The Futility and Corruption of the Drug War

By Jacob Hornberger, Future of Freedom Foundation.

I just finished watching the much-acclaimed series “Narcos” on Netflix. What a fantastic program. And what an excellent depiction of the futility and corruption of the war on drugs.

The series is a true-life account of Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord who headed up the Medellin drug cartel, a black-market drug group that smuggled hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Smuggling an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine into the United States, Escobar became known as called the “King of Cocaine,” attaining in the process a net worth of $30 billion by the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, Escobar was the wealthiest criminal in history.

Amidst much acclaim and publicity, the U.S. government and the Colombian government, working together, targeted Escobar with arrest or killing. Escobar retaliated by effectively declaring war on the government, a war that consisted of assassinations and bombings. Every time the DEA (which was operating in Colombia, along with the U.S. military and the CIA) and Colombian officials tightened the noose on Escobar’s operation, Escobar responded with bullets and bombs, killing a multitude of government officials and private citizens.

The logic of the drug-war crackdown was clear: By eradicating Escobar, officials thought they would be eradicating 80 percent of the cocaine being shipped into the United States. So, all the death and destruction resulting from the crackdown on Escobar was considered worth it in the long run.

But that’s not what happened. The more they tightened the noose around Escobar, the more his cocaine competitors — that is, the ones who were supplying the 20 percent, expanded their operations, gaining them a larger market share. Among the principal beneficiaries of the crackdown on Escobar was the Cali Cartel, which, not surprisingly, became the next big target of the U.S. and Colombian drug warriors, with similar results — the more they cracked down on the Cali Cartel, the more their competitors stepped into the breach and gained a larger market share.

In 1993, they finally caught up to Escobar and killed him in a shootout. You can imagine how U.S. and Colombian officials trumpeted that drug-war victory. Another “milestone” in the war on drugs, the term they have used for decades whenever they kill or capture some big drug lord.

But of course it was all to no avail. Even though they killed Escobar and ultimately smashed the Medellin and Cali cartels, amidst great fanfare and publicity, other suppliers quickly took their places and continued providing cocaine users in the United States with their drug.

In other words, all those people who lost their lives in the drug war on Escobar died for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

There is something else to consider: what the drug war against Escobar did law-enforcement agents, both American and Colombian. It corrupted them to the core. Frustrated over all the death and destruction that Escobar was wreaking across the country and over their inability to apprehend him, officials began employing brutal and illegal tactics in return, such as torturing prisoners for information and then murdering them so that they couldn’t talk about what the officials had done to them.

Of course, there was also widespread bribery that was taking place within the Colombian police. In fact, that was one of the reasons they had such a hard time catching up to Escobar — his informants within the police and Colombian military would alert him to whatever was going on.

The pathetic thing about all this death, destruction, mayhem, and corruption is that there was a much simpler way to have put Escobar, the Cali Cartel, and all the other black-market drug suppliers out of business,  a way that would not have involved assassinations, bombings, torture, and corruption. All that the U.S. and Colombian governments had to do was legalize drugs.

If they had done that, Escobar and the rest of the black-market suppliers would have been put out of business instantaneously. That’s because of the difference between legal markets and black markets.

In legal markets, suppliers compete against each other by providing better goods and services to their customers. Think CVS, Walgreen, and other pharmacies. Notice that they are not out bombing and assassinating each other and other people

It’s totally different in black or illegal markets. Competitors in these markets deal with each other through violent turf wars that involve murder, kidnapping, bombing, and mayhem. While people like Escobar are able to thrive in a black market, they inevitably go out of business in a legal market because they lack the skills that are necessary in legal markets.

A good example of this phenomenon is alcohol. We don’t see alcohol dealers killing each other to get a larger share of the market. That’s because booze is legal.

But it wasn’t that way when booze was illegal. During Prohibition, there were people like Al Capone involved in the sale and distribution of alcohol, along with killing, mayhem, and corruption.

This same principle, of course, applies today. Notwithstanding all the hoopla to which all of us are subjected when the feds or state drug warriors make a drug bust, the result is no different than it was 20-30 years ago with Escobar. The minute they make the bust, the supplier is replaced by someone else.

There is only one way to eradicate drug lords and illicit drug dealers, along with all the death, destruction, and corruption that comes with them: End the war on drugs by legalizing drugs.

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  • LeseMajeste

    Escobar, like Panama’s Noriega, were CIA assets, who helped move cocaine into the USA, as documented by Gary Webb, before he was found dead, with two bullet holes to his head, and declared a suicide victim.

    The CIA is the world’s biggest narco-trafficker, running heroin out of SE Asia during the Vietnam War, cocaine out of S. America and now back to their fav drug, heroin, out of Afghanistan, from poppy fields being protected by US troops.

