Fight against ‘public enemy number one’ gone too far

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Starting from Nixon days back in 1971, it took the United States over four decades to realise that ‘war on drugs’ cannot finish it off all.  When Bangladesh was at war for its independence in 1971, then US President Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ in his country, stating that the drug problem in the US had become “public enemy number one”. That continued all these years in the United States up until the Obama administration brought an end to the ‘war on drugs’ with the focus instead on treatment and drug use prevention. In his 2010 book ‘Hopes and Prospects’ Noam Chomsky described how the ‘Father’ Bush capitalized on the ‘war on drugs’ in invading Panama to kidnap a thug (Manuel Noriega) who was convicted in Florida for crimes mostly committed when he was on CIA payroll. According to Chomsky, the ‘war on drugs’ also had an important domestic component. Much like the ‘war on crime’, it served to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies were being implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority.

Forty years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, the Global Commission on Drug Policy said in its 2011 report that war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. “Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption”, observed the Commission then led by luminaries like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, rights activist Asma Jahangir and former Colombian president César Gaviria.

Nearly seven years after the 2011 report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, one of its Commissioners – César Gaviria – wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to make his view loud and clear that “Illegal drugs are a matter of national security, but the war against them 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.”

César Gaviria, whose time as the President of Colombia saw the endgame of the planet’s most notorious drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar, in 1993, purposefully wrote the piece in early last year to forewarn President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines not to repeat his (César Gaviria) mistakes in so-called war on drugs. Giving Colombian experience César Gaviria said, “Tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in our antidrug crusade. Many of our brightest politicians, judges, police officers and journalists were assassinated. At the same time, the vast funds earned by drug cartels were spent to corrupt our executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.” He said that heavy-handed approach to drugs did little to diminish the drug supply and demand in Colombia, much less in markets like Western Europe and the United States. In fact, he said, drugs such as cocaine and heroin are as accessible as ever from Bogota to New York to Manila.

César Gaviria wrote, “The war on drugs is essentially a war on people. But old habits die hard. Many countries are still addicted to waging this.” There is no doubt that tough penalties are necessary to deter organized crime, argued the ex-Colombian president with strong caution – “But extrajudicial killings and vigilantism are the wrong ways to go. The fight against drugs has to be balanced so that it does not infringe on the rights and well-being of citizens.” He thinks taking a hard line against criminals is always popular for politicians. “I was also seduced into taking a tough stance on drugs during my time as president. The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable. I also discovered that the human costs were enormous. We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one.”

In Brazil, military police operating in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro were responsible for over 1,200 killings from 2010–2013, many carried out in the context of the country’s ‘war on drugs’. Amnesty International found strong evidence in one Rio favela that nine out 10 deaths at the hands of the police should be classed as extrajudicial executions, and that between 2010 and 2013, 79 percent of victims of police killings in Rio de Janeiro were black, and 75 percent aged between 15 and 29 years old. The escalation in law enforcement responses to drugs more generally contributes to heightened levels of violence. In 2006, Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, announced a military crackdown on drug trafficking organizations, resulting in an estimated 160,000 homicides between 2006 and 2014, many linked to cartel violence and the militarization of drug law enforcement. Furthermore, over 280,000 people were internally displaced in Mexico and at least 25,000 people were made disappeared during the country’s so-called drug war.

Closer at home, when Thailand launched its ‘war on drugs’ in 2003, the result was the extrajudicial killing of almost 2,800 people, with thousands more sent to detention facilitates and coerced into “treatment” for drug addiction. Four years later a Thai an official investigation  found that more than half of those killed had no connection whatsoever to drugs. In the post-Thaksin era though Thai administration managed to come up with such truth till date it couldn’t deliver justice to those who have lost their near and dear ones in such extrajudicial killings – all in the name of ‘war on drugs.’

At home, now that the death toll from the so-called systemic ‘gunfights’ in the name of ‘war on drugs’ crossed the triple figure, government owes the nation an explanation – what preventive steps it’s forces (Rab, police etc.) have taken to stop recurrence of such deaths taking place every night in identical circumstances. Why the government’s forces are failing to give the basic of the all rights – the right to life – to people under their custody? They take them (alleged drug peddlers) along in so-called drives against drugs and in all the cases they fail to protect their (the alleged drug peddlers) lives. Questions now come into public mind that what lessons they (law enforcers) learn from each night’s fatalities that they simply can’t avoid its recurrence the very next night. People have a right to know what protective life-saving gadgets are being provided or at all to these poor souls – whose lives, as if, bear no value in the current spate of killing spree. In several cases families, party-men and co-villagers mustered a rather rare courage given the ‘intimidating scenario’ in denouncing some of the ‘gunfight’ killings, which they very well claimed, have cut short the lives of people who had got nothing to do with drug trade. It’s become cliché nowadays to hear government parroting the same old thing – “we’re investigating all deaths by executive magistrates.” Public have a right to know what such exercise does actually mean and how people can have an access to the outcome of such magisterial probes.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 47

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