You don't hear much about the war on drugs anymore. Partly because it has been displaced on the news by the War on Terror, War in Iraq and Syria, Iran, Great Power competition with China — whatever attracts viewers and readers. Part of it is that I think we lost the war.
During my time with the CIA, I worked in Counternarcotics (CN) for six years. I found it to be a frustrating and disheartening line of business. I worked on the issue during the height of the War on Drugs. The U.S. had devoted significant resources to combat narcotics trafficking, especially cocaine. In addition to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the State Department, Treasury Department, the CIA, NSA, and the Defense Department were all involved. The U.S. devoted all its considerable power and technology to the problem. There were dedicated aircraft and naval warships stationed to detect and intercept cocaine shipments. U.S. and local resources were devoted to destroying labs, fields, and trafficking organizations. So what happened?
As I noted above, part of the problem is that other, more critical issues took center stage and siphoned off resources and attention. I suspect that politicians and policymakers are happy to let this war disappear from the headlines. The "war" was waged for 50 years, cost $51 billion a year, and devastated several countries. Why did we lose, assuming you accept my premise?
The first problem is that drugs, in this case, we will be talking about cocaine, is an incredibly profitable business. The numbers change all the time based on a variety of economic issues. So I will use numbers that were around during my time working CN. These numbers are illustrative of the money involved. Let's start with the farmer who grows and harvests coca leaves, from which cocaine is extracted.
A coca leaf farmer in Bolivia, where growing coca leaf is legal and used for a variety of medicinal reasons, can earn $9,000 per year on a 2.2. acre plot. The next most lucrative crop is citrus, which earns $500 per year. The coca plant is extremely hardy and requires relatively less work to cultivate than other plants. Furthermore, depending on various conditions, the coca plant has two to three harvests per year. That is the start of the problem: a plant that yields a harvest three times a year and earns 18 times what other crops earn, for less work. Many efforts have been made by the U.S. government to have farmers plant alternative crops, but the economics is against success.
There is a process to turn coca leaves into cocaine paste then cocaine hydrochloride, the cocaine consumed by people, but I won't get into the details because they are not relevant to this post. What is relevant is that the finished product sells in the countries of origin — Bolivia, Peru, Colombia — for between $1,000 and $1,800 a kilo, a kilo being 1,000 grams or 2.2 pounds. From there it is transported through a variety of countries and by numerous means. By the time it hits the U.S., let's say New York City, though it hits every part of America, the price of a kilo of pure cocaine is now over $30,000. It is easily double that amount in Europe. A drug dealer will likely "cut'' the cocaine, that is mix the pure cocaine with another white powder, such as talcum powder, to get double the amount without the buyer even noticing. A kilo of $30,000 plus cocaine is now two kilos at $60,000 plus. As you can see, at the end of the shipment trail the kilo of cocaine is going for 60 times the original price. Even taking into account shipment costs, overhead, etc. the profit margin is staggering. Yet, that is only one kilo and narcotics trafficking is a bulk business.
Trafficking cartels move tons of cocaine into the U.S. They move most of the drugs overland through official U.S. ports of entry, concealing the drugs in all manner of creative ways. They move it through underground tunnels and via airplanes. They use boats to get it to the U.S. coast and have even used submarines to transport the drugs. To those who believe a border wall will impact drug shipments into the U.S., you are sadly wrong. At most, you will make small-time drug dealers suffer, but in the end, the vast majority of drugs are not carried by hand across the U.S. border. It has been estimated that Colombian cartels move $10 billion worth of cocaine into the U.S. per year and Mexican cartels move $64 billion per year. These are all guesses since drug cartels don't publish their ledgers and they rarely know exactly how much they make. And remember, this is just the U.S. It does not include Europe where prices and profits are much higher, not to mention other parts of the world. You can start to see the financial scope of the problem.
Traffickers make astounding amounts of money in countries where poverty is endemic and wages are low. Police officers in Mexico make an average of $500 per month, which is $6,000 per year. Out of that, many have to pay out of their own pockets for things like bulletproof vests, boots, uniforms, even bullets. If they want a good beat or a car, they need to kick back money to their superiors. They get the money from bribes. It isn't that they are inherently corrupt, it is that they don't make enough money and the system forces them to be corrupt if they want to survive and feed their families.
