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Any discussion about transnational organized crime almost inevitably includes the trade in illicit drugs. A 2011 analysis by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that illicit drugs constitute the largest income source for transnational crime, accounting for about half of transnational crime proceeds, and one-fifth of all crime proceeds. The UNODC has estimated the value of the 2003 global illicit drugs market to be US$322 billion— higher than the GDP that year of 88 percent of the world’s countries.

Organized criminal groups from Mexico and Colombia to Guinea-Bissau, Russia, and Afghanistan obtain vast wealth from various facets of the illicit drug trade. They often use those resources to secure protection for their activities through corruption of state officials. Many of these groups have engaged in extreme violence to enforce their control and intimidate rivals.

Since the early 1960s, the primary international policy response to this trade has been prohibition, criminalization of drug use, possession, production, and distribution, and aggressive enforcement aimed at—as articulated in a 1988 UN General Assembly special session on drugs—creating a “family of nations free of drugs in the twenty-first century,” and eliminating drug crops. Governments around the world have poured billions of dollars into combating drugs—some estimate at least US$100 billion a year—to pursue, conduct surveillance on, kill, prosecute, extradite, and imprison kingpins and low-level dealers, in source and destination countries alike. In countries like Colombia and Peru, governments—often with US backing—have fumigated crops, paid farmers to grow different crops, and interdicted shipments.

In their anti-drug zeal, many governments have criminalized even mere use and possession of drugs. As a result, in countries such as the United States, prisons and jails have become engorged with low-level participants in the drug trade, as well as many people who have done nothing more than possess drugs for personal consumption. Those arrested and imprisoned in the United States are disproportionately African American, even though African American and Caucasian persons consume illicit drugs at similar rates. In the United States and elsewhere, those imprisoned for drug offenses often face extremely harsh sentencing regimes. Many countries’ drug policies have driven people who use drugs away from HIV testing and prevention services, or evidence-based drug dependency treatment and care, and often made controlled substances, such as morphine, inaccessible for medical use—all in an effort to control a business that supplies between an estimated 162 million and 324 million consumers a year.

But this approach is now facing strong challenges from several sources. Uruguay and several US states have legalized marijuana, and countries as varied as Portugal and Jamaica have decriminalized some or all drug use. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel of world leaders and prominent intellectuals, has asserted that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences.” Pressed by the governments of Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala in 2012, which called for a global review of existing drug strategies, the United Nations has convened a special session of its General Assembly for 2016 to focus specifically on drug policy. There is increasing talk in international settings, including at the Organization of American States, about the need to review and reform drug laws and policies.

Even the US government—historically one of the strongest proponents of aggressive enforcement of criminal prohibitions on drug use, possession, production, and distribution—seems to be changing its tune. In August 2013, in response to state ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidance to prosecutors that gave the states some leeway to experiment with legalization. Three senators have recently introduced a bipartisan bill to reclassify marijuana as a drug with legitimate medical use, and to pursue a number of other federal changes to make it easier for states to explore alternative systems to regulate drugs. For the first time, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, has a background in public health, rather than law enforcement, and is himself in long-term substance abuse recovery.

On the foreign policy front, William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, has articulated a novel position for the United States: that the international community should accept a flexible interpretation of the UN drug conventions, and tolerate differing countries’ drug control policies, so long as they “agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations… those who market and traffic the product for economic gain.” It is still far from clear what this means in practice. The United States has shown little inclination to change its traditional approaches to controlling the drug trade in Central and South America. Nonetheless, Brownfield’s statement is a significant departure from past positions.

There are many reasons behind these shifts, including, within the United States, domestic concerns over the massive size and cost of the US system of prisons and jails, concerns over the racially disparate impact of harsh drug sentences on African Americans, the public health imperative of averting millions of new HIV infections among injecting drug users, and public pressure and movement at the state level toward alternate regulatory frameworks for marijuana.

