A new path for drug law enforcement

Navy and Coast Guard personnel come alongside USS Nicholas to transfer contraband.

Navy and Coast Guard personnel come alongside USS Nicholas to transfer contraband. Photo Credit: Flickr/US Navy.

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

New approaches to combat the illegal drugs trade that focus on reducing the harm caused by drug markets are being debated, and have in some places been implemented, but changing the existing prohibition and enforcement ‘culture’ is proving difficult.

‘Zero tolerance’ approaches to combating the trade and use of illegal drugs, such as mandatory minimum sentences and automatic penalties, have often failed to reduce the violence associated with illicit trade. They have in some cases also led to human-rights abuses by police forces, putting them at odds with their intended role of protecting the communities they serve.

The merits of different approaches to drug law enforcement were discussed at a day-long seminar hosted by the IISS on 21 March. Part of a larger project by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), with the International Security Research Department at Chatham House and the IISS,  the seminar was aimed at law enforcement professionals and discussed global and local drug policing efforts to evaluate how police forces can help reduce the consequential harms of the drug trade.

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Mexico: Calderon looks back, and ahead

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Mexico is trying to overcome its structural problems, expanding its trade focus to Asia and courting more foreign investment – and its strategic shift may be paying off. At the IISS’s Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, Mexican President Felipe Calderón spoke about Mexico’s plans, challenges and successes, and his own legacy.

The GDP race

The two largest economies in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, are often compared in an attempt to predict which of the two will shine in the future. Both countries, however, face deep structural challenges. Brazil’s business environment is marred by high taxes and poorly qualified workers, and Mexico has inefficient labour regulation and oligopolies that curb economic growth. Although Brazil has outperformed Mexico in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth since 2005, the tide is gradually turning. The GDP race is very likely to be won by Mexico this year, with the central bank expecting something around 4%, whereas Brazilian economists are already counting on less than 2% growth.

But most important for the long term is that Mexico is looking abroad, more precisely to the east, in search of a more diversified foreign trade portfolio. It is integrating itself with dynamic and promising new trade blocs, whereas Brazil struggles to deal with protectionist pressures inside the Mercosur trade bloc (which also included Argentina, Uruguay and now Venezuela, as well as temporarily suspended Paraguay).

Looking east

In his lecture ‘A Mexican Perspective on the Global Economy,’ Calderón described his country’s strategic shift from an overreliance on the American market. While admitting that the reliance on the US market is still high, with 67% of Mexican exports going to its northern neighbour, Calderón asserted that Mexico’s focus is now on the Pacific region:

‘Economic growth will be here in the Pacific zone at least in this decade and probably in the next,’ he said. He highlighted the fact that the Pacific Alliance, created this year by Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, accounts for more exports and overall trade than Mercosur. The new bloc represents 40% of Latin America’s GDP, yet accounts for 55% of its exports. Even more importantly, it has lofty ambitions for a high-speed advance in trade, without the protectionist barriers that cripple Mercosur. He also highlighted Mexico’s integration into the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a far more ambitious trade venture integrating major economies of the Pacific, including the United States.

Calderón has also courted foreign companies – even those who have settled for the lower labour costs of China – with a series of structural reforms. He said his government has built 20,000 kilometres of highways to relieve the infrastructure bottlenecks that add to business costs in Mexico. The president added that investments in human capital have made Mexico more attractive in recent years. As an example, he cited the 130,000 new engineers and technicians released into the job market every year from the country’s universities.

Labour reform

Attempts to increase foreign trade and investment, key points of Calderón’s strategy, risk falling prey to an old enemy of the Mexican economy: restrictive labour laws. He reserved labour-market reform, one of his most ambitious economic proposals, for the last few months of his mandate. The proposal sent to Congress aims to liberalise laws in order to reduce costs and hurdles faced by companies when they want to hire workers. These obstacles are a key reason that 13.7 million Mexicans make a living in the informal sector, reducing the government’s potential tax revenue. They are also responsible for the staggering rate of youth unemployment, 9.6%, almost double the country’s overall rate, according to a report released last May by the Mexican Youth Institute (Imjuve). ‘Mexico, in order to complete its transformation into a more competitive economy, needs to provide flexibility to labour markets,’ said Calderón. ‘We have probably more than one million people arriving each year to labour age.’ Many Mexican observers attribute the governing National Action Party (PAN)’s third place in July’s presidential election to the overall dissatisfaction with employment opportunities for young people.


When asked what he thought his administration’s legacy would be, Calderón cited first and foremost the transformation of law-enforcement institutions. He admitted that recent crime dynamics have made it difficult to accomplish his security objectives: drug groups, he said, ‘have started a new way of criminal activity’. Instead of merely looking for transit points to ship the drugs into the United States, criminals ‘started to control territories and cities’, he added. He pointed to recent reforms in the police force and the attorney general’s office that were made to try and recover lost territory.

