“The cocaine business in the Andes remains robust.  According to United Nations’ estimates, cocaine production is up in Peru and Bolivia since 2005.  Colombia’s cocaine production is down since 2005 but still higher than it was in 1990—and total cocaine output from the Andes is roughly the same as it was in 1990.”  Mary O’Grady

No Peace in Colombia With a War on Drugs

The big cartels are gone, but cocaine production is higher than in 1990.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2013, p. A 15

Last week authorities at Charles de Gaulle Airport announced that they had seized 1.3 metric tons of cocaine on an Air France flight from Caracas. Nice work, imageClouseau.

But the mega drug bust is more a sign that Latin American cocaine producers are increasingly audacious than it is evidence that victory in the war on drugs is at hand. That’s sad because the war has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and imposed unspeakable misery on dozens of poor countries. Barring a change in policy, the casualties are bound to keep climbing.The case of Colombia is especially tragic, and President Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a different course. In an interview with Journal editors in New York last week, he said that “Colombia probably has been the country that has incurred the highest cost in this war on drugs. We have lost our best leaders, our best judges, our best policemen, our best journalists.” It has been “a lot of blood, the cost of this war on drugs.”

And it is far from over. “The big cartels are no longer in existence,” Mr. Santos said, referring to the success of the Colombian military and police in dismantling that particular business model. “But the business continues because there is still demand.”The Santos presidency is steeped in controversy because he has opened peace talks in Havana with the drug-trafficking rebels known as the FARC. Yet a different round of talks that Mr. Santos also takes credit for initiating—a multilateral conversation at the Organization of American States about alternatives to the failed drug war—could turn out to be far more important.

The FARC has been launching attacks on Colombia’s population for more than a half century. Once funded by the Soviets, it has remained a viable terrorist organization in the post-Cold War world because of profits derived from coca and cocaine trafficking. Conservatives in Colombia doubt FARC’s good faith in the Cuba talks, and Mr. Santos admitted that the November deadline he set now looks “difficult” to achieve.

A key sticking point is the FARC’s insistence on a constitutional assembly to rewrite the highest law of the land. This would be a dangerous course—if the example of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is any guide—and Mr. Santos said he has told the rebels it’s not going to happen. But rebel intransigence remains. If the talks collapse it could cost Mr. Santos re-election next year. He could blame the drug war.

Colombia has come a long way since the 1990s when it flirted with failed-state status. Yet the cocaine business in the Andes remains robust. According to United Nations’ estimates, cocaine production is up in Peru and Bolivia since 2005. Colombia’s cocaine production is down since 2005 but still higher than it was in 1990—and total cocaine output from the Andes is roughly the same as it was in 1990.

Colombian thugs have changed their business model. Gone are the Pablo Escobars of the 1980s, big-shot drug lords who became local folk heroes and challenged the authority of the state. In their place are smaller players who keep their heads down and pay the FARC for protection.

Mr. Santos said Colombia has been able to capture many heads of smaller, regional criminal bands, but that “continu[ing] to be very aggressive is for us a matter of national survival.” In other words, the warring in Colombia is far from over, even after billions of dollars in U.S. aid since the late 1990s.

Recent protests by Colombian farmers calling for government subsidies reflect their low productivity due to inadequate investment, Mr. Santos says. Ending the conflict with the FARC—which makes investors fear the rural areas—is necessary if the farmers are to compete in Colombia’s increasingly open economy.

Yet making peace with the leadership of the FARC is not the same as closing down the powerful criminal networks that live off drug consumers in rich countries. Even if the FARC can be retained to fight drug trafficking, as Mr. Santos hopes, the incentives to meet consumer demand will remain.

That is why in April 2012 he proposed the OAS conversation. Fifty years after the launch of the war on drugs, the world is no better off and the war has not been won, Mr. Santos said. “So are we going to continue 50 years more? Or are there better alternatives?”

The OAS report, “Scenarios for Drug Problems in the Americas” released in May, did not solve the problem. It merely discussed the costs and benefits of a variety of scenarios. But by breaking the taboo on governments talking about the high price of prohibition, it has given a voice to millions of innocent victims. That, and not the Havana talks, may turn out to be Mr. Santos’s most important legacy.

Write to O’

A version of this article appeared September 30, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: No Peace in Colombia With a War on Drugs.


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