War on drugs must be waged on broad front

/ 12:18 AM September 01, 2016

President Duterte’s war on drugs claimed 1,900 victims in two months. With 70 months left in his administration, at the present pace there will be 68,400 victims by the end of his term—and, sadly, the drug problem may still be existing. The administration is using a simplistic approach to solve a complex problem.

This author’s last posting in the foreign service was as ambassador to Chile and to Bolivia—a region of South America that is the frontline of the global war on drugs. When one visits Santa Cruz City in Bolivia, one will be stunned at the enormous number of private planes in the airport. It is inconsistent with the impoverished status of Santa Cruz (Che Guevara was captured and executed by the Bolivian army in this place). The private planes are either owned or leased by the drug cartels.


The drug trade originates in this region. The coca leaves are grown mainly in Bolivia and in Peru and are then shipped in semiprocessed form to Colombia and Mexico, where they are converted into cocaine. The drug is then exported, mainly to First World countries.

Agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration are ubiquitous in Santa Cruz. Their presence emphasizes the complex nature of the war on drugs. Ideally, the war should be fought on three fronts: law enforcement, supply, and demand. It is a merciless war with unintended consequences.


During our stint in South America, the United States, with its vast resources, tried to curtail the supply of coca leaves at the source by funding the local governments to destroy coca crops. Concomitantly, it encouraged the local farmers to shift to commercial crops, mainly soy beans. The indigenous farmers did not get much returns from coca plants as the price mark-ups and gains occurred at the higher end of the drug manufacturing chain. Thus, a considerable number of farmers in Bolivia and Peru shifted to planting soya beans. But when they harvested their crop, they found out that there was no market for it; they could not sell it to the United States or the European Union because of trade barriers on agricultural products. (US and EU diplomats worked to convince their respective governments to lift these barriers, so this may no longer be the case.)

On the part of the Philippines, it is fortunate that it is an archipelago with no land border shared with any other country. Curtailing the drug supply will be easier on its part provided that the Coast Guard and Customs personnel do their jobs.

As one can intuitively guess, demand is the more important of the three fronts. In all the meetings we had attended, the Latinos emphasized that their indigenous people had been chewing coca leaves for centuries to cure altitude sickness, with no harmful effects. The problem arose when westerners converted the coca leaves into cocaine and created a demand for it. The Latinos argued that if there were no demand for drugs (mainly in First World countries), then there will be no drug trade and its attendant problems.

Addressing the drug problem from the demand side requires a societal commitment involving a country’s homes, churches, schools and social groups. It must be a continuing effort. It will not produce dramatic results—like, for example, capturing a drug lord—that will land on the front pages. But it will produce lasting results. Unfortunately, this aspect is lacking in the war on drugs in the Philippines. The rehabilitation of former addicts is an effort to curtail demand. But data from developed countries are not encouraging as it is claimed that as much as 60 percent of former addicts become users again within two years.

Thus, there is a consensus that the most effective way to curtail demand is to prevent children from taking a first taste of the banned substance. Meaning, drug education should be done early in life and incorporated in the educational system.

The thrust of the current war on drugs is mainly in law enforcement. Success is measured in terms of the body count, as in the Vietnam War. It overstates the quantity, rather than the quality, of the people eliminated. It is rarely mentioned if any of those eliminated were drug lords. This replicates the experience in Latin America. Those doing the killing are police forces. But the police agencies are often linked to drug cartels. Operations to neutralize the drug lords are invariably leaked to the target. Thus, those at the bottom of the drug rings, and not the big fish, often become the victims.

Even if this approach works, it will eventually self-destruct. The experience in other countries shows that ironically, effective law enforcement reduces the supply of the drug, which in turn increases its price. New drug kings emerge. The drug trade is so attractive because of the big payoffs. Each drug kingpin taken down, either by rivals or by the government, is replaced promptly by another.


Thailand was already enmeshed in its war on drugs in the 1990s. The Philippines is next in line. When this author was still in the foreign service, we submitted reports to the authorities on the drug problem. But we did not even receive an acknowledgement of our reports.

If Mr. Duterte is truly concerned about stopping the drug trade and leaving a lasting legacy, he should pursue a broad, multifront policy, as is being done in other countries. He should accept that the war on drugs will not be won solely in the killing fields but in the homes, schools, churches and associations dedicated to solving the drug problem.

Hermenegildo C. Cruz served as Philippine ambassador to Chile and to Bolivia from 1989 to 1993.

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TAGS: Bolivia, Chile, drug war, drugs, Rodrigo Duterte, South America
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