The multidimensional nature of the Latin American drug problem

A Latin American multidimensional approach must counteract the spillover effects of the militarised drug policies and work simultaneously not only on security, but also on social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors. Português Español

Nicolás Comini
19 April 2016

An anti-narcotic police officer guards packages of cocaine in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

The illegal drug problem can be understood as a kaleidoscope whose reflections represent its multiple dimensions, though these reflections are not necessarily symmetrical nor equal. Any approach that fails to appreciate its complexity will surely result in critical inaccuracies which will have serious consequences. On the eve of the Special Session of the General Assembly UNGASS 2016, Latin American countries should decide upon their priority dimensions and how to address them. There are currently noticeable disparities in this sphere.

It is necessary to identify the main dimensions of this complex problem in order to contribute to a debate characterized by prejudices, preconceptions and reductionist arguments. We will therefore concentrate on the security, inequality, institutional, and cultural dimensions, which will be seen to be interconnected and liable to generate spillover into each other.


The illegal drug problem may be a security threat in many respects, however this dimension is usually defined in terms of illicit trafficking, criminality and misuse of firearms and terrorism.

Illicit trafficking is used to describe processes involved in the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances declared illegal by law. The illicit traffic of opiates, cocaine, cannabis and synthetic drugs constitutes the core of the international – and national – security ´top agenda´. With regards to opiates, the greatest amount of opium poppy cultivation remains in South–West Asia and South–East Asia, while Africa´s relevance as a transit area is increasing. North America and Europe remain the largest consumers of opiates, something especially evident in the heroin market. Afghani heroin is popular in Europe, not only using routes through Pakistan and Iran but also via Iraq, and entering from the Balkans or Caucasus and Canada. Heroin manufactured in Central and South America is usually used in the United States. In terms of cocaine, similarly North America and Europe are the largest consumer markets, while South American countries, especially Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, are the leading global suppliers. Africa is used as the trans-shipment area for smuggling cocaine substances from the Atlantic to Europe while countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are usually regarded as transit areas. Cannabis herb is produced almost all over the world, with Netherlands, Spain and Morocco at the top of the list, and is very popular in Europe, North America and Oceania and also in West and Central Africa and South America. However cannabis resin is particularly widespread in Europe with production concentrated in North Africa, South–West Asia and the Middle East. Finally, within the set of synthetic drugs, the demand for methamphetamines is rapidly escalating in East and South–East Asia, and a similar situation is found in North America and Europe regarding crystalline methamphetamine. Myanmar and China are the primary manufacturers of synthetic drugs in East and South-East Asia, the largest ‘ecstasy’ markets along with Oceania. Moreover, Europe is increasingly becoming a grower-producer, while West Africa has become a trans-shipment point for methamphetamine trafficked to East and South-East Asia. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there has been a noticeable increase in domestic consumption of synthetic drugs in Europe, North and South America.

Illegality and organized crime are symbiotically interconnected. The actions of law enforcement agencies and the various states are usually several steps behind the constant changes in criminal organizations, especially regarding the type of activities they carry out, the products they offer and their trafficking routes. The anonymous commercial website ‘Dark Net Market’ is an example of this. Diversification and innovation seem to be the golden rules followed by these groups, blurring the borders between suppliers, transit and consumer areas.

Additionally, illegality and criminality involve violence radicalized by the proliferation and misuse of firearms of all sizes – small, light, medium and heavy. In Latin America, this explosive cocktail has resulted in especially high homicide rates, surpassing 70 per 100,000 people. Gang culture also thrives, bringing with it numerous types of interpersonal violence that are accentuated in the poverty-stricken urban sectors of cities with elevated social and economic disparities. These problems are further compounded by the production and supply of the firearms themselves. In Latin America, both the official forces and the criminal organizations use weapons manufactured in the same places: United States (US), Russia, China, Europe or Israel. Moreover, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US´s economic interest in firearms has a spillover effect on Latin American drug policies. The US is globally the major arms exporter, with 31 per cent of the volume of international arms exports between 2010 and 2014. It also depends on arms exportation to “help the US arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing US military expenditure”. Thus, some countries that sell arms to other states to fight against drug trafficking are the same sources of weaponry and ammunition for gangs, terrorists, insurgents, and other criminal organizations. Latin American countries have not found a unique definition to identify those groups. Illegality is nurtured by a black market sustained by a dynamic vicious circle. Marking the limits between the causes and the consequences becomes very difficult, a situation often capitalized on by terrorist groups.


