By Audrey Morallo (philstar.com), Feb. 8, 2017
MANILA, Philippines — “The war on drugs is essentially a war on people.”
This was the message of a former leader of a South American country that launched its own war on drugs to President Rodrigo Duterte.
Cesar Gaviria, president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, wrote his critique of Duterte’s heavy-handed approach to drugs in an op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday.
Equating the drug war as a war on people, Gaviria said the Philippines should learn from his country’s mistakes in tackling its narcotics problems. He recommended employing a more balanced system in addressing its problem.
Gaviria is one of the founding members of Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international group that studies the impacts of current drug control strategies and suggests policies that protect human rights, scale-up harm reduction and promote development.
According to the former Colombian leader, the problems posed by the illicit drug trade could not be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone.
“Throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users is not just a waste of money but also can actually make the problem worse,” Gaviria said.
Incarcerating non-violent offenders and drug users always backfired and strengthened organized crime, he added.
Gaviria warned that the tough approach of the Philippine government might do more harm than good. He said, “Vigilantism and extrajudicial killings are the wrong ways to go.”
Gaviria also cautioned Duterte about his plan to draw the military into his campaign against illegal drugs, which he described as “disastrous.”
“The fight against drugs has to be balanced so it does not infringe on the rights and well-being of citizens,” Gaviria wrote.
Gaviria said taking a hard line against crimes was always popular for politicians but this always came at an enormous cost.
“The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable,” Gaviria said
He said that killing petty criminals and addicts did not win them in their war on drugs. Instead, what impacted in their campaign was when they treated drugs as a social and not a military problem.
‘Learn from our mistakes’
Gaviria was the president of Colombia during the 90s. During his time, his country poured in billions of dollars into their fight against illegal drugs and drug cartels.
Although instrumental in taking down the notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1993, Gaviria admitted that his war managed to make Colombia only a little safe at a tremendous price.
Gaviria said that his administration threw everything at the problem – from fumigation of crops to jailing every drug pusher in sight. However, his government still failed to eradicate drug production, trafficking and consumption.
In addition, his approach led to new problems in their crusade against illegal drugs.
He said that tens of thousands of people were “slaughtered” in their campaign. Their brightest politicians, judges, policemen and journalists were also “assassinated.” Vast amounts of money earned by drug groups were also used to corrupt the executive, legislative and judicial branches of their government.
“This heavy-handed approach to drugs did little to diminish the drug supply and demand in Colombia, much less in markets like Western Europe and the United States,” Gaviria said. “In fact, drugs such as cocaine and heroin are as accessible as ever from Bogota (capital of Colombia) to New York to Manila.”
More balanced approach
Gaviria advised Duterte to take a different route in addressing his country’s drug problem. He said that the Philippines should address not just crime but also public health, human rights and economic development to win its fight against illicit narcotics.
Gaviria also said that the government should construe the problem from a proper perspective to avoid worsening it.
“The Philippines already has a low number of regular drug users. The application of severe penalties and extrajudicial violence against drug consumers makes it almost impossible for people with drug addiction problems to find treatment,” Gaviria said.
He also called on Duterte to employ solutions that respect basic rights and minimize unnecessary pain and suffering.
He said strategies that target violent criminals and undermine money laundering are important. In addition, the decriminalization of drug use, alternative sentencing for low-level non-violent offenders and treatment options for drug abusers are equally critical.
Duterte won the May 2016 election largely on his promise to wage a relentless and tough campaign to eradicate drugs, crime and corruption in he Philippines. His war on drugs, suspended since the killing of a Korean businessman, has been severely criticized by both local and international groups and individuals for trampling on the basic human rights of those who were killed.
More than 7,000 suspected drug offenders were reported killed in the government’s “Double Barrel” drive—both from legitimate police operations and vigilante-style or unexplained killings, since Duterte launched an all-out war on drugs.