If Colombia legalizes cocaine, there will still be violence there

As a battered and bruised Special Forces veteran of the “drug war” in Latin America, and, specifically, in Colombia, the idea that simply legalizing cocaine to end violence makes me cringe. It’s a typically leftist way of thinking without considering the downstream effects—and those effects will be disastrous for Colombia.

The potential for societal breakdown hasn’t stopped Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro. He believes legalizing cocaine will “shift away” from what some call the “irrational” war on drugs.

First, a little backstory. While we were surrounded by Communist FARC guerrillas battling it out with the Colombian army one night, a Colombian National Police Counter-Narcotics Officer I worked with pointed out, “…if you want to stop the drug war, just stop buying the stuff in America.”

Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia in 1990. Photo taken by the author. It’s a slight play on words in Spanish: “The solution is that the USA not use that which it uses.”

That same officer admitted that he would probably do his duty and arrest Pablo Escobar if it came down to it, but he reminded me of what the billions of dollars in drug revenue did for his country.

“My daughter goes to a nice Catholic school, in a wealthy modern city (Medellin) as opposed to digging meals out of dumpsters or becoming a teen prostitute,” he explained. “We have safe drinking water, parks, thriving businesses, and fast-food places just like in the U.S.”

Why would he want to give all that up? He was biding his time on a hardship tour in a remote, jungle outpost working counter-narcotics until he could go back to the city and do what every cop in the U.S. does—patrol the neighborhoods, ticket speeders, and respond to everyday events. Unfortunately, we had 50 Colombian police and/or army killed every month while I was there (a couple of whom I knew), so I truly hope he made it home.

The violence Americans fund with their drug dollars in countries like Colombia, Mexico, and others is very real, and I fully blame cocaine users for countless deaths globally. Why is this trade so utterly violent? Because, in a relatively underdeveloped and poor region of the world, cocaine is a source of incredible income for some, and a step up from subsistence farming for most. This standard of living and power is not available in any other way, and these people are very willing to kill to protect it.

Worse yet, as the “Wall” came down in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union stopped providing support to the communist guerrillas. The guerrillas, in turn, were forced to establish a modus vivendi with the narcos. In a sense, the guerrillas were now an army needing funding, and the narcos, under intensified pressure from the government, were a source of funds who needed an army. If the rewards are worth it, the suppliers will find a way.

“So why won’t legalizing cocaine change all this?” you ask.

Because the coca trade follows the same principles as any free market—supply and demand. In this case, though, there are the added elements of extreme risk and supplier violence.

Cocaine is valuable because various governments limit it through their efforts to stop it from being supplied to the market. Limited supply combined with high demand leads to higher prices. Higher prices cover the risks associated with the trade.

If any or all the governments involved legalized cocaine, they would be cutting that source of income from some very violent and relatively desperate people who would not take any limitations sitting down. In fact, a whole new wave of violence would immediately break out as the existing cartels began fighting each other to actually limit the amount of cocaine available and maintain the price levels they need.

It really is no more complicated than that. Legalizing cocaine in Colombia will not end the violence.

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