Colombian Scholar Urges Multilateral Approach to Combat Drugs

By Dialogo
December 17, 2012

One of Colombia’s top analysts on drug cultivation and trafficking said his country’s drug policy must be judged by its results rather than its intentions.
Daniel Mejía, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, spoke Dec. 5 at a seminar entitled “Lessons from Colombia’s War on Drugs” that was co-sponsored by the Cato Institute and Inter-American Dialogue.
“The current debate on drug policy should not be based on simplistic solutions, but on analysis and research that takes into account what works and what doesn’t,” Mejía told his Washington audience. “With the advent of drug trafficking in the late 1970s, the homicide rate went from 30 per 100,000 to more than 70 per 100,000 in 1990. At the peak of Pablo Escobar’s reign, homicides in Medellín reached 420 per 100,000 — levels unseen anywhere in the world.”
Mejía suggested that if the external narcotics market had not grown during that time, Colombia’s homicide rate today would be 23 per 100,000 instead of 36 per 100,000.
“Cocaine production has dropped. Unfortunately, the reductions we’ve observed have led to increasing coca cultivation in other countries. It’s the so-called ballooning effect,” he said. “Coca crops have started moving back to Peru and Bolivia, processing facilities to Venezuela, and trafficking to Mexico and Central America.”
Colombia’s experience: A lesson for others?
Mejía, whose research center published a book on Colombia’s drug trade earlier this year, said cocaine production and trafficking pumps about $8 billion a year — or about 2.5 percent of total GDP — into the Colombian economy, though he said more than 97 percent of the profits are reaped by criminal syndicates and banks outside Colombia.
“The situation in Colombia has improved significantly, but our neighbors have become indirect victims of our own success. As long as there is demand for drugs, there will be someone willing to take risks to satisfy that demand,” he said, adding that even so, cocaine consumption rates in Colombia are still low compared to those of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
“Colombia’s experience is very useful for countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. These lessons should also be analyzed by U.S. and Latin American scholars. This is why our book ends by suggesting that the Colombian government has the moral authority and knowledge to promote a global debate about drug strategy,” Mejía said.
Carlos Urrutia, Colombia’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, said his country has suffered more than any society in the world from the drug trade.
“We have lost many thousands of lives, including those of policemen, soldiers, judges, journalists, and many of our bravest and best politicians. This war has proven to be extremely challenging and at times highly frustrating,” said Urrutia, who took up his Washington posting in September.
“In close partnership with the United States and other nations, we are no longer the world’s top cocaine producer, as acknowledged by the latest UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] Report. Not only have we reduced corps and trafficking, but we’ve also dismantled the world’s most menacing cartels,” he noted. “However, as President Santos has said, this war often feels as if we were exercising on a stationary bicycle. As Colombia exerts pressure, other areas in the region suddenly become exposed to the same cycles of violence and destruction. This needs to be a multilateral approach.”
Urrutia added: “We do not know whether the peace negotiations with FARC will be successful, but if a peace agreement is reached, it will certainly have a major and very positive effect on Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking. In the meantime, Colombia’s commitment to the war on drugs is unwavering.”