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A series exploring the humanitarian impact of the war on drugs in developing countries

Drug policy shift no relief for victims of the war

By Philippa Garson
NEW YORK, 9 May 2014 (IRIN) - Easing up on drug prohibition will not solve the plight of the thousands of people displaced by the drug wars in Colombia, Mexico and other countries.

Many detect the beginnings of a global policy shift in the war on drugs, with the realization that a greater focus on those who consume them, rather than endless - and fruitless - crackdowns on those who supply drugs might yield more positive results. However, this will not solve the myriad harms that the drug wars have wrought: the existence of established networks of traffickers and cartels willing and eager to trade in other, if less profitable, contraband; the erosion of state structures and a climate of law and order; and not least, the plight of thousands of people who have fled their land, homes and jobs to avoid the violence.

In a paper entitled Addressing the Costs of Prohibition: Internally Displaced Populations on Colombia and Mexico, in the London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy report, Ending the Drug Wars, released this week, Laura Atuesta Becerra argues that while “much of the current discourse about reversing the damage caused by the war on drugs centers on issues of consumption and treatment, it must be recognized that these changes will have limited impacts in countries such as Mexico and Colombia which suffer systemic illicit drug-related violence, homicides and IDPs [internally displaced persons]”. Trying to repatriate the thousands of displaced people is another cost of the policy of prohibition, she argues, that has yet to be reckoned with.

Colombia, which had the second largest population of displaced people after Sudan (from 2000 to 2010), according to the report, has taken some concrete steps to solve its problem, but Mexico is still reeling from the fall-out of ongoing drug-related violence. The Mexican government has yet to name the crisis, let alone adopt any effective public policies to deal with it. There is little academic research on the numbers of displaced people and even less in the way of programmes or policies to help them, says Becerra.

Colombia has passed the Victim’s Law to protect its displaced people, although rebel groups still thwart their efforts to return home.

In Mexico, people have been displaced in three waves: during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, which displaced an unknown number of people; the Zapatista movement uprising in Chiapas in the 1990s, which saw 35,000 people flee their homes; and the current wave, which has prompted anywhere between 160,000 and 1.5 million, or more, to leave their homes in the wake of the violent fall-out from the war on - and between - organized criminals, civilians and security forces. The conservative estimate comes from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council, while the latter figure is cited by Parametria, a private research agency.

“Since Mexico does not have an official registry to provide assistance to IDPs, no one really knows the number of displaced households, or the cause of their displacement,” Becerra writes.

Mexico needs to recognize its displacement problem

Part of the problem is the government’s inability or unwillingness to face the issue, say experts. Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, says it is far easier for the Mexican government to acknowledge the problem of those displaced 20 years ago then to “get them to deal with the full magnitude of the people who have been displaced in recent years”.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s government is reluctant to embrace the term “displaced people” because it would “mean an acknowledgement of the armed conflict in the country”, she says.

The number of Mexicans requesting asylum in the US has tripled in the last few years, according to Meyer. Others have arrived on tourist visas; but still more - those who don’t have the ability to leave the country - have fled their homes and moved to those parts of the country that they hope are safer. “But there is just no real evidence of how widespread the problem is,” she adds.

Becerra notes that as well as displaced people, there are others who may be classified as “economic migrants” who have left their homes because of the violence and are prepared to work for much lower wages.

She cites case studies from Sinaloa, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, which demonstrated that families left home in search of safety. In Cuidad Juárez, families were crowded into warehouses by the government of Mexico City for months on end.

“The strategy of going after high profile traffickers does nothing to reduce the drug wars. Instead it creates a power vacuum which leads to power struggles and bloodshed”
However, when the government was asked about the problem of displaced people, “they denied its existence, or simply said that there was not enough evidence on displacement to recognize it as a problem,” she writes.

While Nieto has attempted to distance himself from his predecessor’s tough “war on drugs” approach, and is placing more emphasis on policies aimed at violence prevention, says Meyer, he is “pursuing the same strategy of detaining the leaders of the drug cartels. It is difficult to see a significant shift in how he is changing the government’s approach.”

Comments Santo Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies: “[Felipe] Calderón [former Mexican president] picked an ill-conceived war on drugs which ultimately exposed how corrupt and weak the state was in terms of basic security. This merely emboldened other criminals - not all who were involved in the drug trade - to get into other crimes like extortion and kidnappings.” The current government’s ongoing policy of cracking down on drug lords like El Chapo Guzman, a Sinaloa cartel leader who was arrested in February, he adds, “won’t change things significantly, other than increase the violence. The strategy of going after high profile traffickers does nothing to reduce the drug wars. Instead it creates a power vacuum which leads to power struggles and bloodshed,” he says. And while levels of violence may have decreased, kidnappings and extortions are on the rise. As he puts it, “It is too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Stronger state institutions needed

All agree that the situation of societal breakdown, gang violence and displaced people in Mexico will not be solved overnight. There is “no short cut for building a healthy state,” says Tree. How does one get redress for people who have lost their land because there is no rule of law, he asks, when the absence of the rule of law was the problem that caused them to lose their land in the first place?

“The country needs institutions in place that will address the violence in the long term,” says Meyer. “The focus cannot just be on interdicting drugs.” She adds that the US must do more to reduce the flow of guns into Mexico, as well as review its asylum policy for that country. While close to 40 percent of asylum claims from Colombia have been granted, the figure from Mexico is as low as 2 percent, she says. Obviously this will necessitate a review of asylum categories. It is impossible for people escaping drug lords or gang-related violence to prove that those individuals pursuing them have political links, for example, as the current criteria for asylum status demand.

Comments Daniel Mejia, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at the University of the Andes, Colombia: “Mexico has to focus on reducing violence and improving its judicial system, even if this comes at the cost of not capturing some cartel leaders or not reducing drug flows en route to US markets. The big challenge for Mexico today is to spot the violent outburst and reduce the violent crime rate.”

Becerra says there is “no magical solution” to those displaced in the Americas from the drug wars, but that the problem of “social exclusion and inequality” must be addressed. “What we have to ask ourselves is why gang members decide to become part of the business and the answer is easy money and lack of opportunities. It is because they were raised in places where the state is not present, the education opportunities are poor.”

She writes: “If return migration is difficult, it becomes evident that we need more immediate and integrated approaches to this issue while discussions on the future of drug policies take place… It is naïve to expect that if prohibition is ended and the earnings of the illicit drug market are reduced, these organizations are going to become legal, conditions are going to safer, and IDPs are going to return to their hometowns.”



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  • Women paying price of Latin America drug wars

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Theme (s): Conflict, Economy, Governance, Refugees/IDPs,


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