The Karma of Drug Trafficking

English Translation

Drug extravagance atrophies taste. The excesses of the capos were something out of a fable: they built swimming pools with sharks, adorned their mansions with Piassos, sent for giraffes and hippos from Africa, erected a statue for John Lennon, and offered to pay foreign debt.

The rivers of money penetrated the state, infiltrated congress, funded the gunmen’s slaughter who pillaged communities, placed a price on the heads of police, judges, and journalists. The war machine of Pablo Escobar and his cartel, once discovered, declared war on the state that sought to extradite them; they provided resources so that the M-19 took over the Palace of Justice; they assassinated ministers, judges, presidential candidates, prosecutors, governors, Guillermo Cano; they placed a bomb in DAS and in a plane; they sponsored the genocide of the Patriotic Union in a sinister alliance with the Castaño house; they entered a war against the Cali cartel; they built a jail.

Escobar almost overwhelmed the state, infiltrated the constituents, and only once the extradition was prohibited, the capo and his entourage of assassins were brought to justice. One year, they escaped and the chase ended on the roof of the America neighborhood in Medellin on December 2, 1993. The cartel of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers had infiltrated and then provided information to the police to get rid of their enemy. Colombia breathed a sigh of relief without realizing that a line of new capos was forming. The Rodriguez checks were made to football, journalism, the presidency of Ernest Samper, Congress; the process 8000 became the national agenda while the director of the DEA, Joe Toff, described the country as a narco-democracy.

Orlando Henao’s Norte del Valle cartel and those who followed the same model continued until they ended up in American courts. Since then, guerillas and paramilitaries have entered into the business. Drug trafficking became the fuel of the war. Without it, it would not have been possible for Colombia to have the oldest guerillas in the world, for example. A decade after the so-called Plan Colombia, experts agree that the war against drug trafficking has been a failure. President Santos has promoted the debate on the legalization of drugs. The United States has demonstrated openness to the discussion. The nucleus of the paradigm shift consists of treating consumption as a health issue while dismantling the cartels simultaneously. The legalization path begins to take its course.


This Brazilian is the coordinator for the Secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. She has worked in programs to reduce violence in Latin America and was a member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. She promoted the referendum in Brazil, seeking to veto the sale of arms to civilians. She specialized in conflict and peace studies in the Swiss university of Uppsala.


Born in New York, he is a well-known critic of the war on drugs and the US policies on this matter. He holds a PhD from Harvard University. He founded the Drug Policy Alliance, of which he is now the executive director. He believes that the failure of drug prohibition demands alternative policies that can reduce violence and corruption.

1. First step: decriminalization

As a first step, it is essential to aim for the decriminalization of all drugs because we have seen how it has helped to reduce the corruption and extortion by security forces, the incarceration of consumers and minor crimes committed by some drug addicts. One can also think of creating alternatives for youth who want to leave the drug business. It is very common that these young people – including those that participate in the production of drugs – are stigmatized with a tremendous cost to society.

2. Alternatives for small-scale dealers

Both governments and legislators should explore alternative sanctions for small-scale drug dealers who operate in local networks and are not violent. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that, after sentencing them and sending them to jail, life in prison quickly hardens them into becoming dangerous criminals.

3. Regulate marijuana

Regulating medical marijuana could cut ties between drug traffickers and consumers. Some countries or states have already created pilot programs in this sense, with positive effects, which show how the world would work with a regulated market. On the other hand, governments should try to reduce the controls on marijuana because it is a fact that it is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. It is the drug chosen by more than 80% of consumers, which means that a regulated market could decrease the power and profits of the cartels.

4. The unwinnable war

It is impossible to win a war on a market as dynamic as that of drugs. The real challenge for governments is to reduce the violence related with illegal markets. Let’s be realistic, heroin and cocaine will never be legalized like tobacco or alcohol but we can think of a scenario where marijuana is taxed and regulated, given that it is the most consumed drug in the world. Legalize marijuana and permit consumers of other drugs to receive them from state institutions.

5. There must be a debate

President Juan Manuel Santos is doing exactly what he should be doing: insisting on putting all the options on the table. The Colombian government needs to focus on reducing the power, violence, and intimidation of the cartels. The military should be included in the debate, it is logical given that they are the ones fighting drug trafficking. But it is important to be clear: one can win a war against a guerilla but one cannot win a war against a market like that of drugs.

View the article in Spanish.

El Espectador, Colombia
Drug Trafficking in Latin America