02/22/2013 05:14 PM
Our Right to Poison
Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs
Photos: Photo Gallery: Changing Strategies in the War on Drugs - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International
By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno
The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives -- but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization. Following the journey of cocaine from a farm in Colombia to a user in Berlin sheds light on why.
"Pablo Escobar said to me: 'One shot to the head isn't enough. It has to be two shots, just above the eyes.'"
Jhon Velásquez, nicknamed "Popeye," is sitting on a white plastic chair in the prison yard. "You can survive one shot, but never two. I cut up the bodies and threw them in the river. Or I just left them there. I often drove through Medellín, where I kidnapped and raped women. Then I shot them and threw them in the trash."
Three guards are standing next to him. He is the only prisoner in the giant building. The watchtower, the security door systems, the surveillance cameras -- it's all for him. The warden of the Cómbita maximum-security prison, a three-hour drive northeast of the Colombian capital Bogotá, has given Popeye one hour to tell his story.
The experience is like opening a door into hell.
Popeye was the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia's Medellín cartel. Until his death in 1993, Escobar was the most powerful drug lord in the world. He industrialized cocaine production, controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and became one of the richest people on the planet. The cartel ordered the killings of 30 judges, about 450 police officers and many more civilians. As Escobar's head of security, Popeye was an expert at kidnapping, torture and murder.
Velásquez acquired the nickname Popeye while working as a cabin boy in the Colombian navy. He kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, the then-candidate for mayor of Bogotá and later president. He obtained the weapon that was used to fatally shoot Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. He was involved in a bombing attack that was intended to kill former Colombian President César Gaviria. Popeye, acting on the orders of Escobar, El Patrón, even had his beauty-queen girlfriend Wendy murdered.
"I've killed about 250 people, and I cut many of them into pieces. But I don't know exactly how many," Popeye says. "Only psychopaths count their kills."
Popeye is a pale, 50-year-old man with a shrill voice -- a psychopath who doesn't count his kills.
The longer Popeye talks -- about his murders, the drug war and the havoc he and Escobar wreaked and that is currently being repeated in Mexico -- the less important my prepared questions about this war become. I realize that I might as well throw away my notepad, because it all boils down to one question: How can we stop people like you, Popeye?
He pauses for a moment before saying: "People like me can't be stopped. It's a war. They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you'll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don't know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I've been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to me made. Never."
I'm sitting face to face with a killer: Popeye, an evil product of hell. And I'm afraid that the killer could be right.
The drug war is the longest war in recent history, underway for more than 40 years. It is a never-ending struggle against a $500 billion (€378 billion) industry.
A Global War on Drugs
On July 17, 1971, then-US President Richard Nixon announced: "America's public enemy No. 1 is drug abuse." A new archenemy had been born: drugs. It was the opening salvo in the "war on drugs."
To this day, the war on drugs is being waged against anyone who comes into contact with cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs. It is being fought against coca farmers in Colombia, poppy growers in Afghanistan and drug mules who smuggle drugs by the kilogram (2.2 pounds), sometimes concealed in their stomachs. It is being fought against crystal meth labs in Eastern Europe, kids addicted to crack cocaine in Los Angeles and people who are caught with a gram of marijuana in their pockets, just as it is being fought against the drug cartels in Mexico and killers like Popeye. There is almost no place on earth today where the war is not being waged. Indeed, the war on drugs is as global as McDonald's.
In 2010, about 200 million people took illegal drugs. The numbers have remained relatively constant for years, as has the estimated annual volume of drugs produced worldwide: 40,000 tons of marijuana, 800 tons of cocaine and 500 tons of heroin. What has increased, however, is the cost of this endless war.
In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration pumped about $100 million into drug control. Today, under President Barack Obama, that figure is $15 billion -- more than 30 times as much when adjusted for inflation. There is even a rough estimate of the direct and indirect costs of the 40-plus years of the drug war: $1 trillion in the United States alone.
In Mexico, some 60,000 people have died in the drug war in the last six years. US prisons are full of marijuana smokers, the Taliban in Afghanistan still use drug money to pay for their weapons, and experts say China is the drug country of the future.
Is Legalization the Answer?
One of the best ways to understand why, after more than 40 years, this is still an unwinnable war is to track one of the invincible enemies.
Take cocaine, for example. The story begins with a coca farmer in the Colombian jungle, then leads to smugglers on the Caribbean island of Aruba, past soldiers and drug cops, across the Atlantic to Europe in a ship's hold, then to Berlin, where the drugs end up in the brains of those whose demand is constantly refueling the business: we, the consumers.
It's also helpful to examine an idea that could change the world, an idea being contemplated by presidents, turned over in the minds of influential politicians and studied in a New York office. The idea is the regulated legalization of drugs.
After decades of the war on drugs, the desire for an alternative is greater than ever. The eternal front in the war is crumbling.
When about 30 national leaders met in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012 for the Summit of the Americas, there was only big, behind-the-scenes topic: a new drug policy. Suddenly Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was saying: "If the world decides to legalize (drugs) and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that."
General Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala, wrote: "Consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions."
Uruguayan President José Mujica said: "What scares me is drug trafficking, not drugs".
Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, wanted to wage the "mother of all wars" against organized crime, sending the Mexican army into the drug war. Today, Fox says that the war was a "total failure."
The possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a crime in Portugal. After studying drug policy in Great Britain, an independent commission concluded that a policy of stiff penalties is just as costly as it is ineffective. Although the report does not advocate the legalization of drugs, it does call for a rethinking of drug policy. Too rarely "do lawmakers admit (that) not all drug use creates problems," the report's authors write. They argue that the possession of smaller amounts should no longer be a punishable offense and that cannabis cultivation by ordinary consumers should be decriminalized and perhaps even legalized.
