The favourites to become the next president of Argentina have all suggested using military measures against drug production and trafficking. A group of experts are speaking out against what they fear could be a disastrous new war on drugs.
Every Friday, 15 men meet at a quiet café in Recoleta, Buenos Aires and discuss the state of the country. They have named their group ´Tertulia del Café´ —The Coffee Salon.
Among them are a former ambassador, a former Secretary of National Security, and various other influential opinion-makers with ties to the most powerful people in Argentina. These men are concerned about the future of Argentina, about a possible war in the offing.
The group recently authored an open letter to Congress, calling for an informed, evidence-based debate on Argentina’s drug policy to replace decision-making based on “assumptions, intuition, and improvisation.”
“We are trying to promote a debate based on facts and evidence. We want a better discussion. We want politicians to make decisions based on knowledge,” says one of the members of the group, former Argentine ambassador to Guatemala and Haiti, Ernesto Justo López.
The apparent spread of drugs has become a major political and social concern in Argentina. According to the United Nations Drug Report of 2013, the country had the second highest occurrence of cocaine prevalence in the population aged 15 – 64 in South America. The report revealed that 25% of the Argentines that age group had used the white powder; only Brazil had a higher prevalence.
There are also fears that drug trafficking and organised crime are taking over the country’s major urban areas, even infiltrating security forces. In 2013 police chiefs in Córdoba and Santa Fe provinces were prosecuted for links to drug trafficking, while drug-related violence has lent Rosario the undesirable nickname of ‘Narco City‘.
All three of the leading presidential candidates – Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa – agree that the drug question is vital, and that a heavy hand is needed to combat the problem.
The favourite, Daniel Scioli, who has governed Buenos Aires province for eight years, is putting numbers on the war on drugs in Argentina. He wants to triple the number of officers enlisted in gendarmerie and the coast guard, and form a militarised urban squad. Scioli has, according to La Nación, gone as far as to suggest that “at some point we would have to evaluate, depending on the characteristics of drug trafficking, the issue of the role of the Armed Forces, because it’s a matter of homeland security.”
Macri, the leading opposition candidate, has named the fight against drug trafficking as one of three main challenges his administration would focus on. Earlier this year, he said: “It’s putting our culture, our families at risk. It is also corrupting our institutions; buying politicians, judges, police officers and officials, and it must be stopped. We will be the first government to address this issue directly and battle it from the first day.” One of the battles Macri is specific about winning the one against the by-product of cocaine, paco. During the presidential debate on 4th October, Macri promised to eradicate the drug within five years.
Sergio Massa is the candidate with the clearest, strongest message. He wants to strike hard and with military use, including authorising the military to shoot down planes suspected of drug trafficking, creating a comprehensive security programme, and incorporate the army to help tackle the problem. During a press conference earlier this year, Massa called drug trafficking a national security risk, and in his latest campaign video, he confirms his active approach. “I want the army to be able to [stop drugs from entering the country] at the border and also help eradicate drug trafficking in marginal areas. We won’t adopt a passive approach like the government did,” he says.
These proposals are causing alarm at the ‘Tertulia del Café’. The group is concerned that Argentina is about to engage in a violent and bloody war on drugs, pointing to Mexico and Colombia as examples of why this would fail.
The approach of Sergio Massa, in particular, worries them. “Massa is selling snake oil, which is what he wants. He wants votes. He knows he is not correct in fighting drugs this way,” says former ambassador López.
Former National Security Secretary Luis Tibiletti agrees. “The reason why Massa is using the military approach is to get votes. He uses the idea of the military protecting our borders. That is ridiculous. What is a soldier going to do when drugs come by car, by train, by plane? It doesn’t make sense. What kind of training do they have?” he asks rhetorically.
“Massa has connections to the American embassy, and Wikileaks has shown that he wants a military approach, just like the US. It’s clear that there is permanent pressure, from the US, to enforce the use of the military in Argentina,” Tibiletti says.
Candidate Sergio Massa is calling for the military to be deployed in a war on drugs.
Tibiletti points out the historic aspect of military intervention in Argentina. “The last time the military was used to intervene in the country, the cost was 30,000 people disappearing,” he says. As a result of this history, there are laws in place to prevent military involvement in domestic security issues.
“There are two laws that do not allow for the use of the armed forces when it comes to internal security: The National Defence Act and The National Security Act. Both of them prohibit the use of the armed forces when it comes to public security. That is the first thing a president would have to remove if they want to use the armed forces. The reason for having those laws is history,” López says.
According to him, the issue of drugs has to be approached from a whole new angle. “We need to focus on the people and not the drugs, to change the point of view. Wars affect security, it’s nonsense to think any other way. To call for war to gain security is nonsense. It is escalating violence. That is what happened, and is happening in Mexico and Colombia,” he says.
“We have to rethink the problem,” says the Director of the International Studies Program at the University of Buenos Aires, Enrique del Percio, another member of the group. “Instead of using the army, we need intelligence. We need to know more. Luis Tibiletti started the first criminal intelligence analysis unit in Argentina, and I think that is one of the most important ways to fight drug trafficking. Following the money trail. Making fewer arrests, but more important ones, rather than the poor boy on the street,” Del Percio says.
