Beyond the Drug War

When Bolivian President Evo Morales recently made his first visit ever to Washington, he gave a rousing speech before hundreds at American University, addressed the Organization of American States (OAS), and met with leaders of both political parties on Capitol Hill. Strikingly absent from his itinerary, however, was any interaction with the Bush administration.

Relations between the United States and Bolivia have grown particularly tense since September 10, when the Bolivian government expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. La Paz accused him of supporting the political opposition at a time of escalating and racist violence by right-wing vigilante groups. Yet while the Morales administration declared Goldberg persona non grata, for all practical purposes, the Bush administration responded by declaring Bolivia a country non grata. In retaliation, the Bush administration “decertified” the country for allegedly failing to live up to Washington’s expectations for counternarcotics efforts and shortly thereafter announced that Bolivia would be suspended from the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (APTDEA). According to the Bolivian government, an estimated 25,000 jobs could be lost when the suspension goes into effect.

But it’s the Bush administration — not Bolivia — that’s out of step with the region when it comes to drug policy. Across Latin America, frustration with the failed and protracted “war on drugs” is leading countries to experiment with new policies, from Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” strategy, to the pardoning of small-time offenders in Ecuador, to efforts to decriminalize consumption in countries as diverse as Argentina and Mexico. The incoming Obama administration should take advantage of these new trends in Latin America to seek more effective and more humane drug control policies, at home and abroad.

Coca vs. Cocaine

In his OAS speech on November 19, Morales declared that the counternarcotics “certification process of the U.S. government has to end.” Just two months earlier, on September 16, the Bush administration announced its determination that Bolivia had “failed demonstrably” to meet its obligations under international narcotics agreements over the last year. The U.S. government waived the penalty of cuts in U.S. economic assistance, yet nonetheless it was a clear diplomatic slap in the face. Although the Bush administration insisted that this decision and the announced APTDEA suspension were in response to Bolivian antidrug policy, the Morales government received no such sanctions its first two years in office and had implemented no significant change in policy over the previous 12 months. The Bush administration’s actions appear to be a direct response to Ambassador Goldberg’s expulsion.

Shortly thereafter, the Morales government — long frustrated with the secretive and shady operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — suspended its activities, informing the some 35 DEA agents in the country that they would have to leave by early next year. It then suspended U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations (though how that will be enforced is far from clear).

Until this recent turn of events, close cooperation between the U.S. and Bolivian governments on interdiction efforts continued after Morales — a coca grower himself — took office. Indeed, illicit drug seizures have increased significantly under the Morales government. Washington has taken issue, however, with its approach to the coca leaf, which Bolivia clearly distinguishes from cocaine in its “coca yes, cocaine no” strategy. “Cocaine is not part of indigenous culture,” declared Morales at his American University speech on November 18. But coca clearly is, as the plant has long been used by indigenous peoples for health, religious, cultural and other purposes. The Bolivian government, of course, recognizes that much coca is deviated to the illicit market and has sought to control that by limiting production.

Continuing a cooperative coca reduction strategy first put in place in 2004, the Bolivian government allows each registered coca grower one cato of coca, which is 1,600 square meters or one-third the size of a football field. Not only has this approach eliminated the violence and human rights violations that characterized forced eradication efforts, but it also allows a small but secure monthly income. This economic safety net has in turn allowed farmers to invest in other income-generating activities so that they can slowly reduce their dependence on income generated from coca. In addition, particularly in Bolivia’s Chapare coca growing region, the national and local governments are investing in improving overall quality of life and economic development — key elements of a long-term coca reduction strategy.

