Does Executing Drug Smugglers Work?

As I follow the news about the plight of Mary Jane Veloso, who is set to be executed for drug smuggling in Indonesia, I wonder what would happen to her if she smuggled that 2.6 kilograms of heroin to Davao City. I heard some people had died for bringing less than that here if the urban legend of the Davao Death Squad is to be believed.

Several reports have noted that Indonesian President Joko Widodo believes that the scourge of drug abuse in his country “will ruin the nation.” He treats it as nothing short of a drug emergency and, therefore, there can be no clemency for drug smugglers.

Polls show support for the death penalty in Indonesia at 75 percent. This public opinion could be fueled by endless media stories about drug crime, abuse, death, and accidents. Indonesia considers the death penalty an important deterrent.

According to the National Narcotics Agency (BNN), 40 to 50 Indonesians die every day from drugs. It predicts the number of drug addicts will increase to 5.8 million in 2015, out of a population of 250 million.

Indonesia’s Attorney-General H.M. Prasetyo has been quoted as saying the executions were needed “to save the nation.” He added: “We need to wage war and of course we can’t compromise. There is no forgiveness for narcotics criminals.” He also noted that 45 percent of Southeast Asia’s narcotics market is in Indonesia.

But countless studies have shown that the global “war on drugs” has been a “catastrophic failure.” No less than five Nobel prize-winning economists, Britain’s deputy prime minister, a former NATO and EU foreign policy chief, and a former US secretary of state have urged world leaders to take a different approach.

A report published by the London School of Economics (LSE) called “Ending the Drug Wars,” said that “the pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global war on drugs strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.”

According to the same report, the “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach to tackling drugs has created a $300 billion black market.”

LSE international drug policy coordinator John Collins noted that the drug war’s failure has been recognized by public health professionals, security experts, human rights authorities, and now some of the world’s most respected economists. “Leaders need to recognize that toeing the line on current drug control strategies comes with extraordinary human and financial costs to their citizens and economies,” he stressed.

They suggest “rigorously monitored experiments with legalization and a focus on public health” could minimize the impact of the illegal drug trade and worth considering in tackling the drug problem.

In analyzing the drug problem, it is reasonable to ask who benefits from it. The main beneficiaries of the illegal drug trade are those who control the growing areas, the international supply routes, and the distribution networks in consuming countries. So taken together they are enemies of this “war on drugs.”

However, two economists, Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejia, calculate that only $7.6 billion of the $300 billion that Colombian cocaine eventually makes at retail stays in Colombia. That is only less than three percent. So where does all the money go? Well, it was found out that heads of the Colombian and Mexican cartels invest their money overseas. They are actually American and European investors. Much of the money in international transit drug routes also go out of the growing areas and into the Western banking system.

What about the retailers and street dealers? Another social scientist, Sudhir Venkatesh, made a study of the vast majority dealers in Chicago and he found out that they make less than $7 an hour. It’s like working in a fast food chain! The farmers and peasants who grow the coca plants and opium poppies make even less than that.

Yet these characters at the bottom of the illegal drug trade food chain, who do the most demanding and difficult work, often suffer the harshest penalties.

So who makes money in illegal drug trade? The Western banking sector. They receive commissions for the service along with lawyers, company formation agents, accountants, and tax advisers who help launder drug money.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa was quoted as saying: “In many instances, the money from drugs was the only liquid investment capital that the banks could access during the credit squeeze of 2008. There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

We haven’t heard of any banker or money launderer or lawyer or accountant executed for their role in the illegal drug trade. Most of those arrested, convicted, jailed, and executed are low-level criminals who act as couriers and dealers. Because they are the ones who are actually in direct possession of narcotics. The big bosses do not possess the merchandize, only the profits.

When these rank-and-file players get executed, upper management can always hire new willing, able, and desperate minimum-wagers to continue the business. So the question now is: how many are we willing to execute to finally solve the drug problem?

First appeared on Mindanao Times, April 23, 2015