‘The intervention of the government is [in order] to recover the authority of the state over those territories. In that sense, violence is not generated by the actions of the government. Violence generated the intervention of the government.’

A triangle of death

Mara Salvatrucha gang member, El Salvador

A Mara Salvatrucha gang member in prison in El Salvador. Photo: Moisen Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Award 2008/Creative Commons

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

The Economist has dubbed it ‘the tormented isthmus‘. It is the most murderous region on earth: the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America formed by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The bloody drugs war that has raged in neighbouring Mexico since 2006 has spilled over into a region already destabilised by years of civil war in the 1980s, plagued by local gangs and corrupt institutions, and with too few police.

While adding the region to the institute’s Armed Conflict Database recently, we unearthed a raft of alarming statistics. These include: Read the rest of this entry »

Rethinking the drugs war in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom: Marines operate near Combat Outpost Ouellette. Photo By United States Marine Corps Official Page

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate

For those studying Afghanistan, the drugs trade is such a pervasive feature of the nation’s economy, politics, security and society that separating it from counter-insurgency (COIN) and diplomatic efforts is simply unthinkable. Yet the subject of counter-narcotics (CN) was notably absent from the agenda of last month’s NATO Summit in Chicago.

The IISS has acknowledged the difficulties of conducting counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations simultaneously; in most situations, the latter usually take a back seat. Nonetheless, the security implications of the illicit market make it a good time to assess current strategies and the ‘Afghanisation’ of policy, as well as to discuss ongoing international cooperation and the future prospects for Afghan counter-narcotics policy. And these were exactly the sort of discussions that the IISS Transnational Threats and Political Risk research programme and Dr David Bewley-Taylor of Swansea University facilitated when they recently hosted an off-the-record ‘Colloquium on counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan: transition and beyond’.  (Dr Bewley-Taylor’s involvement was part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations’  Global Drug Policy Program and the colloquium was supported by the International Drug Policy Consortium.)

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Drugs: A war lost in Afghanistan

US Marine patrols a poppy field. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David A. Perez

Nigel Inkster, the IISS’s Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, has a piece in Foreign Policy examining the failure of the drugs war in Afghanistan. The article – which draws on Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition, a recent Adelphi book Inkster co-authored with Virginia Comolli – looks at the failure of eradication programmes, the limited quantities of trafficked drugs seized, and the largely fruitless efforts to persuade Afghan farmers to grow less profitable or less hardy crops.

Afghanistan is the source of around 60% of the planet’s illicit opium and 80% of illegal heroin, he writes.The United Nations recently reported there had been a 61% rebound in opium production in 2011, and prices were soaring. This is a worrying trend, which seems set to continue after NATO troops leave.’

But with so many vested interests in the trade inside Afghanistan, and global demand for this highly profitable, highly transportable commodity remaining strong, can there ever be a solution? Maybe, suggests Inkster, ‘but not while current conditions of high insecurity and pervasive corruption persist’…

Read more in Foreign Policy

‘Abandon the knee-jerk response on drugs’

Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli at the US launch of Drugs, Insecurity, Failed States

Violence related to the illegal drugs trade should prompt a rethink of global drugs policy, IISS Director for Transnational Threats and Political Risk Nigel Inkster and IISS Research Analyst Virginia Comolli said at the US launch of their Adelphi book, Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition, at IISS-US last week.

As Inkster and Comolli explained, the prohibition of drugs was originally intended to reduce social ills associated with drug use. However, because drugs fell into the class of goods that were easy to conceal during transport, the global ‘prohibition regime’ had not succeeded in its purpose. Rather, it has only served to create a lucrative and illegal drugs smuggling industry.

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‘Time for an open, informed drugs debate’

Rising prices of cocaine and heroin through the distribution system
Latin American leaders have said recently that the West’s ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and a new book from the IISS agrees. At this week’s launch of Drugs, insecurity and failed states: The problems of prohibition, IISS expert and former MI6 deputy director Nigel Inkster said a new approach was needed in which drugs were treated as an issue to be managed rather than as a problem to be solved. Co-author Virginia Comolli pointed out that since the ‘war on drugs’ began in 1961 with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to deter trafficking and possession, none of the international treaty’s objectives had been achieved.

Worse, both authors said, banning drugs had fuelled violence and instability in the developing world, through the creation of a global black market dominated by powerful criminal groups. In some countries there had been ‘state capture’, or subversion of institutions, by criminal networks. Other nations, where drugs now overshadowed legitimate businesses, were surviving on ‘junkie economies’.

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