Former Latin American leaders urge world to end war on drugs ‘disaster’

Three former presidents of Latin American nations have urged the world to end the “unmitigated disaster” of the war on drugs, and denounced the United Nations for secrecy and shortsightedness ahead of the first special assembly on drugs in 18 years.

“Outdated drug policies around the world have resulted in soaring drug-related violence, overstretched criminal justice systems, runaway corruption and mangled democratic institutions,” wrote Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo, respectively the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

The former presidents said that experts, statistics and a review of their “own failures on this front while in office” led them to “an unavoidable conclusion: the ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster”.

While in office in the 1990s, the three leaders fought the drug trade by the usual, often violent, methods. Cardoso tried to eradicate marijuana production in Brazil, Zedillo began war against Mexican cartels that exploded in the second half of the decade, and Gaviria fought Pablo Escobar’s cocaine empire.

Escobar tried to assassinate Gaviria in a plane bombing, and the president’s administration killed the drug lord in 1993, a killing that Gaviria called “a step toward the end of drug trafficking” and proof “it is possible to defeat evil”.

But the three ex-presidents have spent the 2000s calling for decriminalization and regulation of drugs, and in 2009 Cardoso wrote for the Observer that decriminalization “breaks the silence about the drug problem”.

Drugs are “not first and foremost a matter for the criminal justice system”, he wrote. “Repressive policies towards drug users are firmly rooted in prejudice, fear and ideological visions, rather than in cold and hard assessment of the realities of drug abuse.”

While the three hailed the UN for holding an assembly on drug abuse on 19 April, they excoriated its methods in Friday’s op-ed. “What was supposed to be an open, honest and data-driven debate about drug policies has turned into a narrowly conceived closed-door affair,” they wrote.

The UN has blocked the majority of member states and various health and human rights groups from participating, according to the leaders, and the drafted declaration “perpetuates the criminalization of producers and consumers” rather than moving toward treatment for addicts.

Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo instead call for all UN nations to “end the criminalization and incarceration of drug users”, and to abolish capital punishment for related offenses: “It is a medieval practice that should be stamped out once and for all.”

Finally, they call for regulation of drugs to replace “the obvious failure of most existing drug laws”.

“This is not as radical as it sounds,” they add, citing the example of Switzerland’s healthcare plan for heroin addicts, Portugal’s decriminalization, Uruguay’s regulated marijuana market, and the nearly two dozen US states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Cardoso has in the past also cited the Netherlands’ lax marijuana laws and liberalized drug laws in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

The ex-presidents call echoes, at least in part, remarks made by several US presidential candidates this year when asked about a growing epidemic of heroin and painkiller abuse. Democratic candidates have said they support a shift toward treatment first, and some Republican candidates have said they favor improved treatment and reforming sentencing laws around drugs.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, also criticized the UN’s handling of drug abuse and law enforcement on Friday.

“Drugs are dangerous, but current narcotics policies are an even bigger threat,” he said in a statement. “This is because punishment is given a greater priority than health and human rights. Prohibition has had virtually no impact on the supply of or demand for illicit drugs.”


  1. REPLY
    Stacey Sade says

    I am just one person, a 40 year old single mother in Florida, United States. I realize there are so many whose outcomes were worse than mine… I lived, but they took everything I WORKED my whole life to achieve. I am charged with several possession charges including marijuana and controlled substance that was not in evidence. I was a partner family with Habitat for Humanity, under agreement to accept assigned address or forfeit the opportunity. Neighborhood stabilization and such. My children had the opportunity to assist in building our home. I can only imagine I was targeted due to guilt by association, living in a bad neighborhood. My children and I lived in our home peacefully for 3 n half years, then new Habitat homes were built and one o the new residents wqs a patient of the methodone clinic…. things started getting strange. Before long I sent my children to stay with family, not even wanting them in the neighborhood. I was a witness to the most traumatic lack of humanity. Children starved for humanity, parents hollow and administering methodone to the children… in order to use their urine at the clinic. I contacted the proper “authorities”. I would have kept those children myself, the oldest was my son’s best friend. This is the first time I had ever seen … such disregard for their own children. Then to be targeted myself, falsely accused, incarcerated… with an injury that they used to basically torture me as it became infected several times while in custody. My home was taken from my children and I… with no supporting evidence to substantiate their charges. There was nothing in my possession. I realize it is not your problem, or your concern. I just feel like I’m still a target and my children have been threatened as well. Just trying to give another aspect of how the “war on drugs” is inhumane. I would like to know how utilizing a medicinal plant is more of a criminal act than terrorizing, brutalizing, threatening, and stealing someone’s home while representing an honorable position, expected to be above reproach. I worked hard for my house, Habitat partnership required 300 “sweat equity” hours. I wrote and delivered a speech for Habitat that was used to attain a grant for 24.5 million dollars. To build 302 homes, I believe. I ended up with nothing. My children had to go through and pick out the most important things they wanted to keep, because I was incarcerated when my home was taken. I was not allowed access to court to try to defend myself. For marijuana… that wasn’t even in my possession. I am not a criminal, or a freeloader. I am not on welfare. I have always worked very hard, have several skilled trades. I supported myself and my children, without being a burden to society. I know, nobodies problem but my own, and to be honest I’m glad to be out of that neighborhood, I called it the bowels of hell, where everybody was the devil with a needle in their arm. But I must say, I am terribly affected by my children’s loss. And very angry at the threats towards them. I beg of you… whoever… if anyone even reads this… end it. It has become a blanket under which psychopaths terrorize innocent people. With no remorse, no excuse, no justification….. no humanity. Thank you for your time and consideration.

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