The world’s drug problem, ’declares the latest UN World Drugs Report, ‘is being contained.’ A truthful statement, if a touch optimistic – but the use of the present continuous is telling. There continues to be a huge market for cocaine, cannabis and heroin, among other drugs, particularly in Western Europe and the USA.
And South America finds itself with the dubious accolade of being the principal global producer of cocaine. Recent UN estimates suggest that 0.3% of the global population use cocaine.
That may sound like a negligible fraction, but it represents a formidable 143 million cocaine users. With users in the US regularly paying $100+ for a gram, it’s not hard to see why coke production continues to flourish.
The extent of the drugs problem varies wildly from country to country. Some South American nations, such as Uruguay, are host to neither narcotics-producing nor transit.
Other nations, like Venezuela and Brazil, are key drug-transit stops, due in part to intense corruption at the highest levels of government and in part to extensive borders which prove impossible to control. Yet they do not produce coke on a large scale.
And then there are the true movers and shakers of the coke world – Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. Last year Peru and Bolivia produced, respectively, 280 and 94 metric tons. But Columbia remains by far the world’s most significant cocaine producer, churning out an estimated 610 metric tons last year, representing over 60% of global supply.
The recent conflict between Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador over the latter two’s alleged support of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), a Marxist militia owing much of its influence to the very un-Marxist means of drug-trafficking, arms-selling, and ransom-kidnapping, demonstrated the influence of the substance in the country’s politics.
Narcotics production has devastating effects, not only within the countries where the end product is consumed, but in the countries where it is created. Drugs mean power. A local drug baron essentially operates above the law, taking it into his own hands should his trade be threatened.
Between 1989 and 2007, 140 journalists were killed in Colombia, approximately seven a year, often because of their decisions to report on drug trafficking or corruption. Drug sales frequently go to subsidise armed groups, further destabilising the country and increasing those groups’ regional control over South American slums.
As always, there’s one nation which just can’t resist getting involved – the USA. Its extensive involvement is hardly surprising given that the States remains the world’s largest cocaine consumer.
The level of US financial and tactical input in South America is formidable. The aptly named ‘Plan Colombia’, for example, was established to help the Colombian government combat the drugs industry and promised $5 billion worth of US Aid.
In addition, US Government produces an annual ‘International Narcotics Control Strategy Report’ each year, outlining the extent of American aid to each country and how effective it has been in containing drug production and trafficking.
Yet despite extensive UN and US aid, the cocaine industry in South America remains steady, if not flourishing. Where exactly are they going wrong?
For a start, the vastness of the continent alone makes it very difficult to monitor the trade. With a total area of 17,840,000 km² spread over 12 countries, each with its own anti-drug laws and strategies, South America finds forming a united front to combat drug-trafficking nigh on impossible.
Whilst countries are beginning to form agreements with one another, including exchanges of intelligence between security forces, they have a long way to go before they find themselves capable of infiltrating organised and well-funded narcotic-producing organisations.
The geography doesn’t help much either. The rainforests and rivers which delight tourists provide perfect cover for cocaine production and transportation.
The border between Brazil and Colombia stretches across 1000 km, and much of it is made up of dense rainforest or large river systems, with countless minor waterways along which to smuggle drugs. Unsurprisingly, police presence in such hostile conditions is limited, and local drug barons, with extensive knowledge of their surroundings, will always have the advantage.
Then, of course, there’s the tourists. Were the cocaine market a purely domestic one, for consumption by locals, narcotics production would never have reached today’s dizzying levels.
Unfortunately, the presence of tourists eager to sample purer, cheaper coke ensures that the market remains lucrative. An inordinate number of average gap year kids will certainly be heading south to sample the continent’s most infamous product – cocaine.
The typical tourist attitude to the drug is increasingly flippant and thus damaging. Tourists at Colombia’s Ciudad Perdida now have the option of stopping off at a ‘cocaine factory’ for a photo opportunity. As one travel writer puts it, ‘it seems the drug is becoming a tourist attraction in itself. Just as you try steak in Argentina and caipirinhas in Brazil; in Colombia, you sample the coke.’
Agencies hold guided tours of the same favelas (Brazilian slums) in which addiction and drug-related gang warfare are decimating a generation of young men. Glamorising the drug in such a way goes against any effort made by the host countries to combat the industry.
Perhaps most crucially, anti-drug efforts fail because they fail to capture the loyalty of the local people, often damaging their lives rather than improving them. In particular, the mass destruction or seizure of land on which coca leaves are cultivated hurts a trade on which hundreds of South American families depend. Interviews with coca growers highlight the uselessness of such unsympathetic measures.
‘Coca is a means of survival for us,’ said one farmer interviewed by the Guardian, ‘because the soil is very tired, very eroded. Coca leaves are the only option we have for earning a living to feed ourselves and our families.’
The problem, such farmers would argue, lies in the northen hemisphere. Without American and European demand, there would be no market for the product. The Americans should deal with their own people, discouraging citizens from turning to drugs recreationally, rather than intervening in the politics of other countries.
The countries of South America need to re-examine how they conduct their fight in the battle against cocaine. Wiping out coca fields is not enough – they need to provide those same farmers with another equally profitable product to survive on.
To ensure the co-operation of local people, US assistance must be downplayed and eventually rendered unnecessary. For our part, the message must be reinforced that casual holiday drug binges have a far more sinister effect on the country in question than users ever imagine.