Del Percio says politicians must not start a war on Argentina’s own citizens. “We cannot think of citizens as enemies, even if they are trafficking drugs. They are not an internal enemy. Our situation could become the same as what we see in Colombia and Mexico. We have seen what happens if the army intervenes. We have the forces we need, and they have the training they need. The soldiers are trained in killing an enemy. We should focus on the causes, not the consequences. Look at Mexico. They used the army and look at what happened. You can see it very clearly,” he says.
The men at ‘Tertulia del Café’ are not alone in calling for a new approach to drug policy. In 2014, several renowned experts, including five Nobel Prize economists, labelled the war on drugs a failure. The report, called ‘Ending the Drug Wars‘, concluded that the war on drugs, “…has failed on its own terms” and produced “enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” According to the report: “The United Nations has for too long tried to enforce a repressive, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach… It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis.”
One of the authors, John Collins, international drug policy co-ordinator at the London School of Economics, says that the war Argentina may soon begin is not going to work. “We’ve learned from countries that have tried a militarised approach. It has not been positive. It frequently simply pushes criminals into being more violent and has no real impact on the flow of drugs. There is not a shred of evidence suggesting that militarising the war on narcotics does any good —on the contrary, most evidence suggests it does more harm than good,” he says.
For Collins, the obvious examples are Colombia and Mexico. ”They haven’t impacted the scale of the market, merely driven new levels of violence by fragmenting the cartels and creating political vacuums,” he says.
In 2006, Mexico´s president Felipe Calderon launched what would become the bloodiest war on drugs ever seen. Almost ten years later, the results are devastating: more than 100,000 Mexicans have been killed or disappeared. Meanwhile, the cocaine passing through Mexico and into the US adds up to a business worth between US$19bn and US$29bn a year.
Part of the military strategy in the Mexican drug war has been the ‘decapitation strategy’, which according to Collins only does wonders for the homicide rate. “Taking out the top of the cartels helped precipitate an exponential rise in violence and homicides with 100,000 dead in the last decade. The declaration of the war on drugs certainly contributed massively to this spike in violence,” he says.
According to Collins, “There is no evidence that this is required, other than the fact that it sounds good. If the government goes in with a heavy hand it could end up worsening the general security situation. It is a simplistic and frankly dangerous response to a complex problem.”
The report states that even the way success is being measured is wrong, with a drastic overemphasis on seizures and arrest rates –both of which are terrible indicators of policy effectiveness. “Don’t focus on numbers of arrests and quantity of substances seized. These tell us very little about the market and have virtually no impact on consumption rates,” Collins says.
For example, the US spends an annual amount of more than US$51bn on the war on drugs, and 1.5 million people are arrested each year on non-violent drug charges. In the ten years between 2000 and 2010, the US also spent US$7.3bn on a programme called Plan Colombia targeting Colombian cartels and guerrilla groups. Some argue that this has simply moved the trade into Central America and Mexico.
Yet despite this vast expense, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a US government organisation, says that between 2001 to 2013 there was a 29% increase in the total number of deaths caused by cocaine. The number of deaths caused by heroine increased five-fold over the same period.
This overwhelming evidence might be what convinced George Schultz to sign the report. He is a former secretary of state under ex-US president Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 made the war on drugs a matter of national security. Schultz was also treasury secretary under President Richard Nixon, who first declared the ‘war on drugs’ in 1971.
What is needed, Collins believes, is a new way of looking at the problem. “Internationally, there has been a broad recognition that the drug issue is not a criminal justice issue, it’s a public health issue. Politicians should look towards a health issue approach. Don’t aim for impossible targets of eradicating or drastically shrinking drug markets, because decades of evidence show they will almost certainly fail. Focus on comprehensive strategies which seek to lessen the harms of both drugs and drug markets, and drug policies,” he says.
Back at the Coffee Salon, Enrique del Percio says the presidential candidates —especially Massa— with the help of the media are creating a problem that is not as big as they would have it seem.
“The problem is big, but not as big as the media makes it out to be,” del Percio says. ”Think of a street in Medellin in the ’70s, you could not walk there. That was a primary problem. We don’t have that situation here. In Argentina, we have problems: debt, how do we educate the marginalised, thinking about the economy, and how to maintain a high level of employment in the midst of the current crisis. There are a lot of things to do.”
Tibiletti agrees. “In the national newspaper La Nación, Macri’s advisor calls it a primary problem, which is not true. The problem is inequality. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime studied the correlation between the GINI coefficient (a way of measuring inequality) and the crime rate, and it’s 1:1. As the Pope says, if you don’t provide solutions for the marginalised people in society, you can have all the tanks and armies you want, but you will not solve crime,” Tibiletti says, laughing a bit.
What the group is most worried about is that the voters won’t be able to see through the smoke. “If people are offered an ‘easy solution’ of tanks, which for some might seem like a safe option, they feel like the candidate cares. And will say yes to that very visual solution,” del Percio says.
As we are about to leave the café, former ambassador López asks to make an important footnote. “I want to make it very clear, that what we want is an informed debate, with substance. We do not want to make policies. We want to make politicians make informed decisions, that is the goal,” he says.
The key issue now is whether the next president is willing to listen.