The Failure of the “War on Drugs”


“Barbarity is our democracy”
— Diego Enrique Osorno

The "War on Drugs" much like its partner the "Global War on Terror" are a smoke screen for perpetual cycles of ceaseless conflicts fuelled by non-state actors and governments at odds with one another and each other jostling for political and economic dominance at a local, regional and global level. Seasoned journalist Jason Burke is correct; the world is at war, "we live in a world of trouble. Conflicts today may be much less lethal than those that scarred the last century, but this brings little comfort," and as historian Margaret MacMillan wrote in The Guardian "Much has changed about war, but certain things remain constant. Nations and the individuals who lead them fight out of greed, when they think they can wrest something – land, spoils or people – from another." 

In Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims were cleansed by Buddishist nationalists and a genocidal military, Syria continues to suffer, South Sudan (as well as Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Cameroon and the Central African Republic) is plagued by civil war, the Congolese Wars continue unabated since 1993-1994 and Yemen, the Arab's poorest country, has been bombed and blockaded into famine while Afghanistan grapples with the resurgent Taliban, narcokhans and warlords, a constant since before the Soviet-Afghan War. Iraq lies ruined by Four Gulf Wars and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues unabated. Latin America is in an age of terror in which 2.5 million have died in homicidal violence since 2000 as the unsolved legacy of Cold War proxy wars continues into the 21st century and in the Philippines, President Duerte has slaughtered thousands of civilians with startling impunity. North America and Europe are troubled continents with populism, racism, anti-refugee and migrant rhetoric and authoritarianism rampant, with a violent backlash occurring against neo-liberalism and neoconservativism. To cap it all off, climate change and its global consequences is wreaking havoc on the world's ecosystem. Writer Pankaj Mishra coined the era in which we live as The Age of Rage.

As the world burns, Mexico, much like Central America, has not been impervious to the widespread destruction and has demonstrated, much like elsewhere, that war is here to stay. The conflict in Mexico as it goes is about drugs, a blood-stained lucrative enterprise, which goes to the doorsteps of major American and European cities including London. As Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2015 in the wake of Joaquin Guzman's 'escape' from a high security prison on the outskirts of Toluca, "it is thanks to the 120,000 dead (now perhaps quarter of a million) and 20,000 missing (now over 30,000) in Mexico’s narco-war that mountains of cocaine go up British, European and American noses." 

However, of-course, the Mexican Drug War is not just about drugs, it may not even be the most important factor. Colombia's conflict, one which lasted over half a century, was not solely about Pablo Escobar, contrary to the narrative of Netflix's TV Series, Narcos. So to is Mexico's conflict not just about the drug lord, Joaquin Guzman. State and non-state actors have been crucial in shaping Mexico's bloodshed. 


Does the Mexican conflict come to London's doorstep? Conventional analysis would suggest no. Mexico and Latin America, by-enlarge is outside the United Kingdom's sphere of influence geopolitically and (to some extent) historically. Alternative interpretations, and the nature of the drug wars suggest otherwise. On 27th June, 2018,  a letter to The Guardian by John Keane argued otherwise. "Regardless of the legalisation/decriminalisation debate, it cannot be stressed enough that drug users should accept responsibility for the misery and death they cause through drug trafficking, and unless they can be certain the product they are inhaling or shoving up their nose is ethically sourced (and organically grown?), they should be forced to recognise this." 

Take drugs sourced from criminals, and you tacitly support environmental and ecological destruction, human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Every pill, powder, crystal and crack ingested and smoked as well as every injection into the arm has likely resulted in someone being kidnapped, tortured or murdered, a new wave of IDPs or a new refugee being created or someone being forced deeper and deeper into poverty at the hands of organised crime or state-sponsored violence. An innocent man, woman or child is put into a narco-grave (numbering over 850 recorded across Mexico so far) because of our insatiable desire to consume drugs.

When this is combined with unrestrained state apparatuses fighting for political gain and economic greed and private security companies benefiting from lucrative arms deals, securitisation and militarisation, the consequences of Mexico's descent and its blueprint for utter chaos become more apparent. Equally, the arguments for legalisation and increased investment in social programmes and health programmes while reforming prison systems  become more convincing with each passing year, and each more horrifying story and statistic. As Tom Wainwright writes in his book Narconomics: 

"Governments in wealthy countries should do a better job of educating the drug-buying public about how its money ends up being spent. Public-education films in the rich world have historically focused on the risks to health caused by taking drugs. Several decades later, those campaigns don't seem to have made much of an impact-and that is not surprising, given that the chances of dying of an overdose are fairly slim. The truth is buying and taking illegal drugs probably won't kill you. But it may very well kill someone else. Cocaine is exclusively manufactured and exported exclusively by cartels that use murder and torture as part of their business model. Buy cocaine in Europe or the United States and it is an uncomfortable certainty that you have helped pay for someone to be tortured to death in a place like Reynosa, Mexico. People ought to know this. It is a testament to the success of cartels in laundering their images that millions of consumers buy drugs each year without giving a moment's thought to the fact that they are funding unimaginable suffering."

The lines of the so-called "War on Drugs" are so blurred now, that they have become near indistinguishable and the good cop vs. gangsters narrative farcical. The UK's public health crisis is not isolated from the bloodshed in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other countries in Latin America, they are inextricably linked. There are other reasons to get involved, namely the conduct of the Mexican government. The international community must put pressure on the Mexican government that the targeting of activists, journalists and human rights defenders is unacceptable. As Crisis Group analyses, the Mexican conflict, a war without name, is not just about drugs. 

It is about the failure of neo-liberalism, a toxic emphasis on hyper-individualism, crude market fundamentalism, unfettered (at times criminal) corporate power and the conflict between nationalisation and privatisation. These failures have infected poorer countries around the world and have had terrifying repercussions in countries such as Mexico. Mexico may seem far away from the average everyday life of a citizen of the United Kingdom, but in the age of digitalisation and globalisation, instant transaction, cyber warfare, and the growing power of transnational, non-state actors, it is much closer to home then we could possibly imagine.