Less discussed in the US context is the main argument being made by some countries at the epicenter of the so-called “drug war”: the need to find alternative ways to deal with drug policy

Less discussed in the US context is the main argument being made by some countries at the epicenter of the so-called “drug war”: the need to find alternative ways to deal with drug policy, so as not to continue fueling transnational organized crime and the devastation that it wreaks upon weak state institutions. This is a critical concern, and should be a key topic in global public debate around drugs.

Organized Crime and Drugs: Colombia and Beyond

If you talk to officials in US drug law enforcement, many will say that the United States has been tremendously successful in fighting drug-related organized crime. Their poster child is Colombia, where according to the latest UN World Drug Report, overall coca cultivation went down by 25 percent from 2011 to 2012 (more recent figures are not available, however the US estimates substantial reductions from 2007 to 2012 followed by a significant increase in 2014). Over the years, Colombia has extradited thousands of its citizens to the United States to face drug charges. Overall, homicide and kidnapping rates have declined from their peak over a decade ago.

But the Colombia story is not so simple. In the 1980s, Colombia was home to probably the most notorious drug syndicate in history, the Medellín Cartel. Under the ruthless leadership of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar—who, along with the brothers Jorge Luis, Fabio, and Juan David Ochoa, became so wealthy through drugs that Forbes Magazine included them in their 1987 World’s Billionaire’s List—the cartel engaged in a bloody “war” aimed in part at getting the Colombian government to ban extraditions to the United States. The car and airplane bombings, assassinations and kidnappings of prominent political figures, and widespread killings at that time led many to label Medellín the “murder capital of the world.”

Escobar, known for offering public officials a choice between plata o plomo (“silver or lead” or a bribe or a bullet), bought off or threatened vast sectors of law enforcement, making it extremely difficult to build criminal cases against him.

Colombian security forces, with US backing and covert assistance from the Cali cartel and disaffected former Escobar associates (which organized into a death squad known as the PEPES, or People Persecuted by Escobar), killed Escobar in 1993. The United States then turned its attention to Escobar’s major rival, the Cali Cartel, which, with Escobar out of the picture, quickly became the world’s most powerful cocaine trafficking organization. Colombian authorities arrested the cartel’s leaders, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, in the mid-90s, and eventually extradited them to the United States, where they remain in prison after pleading guilty to drug trafficking charges in 2006.

That should have been the end of the “drug war” in Colombia. Instead, as the world turned its attention elsewhere in the mid-90s, others took the reins of the two cartels’ operations. In Medellín, brutal right-wing paramilitary groups descended from the PEPES and new criminal organizations quickly seized control of much of the business. In Cali, the Norte del Valle cartel quickly emerged as a major player. Other groups across the country, including to some extent the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, also took on new roles in a more fragmented but still enormously profitable drug trade.

The paramilitaries’ rise was accompanied by yet another bloodbath. Claiming to be fighting the FARC and other left-wing guerrillas, paramilitary forces committed gruesome massacres—dismembering their victims alive, raping women in front of their families, and wiping out entire towns. They killed anyone who got in their way as they seized territory they wanted to control for various reasons—counterinsurgency goals, but also for coca production, or as drug transportation corridors. Illicit drug profits helped pay for their weapons and uniforms, wages for their “soldiers,” and for bribes. More than 100 Colombian Congress members and countless other officials have been investigated in recent years for alleged collusion with paramilitaries.

The paramilitaries supposedly demobilized between 2004 and 2006, and Colombia extradited many of their leaders to the United States in 2008. But in the words of a young man I got to know in one of Medellín’s low-income neighborhoods, “a dead king is a replaced king.” No sooner does one organized crime leader or syndicate get toppled than another boss or group takes over.

