Monthly Archives: June 2014

Peace Wins in Colombia

When the Colombian presidential elections headed into a run-off in May, and voters were given the choice between the right-wing incumbent Santos administration and Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a right-wing protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, journalist Mario López, writing in the local newspaper El Espectador, noted, “Whichever candidate wins the country is not going to change its economic model, this is the reason the establishment has supported and financed both candidates in the same proportion.  The only considerable difference is the peace process moving forward in Havana, and, perhaps, the personal style of leadership.”  The article was titled “War or Peace?”  Zuluaga’s stance softened slightly in respect to the talks, but for those opposed to both the right and the ultra-right an essential dilemma remained: vote to save the peace process in its current form, or submit a blank vote in protest at the constrained choice?  (A cartoon doing the rounds on social media showed a cow standing at the crux of two paths, one with a sign saying ‘Santos’, the other ‘Zuluaga’.  After a small distance the paths could be seen to converge and enter a dark tunnel, above which a sign read “Well-being”, replacing the scrubbed-out but still legible “Slaughterhouse”).   It looks like the decision by centre and left wing groups to support Santos may have been the critical factor in giving him a 5 point victory in the run-off, ensuring the survival of the peace talks and the tentative steps that have so far been made, including the agreed upon but not-yet-finalised commitments to radically alter the country’s approach to the questions of illicit drug production and consumption.  Leading opposition figures afterwards celebrated the victory under the banner “Peace Won.”   Left wing senator Ivan Cepeda Castro told local press that the vote for Santos was a pragmatic one. Those who made the choice, he said, would not forfeit their role as the opposition.

The elections have been a reminder of the conservative sentiments held by powerful sectors of Colombian society and a significant proportion of the population (a recent poll suggested only about half of Colombians thought democracy was preferable to authoritarianism, a result that maybe says more about the specific nature of what ‘democracy’ has entailed in the country rather than widespread anti-democratic sentiments among the people).  It also demonstrated the fragility of even minor progressive gains in the current political climate.

Just prior to the run-off, the government announced they would be opening peace talks with the second largest guerilla group in the country, the ELN (The National Liberation Army), in the near future.

Resistance to a ‘War on Drugs’ in West Africa

It has long been known that the most cost-effective way to combat the drug trade is through treatment, prevention, and education at home.  These methods continue to be underfunded in the the main consumer countries.  Instead, the focus is on supply, a policy choice that has, among many other disastrous implications, served to push routes around the globe in a cat and mouse war of attrition between cartels and law enforcement agencies.  In recent years, West Africa has experienced an uptick in interdictions of illicit drugs bound for Europe.  This has inevitably led to official discussion, mainly among foreign states and agencies, of the need to confront the trafficking problem through militarised, punitive, supply-focused means.  Civil society and observers of the drug war elsewhere have been arguing against such an approach.  GDPO itself has produced two reports on the region.  Last November a report discussed the strategic goals that underlie the agenda being pushed by foreign actors, and this month another policy brief highlighted the risks involved in a War on Drugs type approach to the region.  The Institute of Development Studies released a paper on West Africa this month, written by a technical advisor to GDPO.  The report is a critique of the calls for “building up increased regional law enforcement and interdiction capacities to curb illicit flows.”  In a similar vein, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, a group of experts headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, this month released a comprehensive assessment of the present situation in the region.  The group warn against the adoption of War on Drugs-style policies and reiterate a now common conclusion: “that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption.”  Instead they recommend partial decriminalisation, and that drugs be treated as a public health concern.  Such high-level advocacy is an important step in saving West Africa from the drug policy related nightmares experienced elsewhere.

The Commission’s report is online here.


New IDS Report on West Africa

A few years back there was a jump in the amount of South American drugs, particularly cocaine, being found by authorities in West Africa. Starting in Brazil and Venezuela, the shipments move across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Africa, and from there through the Sahara and on to Southern Europe. A new route presents many challenges, portending not just drug-related violence but threats to the integrity of government institutions themselves. West Africa has not suffered drug-related violence on the scale of Latin America. However, the effect on governance and development in weak and generally impoverished states could be grave.

A new paper from the Institute of Development Studies’ programme on ‘strengthening evidence-based policy’ takes a comprehensive look at the situation in West Africa and the predominant approach of international institutions to the rise in trafficking through the region. The report, written by Markus Schultze-Kraft (technical advisor to GDPO) and titled “Getting Real About an Illicit ‘External Stressor’: Transnational Cocaine Trafficking through West Africa”, critiques the current focus on law enforcement as the answer to the problem.

