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The Economist: Burn-Out and Battle Fatigue

March 17, 2012


As violence soars, so do voices of dissent against drug prohibition, notes this Economist piece.

LATIN AMERICA is rich in sought-after commodities, including narcotics. The coca leaf, from which cocaine is refined, is grown only in the foothills of the Andes. Mexico produces more heroin than anywhere but Afghanistan, as well as much cannabis. Latin American traffickers are even diversifying into synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine.

The illegality of this successful export business means that its multi-billion-dollar profits go to criminal gangs. Their battles for market control have a high cost: according to the UN, eight of the world's ten most violent countries are in Latin America or the Caribbean. Drugs are not the only business of organised crime, but they account for the bulk of the gangs' income and thus their firepower. Honduras, a strategic spot on the trafficking route, has the world's highest murder rate, about 80 times that of western Europe.

All this is despite three decades of what has become known as the "war" on drugs in the region, inspired by the United States, and prosecuted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Latin American governments. Or is it because of the drug war? Hitherto, criticism of drug prohibition has tended to come only from retired political leaders. In a 2009 report, three respected former presidents (Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo) declared the drug war a failure, and demanded alternative approaches. Mr Cardoso has called for the legalisation of some drugs.

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