Swear all you want, but you know you’re doing your drug war all wrong if the United States says you are. Having messed it up for half a century, no one knows these things better than the US.
Some 3,000 people have died in Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody campaign since he took power in the Philippines in June. Now he wants to extend it by six months because he needs time to “kill them all”. But point out the moral pitfalls of his murderous drive and you’ve had it, in colourful expletives, as Barack Obama and the European Union found out. That’s too bad because given the climate of fear in the Philippines and the president’s popularity, any meaningful pushback could only come from abroad.
But one can’t help wishing it hadn’t come from the United States. Because no other country has caused more death and destruction in the name of fighting drugs. Ever since Richard Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in 1971, America has used it as a licence for low-intensity warfare in its neighbourhood to prevent drugs from crossing its borders. The damage, as evident in the trail of failed states the policy left behind, is comparable only to its other great crusade – the “war on terror”.
In Mexico alone, more than 100,000 people have died since 2006 in drug-related violence, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In Colombia, more than 220,000 people have been killed and four million displaced in the last 50 years. For perspective, consider that some 26,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the US attacked it in 2001 and some 180,000 in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.
To what end? Even while federal spending on anti-drug efforts has ballooned over the decades, there’s little proof drug use in the US has shrunk. After all the blood that has flowed in Colombia, before and after Pablo Escobar, that country is still the world’s top producer and exporter of cocaine, with cultivation actually rising in the last four years. And America’s own jails are bursting at the seams as the country arrests over 1 million people every year over drug-related crimes.
The mismatch between America’s goals and achievements stems from its insistence on treating drugs as a criminal justice issue, rather than a public health one. For decades, Washington has ignored warnings that drugs is more a demand than a supply problem and that the simple solution lies in crashing the lucrative US market through partial legalisation rather than hunting the “bad guys” selling it.
A saner policy along those lines, without blood and gore, wouldn’t of course fit the real goal – intervention.
With the cold war drawing to a close towards the end of the 1980s, the noble-sounding “war on drugs” offered a handy alternative to the dying bogeyman of communism to justify interference in foreign states.
As the US poured billions of dollars into supplier countries, ostensibly to stop drugs at the source, it spawned a chain of rogue client regimes embedded with American operatives; flooded these markets with military hardware; and jumped in and out of bed with repressive governments and bloodthirsty paramilitary forces like the Contras in Nicaragua, often as active partners in the same drug trade that it was avowedly battling. Not to mention the widespread environmental poisoning, mass displacement and health hazards caused by American aerial herbicide spraying of coca plantations in countries like Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
The “war on drugs” even provided a legitimate excuse for outright invasion, such as that of Panama one December day in 1989. Over 27,000 American soldiers ravaged parts of Panama City for days as part of “Operation Just Cause” to capture dictator Manuel Noriega for his alleged drug connections. The actual toll of that single operation, which is to be investigated by a truth commission, could well have been far greater than what Duterte’s cops have wreaked so far.
And so it continued, long after Obama rose to power. The budget for the war on drugs has ballooned 25 per cent since he assumed the presidency, while the US continues to fund security forces and deploy its own soldiers in countries from Guatemala to Honduras, fostering the same culture of corruption, impunity, torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban had almost eliminated opium cultivation, poppy is doing just as well on Obama’s watch as it did under George W. Bush.
It’s only recently, towards the end of his presidency, that Obama has hinted at possible course correction by large-scale release of non-violent drug users jailed by previous administrations, and has appeared less resistant to the idea of legal marijuana. But international consensus has already moved towards decriminalisation of drugs. Violence, corruption and destruction are now widely seen as the only legacy of America’s mindless war.
Bolivia is allowing farmers to grow coca, Chile and Uruguay are legalising marijuana, as are Canada and several US states in various forms, while Portugal and Switzerland are leading the way in reversing prohibition on all drugs. Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, still reeling from the decades-long campaign that has severely eroded their state capacity, are pleading with the world to formulate a more sensible drug policy.
Duterte is killing in the name of drugs but the toll in the Philippines is dwarfed by the bodies that the US stacked up. So instead of sermons on human rights, maybe Washington should appeal to Duterte to learn from its mistakes. The only apology we have heard so far, even if lame, is from Duterte, for calling the leader of the free world a “son of a whore”. How about a sorry from Obama for generations of misdeeds?
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the deputy editor of This Week in Asia