The Drug War’s Ravages in Guatemala

Yesterday, after I had participated in the commencement exercises at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, in Guatemala City, I was interviewed by a reporter for Prensa Libre, an important newspaper in this city. I did not know what the reporter would ask me, but I supposed that his questions might have something to do with economic affairs or with the reasons for my having been given an honorary degree by the university.

To my surprise, all of the reporter’s questions pertained to the drug war in Guatemala—its causes, what the government’s policy should be, how the government might combat the cartels more effectively, and so forth. I used this occasion to emphasize the same points that I—along with many others—have been making about this so-called war for decades: in particular, that the possession, use, and commerce of narcotics should not be legally forbidden; that the major consequence of this prohibition has been the creation of a black market in an artificially high-priced, widely demanded set of goods; that this black market has attracted persons willing to take risk, violate the law, and use violence to settle disputes among themselves and their rivals; that the government’s conduct of the drug war has contributed greatly to the massive corruption of the police and the political authorities; and that the general public has suffered in a variety of ways as a result of the policy, most significantly because of the widespread killing that it has occasioned, especially in Colombia and Mexico, but also because of its huge expense and its grave damage to civil liberties in the United States and elsewhere.

I got the feeling that these views were not exactly what the reporter was looking for. The character of his questions led me to suspect that he was interested in hearing my views about how the drug war might be fought more effectively. But I have no way to know, of course, so my hunch may be completely off base.

In discussing the economic conditions and prospects of Guatemala with my colleagues at UFM during the past few days, I have been somewhat surprised by the frequency with which the conversation has returned to the drug war and its effects on this country. Guatemala apparently has become a focus for a large volume of the transport and financial dealings that the narcos carry out as part of their vast international business. They are insinuating themselves deeply into legal businesses and government activities here—and of course into politics, as well—and thereby becoming a major force in determining the country’s economic fortunes, for better or worse. They are also provoking a palpable degree of fear among the local people. Private security personnel are on display everywhere in Guatemala City in great numbers; the private-security industry must be a major source of income and employment here.

Meanwhile, in the United States, most of the people go on with their daily lives unaware of the widespread harm that their support for the U.S. drug war—and its hugely destructive spillovers around the world—is causing. This whole policy is almost incomprehensible to some intelligent people here in Guatemala. They wonder how a segment of the U.S. public, consisting of puritanical busybodies willing to support the use of coercive force against their neighbors’ private use of certain substances, can keep in place for decades such a horrific policy.

I explain to my friends that by this time, the U.S. politicians have learned that the coercive-busybody faction can be satisfied and their votes garnered without seriously offending another faction that opposes the policy and that the bulk of the public is simply sleepwalking through life while the drug war rages around them, barely out of their sight. Moreover, the drug war has deeply entrenched an enormous police apparatus, enriched and militarized local police across the country, and given the authorities a fine means of enriching themselves by corruption and covert cooperation with the narcos. If anyone wanted to find an example of a public policy whose overall benefits (if indeed one even considers such benefits to exist) fall dramatically short of its overall costs, no better example could be found.

Although most Americans have long since grown accustomed to and complacent about the drug war, which has become for them a sort of public-policy background noise, the people of small countries such a Guatemala cannot be so blase about it. It is altering the very fabric of political and economic life in their countries, and it is causing violence, kidnapping, robbery, and murder to flourish in places where life would otherwise be much more peaceful. To anyone who seriously ponders the drug war, its manifest evil ought to be undeniable, yet many Americans continue to support it, more or less, and only a small minority of Americans appreciates it for the almost indescribably destructive madness that it truly is.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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