As many authors have noted, throughout modern history people have experimented with substances that might modify their state of consciousness. In that sense, it might be argued that there is no evidence of a “drug–free world”; both supply and consumption are actual features in the history of humanity. However, it is generally agreed wealthy and poor people do not consume substances of the same quality, nor do they have the same social opportunities, receive  equal medical treatment, or even deal with security forces and the law in the same way. The rapid spread of freebase cocaine/paco (crack cocaine) in Argentina represents a paradigmatic example of this. Of course, the problem goes far beyond money. Hunger, illiteracy and exclusion restrict choices and strengthen vulnerabilities.

Drug supply and abuse find a fertile ground in this chaos, either as its source or as an effect. In a context of structural inequality – where the richest 1 per cent of the population possess 48 per cent of the world’s wealth – Latin America and the Caribbean countries still exhibit the greatest income inequality rates in the world (36 per cent). This is followed by Sub–Saharan Africa (28 per cent). The future does not seem very promising, with some studies forecasting that 200 million people might end up in a state of poverty in Latin America due to the slowdown in their countries’ economic growth. This presents an ideal situation for both drug consumption to increase and for criminals to profit. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the region´s multidimensional poverty rates already show serious irregularities. Estimates show that more than a quarter of the Latin American population – over 165 million people – are poor, and 69 millon are indigent. Ul Haq said “The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people’s choices.” Keeping people in vulnerable situations facilitates the job of criminal gangs and increases damage to the social environment.

Institutional factors

Before an institution decides to tackle the problem of illicit substances, it must be considered that the organization in question, or the people involved in it, will be exposed to corruption and graft. For illegality in itself encourages abuse and corruption. Some criminal organizations handle hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, mainly as cash. Their operations incorporate government members, the judicial system, religious institutions and security bodies by buying protection, granting impunity or legitimating commercial and financial business, where entrepreneurs offer a crucial link to money laundering. Even when these phenomena can only be measured by perceptions indexes due to a lack of public information, it can be argued that corruption in power intensifies violence and terror. Corruption of the high level decision-makers has a direct effect on law enforcement. This dynamic also generates a ‘perverse accountability’ resulting in a focus on minor offences and the weakest links in the chain. This attitude enables the existence of large illegal economies, responsible for the most complex crimes. It also contributes to the build-up of expenditure on the repression of these minor crimes, congested judicial systems, saturated prisons and multiplied human rights violations.

Concerning minor crimes, Mexico represents an exemplary case. According to the Mexico Peace Index (2015), the total economic impact of violence in the country is equivalent to 17.3 per cent of its GDP. Nevertheless, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, creator of the Cartel de Sinaloa,  escaped from a maximum security prison through a comfortable and well-lit tunnel 1,500 meters long. He was even interviewed by the magazine Rolling Stone in his hideout. Also, in Argentina three renowned ‘sicarios’ recently escaped from a maximum security prison. In relation to the congestion of the judicial systems, the Latin American criminal justice exhibits a ‘resources deficit’ in human and economic terms. This is demonstrated by hundreds of thousands of cases of unconvicted prisoners, disrespect for fundamental rights and the lack of access to defense, among other things.

Pre-trial detention presents a clear sign of this tendency. In Brazil, for example, the estimated number of pre-trial detention cases is 190,000; in Peru, Colombia and Argentina the number is between 31,000 and 34,000, and in Venezuela 29,000. In terms of proportion of pre-trial detainees within the total prison population, Bolivia (83.6 per cent), Paraguay (71.2), Venezuela (66.2), Peru (58.6), and Argentina (52.6) exhibit the highest numbers. Regarding prisons, 113 thousand people were in prisons in Colombia in 2014, even when the prisons with a total capacity of up to 76,000 prisoners. This prison overcrowding – close to 34 per cent in Colombia – is common in Latin America. Occupancy levels are 298.7 per cent in Bolivia, 153.9 in Brazil, 110.9 in Chile, 114.4 in Ecuador, 126.5 in Guyana, 163.4 in Paraguay, 231 in Peru, 104.8 in Uruguay and 269.8 in Venezuela. Only Argentina (99.5) and Suriname (75.2) have occupancy rates beneath the official 100 per cent capacities of their prison systems, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR).

