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'Prohibition not the solution'

Interview: Astrid PrangeApril 7, 2016

Consumption of drugs should not be considered a crime, says Colombia's ex-president, César Gaviria, in a DW-Interview. Just before a special UN Conference on drugs, he is calling for their legalization.

Kolumbien Ex-Präsident Cesar Gaviria (Foto: Imago/Zuma Press)
Image: Imago/Zuma Press

Deutsche Welle: As the President of Colombia (1990 and 1994) you supported the "war on drugs." At that time, did you believe that this war could be won?

César Gaviria: We had to fight the cartels because they had become too powerful. They were putting democratic institutions at risk, killing political candidates and putting bombs in every city of Colombia. But despite the extraordinary effort to confront the cartels, the business keeps going. If we look where we are now, we have to recognize that prohibition is not the solution. We can fight against drugs for decades, but we will still be at the same point or even in a worse situation.

How have the cartels become so powerful?

As long as the world considers the consumption of drugs as something criminal, the business becomes too big and you have waves of violence damaging whole countries. In the past, this happened to Colombia, and now, it is happening to Mexico. There is insecurity in all Latin-American cities and an increase of violence and homicides. Most of that has to do with local drug consumption, or, in the case of Colombia, Mexico and some Central American countries with international trafficking. It is very clear: Humanity and the international community cannot say that they have been successful in that fight!

So the capture of Pablo Escobar didnt affect the power of the drug cartels?

We didn't capture him. In 1991, Pablo Escobar submitted to the judiciary of Colombia. He accepted the rules of the laws and the norms of the constitution. So, he went to a prison in Medellin. But as soon as he started not complying with the commitments he had with the Colombian judiciary system, he escaped, and then a group of military and policemen went after him until the Medellin Cartel was totally dismantled.

Colombia has been strengthening its police, military and judiciary for more than 20 years now. It has the largest budget in security in the Americas and the largest army in Latin America. But even doing all that, we are still a hub of drugs! We can say, we have done everything, but the world has to change the policy of criminalizing drug consumption.

Kolumbien Leiche von Pablo Escobar (Foto: picture-alliance/ Bildarchiv)
End of an era: Drug baron Pablo Escobar was shot dead on December 2, 1993Image: picture-alliance/Bildarchiv

People in Latin America are suffering from drug violence every day. Why is it so difficult to get support for a new policy on drugs?

Public opinion can change if the governments have some will. In Latin America, there is a real interest in getting changes. Europe already changed policies a long time ago. In the US, those changes are happening now. For example, the relationship to marijuana is the opposite of what it was ten or even five years ago. Peoples' attitudeshave changed. They were totally tired of the policies in place, and they are moving to regulation. But there are other regions in the world that are not interested in changing their drug policies, particularly in Asia and Africa.

What would be the consequences of decriminalizing drug consumption for Latin American cartels? Would they switch to another business?

Maybe they would switch to other businesses, but that doesn't mean that decriminalization is no good for getting violence out of drugs. You cannot use this excuse not to change your policy. Narco-traffic is by far the best business of the illegal business we have today.

How could the peace treaty between the Colombian government and FARC rebels under negotiation now for three years influence the war on drugs?

It will be helpful, but it will not solve the problem. Because the problem is not only production or trafficking,;the problem is also the demand for drugs.

Drug trafficking was one of the financial pillars of FARC…

Yes, it is true. But if FARC rebels stop trafficking drugs, that doesn't mean that narco-trafficking is going to disappear. It is like dismantling a cartel: yes, it is good, it will bring benefits, but it will not solve the problem as a whole.

Kolumbien Drogenkrieg Kokain Schmuggel Militär Drogenfund 2014 (Foto: EFE/Leonardo Munoz)
Endless war on drugs: Despite the confiscation of tons of cocaine in Cartagena, trafficking continuesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What then could be done to diminish the demand for drugs? Could the successful campaign against smoking be adapted and used for prevention against drug abuse?

It is necessary to convince people, particularly young people, that consuming drugs is bad and very damaging. It is necessary to move people to an attitude that is different - like it now is with tobacco. For example, Portugal has a much better system than most of the other countries of Europe and the world. They have moved totally to regulation.

Portugal and Uruguay are two examples of a new drug policy. The international community should follow them?

A lot of people have said that the decriminalization of the consumption of drugs would end in a tragedy, that overconsumption or violence would be the result. They are wrong. There is not much violence connected with drugs in Europe. Why? Because the criminalization of the consumption of drugs is relatively low.The US has a lot of violence just because the consumption of drugs is something criminal. There is no general solution for the fight against drugs; every country has to find its own way. What is clear is that we need to change the policy of prohibition and criminalization to something more reasonable that brings more results.

What are your expectations about the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs from April 19-21 in New York?

I don't have high expectations. What the Global Commission on Drug Policy expects is: Let governments do pilot programs, try different approaches, like those of Portugal, Uruguay or Holland. The worse solution I can imagine is just doing the same that we have been doing over the last 50 years.

Inteview: Astrid Prange

César Augusto Gaviria Trujillo belongs to the group of three former Latin American Presidents (Ernesto Zedillo from Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil) that are calling for a new policy on drugs. As candidate of the Colombian Liberal Party and President of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, he survived several attacks from the Medellin Cartel of Pablo Escobar. From 1994 to 2004, he was Secretary General of the Organization of American States.