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US-led war on drugs to change track?

Cracking under strain

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WIDENING THE NET: A drug haul in Rio de Janeiro. With its booming economy, Brazil is the new destination of drug gangs

The US-led war on drugs has caused social havoc in Latin America, which now wants to change track by treating it as a public health issue.

Even John Rambo didn't take himself so seriously. But these cops from Rio de Janeiro's anti-drug units were addicted to violence. They arrived over a shantytown in a chopper, tracking a car speeding through a lane. They were following Marcio Pereira, a trafficker known as 'Mathematician'. As the chase continued, a policeman began shooting at the car with his automatic. The bullets, streaking down like a hailstorm, hit houses, shops and street dogs but not the suspect, who escaped. Later, the cops found a bullet-riddled car, but they didn't bother to find out how many people in the crowded slum were struck by their bullets.

Last week, one year after the incident, a video of the firing made it to a television network. Now, as the Rio government probes the incident and the media poses some tough questions, the cops are wondering what the fuss is about. For them, it was another day at work - small collateral damage in their war on drugs.

But the collateral has been colossal in Brazil and other Latin American countries, which produce almost all the cocaine consumed in Western countries. Across the region, the so-called war on drugs has turned into an attack on the poor who get caught in the crossfire between the gangs and police. The death figures are horrifying. In Mexico, 70, 000 people have died and 20, 000 have disappeared in the last six years, most of them in army action;in Honduras, a nation of 8 million people, 7, 200 were killed last year;in Venezuela, 15, 000 people are killed every year in drug-related violence;and in Brazil, the biggest economy in South America, police have allegedly shot 11, 000 people since 2003.

With bodies turning up on sidewalks every day and crack consumption rising in the countryside, the region is fed up with this war. "Of every dollar generated by this trade, 85 cents is made by someone in US and Europe. But the fight for 15 cents has created gangs, militarised and corrupted the police and destroyed entire communities, " says a Central American diplomat, not wanting to be named. "The US has outsourced their problem to us so that people in US and Europe can snort cocaine in peace. Even in Hollywood's imagination, we are the bad guys. But we are the real victims of this war. "

Strong words for a diplomat but it shows the feelings in the region, which wants to change track in its struggle with drugs. At a debate on drug policy at the last World Economic Forum, Oscar Naranjo, Colombia's former national police chief, said, "When we add the concept of war, what happens is that the criminal knows his only option is death and so the logic is - he has to kill or he will be killed. So, the term should be banned. "

Naranjo knows that this logic has created a vicious circle in which addicts are hooked to drugs, criminals to money and cops to bribes and violence. And it all ends in bloodbath. "The problem is in the US and Europe, and not here, " says the diplomat. "This cowboy solution has failed. We need a rethink. "

Now, the drug war debate is taking a turn. This week, European and US governments were given a report by the Organisation of American States (OAS), which says that there is a growing consensus over the human costs of the trade. "Growing media attention regarding this phenomenon in many countries, including on social media, reflects a world in which there is far greater awareness of the violence and suffering associated with the drug problem, " says the report. "The decriminalisation of drug consumption must be considered the base of any public health strategies, " it adds. Experts have described the report as a game-changer. "This report represents the most high-level discussion about drug policy reform ever, and shows tremendous leadership from Latin America on the global debate, " says Kasia Malinowska, director of the Open Society Foundation's drug policy programme.

It also shows that Latin America wants to break free from the US-led campaign, which has caused social havoc in these countries. Since 1971, the US has spent $1 trillion on this war and 45 million people have been arrested. In the last 40 years, the US has spent $20 billion a year on training police agents in several Latin American nations like Colombia and Mexico and built a network of expensive hardware, radar, aircraft, ships, runways and refuelling stations to "stem the tide of drugs from South America to the US". Despite this, a new documentary, The House I Live In, shows that drug use in the US has grown and the number of jailed offenders increased 12 times.

Latin Americans have learnt their lessons from this failure. In Uruguay, the government is debating regulation of marijuana production and distribution. Argentina has already decriminalised marijuana possession for personal use. In Brazil, the supreme court has started a review of drug decriminalisation after seven former justice ministers filed a petition, saying that criminal penalty for individual drug use is "unconstitutional". The petition, which criticised the "failed war on drugs", says "treating a user as a citizen, by offering them structured treatment through harm-reducing policies, is more effective than stigmatising them as a criminal. "

With its economy booming, Brazil is the new destination of drug gangs and its jails are bursting at the seams. Though Brazil has carried out many military operations in its border areas to check the smuggling of drugs, it's also tackling the problem in a different way. In Sao Paulo, the government has started giving $625 per month to the families of addicts for treatment in private clinics. The scheme has given hope to dozens of addicts who live on the streets near Praca Se, a former night spot which is now known as the "Crack Land" of Sao Paulo. The new scheme may help them seek help and go home. That will be much better than scaring them away with a shower of bullets from a chopper.

THE WAR IN NUMBERS


The global illegal drug trade: $320 billion

Number of illegal drug users in the world: 230 million

Number of people in US jails for drug crimes in 1980: 40, 000

Number of people in US jails for drug crimes today: 500, 000

Money spent by US in enforcing drug laws at home: $41 billion annually

Money spent abroad on war on drugs: $15 billion a year

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