Economic Exclusion and the Latin American Drug Wars: The Link between Neoliberalism and the Drug Trade

Michoacán, Mexico: poverty, drug production, trafficking, and high levels of violence.

Michoacán, Mexico: poverty, drug production, trafficking, and high levels of violence.

    On April 18, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on the drug trade. At this session, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos presented a plan for the complete and radical overhaul of global policy towards drug trafficking. Calling for an approach that is both more humane and comprehensive, he recommended an end to the victimization of drug users through abolishing the harsh penalties attached to drug related offenses. His views reflect growing support for a human rights approach to addressing the drug trade issue--one that recognizes that the punitive and repressive responses of states to drug production and trafficking have failed to reduce the trade while ratcheting up the level of drug related violence. The consequence has been that human rights violations related to drug offense are common throughout the region while Latin American prisons have become filled to overflowing with drug offenders, most of them consumers and low-level offenders. Altering the approach to the Latin American drug wars is essential to improving the human condition for millions who face both material deprivation and high levels of physical insecurity. In Mexico, for example, as many as 80,000 have perished in drug-related violence since 2006, while between 2012 and 2014, 2 million more fell into poverty. However, is taking a human rights approach to the drug issue, through decriminalizing lower level offenses, reducing sentences, and providing treatment for users, going to be enough to reduce the unfortunate social consequences that have arisen with drug production and trafficking?

    It is not. An essential ingredient must be vigorous state support for the creation of alternative economic activities for the millions of small farmers and otherwise unemployed (many urban youth) who are currently engaged in the production and trafficking of drugs. Perhaps this is what President Santos meant by taking a “comprehensive” approach. However, the importance of state orchestrated employment generating activities needs to both explicit and central to the discussion. The presence of a ready-made work force eager to provide labor for drug-related activities, despite the substantial physical dangers involved, is important in accounting for the resiliency of these activities

     From the mid-1980s, market liberalizing reform has played a key role in reducing employment, thereby contributing to the movement of the newly unemployment into drug production. The expansion of drug production and trafficking in Bolivia, for example, was closely associated with the social devastation wrought by the debt crisis and draconian structural adjustment program of 1985. After 1985, coca leaf production in Bolivia tripled and the country emerged as the world’s second largest producer as displaced workers moved into the Chapare region to engage in coca cultivation. Popular opposition to various eradication schemes was framed not only in cultural terms, but also as a struggle of the poor who had been dispossessed by the neoliberal policies of liberalization and privatization. The rise of the head of the coca growers association to the Bolivian presidency marked the culmination of the political fall-out from this process. 

    More recently in Mexico, the rapid expansion of the drug trade has often provided the means for survival for displaced farmers and poor urban laborers, particularly youth. With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican government authorized the massive importation of corn, a move that resulted in the loss of over a million rural jobs. Drug traffickers, providing higher pay than could be earned working in traditional agriculture, recruited rural day laborers into the drug trade. Meanwhile, an increasing numbers of farmers, hurt by the inflow of cheap agricultural products, were attracted into drug production by the much higher income they could earn. An estimated 30 percent of Mexico’s arable land is now used for the cultivation of drugs. At the same time, the high unemployment and underemployment among Mexican youth make them prime candidates for recruitment into drug-related activities. One report recounts how youth, some less than 14 years old, are recruited, trained, and armed by cartels to form death squads at a price of 1,000 pesos per execution.

    Economic globalization and neoliberal reforms have destroyed existing sources of employment, and have failed to generate sufficient new employment opportunities. Despite recent improvements in employment arising from commodity-led growth, informal employment remains substantial in most Latin American countries. As long as large numbers of people, particularly youth, remain excluded from economic opportunity, they will very likely remain ready recruits for criminal activities harmful to social peace. The issue of state “industrial” policy, broadly defined as sustainable transformative activities, including agricultural ones, is slowly making it onto the agendas of Global South countries, including Latin American ones. As I have discussed elsewhere, however, these policies are neither vigorous, nor central to state concerns (See The Politics of Inclusive Development, and my earlier blog entry on Brazil on this point). Conventional thinking about appropriate development policies remains entrenched in a paradigm resistant to vigorous state action. This must change because providing alternative employment opportunities is essential to reducing drug production and trafficking and all of their nefarious consequences.