In June 2011, the non-governmental organization Global Commission on Drug Policy published a report detailing the failure of global and national illicit-drugs policies and urging a fundamental change in approach to the global drugs trade.
The report coincided with the fortieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon's famous declaration of the "war on drugs." It offered a variety of policy measures for individual states to consider, ranging from targeted legalization to health services for those afflicted by addiction and prevention programs designed to limit the number of new users.
These sharp critiques and proposed policy initiatives come after the billions of dollars invested in the militarization of the drug war by the U.S. and its far-reaching consequences for societies in Latin America and elsewhere.
The violence associated with the trafficking of illicit narcotics and stimulants continues to stoke a macabre fascination among North American observers and politicians, who bandy about tired terms and phrases such as narco-terrorism, failed states, and security.
But it is the long history of drug production and distribution in Latin America—and the enduringly strong demand for narcotics in the United States—that best helps to explain why the "war on drugs" has resulted in so few battles won and has come at such a great cost both in money and human lives.
The trafficking of illicit drugs is a signature Latin American contribution to our globalized world, and today Colombia and Mexico play the paramount roles in terms of production and distribution. While cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have long figured as primary trafficked products, in the recent past drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have increased shipments of methamphetamines. Yet, this contemporary arrangement was not always the case.
The production, trafficking, and distribution of drugs to consumers have moved geographically many times across Latin America. Like all successful businesses, organizations for narco-production and narco-distribution have responded rapidly and extensively to changing tastes and strong market demands in the consumer countries especially the United States.
At the same time, the often drastic shifts in the political fates of Latin American countries, geopolitics (most notably the Cold War), supra-state institutions (such as the United Nations with its anti-drug policies), and the increased militarization of efforts to eradicate drugs production (spearheaded by the United States) have also shaped the development of the narcotics trade.
In broad terms, the development of the Latin American drugs industry can be broken into four periods. From the late nineteenth century to 1945, Mexico controlled the illegal trade in opium and marijuana, and Peru dominated the mostly legal trade in cocaine products. A second period, from the end of World War II to the 1960s, saw the professionalization and greater organization of trafficking as networks of traffickers emerged.
The third era, from the 1960s to 1984, witnessed the rise of Colombia as the predominant producer and trafficker after Bolivia, Chile, and Cuba fell by the wayside and the Mexican government attempted to curb marijuana and opium production. This period also witnessed a sharp spike in the violence associated with the drug trade. Finally, Mexico has returned to a leading role since 1984 (as a result of connections made with Colombian traffickers in Panama), and drug-trade violence continues to escalate.
The history of Latin American narcotics production and distribution thus reveals the ways in which efforts to suppress the drug trade in one state have tended only to shift its location to another country in the region. Entrepreneurs throughout Latin America worked to take advantage of any opportunity to increase their share of this highly lucrative business and to take advantage of consistently strong demand.