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The Providence Journal

More of the Same Drug War Isn’t the Answer

Jess Hunter-Bowman

BOGOTÁ - Here we go again. The other week our president traveled to Mexico to declare that the scourge of drug trafficking is killing thousands abroad and harming our children at home and that therefore we must redouble our efforts to fight the drug war.

Since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, our elected officials have always done the "right thing" and been tough on drugs. They have stepped up law enforcement at home; interdicted ships and submarines on the high seas, seizing tons of drugs; dismantled cartels abroad, extraditing their leaders to face U.S. prison cells; and eradicated millions of acres of drug crops in South America. An estimated $40 billion has bought the Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard and Southern Command some dazzling photo ops. Unfortunately, it has not bought much more as the drug trade remains as lucrative and violent as ever.

With drug-related violence on the rise in Mexico, drugs have again taken their place on the front pages. The Obama administration is deeply concerned about the situation in Mexico, as it should be. The State Department reports a continued rise in violence there, from about 2,700 deaths in 2007 to well over 5,000 in 2008. Estimates suggest that as many as 1,000 may have been killed just in the first two months of this year. Unfortunately, Washington's response thus far has been more of the same. The U.S. is set to spend billions supporting Mexican military operations targeting drug traffickers, despite publicly recognizing that the fuel behind the drug trade and this terrible violence is our insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S.

We've been down this road before. In the mid-1990s, substantial U.S. support helped Colombia take down Pablo Escobar and the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels. This U.S.-backed frontal assault on Colombia's drug lords destroyed their integrated operations covering all aspects of the cocaine trade, causing Colombia's traffickers to cede the most lucrative part of the business - trafficking drugs into the U.S. and wholesaling them - to the Mexican cartels. Just over a decade later, the bureaucrats' hand-wringing in Washington over Mexico leads to the same answer: Provide military assistance to a "partner in the drug war" to take down the cartels.

We have played a similar game of "whack a mole" with coca crops - the raw material for cocaine - in the Andes. As with most counter-narcotics programs, attacking the source of the drugs seemed sensible to the layperson.

The theory suggested that while drug traffickers could shield themselves behind private armies and hide drug shipments in fishing boats and airplane cargo, the raw material for these drugs - plants - had to be rooted and therefore easily attacked. For almost two decades U.S. policymakers targeted coca crops in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Yet, the only success taxpayers have seen from the billions spent was shifting about 200,000 acres of coca production from Peru to Colombia between 1993 and 2005. Net Andean coca production over those years actually increased slightly.

It is time to remind Washington that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Continued military aid to Colombia and Mexico to fight an archaic drug war is not the solution to the very real problems of violence, corruption and addiction created by the drug trade. If nearly four decades and $40 billion fighting drugs have taught us anything, it's that we need new, proven solutions to this problem.

Experts have long known that the most effective and efficient way to attack the drug trade is not through supply-side control measures targeting cartels and coca crops, but rather through demand-reduction measures such as treatment and education. While such policies may be a harder sell to an electorate historically comforted by the tough language of force typically employed to confront drugs, policies that actually work would be a great deal more comforting at the end of the day.

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Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Bogotá-based Andean regional director for Witness for Peace.

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