that means no longer treating what is fundamentally a health and moral problem as a criminal problem.  Legalizing adult drug use may not be a great solution, but it would be a vast improvement over drug prohibition, which promotes violent crime while tens of millions of Americans still use illicit substances.