Along one of the highways leaving Mexico City heading north to the U.S. border, there was a police officer who would stake out a strip of the highway and stop vehicles for one reason or the other. He would threaten the occupant with a ticket and a court appearance or they could just pay a portion of their fine to the helpful police officer and do away with all the bureaucratic details of a traffic ticket. That road was also one of the main arteries that traffickers used to ship cocaine up north. One day the police officer woke up from his afternoon nap behind a billboard along the highway. On his dashboard was a silver coin and a bullet. It was the typical cartel message, "plata o plomo," meaning silver or lead. Take our money or we will kill you. That is all it took and each week the cop received an envelope of money dropped into his police cruiser.
This bribery goes all the way to the top. In one country a representative of the cartels approached the attorney general of that country. The representative carried a suitcase with him to the meeting. He advised the attorney general that there were five million dollars in the suitcase, which was for the attorney general if he agreed to listen to a proposal. Mind you, that was five million just to listen, not to accept. He listened to the offer, which involved turning a blind eye to certain activities of the cartels. A year or two later the attorney general retired to a comfortable existence to the south of France.
At times I didn't understand the goals of the War on Drugs. Were we trying to dismantle cartels? Were we trying to stop drugs from entering the U.S.? Because we were not doing either. For every cartel, we dismantled, for every trafficker that was arrested, two, three, or four were ready to take their place. At times we were destroying one organization only to make room for another group to take over. I was told that half a loaf is better than none, but that didn't apply. We were not getting half a loaf because it wasn't having an impact on drugs entering the U.S. As long as the demand was there, traffickers stepped up to fill the vacuum. The amounts of drugs being shipped did not change.
We dismantled cartels in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia and patted ourselves on the back for the successes. What we were actually doing was eliminating the middlemen, the Bolivian and Peruvian cartels, and allowing the Mexican cartels to step in and deal directly with the growers. Now Mexican profits soared and their power and influence grew. Countries turned into war zones, destabilizing governments, causing numerous casualties, and giving cartels greater power and influence, making them virtual armies and governments.
I once attended a CN conference in the U.S. One guest speaker was a cartel money launderer who was cooperating with the DEA and was in the witness protection program. He said one thing that struck me and demonstrated the futility of the drug war. He described how cartels functioned like most businesses, but with some stark differences. The cartels made allowance for what some companies would categorize as spoilage or losses, in this case, drug seizures by U.S. authorities.
The problem was that cocaine and heroin were such profitable businesses that the U.S. would have to interdict 80 to 90 percent of the drugs coming into the U.S. before the cartels experienced a serious financial loss, i.e. go in the red. The U.S., at the time, was interdicting five percent. He commented that the big problem cartels faced was not U.S. CN efforts, despite what reports said, the real problem they were having was how to launder their money. They were making so much money that they couldn't process the profits fast enough. They tried real estate, ranches, but in the end, they had rooms stuffed with cash, they buried cash, they couldn't spend the money fast enough.
Our problem has always been that we have not focussed as much on the U.S. demand as we have on foreign supply. We could not admit and accept that the bigger problem in the drug war was our consumption rather than the production. Don't get me wrong, production is a problem, but as long as there is a demand there will be people ready to fill that demand. It was always easier to blame "those people" for our problem rather than accept responsibility. It was always easier to shoot up and destroy some other country than it was to deal with the problem at home. Imagine if we had used part of the $51 billion a year to deal with our addiction? Dealing with the addiction was some type of admission of a failing on our part, that we were responsible for something wrong.
The War on Drugs has always had some dark components. We have always treated various aspects differently. We enforced our drug laws differently, a two-tier system depending on who you were. Look at the opioid crisis. U.S. companies pushed drugs knowing that they were highly addictive and dangerous. They did it solely for profit because several billion dollars in profit wasn't enough. They wanted more and more, regardless of who died. They conspired to push the drugs on unsuspecting Americans. Some will argue that it was perfectly legal, but it wasn't since the companies were found guilty of violating the law. However, even if legal, it is the pharmaceutical companies that write pharmaceutical legislation to benefit themselves and allow them to legally do things that are normally not legal. How did we react? Fines, which the companies can pay with the money they made from selling the opioids in the first place. Why weren't those responsible charged, tried, and sent to jail? Because we have two different justice systems. Just like the U.S banks that laundered — and probably continue to launder — drug money, they face a different justice system than most of us face.