Chile Culture Essay War on Drugs — 14 October 2011

Here in Chile HBO is showing a new made-in-Chile production called “Profúgos” ( meaning “fugitives”).  The opening episode showed a gun battle between this group of narcotraficantes and the PDI police in the port of Valparaiso.  Machine gun bullets whizzed, cars exploded, and actors fell dead like so many dominoes.  My friends in Chile tell me not to fret:  this kind of street warfare–as they see daily in Mexico–does not happen in Chile. At least not yet.  But could the problem of the drug wars in the Northern Hemisphere spread to here? 

It is not hard to imagine.  The deserts of Northern Chile share a long border with Peru and Bolivia from which comes a large portion of the world’s cocaine.  There is a sense of lawlessness there already with Bolivian Army officers having been arrested on Chilean soil.  They were caught red-handed helping smuggle into Bolivia automobiles which had been stolen from the streets of Chile.  Bolivia has done little to discourage this trade, rather they have fostered its growth by passing a law allowing one to obtain license plates and documents for automobiles even without proof of ownership.

In the north of Chile is the free trade zone and deep water port called “Iquique”.   From Peru and Bolivia it would be easy to ship drugs from there to Europe and North America in container cargos.  Perhaps the smugglers already do that.   If you watch Profúgos and not realize it is fiction you might think they do.

Further to the North of course the headlines of the Mexican and USA newspapers are filled with reports from what is widely known as the “war on drugs”.    That this is a war there is no doubt.  That it is a “war on drugs” is sort of a non-sequitur.  “Drugs” is not an object which can wage war.  People do that.  When an idea has become conventional wisdom people no longer think about it deeply.  Perhaps the character played by Michael Douglas got it right when he said in the movie “Traffic” the war on drugs is a war on the people who consume drugs.  And how can a people wage war with themselves?

If President Felipe Calderon has lost control of most of his country to the “war on drugs” then these people the press call “drug lords”—conjuring up images of Pablo Escobar and the violence of a Hollywood movies—are not simply street criminals.  Rather they have become provisional governments.  It would be better for Calderon to sue for peace.  Turn over to these so-called “cartels” the power that they already have and stand down the army.  Then the violence will end. The cartels can police their own area, as they already do in their own fashion, and their commercial products (drugs) will travel to the USA unimpeded and without violence.  (Aside:  those who know Colombia’s history know that Pablo Escobar had genuine political power.  He was in fact the provisional governing power in Medellin.)

The former President of Mexico Vicente Fox and others have said the answer to the ending the violence and lawlessness of the drug war is to legalize drugs.  But this ignores the realities of the political situation in the US where even the simplest, more practical ideas cannot pass through the cumbersome legislative process there.  This is why the states have taken matters into their own hands as one-by-one they make legal smoking marijuana.  But it will take decades for any idea like that to make it onto the calendar of the legislature at the federal level.

If Mexico were to make agreements with the cartels to end the violence they could effectively export to the USA the problem of the ingress of illegal drugs to the USA which is where in fact the problem belongs. 

I read with great sadness this week in “The New York Times” that the violence of the drug trade has spread to tiny Belize, a country without the mean to deal with the same.  Just this week a friend in Guatemala told me there smugglers force farmers to allow airplanes to land on their land so that drugs can be sent North to Mexico.  Let’s hope some kind of solution to this spreading menace can be found before it threatens the stability which is Chile.


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