June 17 marks 50 years since Richard M. Nixon declared drugs “America’s public enemy number one.” Perhaps no political decision has had a greater impact on Latin America’s recent past and present. Now journalists from the region are examining the failed policies of the war on drugs.
The power of language during moments of conflict can be a double-edged sword. Edward R. Murrow, for example, described how Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” during the darkest hours of World War II. There was no better general to stoke the fires of the heroism that led to the decisive victories against the Nazis.
A few days ago, my son-in-law told me that he was on a walk with my daughter and grandson in the center of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, when a group of police officers approached them. My 2-year-old grandson didn’t understand why the officers were pointing a gun at his father. I am 40 years older than him, and I don’t understand it either, much less accept it, although I know that situations like this are frequent in Brazil. Unlike my son-in-law, I don’t usually go through this. But I’m White. He’s Black.
There’s an old saying: The definition of insanity is trying the same strategy repeatedly, while expecting different results. This is precisely what Colombia has been doing with its illicit coca crops: returning over and over, as we have during the 50-year-long war on drugs, to the aerial spraying of these crops, fruitlessly hoping they disappear.
Wherever you walk in Honduras, you are most likely in drug trafficking territory. For half a century, this country has been the Central American base for drug trafficking. Organized crime has infiltrated all institutions. If a Honduran comes across any authority — police, mayor, congressman — chances are that figure has commitments to organized crime. However, the Honduran drug trade has moved in step with the United States’ interests.
In January 2007, just a few weeks after beginning his mandate and declaring the war on drugs, Felipe Calderón, then president of Mexico, went to a military base in the state of Michoacán dressed as a soldier. There, he praised the military on the first operations of the strategy that would mark the narrative of a country that had replaced Colombia as the epicenter of drug cartel activity. From that display of premature triumphalism, the only thing that has remained in these 15 years has been the overlap between civilian and military power represented in the presidential uniform. The rest of Calderón’s discourse has been a self-fulfilling prophecy: The country that he made up, mired in a security emergency by the power of drug lords, is now suffering the most violent years in modern history.
Top illustration by Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; Photos by the Associated Press, Jamie Razuri/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images, Cris Bouroncle/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images, Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press, Luis Robayo/Associated Press