As I documented in an extensive Human Rights Watch investigation in 2010, even as they demobilized, many of the paramilitaries’ mid-level commanders were waiting in the wings to continue running their criminal organizations. The government calls the groups that are now in charge “criminal gangs” rather than paramilitaries, but the problem remains. The groups are engaged not only in drug trafficking, but also in serious abuses against communities to maintain their control. Violence fluctuates by region and over time, and in many cases the paramilitaries’ successors have opted for more low-profile forms of control—such as threats and forced disappearances. But in other places the abuses are flagrant.

In the Afro-Colombian port town of Buenaventura, atrocities by paramilitary successor groups such as the Urabeños—known for the “chop houses” at which they have dismembered their victims—have caused the highest rate of forced displacement in Colombia, with tens of thousands of residents fleeing their homes every year. In some cases, government authorities have been known to tolerate or collude with the groups, impeding progress toward ending their control.

While coca cultivation seems to be down—reasons may include increased interdiction, fumigation, and eradication in source countries in South America, as well as decreased consumption in the United States—US efforts to shut down drug trafficking routes from Colombia to the United States have turned Mexico into a key transit point for cocaine. Mexico is also a major supplier of cannabis, and a transit point for opioids from Asia as well as methamphetamine.

Indeed in Mexico, an aggressive US-backed offensive against the country’s drug syndicates started under the administration of Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012. It resulted in large numbers of killings, arrests, and extraditions to the United States. Sinaloa cartel chief, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who some portrayed as the world’s most-wanted drug lord, was arrested in February 2014. But the offensive was accompanied by a dramatic escalation in violence by the cartels, which have become infamous for gruesome, highly visible crimes, as well as a disturbing increase in violence by security forces. And after all the death and destruction, it is far from clear whether the strategy has done much to fundamentally weaken the power of cartels in Mexico.

After decades of going along with US-backed tough enforcement approaches, in a 2012 letter to the United Nations, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala expressed their frustration at this vicious cycle of organized crime, violence, and corruption. “Despite the efforts of the international community over decades,” they said in a 2012 statement decrying the failure of prohibitionist strategies, “drug consumption keeps rising… and generating substantial profits for criminal organizations worldwide [that] are capable of penetrating and corrupting state institutions.” As long as current drug policies remain unchanged, they said, the flow of resources to organized crime from drugs and weapons “will continue to threaten our societies and governments.”

In many countries, illicit drug profits are a huge incentive for groups that commit atrocities and corrupt authorities, and undermine democracy and the rule of law.

Nor is this problem limited to Latin America. In many countries, illicit drug profits are a huge incentive for groups that commit atrocities and corrupt authorities, and undermine democracy and the rule of law.

A prime example is Afghanistan: since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, Afghanistan has experienced more than a decade of international military involvement and received hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, including substantial counternarcotics assistance. But it remains the world’s largest opium producer, generating around 80 percent of the world supply. The illegal opium market and its billions in profits have dramatically distorted Afghanistan’s power structure, bankrolling armed groups including the Taliban, as well as local warlords, government officials, militia forces responsible for numerous atrocities, and others. It also fuels rampant corruption, ultimately undermining the goals that the international community claims to be pursuing in the country.

Human Rights and Policy Implications

From a human rights perspective, the “war on drugs” is problematic on a number of levels: the criminalization of personal use and possession of drugs, for example, is itself inconsistent with international human rights standards on privacy and basic principles of autonomy on which all rights depend. Drug law enforcement has often been accompanied by serious rights abuses. These include thousands of extrajudicial killings and the militarization of drug treatment in Thailand’s 2003 “war on drugs”; killings, torture,and enforced disappearances by security forces in Mexico; routine police brutality against people who use drugs in Canada, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Tanzania; and the use of the death penalty against drug offenders in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, and China.

The abuses also include disproportionately harsh sentencing and racially disparate treatment of drug offenders in the United States; mass incarceration in prisons that pose a high risk of HIV infection; death by overdose and other drug-related health conditions in in Russia; denial of access to essential pain medicines to millions of people suffering from cancer and other illnesses; and detention in the name of treatment of people suspected of using drugs in abusive drug detention centers in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Laos.

