Only a very brave or simply suicidal person drives past the military barracks on the outskirts of Zacapa in a tinted-glass four-wheel drive. To do so would be to invite eyes to turn, news to pass, and a headlong collision to be invited with the powers that rule this small, idle and sweaty Guatemalan town.
Also on the global drug economy in openDemocracy:
Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (24 October 2005)
Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)
Paul Rogers, "The new opium war" (3 May 2006)
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007)
Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)
Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)
For most of its inhabitants, the supremacy of the drugs cartels is just one more innovation to their backwater status, though it is best to keep out of the hail of bullets when rivals meet as they did in March 2008 (eleven dead, spread over the car-park of a leisure-centre).
In Vienna, meanwhile, government representatives at the United Nations's Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) have once again decided that the effluent empire of crime must be fought as it has always been, though in a more coordinated and sophisticated fashion, which presumably means a police officer might one day book a serious narcotics offence in Zacapa.
The political declaration that emerged on 12 March 2009, in the teeth of opposition from Bolivia's President Evo Morales - literally so, for he chewed coca during his speech to the commission - will soon be forgotten. The concerns that it was supposed to address, however, will not die away so easily. The ludic verbal switchbacks of Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cannot hide the reality: the criminalised drug economies are silting into durable structures, uniting public allegiance, political and official allies, money and reliable armed units so as to feed growing demand. They are quasi-states, in fact, straddling law and crime much like the policemen-anarchists in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. For the first time ever, a mere trafficker, Mexico's Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán, stands on Forbes's billionaires list, one place above a Campbell's soup heiress.
The control risk
Some shaking of the legal superstructure which has overseen these outcomes could thus be expected in Vienna. There was Morales, for a start - a month after approval of the new Bolivian constitution, which sanctifies the role of coca in national life. European countries, led by Germany, declared their affiliation to the model of "harm reduction" for addicts, while the United States preferred to avoid a softening of the moral tone while acknowledging the merits of syringe exchange. In Vienna there was much chipping by activists at the prohibitionist pedestal: more opiates for pain relief, amnesties for drug "mules", and recognition of peasant producers' human rights.
But there the lines were drawn. The glittering dome of a drug-free world may be more distant than ever, but it seems hard for some officials to relinquish. Criminal cartels, various armed insurgencies and the $6 billion spent on Plan Colombia since 2000 - where production levels are much the same as ever - are among the "unintended consequences" of the war on drugs, the UNODC has argued. The Colombian expert Francisco Thoumi is among those who observe that it is a strange abdication of responsibility to disregard as collateral damage the handsome economic pay-offs directly generated by prohibition. The extraordinary Matrix Group report from 2007 on traffickers interviewed in British jails makes the issue very clear: arrests and seizures are worked by dealers into the price and final street quality ex ante. Mark-ups basically go wild over controlled borders.
Then there is the issue of harm. "Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled - they are controlled because they are harmful", Costa declared at the opening of the commission's sessions. This sentence is worth poring over, with a long pause on the seemingly watertight argument created by the repetition of that word: harmful. Drugs can indeed be harmful; yet in the absence of criminalisation, the harm is that of the user's health and the welfare of contiguous society.
The harm caused by "control" is radically different. It involves the construction of power, the redefinition of economic opportunity, and the victimisation of the vulnerable (at a cost of approximately €34 billion ($46.5 billion) in the European Union on the entire counter-narcotic apparatus, including prison capacity, and a similar price-tag in the United States). It is about violence and coercion in a way that simply cannot be compared with a drug habit - it is an institution, whereas drug use is a vice.
The life force
At this juncture, the relevant authorities of the United Nations system and the loyalists of prohibition throw out their terms with the glee of religion. "The world drug problem", as it is known in the political declaration made in Vienna, conflates health issues and the effects of criminalisation into a single shorthand: undesirable. Naturally, the only thing left to do with an amorphously unpleasant problem is to fight it, until a "society free of drug abuse" is achieved, preferably by 2019. If cartels and gangs profit from this onslaught, then it is not the fault of the fight but that of the original evil. To give into the drug cartels, says Costa, would be rather like accepting the inevitability of paedophilia.
The alternatives, however, may not be much clearer. Much as the Economist places its bets on legalisation, the ground-level horrors visited by trafficking cartels in Mexico, and the tortuous path towards building a regulated public consumption system that allows free access - so as to drain the alternative criminal circuit - while preventing a flood of new users, are sufficient to generate serious doubts. The halfway houses of decriminalisation and harm-reduction seem attractive, but how would they affect the chains of trafficking power and corrupted officialdom in central America or west Africa? Is there any way to recycle these policemen-anarchists without doing huge long-term damage to the countries involved?
In Zacapa, meanwhile, drugs are neither produced nor consumed. They are not a matter for conversation, nor for questioning. Instead, they are the unseen sources of power; not a disease, but a fast-settling way of life.
Ivan Briscoe is coordinator for peace, security and human rights at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El País newspaper in Madrid and also worked for the Buenos Aires Herald, the UNESCO Courier and in the field of development research
Also by Ivan Briscoe in openDemocracy:
"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003) "Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)
"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)
"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America" (18 October 2005)
"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10 February 2006)
"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?" (28 September 2006)
"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006)
"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)
"A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March 2007)
"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)
"Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)
"Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)
"Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007)
"From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (11 March 2008)
"Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)