(WATCH) Drug Wars

President Richard Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs in 1971. Trillions of tax dollars later, by nearly every account, that war has failed. A record amount of the opioid fentanyl is crossing in through our southern border, and a record number of Americans are dying from drugs. Now, the new leader of our most important partners in the drug war — Colombia — has also declared failure and announced a controversial change in strategy, as Scott Thuman reports.

Colombia’s capital Bogota. Busy, noisy… but peaceful.

Not that long ago, a very different scene here. At the height of the war against the cocaine cartels, Colombia faced an epidemic of violence. Thousands of people, from judges to police officers, drugs traffickers, and civilians, were killed or injured.

But when infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar was finally killed by Colombian police with U.S. help, it didn’t end the conflict or American financing for a War on Drugs — begun in 1971 by President Richard Nixon.

President Nixon: America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.

As federal money targeted dealers and traffickers, President Reagan and first lady Nancy tried to convince people to stop using illegal drugs.

Nancy Reagan: Say yes to your life, and when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.

And each successive administration has kept spending taxpayer money — more than $12 billion alone going to Colombia to help eradicate coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is derived.

President Biden sent his secretary of state to Bogota last October at a time of great change for Colombia. As the country inaugurated a new leftist president, Gustavo Petro.

He grabbed the world’s attention at a United Nations meeting.

President Gustavo Petro: The war against drugs has failed. I propose that we put an end to the war on drugs and make it possible for our people to live in peace.

Much of Colombia’s coca is produced in the remote mountainous regions of the country. President Petro says he wants to incentivize farmers to grow other crops. It’s an old idea that failed when tried before. But Petro says he won’t return to the tactic of aerial spraying to destroy coca.

Scott: While these new ideas on how to fight the war on drugs here in Colombia to many seem radical, others say they don’t go nearly far enough. Regardless, there is a consensus that what has been tried here over the last 60 years or so hasn’t worked.

Retired police general Fernando Murillo Orrego fought the cartels for decades.

Scott: The new president is suggesting a wide range of new policies that some people would call radical. What do you think of them?

Fernando Murillo Orrego: For these transnational organizations, the only thing that matters is criminal and financial power — to make more money every day. So it is very difficult, given the proposals that are being advanced, to say that Colombia will be the country that is going to put an end to drug trafficking.

Scott: Do you think there’s a chance it could make matters worse?

Fernando Murillo Orrego: Yes, and we are already seeing it. The increase we are seeing in drug seizures is because there is an increase in production.

He’s right. Production was up last year, with more than half a million acres of coca plants being cultivated. A 43% increase from just the year before.

Rodrigo Uprimny is a professor at the National University of Colombia and an expert on drug policy.

Rodrigo Uprimny: I think that the so-called “War on Drugs” has been a total failure. If the logic was that you would use the criminal instruments in order to suppress the supply, and in this way diminish the abuse of drugs, then it is a total failure.

Here in Colombia, there is a discussion of legalizing and controlling the sale of some drugs like marijuana, just as several U.S. states and Washington, D.C. already do.

But for Colombia’s president, he says his biggest issue is not necessarily in his country; it is in ours. Customs agents at U.S. border posts from California to Puerto Rico are continually seizing massive hauls of cocaine. A reminder that America remains Colombia’s number one customer for drugs.

Brigadier general Carlos Triana, the current federal police chief in Bogota, says as long as America keeps buying, Colombia will keep growing.

Carlos Triana: It is a profitable business. Since it is a profitable business, we continue to confront it.

Scott: Do you want America to do more? Does America need to add more help, more resources?

Triana: It will never be enough. Supply and demand means there needs to continue confronting this phenomenon.

But in Colombia, where there seems to be an endless supply of souvenir T-shirts and trinkets of Pablo Escobar, once the most wealthy criminal in the world, lore and legacy of cocaine will likely last beyond any president or policy.

For Full Measure, I’m Scott Thuman in Bogota, Colombia.

Watch story here.

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