Political Animal


December 21, 2012 1:30 PM The Drug War and Gun Violence in Latin America

By Ryan Cooper

Over at The Atlantic, Noah Smith has an excellent proposal (not in lieu of gun safety laws, but in addition):

I’m talking about ending the drug war.
Reliable statistics on the number of drug-related murders in the United States are hard to come by. A 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a 2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). Part of this variance is that “drug-related” murders are hard to define. There are murders committed by people on drugs, murders committed by addicts to get money for drugs, turf-war murders by drug suppliers, and murders committed by gangs whose principal source of income is drug sales.
But very few would argue that the illegal drug trade is a significant cause of murders. This is a straightforward result of America’s three-decade-long “drug war.” Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts raise the price of drugs by curbing supply, making local drug supply monopolies (i.e., gang turf) a rich prize to be fought over. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.

Noah speaks about this mostly in the US context, but the same applies to a much greater extent across Latin America. In my last post I mentioned the fact that several Latin American countries have become incredibly violent, (see here, xls); the region now has the highest murder rate in the world. On top is Honduras, whose rate has nearly tripled since 2005 to a staggering 92 per 100,000 per year—that’s almost twenty times the US’s rate, 56 times Canada’s rate, or 300 times Japan’s rate. Other nearby countries show similar explosions of violence.

Earlier this year we ran a great investigative piece by Elizabeth Dickenson looking at what is behind that spectacular increase, concluding that it was a a US-aided attempt to imitate the success of Columbia in quelling its narco-insurgency by using the military to declare war on the cartels. It went horribly wrong; instead of “taking out” the cartels it merely opened some business opportunities for sociopaths, causing such catastrophic violence it has undermined the legitimacy of states across the region.

All this is driven by a decades-long failure of the US to grapple with the logic of the drug business. Taking production out of the hands of the most violent doesn’t even necessarily mean decriminalization or legalization; as Mark Kleiman writes, we could simply focus on trying to stamp out the most violent organizations one by one, eventually leaving the market to the least violent criminal syndicates. It’s not what I would prefer, but it’s surely a huge improvement over the current brute force-only status quo.

While it is surely a natural human habit, it has often struck me that the US media seems pathologically disinterested in deaths that happen outside our borders or to non-Americans. Ending the drug war would be a great way to improve general human welfare, not just that inside our own borders.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Rick B on December 21, 2012 2:47 PM:

    I like Kleiman's approach of focusing on the violence rather than the drugs. But is seems to me that it should be accompanied with programs that assist people to break the addiction. Those programs need to be funded by taxes on the acceptable drug sales organizations. That means some form of registration, licensing and legalization of the organizations that acceptably sell the drugs.

    The essence would be to focus on the violence and to stop demonizing the addicts and start treating them like human beings.

    Oh, wait. Treating others like human beings is impossible for conservatives, isn't it? With them it's "Do it my way or we'll punish you because by disagreeing with my orders you become an unacceptable bad person to be destroyed."

  • c u n d gulag on December 21, 2012 2:55 PM:

    Does religion play any role in this?

    Here's something that the God-botherers in this, or any other, country will never, ever tell you - the less religious a country is, the less crime it has:


    Seems like it should be the opposite, no?
    I mean, all of that 'love one another,' 'turn the other cheek,' 'not casting the first stone,' and 'not coveting thy neighbor's ass, or they neighbor's wife's ass,' should result in less crime, less greed, less... well - less!

    What I wonder is this - is there any correlation between religious faith, the prohibition and illegality of drug use due to religious/moral sensibilities, and gun violence?

    My initial guess is, yes. But I can't find any corroborating evidence, from the short internet search I've done.
    Maybe someone else here knows?

  • Ken in Madrid on December 21, 2012 4:45 PM:

    Hi Ryan.

    I usually love your blogs. For example, I forwarded your previous post on inequality and gun violence to many of my sociological colleagues. But I have some problems with this one. Not, I should say, with your bottom line: END THE WAR ON DRUGS!

    Your next to the last paragraph is a disaster. You seem to agree with Kleiman's "kill the big, bad guys" position and we'll have friendly businessmen dealing. Too absurd for words. If economics teaches us anything it's that if there is a demand, there will be a supply. Attacking the supply will never solve the problem because other (illicit) suppliers, gentle or not, will always appear. The key is with the demand side, of course. Here there seem to be 2 options: criminalize the demand (users), which is the current ineffective policy, or treat drug consumers like any other consumer. The latter approach leads us inexorably to legalization and regulation. Beer, anyone?

    I also have problems with the Smith quote you begin your blog with. He refers to "America’s three-decade-long “drug war.” In fact it's 4 decades old. In the early '70s Nixon transformed what had been considered a health issue into a criminal justice concern. That was the beginning of the "war on drugs".

  • joanneinDenver on December 21, 2012 4:48 PM:

    The correct spelling is ColOmbia, not Columbia.

    The violence in Colombia predates the drug wars by two decades or more.
    La Violencia began in 1948 with the Bogatoso, a civil explosion that pitted the Converservatives against the Liberals, after the assassination of a young popular political figure. There was a brief interlude from about 1958 to 1965 when the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to alternate control of the national government between them. This gave the country a time of relative stability.

    However, in late 1964, early 1965, FARC and other revoluntary groups, with a marxist philosophy and probably backing, became active. The drug trafficking exploited the political violence and finally encapsulated it.

  • Balolulow on December 22, 2012 11:50 AM:

    Also, disinterested does not mean uninterested.