The Drug War and Gun Violence in Latin America

Over at The Atlantic, Noah Smith has an excellent proposal (not in lieu of gun safety laws, but in addition):

I’m talking about ending the drug war.

Reliable statistics on the number of drug-related murders in the United States are hard to come by. A 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a 2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). Part of this variance is that “drug-related” murders are hard to define. There are murders committed by people on drugs, murders committed by addicts to get money for drugs, turf-war murders by drug suppliers, and murders committed by gangs whose principal source of income is drug sales.

But very few would argue that the illegal drug trade is a significant cause of murders. This is a straightforward result of America’s three-decade-long “drug war.” Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts raise the price of drugs by curbing supply, making local drug supply monopolies (i.e., gang turf) a rich prize to be fought over. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.

Noah speaks about this mostly in the US context, but the same applies to a much greater extent across Latin America. In my last post I mentioned the fact that several Latin American countries have become incredibly violent, (see here, xls); the region now has the highest murder rate in the world. On top is Honduras, whose rate has nearly tripled since 2005 to a staggering 92 per 100,000 per year—that’s almost twenty times the US’s rate, 56 times Canada’s rate, or 300 times Japan’s rate. Other nearby countries show similar explosions of violence.

Earlier this year we ran a great investigative piece by Elizabeth Dickenson looking at what is behind that spectacular increase, concluding that it was a a US-aided attempt to imitate the success of Columbia in quelling its narco-insurgency by using the military to declare war on the cartels. It went horribly wrong; instead of “taking out” the cartels it merely opened some business opportunities for sociopaths, causing such catastrophic violence it has undermined the legitimacy of states across the region.

All this is driven by a decades-long failure of the US to grapple with the logic of the drug business. Taking production out of the hands of the most violent doesn’t even necessarily mean decriminalization or legalization; as Mark Kleiman writes, we could simply focus on trying to stamp out the most violent organizations one by one, eventually leaving the market to the least violent criminal syndicates. It’s not what I would prefer, but it’s surely a huge improvement over the current brute force-only status quo.

While it is surely a natural human habit, it has often struck me that the US media seems pathologically disinterested in deaths that happen outside our borders or to non-Americans. Ending the drug war would be a great way to improve general human welfare, not just that inside our own borders.


Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.