Countries could arguably address these concerns without dramatically overhauling current drug policies such as by: decriminalizing personal use and possession of drugs; imposing stricter limits on security forces and holding them accountable for abuses; reforming criminal laws and practices that result in disproportionately harsh punishments; expanding voluntary, community-based drug dependence treatment; and eliminating regulatory or other obstacles that make pain medication or necessary medical care difficult to obtain. Indeed, these are critical steps, and it is encouraging to see some countries, primarily in Latin America and Western Europe, moving in this direction.

But none of those measures would deal with the basic problem the governments of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala have highlighted: that the illicit market in drugs by its nature generates massive profits for organized crime. As academics have observed, not all criminal organizations engage in high rates of violence at all times—the extent of violence may well vary according to the extent of their control, competition, and the protection schemes they are able to establish with state officials, among other factors. But far too often, they have committed atrocities. And in many countries, the enormous resources at these groups’ disposal allow them to bribe or intimidate officials and escape justice, ultimately hollowing out the government institutions responsible for protecting all rights.

This is not to say that drugs are the only factor behind organized crime and violence in many of these societies— Colombia’s five-decade war also has political and ideological underpinnings, and in Mexico, the country’s crime syndicates are involved in many illicit businesses, not just drugs. Afghanistan’s corruption problems go much deeper than the drug trade. Should the illicit drug trade disappear, criminal groups in these countries would no doubt seek other sources of illicit income. But it is far from clear that those sources of income would be as profitable and resilient as illicit drugs.

This is one reason why Human Rights Watch and an increasing number of other voices have called for a reexamination of existing drug policies—not only regarding drug use and possession, but also the drug trade.

Finding alternative ways to regulate production and distribution and cut into illicit drug profits would allow governments around the world to increase accountability in drug markets. That would ensure that profits go to legal entities, weaken the influence of organized crime, and reduce abuses—killings, torture, disproportionate sentencing, and barriers to access to health care—that governments often commit in the name of fighting drugs.

Potential alternatives to current policies are largely untested. It will also take a long time for the results of recent legalization efforts to become clear—and given the small sizes of the markets in Uruguay and the US states that have legalized marijuana, such results may not be that informative. Nonetheless, as noted in UNODC’s World Drugs Report, at least one study conducted before the legalization in Washington and Colorado estimated that legalization of marijuana in one or two US states would have likely ripple effects in other states, lowering the price of marijuana nationwide and significantly cutting into Mexican cartel profits.

A shift in drug policy does not mean that illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine can or should be as freely available as alcohol or tobacco. But researchers have developed theoretical models for potential regulation, with both privatized and state-controlled supply, and with varying ways of handling licensing, taxation, treatment, public health education, marketing, and the protection of children. And new jurisdictions are beginning to put these models into practice.

Changing policies does, of course, carry risks of new problems or human rights concerns, and so governments around the world need to assess proposed solutions carefully. One key question will be how to effectively crowd out the black market in drugs, which requires addressing issues related to drug prices, safety, availability, and other factors. Governments will also have to examine how to protect children from illicit drug use, and expand access to appropriate drug dependency treatment and care.


Despite some of the changes US policymakers have recently adopted, the United States and the international community have a long way to go. The US call for flexibility in interpreting the drug conventions does not address the fact that some parts of those conventions simply need to be changed, if countries are to be allowed genuine experimentation with drug policy. And while the United States is looking at some domestic changes, it has said next to nothing about shifting its traditional approach to drug policy in countries like Colombia, Mexico, or Afghanistan.

But, with so many countries and prominent voices now questioning the status quo, this is a moment of opportunity. If carried out carefully and correctly, drug reform has the potential to bring substantial benefits for governments, the institutions that protect human rights and the daily lives of people around the world.

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