HomeNewsAnalysis‘War on Drugs’ Subverts Human Rights, Strengthens Organized Crime: HRW

‘War on Drugs’ Subverts Human Rights, Strengthens Organized Crime: HRW


In the new annual report published by Human Rights Watch, the NGO argues that governments should decriminalize personal drug use to protect human rights, but does not address the potentially negative effects this could have on the drug trade if it is not coupled with comprehensive policy reform.

In an essay included in the report (pdf), Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno writes that the criminalization of drugs is "inherently problematic," and recommends that governments make policy changes to address this problem.

Regarding personal use, harsh anti-drug policies throughout the world result in human rights abuses ranging from the violation of privacy to the interning of users in forced treatment centers, she says.

Additionally, prohibitions on production and distribution have the perverse effect of providing a major illicit market for illegal groups that commit human rights abuses, often in the quest to control the trade.

Sanchez-Moreno gives the example of Colombia, where right-wing paramilitary death squads grouped under the umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were "among Colombia's biggest drug lords." The drug trade both helped fund the paramilitaries' existence and drove the abuses committed by these groups in the 1990s.

In turn, the profits from this trade have allowed groups like the AUC to pay off corrupt officials and thus continue to operate with relative impunity. In recent years, ties between hundreds of congressmen and paramilitaries have come to light in Colombia.


Sanchez-Moreno also highlights how forces engaged in anti-drug efforts often commit very serious human rights abuses. In Mexico, security forces -- funded in part with US dollars -- have participated in torture and extrajudicial killings as part of a "war on drugs" that has contributed to at least 80,000 deaths since 2007.

Turning efforts against just one source or group involved in drug trafficking has clearly failed to put a stop to the problem of the illegal drug trade, which has instead evolved and migrated, Sanchez-Moreno notes. In Medellin, the persecution and killing of Pablo Escobar did not end the violence wracking the city -- instead, Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna," rose to take his place. After his monopoly began to crumble, new criminal power structures emerged.

Anti-drug efforts also have the effect of displacing the problem, as is the case with intensive aerial fumigation programs in Colombia, which pushed more coca production into Peru -- now the world's top producer.

Overall, current drug policy has failed to stem the flow of illicit drugs or lessen drug use, and has made no strides in the purported goal of protecting the health of citizens, writes Sanchez-Moreno.

In this context, she lists a series of recommendations advocated by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The first is to decriminalize personal drug use and possession. Instead of penalizing use, governments can help regulate it with educational campaigns that encourage smart choices and by penalizing harmful behaviors that can result from drug use, such as driving under their influence.

Secondly, she recommends that states begin looking at alternatives to the current policy regime governing production and distribution. These could involve regulating sales and production -- as has begun to occur with marijuana in Uruguay and in Washington and Colorado in the United States.

The last HRW recommendation is to expand access to community-based drug treatment programs for addicts, in order to combat stigmatization and dangerous forced treatments.

InSight Crime Analysis

In the context of a failing "war on drugs," similar recommendations to those made by HRW have been advocated by legislators, inter-governmental bodies and famous actors alike. However, taking any one suggestion alone is unlikely to have a major impact on the illegal drug trade, and could even have an adverse effect.

The harmful consequences and ineffectiveness of the US-led "war on drugs" that has raged for over 40 years -- which has particularly emphasized Mexico and the Andean region of South America -- are well-documented.

Drug consumption has continued to rise and spread, and as new markets have developed, so have new routes, transit points, and criminal groups. Rather than disappearing, criminal groups have fragmented and new ones have emerged. As highlighted by Sanchez-Moreno, the US-propelled strategy of targeting the symptoms, rather than the root, of the problem has been a major contributor to this displacement of criminal activity.

Looking specifically at the example of Mexico, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has documented how the country's security policies in the past six years have pushed Mexican criminal groups into places like Guatemala and Honduras and turned Central America into a principal corridor for cocaine headed to North America. Other examples include the rise of Argentina as a production center and the ever-increasing importance of Ecuador as a transit point.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

It is clear this war has also had the kind of negative human rights effects HRW notes, including police violence, a lack of access to health services for drug users, and overfilled prisons that result in the spread of disease, as the Open Society Foundations noted in a 2009 report. The Merida Initiative, approved by the US in 2008, pumped funds into Mexico and Central America to fight drug violence, but this same money helped pay for security forces who engaged in serious human rights abuses.

In the context of a failing effort to stop the growth of the drug trade, a great deal of debate around policy has emerged in recent years, with prominent journalists and television producers joining the calls for reform. Former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia signed on to a 2011 initiative pushing to rewrite the United Nations Convention on Drugs, adopted over 20 years ago. In summer 2012, the UN agreed to host a summit to discuss alternative approaches to drug policy. In June 2013, various countries in Latin America signed a document agreeing to continue the policy discussion.

A great deal of debate has been required to take even these small steps. However, a number of countries in Latin America have moved towards HRW's first recommendation, legalizing personal use, by amending policies regarding personal use and possession of marijuana. In Colombia, since 2012, people found in possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine are no longer arrested or prosecuted. In Mexico, marijuana users are allowed up to five grams. In Peru, possession of up to eight grams of the substance is legal.

What most countries have not yet done is to address the second point in HRW's recommendations -- taking strides to regulate production and sales of illicit substances. While HRW does note the importance of both measures, the NGO fails to address the unintended consequences of implementing the former without the latter.

If use is deregulated without accompanying policy changes, users will likely face less risk of the kinds of human rights abuses noted by HRW. However, they will continue to rely on the black market to get their drugs, and thus fund the same illegal groups that the "war on drugs" aims to combat. In short, these policies may protect individual rights, but will fail to stem the flow of illicit substances or cut the income of drug traffickers.

Uruguay has taken things a step farther, recently passing legislation that will legalize and regulate the production and distribution of marijuana, with a 40 gram monthly cap for personal use. Colorado and Washington in the United States recently passed similar laws, and lawmakers in Mexico City are planning to present a proposal at the end of January that would do the same. However, none of these countries have moved for similar measures with cocaine, which by some estimates is a much bigger source of financing for criminal groups.

The lack of consensus as to the best way forward could also be dangerous, as the Organization of American States (OAS) highlighted last year, in a report (pdf) which described several possible drug reform scenarios in the Americas. The last of these was the possibility that certain states -- frustrated by the failure of the current approach and the lack of receptiveness to alternatives by the likes of the United States -- could make deals with drug trafficking organizations, thus allowing narcos de facto control over the state in exchange for a drop in drug violence.

Another question that has emerged is whether legalization might lead criminal groups to diversify their activities in the search for alternative funding. This is not far-fetched -- many groups have already begun to do so, as competition over drug profits has increased, leading to rises in kidnapping and extortion in places like Mexico.

As previously noted by InSight Crime, change, if it occurs, will be a slow process, and a successful approach would need to be a comprehensive policy combining several elements. Putting an end completely to security force initiatives aimed at tackling the drug trade would likely be problematic, but these efforts would be better spent targeting the upper tiers of the drug empire, not low-level distributors, producers or consumers. These initiatives should be coupled with a focus on the social drivers of drug use and a move towards regulating the entire supply chain, from production to consumption.

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