The author presents the framework of understanding pushed by the World Bank, which separates external stresses – military invasion, illicit trafficking and so on – from internal stresses like unemployment and corruption. These ‘stressors’, the World Bank has argued, combine to generate new stresses and violence in turn. In contrast, Schultze-Kraft contends that the World Bank external-internal dichotomy neglects the inter-relationship between the two and thereby “runs the risk of over-simplifying complex issue and framing the analysis in a way that reduces its usefulness for policy purposes. It also runs the risk of uncritically reiterating dominant contemporary discourses on global and transnational problems.” In reality, the paper argues, complex processes like trafficking “tend to involve external, internal and transnational actors and variables that are often interrelated.”  Therefore, “internal and external stresses should not be conceptualised as separate but actually as relating to and reinforcing one another for they are interconnected through transnational actors and processes that are part of broader globalising dynamics.” The paper highlights the importance of considering such factors in creating new, sustainable, effective policies.

Drug trafficking through West Africa has been an area of focus within the drug policy community for around a decade. More recently, the development community has joined in. But studies of trafficking through the region “tend to reflect institutional/organisational interests and mandates rather than rigorous independent research.” The UNODC, for example, produces reports that are “heavily skewed toward representing a situation that calls for building up increased regional law enforcement and interdiction capacities to curb illicit flows,” a goal which happens to be “at the core of its mandate.” Present policies, designed and paid for by outside actors, are focusing narrowly on trafficking routes and as such “they ignore the political economy of drug trafficking in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Ghana or Mali,” decreasing the likelihood of policy success and “increasing the likelihood of political instability and governance failure.”  “The major task at hand,” Schultze-Kraft writes, “is to devise strategies that effectively enable and support West Africa’s states to manage the opportunities afforded to them by, and the pressures resulting from, processes of illicit globalisation in such a way that the incentives for national elites and their patronage-dependent constituencies to engage in trafficking are reduced; and the incentives to build more accountable, legitimate and effective public institutions are increased.”

Among many recommendations that could form the basis of a new approach, the paper argues that effective global-level policy to tackle the problem in West Africa would need to focus on:

– increasing investment in public-health-focused and human-rights-based interventions to reduce cocaine demand in Europe and in other large consumer markets, such as the US, Brazil, South Africa and Russia;

– achieving a new international consensus on drug policy based on the reform of the existing international drug control regime.

The paper can be read in full here.

A Temporary Aberration?

The punitive element of the War on Drugs at home has led to record rates of incarceration.  Of the world’s entire prison population, twenty five percent are now in the US.  More than half the inmates are there on drug-related charges, and of these the majority were arrested for simple possession.

On this note, here is an excerpt from a speech given in 1993 by Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn, New York, at the Cardozo School of Law, in Manhattan:

“The sentencing guidelines which Congress requires judges to follow result, in the main, in the cruel imposition of excessive sentences, over-filling our jails and causing unnecessary havoc to families, society, and prisons. Most judges today take it for granted, as I do, that the applicable guideline for the defendant before them will represent an excessive sentence. Drug cases, particularly those involving low-level smugglers or “mules” who are poverty-stricken, present a special problem, because the sentences mandated are so overwhelming.  I am now so depressed by the drug situation that this week I sent a memorandum to all the judges and magistrate judges in my district stating:

One day last week I had to sentence a peasant woman from West Africa to forty-six months in a drug case. The result for her young children will undoubtedly be, as she suggested, devastating. On the same day I sentenced a man to thirty years as a second drug offender – a heavy sentence mandated by the Guidelines and statute. These two cases confirm my sense of frustration about much of the cruelty I have been party to in connection with the “war on drugs” that is being fought by the military, police, and courts rather than by our medical and social institutions.  I myself am unsure how this drug problem should be handled, but I need a rest from the oppressive sense of futility that these drug cases leave. Accordingly, I have taken my name out of the wheel for drug cases. This resolution leaves me uncomfortable since it shifts the “dirty work” to other judges.  At the moment, however, I simply cannot sentence another impoverished person whose destruction can have no discernible effect on the drug trade. I wish I were in a position to propose some solution but I am not. I’m just a tired old judge who has temporarily filled his quota of remorselessness. 

Until we can address and deal with the rotten aspects of our society that lead to drug dependence, we will not deal effectively with the drug problem.  I believe that in the future we will look back on this horrendous period of overpunishment as a temporary American aberration. Apart from everything else, the expense of this foolishness is too great for the taxpayers to bear.”

PG Network Meeting Held in London

The PG Network held it’s 3rd official meeting on Friday 25th April at Kings College London.

The network continues to grow and this time we welcomed three new members to the group: Burke Basaranel, Emrah Ozdemir and David Perez Esparza.

The network members all gave a short summary of their research and John Collins reported back to the group on the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting held in Vienna in March 2014.

The next meeting will be held in Bristol at the end of July (date and venue tbc).  New members always welcome!