Drug Anxiety in Germany
A new way of thinking is beginning to take root: If a war can't be won, and if the enemy has remained invincible for 40 years, why not take the peaceful approach?
German officials take a decidedly cool stance toward these developments. No top politician with a major German party is about to call for a new drug policy or even the legalization of marijuana. Drugs are not a winning issue, because it's too easy to get burned.
Martin Lindner, the deputy head of the pro-business Free Democrats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, recently triggered a scandal when he lit up a joint on a talk show. The headline of a recent cover story in the Berliner Kurier daily newspaper read: "Has Martin Lindner gone off the deep end?"
"The subject is still completely taboo. When someone tries to relax the rules, he is immediately accused of not protecting our children," says Gerhart Baum, the German interior minister from 1978 to 1982. During his tenure, Baum experienced the so-called "heroin years," when the number of addicts in Germany exploded, images of young junkies were on cover pages and the film "Christiane F - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" ("We Children from Zoo Station") was playing in theaters.
This period shaped German drug policy, and it also affected how Germans feel about drugs: anxious, for the most part.
For many people, legalization sounds like an invitation to more drug use and addiction as well as a capitulating country that no longer performs its protective function.
From Leaf to Powder
Rarely is regulated legalization seen as what experts and even presidents imagine it could be, namely, as a more effective tool in the fight against drugs. For them, it could be a tool that doesn't just address consumers, but also destroys the supply chain that makes the cultivating, processing, smuggling and selling of drugs into a business worth billions. The goal is to disrupt a system: the economy of drugs.
The rainforest of Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia, is to cocaine what New Orleans is to jazz or Maranello, the home of Ferrari, is to fast cars -- a legendary place. Coca has been grown in Putumayo since 1974. It's the first region of Colombia that began cultivation and, as local residents say, the last that will abandon it.
Carlos Sánchez, a thin man with an unruly moustache, is standing in front of his coca bush, an inconspicuous, shoulder-high plant with a reddish bark and green leaves. "My coca," says Sánchez with a farmer's pride. There are hundreds more bushes in a clearing in front of him, a plantation covering about one hectare (2.5 acres).
Coca can be harvested up to six times a year. A coca leaf contains 0.5 percent cocaine. Any idiot can grow the shrub, says Sánchez, as he walks over to his horse and unbuckles two canisters of gasoline. He needs them in the laboratory. Someone from the city is coming tomorrow to buy a kilogram of coca paste. The word "laboratory" is a stretch for what Sánchez has cobbled together: a wooden shed that reeks of gasoline, where 200 kilos of coca leaves are ready for processing.
Two steps are needed to turn them into cocaine. First, coca paste is made from the leaves, and then the paste is transformed into pure cocaine.
Sánchez takes a trimmer and moves it through the coca leaves. Then he sprinkles a mixture of cement and fertilizer onto the leaves, shovels them into large vats and pours gasoline into the containers to dissolve the cocaine out. After a while, Sánchez removes the leaves and presses out a brown pulp, which is then treated with sodium bicarbonate and dried. Coca paste has a cocaine content of about 35 percent.
The second step takes place in a different, heavily guarded lab that Sánchez will never enter, but it's only slightly more complicated. The process requires hydrochloric acid, alcohol, ammonia, acetone and simple equipment. None of it is expensive or hard to obtain. Probably the most sophisticated piece of equipment is the microwave oven in which the chemical pulp is dried. The end product is cocaine hydrochloride, or pure cocaine. A good laboratory with a well-trained team can produce 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) a day.
Everyone in Putumayo knows that money isn't the only form of payment in the drug business. "I lost two brothers," says Sánchez. "One was shot to death by the local guerillas, and the other one by a drug dealer." Despite the risks, money remains the main incentive. "I receive 1.5 million pesos per kilo," says Sánchez.
A Pointless War?
That's about €630 ($830), a good income but only the beginning of an unparalleled price trajectory. Pure cocaine costs €1,300 a kilo in Putumayo, more than €4,000 at the Colombian border and, in nearby Jamaica, the price already approaches €6,000. The drug gets really expensive when it reaches Europe or the United States, where dealers make about €30,000 a kilo, depending on market conditions.
The European drug user, who only receives cocaine in diluted ("cut") form, doesn't pay a fixed price. Coke is cheaper in Spain than in Germany, for example, and it's cheaper in Berlin than in Munich. The going rate in Germany is about €100 for a gram of impure cocaine, while a kilo of pure cocaine can cost up to €400,000.
"No product on earth has profit margins as large as cocaine or heroin. Why? Because of prohibition."
These are the words of Ethan Nadelmann, the 55-year-old son of a New York rabbi. He studied at Harvard, has taught at Princeton and is considered one of the top drug experts in the United States. Nadelmann is currently the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is fighting for a new drug policy. Its principal sponsor is George Soros, the business magnate and investor whose net worth of some $20 billion makes him one of the richest men in the world.
Nadelmann's office, on the 15th floor of a building in Manhattan, is filled with books with titles like "Alcohol in America" and "Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography." For the last 25 years, Nadelmann has been giving lectures, writing books and appearing as an expert on programs of major channels, such as NBC, Fox and CNN. "The business with drugs is capitalism," says Nadelmann. "As long as there is a demand, there's a supply. We can, of course, eliminate the demand. All we have to do is convince the 200 million drug users to stop buying dope. But does that sound at all realistic?"
The United Nations used to think it was realistic. Until 2008, the organization's goal was to "eradicate or substantially reduce" drug cultivation and the drug trade." The slogan of the UN drug campaign read: "A drug free world: We can do it!" Today, in 2013, the world is still about as drug-free as a so-called Fixerstube (fixer room) in Frankfurt's train station district.