By Teo Ballve

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. authorities helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Washington's global war on drugs has not let up. In fact, it has become costlier, bloodier, more widespread and futile.

Escobar died in a hail of bullets on Dec. 2, 1993, fleeing from police on a rooftop in his native city of Medellin. It took a 3,000-strong elite force of Colombian police -- supported by U.S. intelligence agencies and $73 million in aid that year alone -- to bring down the drug baron.

Today, the war on drugs costs U.S. taxpayers more than $51 billion a year. Colombia itself has received more than $10 billion in military assistance from Washington since Escobar's death.

But U.S. authorities have almost nothing to show for it. In fact, a major study published by a British medical journal this fall showed that illegal drugs have actually become cheaper and more potent over the last 20 years.

Like any lucrative industry, the drug trade exhibits Hydra-like resiliency: Cut off one head and two more sprout in its place.

After Escobar's demise, for instance, Colombia's cocaine business fragmented into micro-cartels controlled by armed militias, giving Mexican cartels a stronger foothold in the global supply chain. Although Colombia and Peru are the world's top producers of cocaine, it's the Mexican cartels that move the product into the United States.

And the drug business is expanding geographically -- in part, due to the supposed success of anti-drug efforts. So, business is not just booming; it's moving. Analysts call it the balloon effect: Squeeze the trade in one place and it simply bulges up elsewhere.

With Caribbean maritime routes heavily patrolled by the Pentagon, the cartels have made Central America their main transshipment point. One reflection of the shift is that Honduras is now home to the murder capital of the world -- a title once held by Escobar's hometown of Medellin.

Today's violence is unprecedented, even when compared to the bloodiest days of the Medellin cartel. Since 2006, drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people in Mexico alone. And the murder rate in Guatemala is now higher than it was during the country's 36-year civil war, which was a globally recognized genocide.

Desperate for an end to the carnage, Latin American leaders have increasingly clamored for a paradigm shift in drug policy. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, for example, they made a collective call for drug control to be handled internationally as a public health issue with a focus on human rights and harm reduction.

But Washington has stubbornly defended the status quo, which will only ensure that we will be endlessly battling the Pablo Escobars of the future.

Teo Ballve lives in Colombia and is a fellow of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). He can be reached at

Copyright Teo Ballve.

Photo: Flickr user Jorge Lacar, creative commons licensed.


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The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

The reach of this story extends from the lowliest working stiff to the highest court in the land.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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