To those who see in America's forty year long war on drugs a right wing plot to roll back the civil rights movement and civil liberties, consider the major feature in Saturday morning's NYTimes on the scourge of cheap smokable cocaine in Argentina's slums. The impressively photographed (as well as streaming video from their website) by Alexie Barrioneuvo is a potent reminder of how progressives end up supporting drug wars. With echoes of the crack cocaine panic in America of twenty years ago (and more distantly progressive concerns about alcohol and immigrants in the years before Prohibition), the article paints a picture of addictive drugs destroying lives in an already disadvantaged slum, while police are helpless to stop the infusion across open borders.
A mother speaks of two sons caught in the grip of "Paco" a cheap smokable form of cocaine waste products. The high is inexpensive, about a $1.50, but its intense pleasure is short lived, leading addicts to constantly pursue another hit. The problems are said to have gotten worse because of the economic crisis of the new millennium (although Argentina's economy is said to have improved considerably of late), relatively open borders between Latin American countries, and the increased production of coca in Bolivia under pro-grower President Evo Morales.
Without contesting the facts it is worth stepping back and looking at what the story tells us and does not. The power of addictive drugs is always shown to be irresistible, while the massive joblessness and subsequent spread of anomic social patterns (breakdown in family formation, etc) are ignored, their influences on behavior invisibly added to the seemingly irresistible pull of the next high (leaving mysterious how middle class people who could easily afford the same drugs aren't ruined by the same forces.
The story is artfully told but relies heavily on the identified voices of only a Brazilian narcotics officer in the São Paulo State Police Department and a 46 year old resident of the eponymous Ciudad Oculta, a neighborhood of some 15 thousand in the city of Buenos Aires, and who has become an activist against drugs (her means of support are not described).
More subtle is the story's implications that only a more concerted effort to interdict the flow of cocaine and to suppress its sales on the streets of Ciudad Oculta will benefit its residents. But how realistic is that? Imagine the billions it would take to bring up the Argentine drug war to say the effectiveness of the US drug war, which means it would still have no impact on the lives of people in Ciudad Oculta, other than to assure that many more of them are dead or in prison.
Moreover, the fact that the entire global drug trade could be managed in ways that would dramatically reduce its collateral harm to communities, while capturing the pockets of wealth necessary through taxes and liability to regulate the use and sales of drug, is never suggested.
The feature has all the feel of one that may win Barrioneuvo and the Times, the Pulitzers they crave. I bet you could find ones telling the same narratives from the same sources two decades ago about crack in New York City. I bet they won Pulitzers to. Thats why the war on drugs is not a vast right wing conspiracy. Its a vast left and right wing conspiracy