The cooperative coca reduction strategy functions for two fundamental reasons. First, it benefits all farmers by maintaining a stable price for the coca leaf while, as noted, providing a minimal amount of guaranteed cash income. Second, coca growers’ federations are tasked with ensuring compliance — and the sanctions for noncompliance are steep, ranging from the elimination of the right to grow any coca to loss of landholdings (which the federations control). This approach has led to the elimination of over 5,000 hectares of coca per year since the Morales administration took office. In contrast to forced eradication, it’s also less likely to lead to coca replanting.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Bolivian coca production increased an estimated 5% in 2007. In contrast, in Colombia — where the U.S. government invested billions of dollars in recent years and massive aerial spraying is utilized — coca production increased by 27%. Of the net 16% increase in coca production in the Andean region recorded by the UNODC from 2006 to 2007, Colombia accounted for 85% of the net increase, Peru for 9%, and Bolivia for 6%. In short, Bolivia’s cooperative coca reduction strategy is showing far better results than forced eradication — long advocated by Washington — that’s being implemented in Peru and Colombia.

Interestingly, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report shortly before Morales came to Washington that highlights how the $5 billion in aid channeled so far into “Plan Colombia” to reduce drug production has failed. In its article about the report, the Associated Press noted that “Colombia remains the source of 90% of the cocaine in the United States and most of the heroin consumed east of the Mississippi river.” Vice President-elect Joe Biden requested the report, so its findings aren’t likely to go unnoticed by the Obama administration.

Yankees Go Home

Bolivia isn’t the only country in the region experimenting with new approaches. Ecuador, for example, has adopted an alternative strategy on its border with Colombia. Upon his election, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa launched “Plan Ecuador,” which — in contrast to “Plan Colombia” — focuses on human security rather than national security. The northern border region has long suffered from spillover of the Colombian conflict, including increased violence, a steady flow of refugees and environmental and health impacts from fumigation just over its border. While military patrols along the border continue, the focus is now on improving basic infrastructure and promoting economic development, as well as improved services for refugees. In addition, Correa has renewed efforts to force Colombia to cease the aerial spraying along its border.

Perhaps even more significantly for U.S. policy, the recently adopted Ecuadorian constitution specifically prohibits foreign bases from its territory. (The draft Bolivian constitution to be voted on in late January includes a similar clause.) Hence, when its lease expires in 2009, the U.S. military will have no choice but to vacate its airbase in Manta, located on the southern coast of Ecuador, which is its most prominent outpost in South America. The base is ostensibly used for counter-drug surveillance — indeed, the U.S. military claims some 100 flights per month come and go from Manta. For many years, however, Ecuadorian officials, analysts and civil society representatives have complained that the U.S. government has not been fully open regarding its activities at the base, or those of the Coast Guard, which is also located there and patrols the waters off Ecuador’s southern coast.

One longstanding concern is that the intelligence gathered by U.S. forces at Manta is being used to support Colombia’s counterinsurgency strategy and hence involving Ecuador directly in that country’s internal conflict. In late October, the Correa government announced that, according to an internal investigation, the CIA had full knowledge in advance — and appears to have facilitated — the Colombian raid on a FARC rebel camp inside Ecuador on March. The operation led to a rupture in diplomatic relations between the two countries and that rift still hasn’t healed.

While such forms of U.S. intervention may have been business as usual in the past, Ecuador and other Latin American governments are sending a clear message to Washington that times have changed and the United States no longer has free rein in its perceived “backyard.” As President Morales said at American University, “We want mutual respect between countries.”

Making Drug Laws More Sensible

Ecuador is also taking the lead in addressing the problem of notoriously harsh drug laws that have led to massive prison overcrowding, a problem across the region but that is particularly acute in Ecuador. The weight of these laws falls disproportionately on the poor, who often engage in small-scale drug dealing for lack of employment opportunities and tend to be the target of police actions, rather than the criminal networks that run the drug trade. Presently, Ecuador has a 12-year mandatory minimum and a 25-year maximum sentence for anyone convicted of a drug-related offense. Yet the maximum sentence for murder is only 16 years. As a result, a small-time trafficker can end up with a higher sentence than a mass murderer. This should change once implementing legislation for the new constitution is enacted.

