Latin America is a major producer — and now consumer — of cocaine, accounting for almost a quarter of global demand, the United Nations estimates.
The increased consumption is shifting how the region’s leaders are tackling narcotics-related crime.
While some, like President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, have continued to fight the war on drugs, other leftist leaders across Latin America appear to be quietly changing their tack through less punitive measures.
LatAm leaders are ‘quiet quitting’ the war on drugs
Leaders who see the war on drugs as futile but are “unwilling to risk pariah status by forswearing it entirely, appear to be — quietly, sometimes subtly — backing off,” wrote Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. In Mexico —which saw another record-breaking year of murders — President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has adopted a “hugs not bullets” policy that has inadvertently led to more violence and increasingly militarized law enforcement. He has also cast blame on the U.S. for the fentanyl crisis, despite evidence pointing to the contrary. Colombia’s leftist leader Gustavo Petro, meanwhile, has called the war on drugs a “failure” and has pushed other Latin American countries to approach drug use as a “public health problem.” And in Brazil, some officials have reportedly avoided interfering in the dynamic between the two main drug gangs. The rise in political assassinations in countries like Mexico means officials are partly more averse to directly confronting drug cartels. And Mexico and Colombia’s experiences have shown that governments that try to solve the drug crisis with violent crackdowns “are akin to surgeons with machetes,” a Latin America expert wrote in El País.
America is losing allies in its drug fight with the rise of leftist leaders
Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, but the leftist government led by President Gustavo Petro has taken a softer approach to drug policy, including decriminalizing cocaine for personal use and suggesting fully legalizing it. “Even a small experiment in decriminalizing cocaine production in Colombia would have huge implications,” The Economist’s Americas editor Emma Hogan wrote in 2022, noting that neighboring North America is still the world’s largest consumer of drugs. A former U.S. official said that Mexico has made it challenging for American drug enforcement agents to operate there, while “Brazil is not particularly on board.” Losing its most important Latin American allies in the war on drugs has significantly weakened the U.S.’ decades-long “prohibition model,” one expert told the Economist.
Women are increasingly involved in drug cartels and organized crime
There is “a rise of women in the most violent and dangerous structures of organized crime” across Latin America, NBC News reported, citing data showing an increase in women charged for their involvement in drug cartels and organized crime. “Sometimes, criminal organizations offer some women the opportunity to develop a leadership scheme,” an academic told NBC News. “And since prejudice and machismo make them invisible in some way — they can advance in those activities without being seen.” Women’s roles often involve “low-level” activities, but some have risen to be the bosses — or “narcas” — of operations. “Something that surprises me a lot is the amazement of people who cannot believe that women know how to organize logistics, how to launder money, even how to execute violent operations,” a journalist who reports on security issues said.