War on drugs and drug cartels: dilemmas between prohibition, legalization and regulation


Dr. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, and a postdoctoral fellow at the History Faculty and the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He holds a PhD in Political Science (Freie Universität Berlin) and has a degree in International Relations from Colegio de México. His research on organized crime, arms trade and drug policies has been published in more than a dozen of peer review articles and book chapters in German, English and Spanish. 

Dr. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart
  1. According to the data of NCDAS, the amount of money spent on the drug war by the US government is more than $1 trillion since 1971. Annual budget for drug control in the US was $29.9 billion in 2019.

Despite these facts, the Global  Commission on Drug Policy released a report stating that the war on drugs has failed. Could you briefly tell us about the war on drugs, the rise of cartels and drug trafficking in Latin America?

The objective of the US war on drugs has been to reduce the amount of narcotic drugs coming to the United States every year. For this, the US government and its law enforcement agencies have spent an impressive amount of money and human resources. However, the reality is that the retail price of cocaine and heroin has dropped almost every year since the 1980s and that the US still has the highest rates of drug use in the world. What is more, strict law enforcement has created conditions for institutional corruption, human right abuses and perverse incentives that make drug networks not just more difficult to combat but more violent. Given these facts, it is difficult to deny the immense failure of the war on drugs. 

  1. As it is known, there are different right-wing and left-wing paramilitary groups engaged in organized crime and the war on government. Where and to what extent drug trafficking and organized crime have an ideological background? When exactly merging of cartels and paramilitaries has occurred? 

Organized crime groups do not have an ideological background. In a few cases, more concretely in Colombia and to a lesser extent in Peru, some paramilitary and guerrilla groups have allied with trafficking organizations.

FARC Columbia

At the beginning, these groups justified their involvement in drug trafficking as a tool to advance their political goals. The reality is that it does not take long to the point at which the tool becomes the goal and ideological considerations fade into the background. The most obvious example of this is the case of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and its initially slow but since enduring involvement in drug trafficking activities.

  1. What is the motivation of people to join drug cartels and how drug lords recruit sicarios?

This is a question that deserves some methodological and contextual precision. First of all, concepts like “drug cartels” “drug lords” or “sicarios” are socially constructed and should be used more carefully. They reproduce a discourse that criminalizes those who participate in the drug business. I prefer to avoid this vocabulary which has been extremely helpful to states and their law enforcement agencies to facilitate human right violations all across Latin America. 

The motivations of those who join drug organization vary from country to country (and even within countries) and from period to period. We have some interesting inmates’ surveys that the most common motivation for engaging in drug trafficking was, not surprisingly, economic. A significant percentage was looking to pay for their personal consumption, but the majority admitted that they were attracted by the opportunity to earn big amounts of money. The paradox is that academic research has also shown that profits in illegal markets are very unevenly distributed and the atomized nature of the market does not offer the expected earnings. Even if they are not detained or killed, most of those who engage in drug trafficking do not make as much money as they actually expected. However, they remain in the business with the hope to climb the ladder of their organizations and make larger profits.

In addition to that, some research suggests that people engage in crime to a great extent because they see others succeeding in crime (Bergman 2018: 306). In contexts of fragile institutions and poor law enforcement impunity rates are usually high. When the idea that it is easy to succeed in crime prevails, it is difficult to deter people from engaging in crime. 

Finally, some ethnographic studies have shown that a large majority of street informants or small drug retailers start working for gangs or trafficking groups at a very young age (between 13 and 18). Most of them come from unstructured families, and from areas with poor urban planning and inadequate infrastructure. There is no doubt that Latin American societies have experienced a rapid transformation that has led to significant breakdowns in social cohesion. People living under such conditions are more vulnerable to crime. 

  1. Cartel’s influence is enough to affect the policy of the countries where they operate and substitute state institutions. Do drug lords take part in politics like Pablo Escobar did and why official state institutions remain important for them?

The Colombian experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s has created the idea that all drug organizations aim to substitute or to topple the state. However, in most cases organizations do not aim to do that. The scholar Benjamin Lessing has a better approach to this specific topic. He agrees that drug trafficking organizations can either target political leaders to induce changes in politics or intimidate them to reduce the price of bribes (plata o plomo strategy) but very rarely will try to topple the government and seize formal power. 