In the meantime, the Ecuadorian government has launched a program to pardon “mules,” as people convicted of carrying small amounts of illicit drugs, are known. The program will benefit “mules” who meet certain conditions: They must have served 10% of their sentence, been convicted of carrying two kilos or less, and not be a repeat offender. An estimated 1,200 prisoners could ultimately benefit and this policy will ease prison overcrowding. The Ecuadorian government believes this is a more just approach: those who have committed crimes should be punished, but sanctioned reasonably. Government officials also state that as part of its new strategy, police forces will focus on dismantling drug trafficking networks rather than meeting arrest quotas to impress Washington.

The issue of proportionality of sentencing is a major problem in the United States and the Latin American countries “persuaded” to follow its lead (more often than not as a result of threats of losing U.S. trade benefits and economic assistance). In addition to disproportionate sentences for crimes committed, the United States has long pushed for the criminalization of drug consumption and has continued to hold fast to that approach even as many European and other countries have increasingly treated drug abuse as a public health problem.

In Latin America, more and more countries are moving towards decriminalization of drug consumption. The new Ecuadorian constitution explicitly states that drug consumption is to be treated as a public health, rather than criminal, problem. After languishing in the Brazilian congress for more than 10 years, a decriminalization bill finally passed in 2002. While problems persist — such as differing interpretations of the amounts that qualify for personal consumption and trafficking — prison sentences are no longer applied to consumption cases. In Argentina, the minister of justice has spoken out forcefully in favor of decriminalizing drugs for personal consumption, a position that was endorsed on at least one occasion by President Cristina Kirchner. Draft legislation is presently in the works, though it will encounter resistance from more conservative lawmakers.

Closer to home, Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón recently proposed a change in the general health law to eliminate penal action against those caught carrying very small amounts of drugs for personal consumption. (In response, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya went further, expressing his support for legalization.) Though decriminalization legislation was vetoed in 2006 by former President Vicente Fox after intense U.S. opposition, the Calderón proposal has more political traction as it also includes increased sentences for drug traffickers. In addition, in recent years various governors have proposed legalizing marijuana and some lawmakers have proposed its legalization in Mexico City.

A New U.S. Approach

The Obama administration could learn valuable lessons from some of its Latin American counterparts. First, it could recognize that the international drug control policies implemented over the past several decades have failed to make any significant dent in the supply of illicit drugs. Second, it could adopt measures that reduce the harm caused by both drug use and the “war on drugs.” Completely eliminating the demand or production of illicit drugs is simply not achievable. The challenge, therefore, is to put into place policies that mitigate the harm caused by drug use to individuals, families, and communities, and the harm or negative consequences caused by illicit drug production and the policies intended to contain it.

The new administration should begin by sitting down with Latin American government officials, community leaders, coca growers, and others to listen to the problems they face and proposed solutions. In so doing, it must recognize that the one-size-fits-all approach to drug control is fundamentally flawed and that communities and countries need the flexibility to develop and experiment with policies that best fit their own realities. In addition, the incoming administration should publicly endorse two fundamental premises. First, the United States should carry out its drug control efforts with complete compliance with international human rights norms and treaties. Second, the government’s drug control policies and programs should be based on sound scientific evidence and “best practices.” It should also invest significantly more resources in education and treatment programs here in the United States.

If they truly listen, Obama administration officials will no doubt have a range of policy alternatives that merit serious consideration. One very significant and immediate step that the Obama administration should take is to end support for fumigation and other forced eradication efforts. Then, it should redirect funding for those ineffective, cruel, and flawed approaches to development programs that support alternative livelihoods. Forced eradication efforts have generated some of the most extensive collateral damage from the U.S. “war on drugs” — without making a significant impact toward reducing the production of coca or poppies (the raw material for heroin). Ending this war on poor farmers is a fundamental step toward developing international drug control policies that are both more effective and more humane.

Coletta A. Youngers, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is an independent consultant, associate at the International Drug Policy Consortium, and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.