20 Years After Escobar's Death, the Drug War Drags On

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Dec 03, 2013

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. authorities helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Washington’s global war on drugs has not let up. In fact, it has become costlier, bloodier, more widespread and futile.

Escobar died in a hail of bullets on Dec. 2, 1993, fleeing from police on a rooftop in his native city of Medellin. It took a 3,000-strong elite force of Colombian police — supported by U.S. intelligence agencies and $73 million in aid that year alone — to bring down the drug baron.

Today, the war on drugs costs U.S. taxpayers more than $51 billion a year. Colombia itself has received more than $10 billion in military assistance from Washington since Escobar’s death.

But U.S. authorities have almost nothing to show for it. In fact, a major study published by a British medical journal this fall showed that illegal drugs have actually become cheaper and more potent over the last 20 years.

Like any lucrative industry, the drug trade exhibits Hydra-like resiliency: Cut off one head and two more sprout in its place.

After Escobar’s demise, for instance, Colombia’s cocaine business fragmented into micro-cartels controlled by armed militias, giving Mexican cartels a stronger foothold in the global supply chain. Although Colombia and Peru are the world’s top producers of cocaine, it’s the Mexican cartels that move the product into the United States.

And the drug business is expanding geographically — in part, due to the supposed success of anti-drug efforts. So, business is not just booming; it’s moving. Analysts call it the balloon effect: Squeeze the trade in one place and it simply bulges up elsewhere.

With Caribbean maritime routes heavily patrolled by the Pentagon, the cartels have made Central America their main transshipment point. One reflection of the shift is that Honduras is now home to the murder capital of the world — a title once held by Escobar’s hometown of Medellin.

Today’s violence is unprecedented, even when compared to the bloodiest days of the Medellin cartel. Since 2006, drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people in Mexico alone. And the murder rate in Guatemala is now higher than it was during the country’s 36-year civil war, which was a globally recognized genocide.

Desperate for an end to the carnage, Latin American leaders have increasingly clamored for a paradigm shift in drug policy. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, for example, they made a collective call for drug control to be handled internationally as a public health issue with a focus on human rights and harm reduction.

But Washington has stubbornly defended the status quo, which will only ensure that we will be endlessly battling the Pablo Escobars of the future.

more articles

  • Morales Re-Election Shows Failure of U.S. Policies

    Miami Herald, Op-Ed, Oct 17, 2014

    The re-election of Bolivian President Evo Morales to a third term is a stark reminder of Washington’s self-inflicted irrelevance south of the border. His life history is itself a story about U.S. policy blunders in Latin America.

  • 60 Years After CIA Coup, U.S. Policy Hasn't Changed

    McClatchy-Tribune News, Op-Ed, Jun 16, 2014

    Washington stood on the wrong side of history when it overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected president on June 27, 1954. To this day, the U.S. government has failed to learn the lessons of its Cold War interventions in Latin America.

  • Colombia's Chance for Peace

    The New York Times, Op-Ed, May 23, 2014

    For peace negotiations underway between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government to break the country's cycles of violence negotiators must address land inequality and the drug trade as interconnected problems.

  • Obama Administration's Global Surveillance Hurting U.S. in Latin America

    The Progressive, Op-Ed, Nov 01, 2013

    The backlash from revelations that the United States spied on world leaders once again shows the dangers of our runaway surveillance state. The Obama administration has got to rein it in. This time, it's our most important diplomatic alliances on the ropes.

  • Hugo Chavez’s Legacy: A More Independent Latin America

    The Progressive, Op-Ed, Mar 11, 2013

    Hugo Chavez proved that Venezuela and the rest of Latin America could chart an independent path in the world. Chavez was the first in a steady stream of left-leaning leaders elected to office in a region that Washington had once claimed as its backyard. Chavez was the most vocal advocate of this growing autonomy.