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'War makes drug cartels rich'

Interview: Matthias von HeinApril 16, 2016

Best-selling author Don Winslow researched Mexican drug cartels for years. DW asked him about the War on Drugs, and why politicians have trouble abandoning strategies that don't work.

Autor Don Winslow
Image: picture-alliance/Ropi/B. Murialdo

Deutsche Welle: For the first time in 18 years, the United Nations General Assembly will get together to discuss the "world drug problem." Are you surprised that the initiative for this conference came from countries in Latin America?

Don Winslow: No, not at all, because their region has paid the price in blood for a policy of prohibition. Mexico, for instance, has had over 100,000 people murdered, and another 22,000 are missing. Central America probably has similar numbers, although we don't really know. This violence has been funded by the consumer countries in America and Europe, because of our simultaneous appetite for the drugs and our prohibition of them.

Looking at Mexico, recently the media were abuzz with the escape and re-arrest of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaqim Guzman. Did the arrest of this prominent cartel leader have any effect on the availability and price of drugs on the streets in the US?

It has made no difference at all, and it will make no difference at all. We have arrested many of these figures over the years, and we think, "Oh, this is a victory in the war on drugs." It is absolutely not. As long as those vast profits - billions of dollars - are there, someone is always going to be willing, in fact fighting, to take that top spot.

It seems that the harder you fight the War on Drugs, the more profit the cartels seem to make.

The reason is: The cartels and the anti-drugs-efforts have a symbiotic relationship. One cannot exist without the other. So every time you make it more difficult to traffic drugs, you create profits for the drug cartels, because they charge more for people who run the drugs through those territories. The drug cartels are not really in the drugs business. I know that sounds paradoxical. They are in the territory business, the influence business, the bribery business, the intimidation business. So every time you make an effort to stop them, you raise their profits.

Mexiko Kampf gegen Kriminalität
In the past 10 years, some 100,000 people have died in drugs-related killings in Mexico, despite the military's effortsImage: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Would the legalization of drugs be a real threat for those cartels - given that they already have amassed lots of resources in terms of capital, people, power?

Sure, it would absolutely make a difference. Of course, they already have a lot of power. They already invested in the economy. That horse is out of the barn and you are not going to get it back in. But if we could stop the flow of money going to these violent organizations - $30 billion (26.59 billion euros) in cocaine alone, just from the United States every year - of course that is going to have a massive effect. Legalization would also cut down on the power of the cartels, because they won't have the power to control the trafficking; they won't have that monopoly any more.

Why then is it so difficult to admit that the War on Drugs has failed and to take a new approach?

For two reasons really. The first is psychological. We have reflexive, automatic thinking when it comes to drugs. So we think: "Drugs are bad, prohibition is good, that is the answer." The other reason is much more complicated and is much harder to uproot. There is an anti-drug establishment that makes billions of dollars in prison construction, prison maintenance, prison guards, equipment, courts, lawyers, police and all of that. It has become a business of itself. So you have a drug trafficking business that is highly entrenched, and you have an anti-drug business. They depend on each other. And that is going to be very difficult.

Do you think the UN conference on drugs will make any difference?

I am hopeful that it will. Because one: It raises awareness. Two: I think it is finally the Latin American, Central American countries saying: What is the reality? Look, we talk for instance about the Mexican drug problem. It is not the Mexican drug problem. It is the American and European drug problem. So if on an international stage these countries come out and they say this, and they confront the consumer countries on this: Yes, I think it will have an effect and I am hopeful about it.

Don Winslow has researched for years about the Mexican drug cartels and the fight against them by police authorities. He used the results of his research in his best-sellers "The Power of the Dog" and "The Cartel."

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs is scheduled to begin on April 19 and run until April 21.