  • wehaveseenthisb4

    I don’t think they’re trying very hard for various reasons. It’s a living. A miserable and dangerous living, but what a rush. Plus a little skimming and we’re talking about good times. Burn the poppies in the field and pay the farmers the going rate. Stop it before it gets away. Ah, the thrill of the chase. Sigh.

  • artguerrilla

    *sigh* it is boring and sad to read an article denouncing the war on (some) drugs based on logic, rational thinking, the principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, prioritization of harm and deleterious effect on society, etc, etc, etc…
    there is, in fact, ‘no argument’, if we go by actual facts and logic…
    so-o-o-o, that means there must be something else going on we 99% are not allowed to consider, something not within the proscribed limits of debate on the issue, something too close to the truth to be given currency among the great unwashed masses who are there to be fooled, not control their ‘own’ (sic) society…
    so if it isn’t made-up reefer madness, if it isn’t theoretical harm to society logic, if it isn’t public health reasons, if it isn’t to make ‘better’ (read compliant and cowed) lives for users (you know, instead of DESTROYING them), if it isn’t any of that bullshit, what is it ? ? ?
    c’mon, what is THE first thing you look at on these -seemingly- intractable issues ? ? ?
    whose ox is getting gored, who is making the money on the one side of an issue, and who is making the money on the other side…
    guess who doesn’t want -specifically- marijuana legalized in any way, shape, or form ? ? ?
    Big Pharma, Big Liquor and the Banksters…
    and just who is on the ‘pro’ side ? ? ?
    couple of stoners in an apartment somewhere…
    gee, guess who wins that battle…
    (again, heartening that *some* progress is being made DESPITE the best efforts of the eee-vil minions of Empire; but it is puny and pathetic compared to where we should be on the issue… MJ should be legal, period; AND we should be promoting ‘industrial hemp’ for ALL kinds of reasons which are good for ALL OF US and the planet, regardless of whether you partake of the kind or not…)
    so, tell me just HOW MANY TIMES banksters get perp-walked out of their homes for laundering drug money ? ? ? we can smash the doors down of zillions of stupid users; but -golly, gee, this is hard- we can’t figure out who is laundering the ZILLIONS of dollars IN CASH ? ? ?
    the ONLY ‘reason’ they don’t get the banksters is because they are AVOIDING the banksters, et al…
    and the whole corrupted lot of them, from top to bottom, benefit from keeping MJ illegal: the politicians who get their dirty contributions/bribery; the kops and persecutors who get an unending stream of (useless) persecutions of otherwise innocent people and confiscate anything and everything, because they have the guns and can do whatever aconstitutional shit they like; the private prisons who get to stuff their inhumane rat holes with bodies; the media who get to hype salacious, scary-stuff-of-the-week; and the braying, fake-moral leaders who demonize people for a living…
    these morally bankrupt people do not examine their role in this horrific farce, they only know they benefit from it personally, so it must be defended at all costs… (which they don’t pay…)
    of course, it then gets back to the point that this sad state of affairs will not change until Empire falls…

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  • cstahnke

    The whole idea of “drugs” as opposed to drugs is that anything that makes you feel good is, therefore, bad from the git go. It wasn’t until the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 of that the feds decided to make certain drugs illegal for largely bogus reasons chiefly to have a central authority impede the liberty of the people who, henceforth, must be treated as children and basically told what is and is not right and good from a central bureaucracy who enforced their edicts at the point of a gun. Now the “drug” war, like all other wars the bureaucracy undertakes is a chance to play soldier and strive mightily to save the world from itself by creating carnage and misery for many and big-money with its attendant vices for the few. To say our system is corrupt would be an understatement–it is also deeply delusional. The bureaucrats who pursue war whether in the Pentagon, the CIA, or the DEA usually “believe” in their mission because they are delusional. Having lived in and around Washington for most of my life I can assure you most government employees, including senior CIA officers, are nice people and they are “nice” because they are a member of a cult and have entrusted their conscience into that cult which absolves them of the horror they often create usually at a distance. Those that carry out the horror on the ground are a more interesting lot.

  • Josh Stern

    Escobar’s son has written a new book talking about his father’s role collaborating with the CIA. Apparently he had a direct line of credit that helped him grow their business.

  • Ann on a Moose

    The drug war was imposed as a price support mechanism. All plant-based, non-pharmaceutical drugs would otherwise be dirt cheap and of no interest to the CIA, Mexican cartels or inner city pushers.

    • Diogenes Shrugged

      Bingo, Ann.

  • Anon.

    Pablo Escobar’s son just wrote a book where he reveals his dad imported lots of cocaine for the CIA.