Santos talks drug decriminalisation and peace in US

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos touched down in the USA on Sunday ahead of an intense round of diplomatic meetings, the highlight of which will be a key-note address to the UN General Assembly.

In discussion with students of the University of Kansas the president today confirmed this speech will focus not only on the peace talks with the FARC – which he revealed will begin in a fortnight – but also drug decriminalisation.

Santos believes Colombia has the ´moral authority´ to talk to the world about a ´alternatives´ to the so-called war on drugs.

The president´s goal is to convince the UN to initiate a series of studies into possible strategies for establishing a new regime of control which he argues will ´strengthen the fight against narcotrafficking´.

Earlier this year, during the Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Santos brought together the region´s heads of state to agree to start this process of policy change. It was the first time the US agreed to approach the issue in this way, in front of the world´s media.

Decriminalisation requires international cooperation, and Santos is hopeful of securing the commitment of those countries where the market for drugs is greatest. Colombia may be leading the debate, but Europe and the US must start to follow if it is to take hold.

For Santos, the war on drugs is failing…or it has already failed.

Despite the billions invested by the US in Mexico and Colombia, and despite the success of the Uribe government in debilitating the FARC, narco-trafficking remains one of the world´s most profitable businesses.

So long as the product remains illegal, criminal actors will flood the market with overpriced and low-quality goods. Peace is difficult to achieve while right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas sustain their armies and fill their pockets with such ease.

Most in the north and across the Atlantic are blissfully ignorant of the effect of their drug consumption. They instinctively support the idea of a war on drugs, but are not forced to examine the consequences or the effectiveness of the strategy.

The lives lost are on a different continent.

So while the US directs aid to Latin America, the direct and indirect cost of the narco-business mean that these countries are in effect subsidising the US´ habit.

The truth is, it is only the cartels that appear committed to the war. The kingpins have power and money – they are not about to cede this to a half-hearted campaign by anti-narcotics offices in the US or by the limited fire power of the military.

So Santos should tell the world straight. Pay for the war, fight it, or change the strategy.

Santos was given his first government job by ex-president Cesar Gaviria (1990-94) who governed the country during Pablo Escobar´s reign of terror. Gaviria knows more than most the impotence of the state against the might of well-financed criminal gangs.

Gaviria has dedicated his political afterlife to the campaign for decriminalisation, and he has undoubtedly influenced his former protegé´s thinking.

We are two weeks away from the start of peace talks with the FARC. Success is at least in part dependant on the treatment of the issue of narco-trafficking.

Peace in Colombia is a dream that without a serious rethink on the global approach to illegal substances may well prove impossible to realise.

Santos will make the case for change on Wednesday. We must hope world leaders begin to listen.

The world´s consumers must start to pay for the damage they inflict on the producers.


Twitter: @ColPolitics


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