The War on Drugs: A Game of Illusion and Pretense

As Congress prepares to approve more than a $1 billion in military aid to Colombia for the "war on drugs," both the U.S. and Colombia move ever deeper into a surreal relationship, where appearance is everything and the truth too frightening to contemplate.Imagine a country where guerrilla armies of the right and of the left fight with arms purchased from the proceeds of narcotics trafficking.Imagine a society that takes pride in "macho" notions of male chivalry, but where gunmen massacre women and children with impunity.Imagine a Conservative president who hands over a swathe of territory the size of Switzerland to Marxist guerrillas without exacting prior concessions.That is Colombia.Now imagine a country whose citizens' cravings for mind-altering substances have created an enormous market for narcotics, but whose politicians like to point their fingers abroad.Imagine a country that has made the logic of the free market its touchstone, but seems willing to go to war to close down the market in narcotics.That is the United States.The legacy of Puritanism remains strong in our country. Since colonial days, we have been a nation keen on moral admonitions. We speak of a "city on the hill," but large numbers of the citizens of that city nonetheless turn to alcohol, tranquilizers and narcotics to cope with a reality that isn't everything it pretends to be.We are a "godly" nation that periodically seeks scapegoats for the human inability to live up to otherworldly standards. In the 17th century that meant hunting witches; in the 20th, communists. Now, in the 21st century, communists are going out of style and drug traffickers are becoming the new moral enemy of choice (though it is still convenient to have "communist drug traffickers").But now, as before, the real victims in Latin America are peasants -- they, not drug traffickers or guerrillas, are getting killed by the thousands. Killed by the army, by right-wing paramilitaries and, to a lesser extent, by left-wing guerrillas. It is a lot easier to kill defenseless civilians suspected of sympathizing with rival armed bands than to kill heavily-armed men. Machismo isn't all it's cracked up to be.In the United States, most victims of the drug war are young men, disproportionately drawn from black and Latino communities where educational and vocational opportunities are limited. They have been jammed into overcrowded prisons by the hundreds of thousands for using or selling non-approved mind-altering substances -- giving the "land of the free" one of the highest rates of incarceration anywhere.Never mind that tens of millions of Americans abuse legal mood-altering substances -- nicotine, alcohol and prescription drugs, or that alcohol and tobacco each kill more persons in the United States every year than all illegal narcotics combined.In short, this is not about facing reality, either in the United States or Colombia. It is about maintaining appearances -- and that involves a lot of denial.In the U.S., it means denying there are serious rifts in our social fabric, or, worse yet, that Puritanical ideals might not work here on Earth.It means admitting that Prohibition did not work in the 1920s, but refusing to recognize that the new Prohibition is not working, and cannot work.Colombians are likewise in denial.Pretending that democracy can work in a country with extreme inequalities.Overlooking the fact that peasants grow coca because it is often the only way to feed their children.Pretending that a movement for social justice can be financed by a corrupt form of private enterprise -- for that is what the narcotics business is -- without itself being corrupted in the process.Pretending that the army and right-wing paramilitaries are manly defenders of democracy and morality, while they eviscerate women and children.Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant pretense of all comes from Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the drug czar, when he pretends that the Colombian military is not collaborating with paramilitary groups to slaughter civilians, despite credible reports to the contrary from international human rights organizations.This makes it possible for him to ask Congress for another $1.3 billion to escalate the "war on drugs" in Colombia. In an election year, Congress is sure to grant much of what he's asking for. Asking difficult questions about the drug issue is not good politics.Andrew Reding directs the Americas Project of the World Policy Institute and is an associate editor of Pacific News Service.

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