  1. What policy do governments implement to reduce drug trafficking and what drug policy could you define as efficient?

Governments’ policies should not be just focused on reducing or eliminating drug trafficking. This has been the great mistake of the last decades. States should rather try to develop a comprehensive drug policy. What is a comprehensive drug policy? One capable of reducing the unintended consequences of drug consumption and at the same time capable of reducing the violence triggered by drug trafficking. The equilibrium between these two aspects is what makes a drug policy a successful one. Naturally, the point of equilibrium varies from place to place as every country faces different consumption and trafficking challenges.

  1. Is it true that governments should negotiate with one cartel to destroy another one in order to provide controlled chaos?
Police celebrate over Escobar’s body
Success of the operation was strongly dependent on non-official cooperation with Cali Cartel

Intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies of all governments in Latin America have some sort of contact with different criminal organizations including drug trafficking groups. 

The degree to which this contact should be used to benefit some groups over others with the aim to reduce turf violence is a matter of discussion among scholars and policymakers. My view is that governments should use all possible tools to reduce turf violence without creating the conditions for the monopolization of the illegal market by one single organization. Certainly, this is not an easy task in contexts of institutional corruption and state fragility.

  1. What is the role of drug trafficking in local economies? 

Again, it is difficult to answer this without a specific setting. In the mountains of Sinaloa where poppy crops have been harvested for the last century or so, opium does play a significant role in the local economy and will continue to do so. Other regions in Mexico are barely touched by drug trafficking. 

Having said that, I have the impression that journalistic accounts tend to exaggerate the role of drug trafficking not just in local economies but in national economies in general. The fact is that we lack good data and good methodologies to measure the role of drug trafficking in the economy. 

  1. How does legalization of drugs work in Amsterdam? Could a similar policy decrease the level of violence and organized crime in Mexico and Latin America?  

The first thing to say is that the link between violence and illegal drugs remains unclear. Illegal markets are not inherently violent. In fact, it has been proved that participants in the marijuana market prefer to avoid violence as an effective tool to resolve problems. Evidence from Brazil, por example, suggest that marihuana markets can be rather peaceful and free of conflict (Daudelin & Ratton 2019). 

In the case of Mexico, marihuana represents just a small percentage of the earnings of drug trafficking organizations. I am under the impression that the legalization of marijuana will not cause much difference in terms of violence. The example of Uruguay is very illustrative. In that country, marijuana was legalized in 2017 and, to the surprise of many, levels of violence have not changed much since.

Unlike Uruguay, in the Netherlands, marihuana has not been entirely legalized. The drug policy there has been oriented to the reduction of the demand and “coffee shops” are allowed to work under strict conditions but its recreational use has not been formally permitted. 

  1. Adherents of marijuana legalization present only positive experience of this idea’s implementation. Could you say something about the negative consequences of this process? 

While I do not think that marijuana is a silver bullet for addressing the problem of violence, I do believe that there is a strong case to support marijuana legalization at a global level. However, individual states and the international community have to be careful in regulating how, where and under which conditions legal marijuana will be available.

Like other legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, marijuana entails serious health risks. There are some studies that suggest a strong relationship between marijuana consumption and higher risks of schizophrenia and other psychoses. It seems that the use of marijuana is associated with reduced cognitive function in teenagers. However, even if true, most studies suggest that alcohol consumption has even worse health consequences. 

More than for legalization, I advocate for a process of regulation of marijuana which includes serious guidelines that protects young people by reducing access to marijuana and establishing treatment programs. I am convinced that the negative consequences of the current prohibitionist regimes in most countries in Latin America outweigh the possible risks or negative consequences of carefully driven marijuana regulation. 

  1. What are the pros and cons of Trump’s idea to designate drug cartels as terrorist organizations? Can we really say that drug cartels have features of terrorist organizations? 

Drug trafficking organizations and terrorist organizations share some characteristics. Both are involved in illegal activities, both operate in secrecy, both use violence to pursue their goals, both challenge state institutions and both are extremely adaptable to new circumstances. However, despite these similarities, there is a fundamental difference in the motivations. 

In a broader sense, terrorism entails the use of intentional violence for political and religious purposes. In that sense, terrorist organizations are political groups that use terror to access non negotiable goals. While drug trafficking organizations may operate with similar levels of violence, their motivations are not political or religious. Their goal is to maximize profit and not to fundamentally change society and politics. 

Trump’s proposal to label drug trafficking organizations as terrorists may give US federal prosecutors more tools to charge drug traffickers but it does not make sense from an analytical perspective. In addition to that, it will bring many unintended consequences in the diplomatic realm that will affect and poison the Mexico-US relationship.