Lessons from Another President on Fighting a War Against Drugs

Trust the man who oversaw the capture of Pablo Escobar.
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A drug war is fought by a country against its own people and as such it can’t be contained within a physical battlefield. There’s no obvious enemy and no clear path towards victory. There are no victors, only victims, and in a drug war, it’s too easy to mistake the victim for the enemy. César Gaviria, the former president of Colombia, has fought his own war on drugs. His country spent billions of dollars in its fight against the cartels and Pablo Escobar was captured and killed on his watch. Gaviria didn’t win but he emerged from the fog of war with a new perspective on what to do going forward.  

In a New York Times op-ed, the former president is brutally honest with how badly Colombia has fared in his self-described “heavy-handed approach to drugs.” It’s a message Mr. Gaviria would like to share with the world but especially with President Rodrigo Duterte, whose election promise seemed simple: to take out the drug dealers and users, by force if necessary or convenient, and restore order in a country longing for someone to finally do something, anything.

Mr. Gaviria warns that the war “cannot be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone. Throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users is not just a waste of money but also can actually make the problem worse. Locking up nonviolent offenders and drug users almost always backfires, instead strengthening organized crime.”

The former head of state, who spent his presidency trying to bring in Pablo Escobar, cannot be accused of being soft on drugs and crime, but admits to having been “seduced into taking a tough stance on drugs during my time as president.” Along the way Mr. Gaviria learned that popularity cannot be mistaken for actually winning the war on the ground.


Our war on drugs is still in its infancy but fatigue is already starting to show, both in a nervous population and in the health of President Duterte, who in a rare moment with the press revealed to having experienced chest pains. The killing of a South Korean businessman by police officers may have been the reason for this brief health concern, but Mr. Gaviria’s hope that the killing would lead to a policy reversal in Duterte’s war on drugs proved to be short lived. He believes that “there is no doubt that tough penalties are necessary to deter organized crime. But extrajudicial killings and vigilantism are the wrong ways to go. [B]ringing the army in to fight the drug war… would also be disastrous.”

Instead, his op-ed declares that his country started to make “positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one.” He adds that “[w]inning the fight against drugs requires addressing not just crime, but also public health, human rights and economic development. No matter what Mr. Duterte believes, there will always be drugs and drug users in the Philippines. But it is important to put the problem in perspective: The Philippines already has a low number of regular drug users.”

The former Colombian president and founding member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy says that scientific evidence leads him to believe that the criminalization of drug users is counterproductive and only leads to addicts being pushed further towards the fringes of society. What's really needed is “an open, evidence-based debate on drugs.” From a former president to a current president, Mr. Gaviria’s message is simply, “Trust me, I learned the hard way.” To which Mr. Duterte responded, "That idiot."

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Christopher Puhm
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