Shine A Light

Cocaine Unwrapped

Interviewing Latin American leaders and victims of repressive policy, film-maker Rachel Seifert argues that the West should take real responsibility and rethink its failed war on drugs

Rachel Seifert
17 June 2011

It is no surprise that behind the recent Global Commission on Drugs Policy’s headline-making report condemning the war on drugs were three ex-Presidents of Latin America.


Image: Nightlife of Revelry

It’s in Latin America that the devastation and futility of the ‘War on Drugs’ has been most harshly felt over the years and can be most clearly seen today. And it is there that politicians are now most loudly calling for change from repressive policies. Both new left-wing social justice Presidents, as well as Presidents who previously followed a repressive stance, are realising that things really need to change, and are calling for the West to take responsibility – not only for their demand, which is driving the cocaine trade in Latin America, but also for their repressive policies which rule international drugs policy.

This week it is the 40th anniversary of the US ‘war on drugs’ which was launched by President Nixon in 1971 and has been fought at escalating social and financial cost ever since. This year also marks 50 years of the UN’s conventions on the prohibition of drugs. And what do we have to show for it? Over $6 billion has been spent fighting production in Colombia yet the country is still the major cocaine producer, a staggering 37,000 people have been killed in Mexico yet the cocaine cartels are as strong as ever, and over 500,000 are in prison in the USA on drugs charges but the demand remains unquenched. With these blatant failures, even those who once fully supported the policy are now thinking that we need to change and move away from repression.

When I was filming last year in Latin America for a feature documentary about cocaine I saw first-hand the gigantic scale of the damage and destruction that our drugs policies are having on people, societies, and whole countries across the world, and how pointless it all seems that people are losing their lives, livelihoods, and freedom in the name of drug control that doesn’t work.

I met a woman farmer in Colombia who had just had her produce sprayed with chemicals and her entire livelihood destroyed, an old coca farmer in Bolivia who was desperately trying to support his children by growing coca and selling it in a legal market, a woman drugs mule locked away in prison in Ecuador who was trying to make money just to feed and clothe her children, a young drug dealer on the streets of Ciudad Juarez in Northern Mexico who out of desperation joined a drug gang and has seen unimaginable violence,  an African-American man imprisoned in Baltimore in the US for 25 years on a small drugs charge,  and a young boy on the streets of Mexico who had been addicted to crack cocaine since he was 8 years old.

For the most part, it wasn’t the cocaine that was destroying their lives, but the repressive policies that are adopted to fight this drug. This is an urgent, pressing development issue, a human rights issue, and a social issue –crying out for real engagement from not only drug policy makers, but more importantly from development and human rights groups. But this isn’t happening.

Here in the UK, many of us feel so far removed from these people and all the destruction and devastation in the name of the war on drugs, yet we are the missing link, here we have one of the largest markets for the demand of cocaine, with an estimated 90% being casual recreational consumers. Perhaps ironically, it was these people who were less keen to talk to me or to be identified on camera. At the top of the cocaine trade, from an average £50 gram of cocaine on the streets of London, the coca farmer in Colombia will receive less than 50pence of this, the woman drugs mule in Ecuador will receive less than £2.50, and the street dealer in Mexico less than £3. Along with all the suffering and destruction, this is not a fair trade.

So what are the alternatives? Latin American politicians are currently leading the way in calling for change against the war on drugs. I interviewed the President of Bolivia Evo Morales, who is promoting the coca leaf as a natural and traditional product which is not cocaine and which can be diversified to make tea, flour, soaps, and other cosmetic products which should be allowed to have an international market. But he has little support from the rest of the world. Morales, a coca farmer once himself understands the true plight of these people, and that they are just poor people trying to survive in the world and feed their children. I also interviewed the President of Ecuador Rafael Correa, whose own father was imprisoned in the US for drugs trafficking when he was a child. Correa has recently released a number of women drugs mules from prison, shortened prison sentences to be proportionate to the crime, and introduced rehabilitation measures, and argues that many traffickers do so out of necessity to feed their families rather than being criminal masterminds.

Across Latin America, countries are seriously debating and implementing the policy of decriminalisation of drugs, understanding that consumers of drugs should not be criminalised, and moving towards a health-based approached. Former Presidents Gaviria of Colombia, Cardoso of Brazil, and Zedillo of Mexico, part of the Global Commission on Drugs Policy are loudly calling for change. They have presented the UN with a report arguing for drug policies to be grounded in human rights, health, social and economic justice, and sovereignty. It is time that we in the West listened to them.


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