Finally, about human rights, the ‘false positive’ scandal in Colombia showed that over 3000 extrajudicial executions took place between 2002 and 2008. Brigades and tactical units participated throughout Colombia. This is not the only place where the fight against the drug problem generates human rights violations. For example, women – especially members of minorities – are disproportionately affected by regulations that bar people with a drug sentence from acquiring public assistance. Moreover, children suffer in many senses. Either they are used by criminals or their parents are either in jail, missing, or dead. For example, from January 2010 to October 2012 the population in the reform institutions for minors grew by 424 per cent in Monterrey, Mexico. Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities are added to these groups.


Drugs and culture have been historically related. Currently, in order to analyze this association, the focus is usually placed on narcoculture where, through a system of material and symbolic elements concepts like honor, protection, loyalty, status, prestige or even revenge utilitarianism or consumption are enhanced. In the words of Manuel Valenzuela, this narcoculture represents the “salida del closet del narco”. It catches the attention not only of intellectuals, scholars, journalists, filmmakers, and politicians around the world, but also of the music industry. Publishers, producers, record labels, recording studios, music stores, supermarkets, and distributors are players. The film industry are also involved: production companies, film studios, film festivals, actors or directors. The popularity of the different expressions of this tendency – as narcocorridos, narcomovies, art–narcó, reggaetón, funk carioca, or cumbia villera – is capitalized by small, medium, and large companies, national and international. Among these are some well–known names such as Sony, Walmart, and Target.

Nevertheless, merely limiting the link between drugs and culture to these manifestations represents a serious problem. That link is much more complex than an alleged direct relationship between narcoculture and drug trafficking. Firstly, because being interested or taking pleasure in a musical or a film genre does not make a person become part of that world. If this were to happen, people would become cannibalistic serial killers after watching ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ Secondly, the link between drugs and culture has covered all cultural fields, either for consumption or apology. In music, it ranges from jazz, folk, or tango to psychedelic rock, punk, heavy metal, blues, pop, hip–hop, psytrance, gangsta rap or rave. Idolatry of ‘El Komander’ is criticized, but that does not happen in the case of Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, or Eric Clapton, though they have also performed cocaine apology songs. It is also well known that Freud used cocaine, and that Wilde, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Hemingway and Joyce consumed absinthe. Thirdly, the perception of any artistic expression depends on the context: it is not the same to listen to a narcosong in a slum than in a high-class nightclub.

In that light, the problem is clearly not in ‘what is said’ but in ‘who says it’ and ‘in what context’. The greatest problem is not in the lyrics of a narcocorrido, not even in the fact that there is a strongly organized industry that seeks to build epic speeches about the figures of gangsters, murderers, rapists, and fraudsters. Yet it becomes clear that these latter factors represent mechanisms of legitimization and, as Gil Antón sustains, this might re-change the perspective of millions of young people who already belong to the ‘culture of the corner.’ The major problem is that so many people consider that the world of crime is their only escape from oblivion. This goes beyond the status of a rich or poor population, for both groups may feel lonely or forsaken. Again, asymmetries make the difference: opportunities are widely different depending on whether or not the perpetrator is sunk in poverty and marginalization. Glorifying the drug trafficker as a life model – with their huge vans, expensive suits, weapons, and money – does not seem an illogical option when formal channels to build life alternatives are closed, or when death has been normalized as a daily event. Thus, the real problem arises when the message symbolizes people’s sole antidote to everyday oppression.


 A Latin American multidimensional approach must counteract the spillover effects of the militarised drug policies and work simultaneously not only on security, but also on social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors. It should be based on a balanced, humane, and scientific–based perspective, a perspective that seeks to ensure fundamental rights to health, work, education, housing, and voting – among others – through the development, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of drug use prevention and treatment and other harm reduction interventions.

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