The International War on Drugs: Escobar’s Legacy

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Drugs. No stranger to your average university student. But whereas the eager fresher may see it as an opportunity to let loose and have fun, there’s a whole other world that we seem to forget about. We forget that drugs are not just seen as a way to self-medicate, to enjoy yourself, or as a serious addiction. It’s a means of life for many. With the sudden purge of drug dealers in the Philippines under President Duterte, we are reminded that although we may perceive drugs as something recreational, there is a whole other grizzly world we forget about.

When an Ohio Police Department released a harrowing photo last year of a four year old boy sitting in the backseat of a car whilst his parents suffered a heroin overdose, the furore of the rest of the world could not be ignored. Their emaciated bodies, slumped over in their seats, were found in broad daylight and their image became a worldwide sensation, sending shock into the hearts of many. The photo, that struck so many, reminded us of the horrors of what substance abuse can do; whether it may be something on this type of scale, or a naïve teenager taking a pill at a house party or festival. Whilst these effects are damning, the network and its legacy had to start somewhere…

Columbia has been notorious for being known as the heart and soul of the world’s most infamous drug trade since the rise of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, or Pablo Escobar to you and me, since the 1970s. You hear of brother turning on brother, informing on friends to save their own skin, the barbarous nature of the torture and deaths that some people endure, the constant fear that people live in. It may seem unimaginable to us. Escobar’s Medellin Cartel rose to prominence in the mid 1970s, starting out by distributing cocaine between Colombia and Panama, along smuggling routes into the United States, where there seemed to be a growing demand as the years went along. This opportunity allowed Escobar to propel his trade, but also allowed him to establish himself as a political figure. Not only did his position as a member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia, a part of the Colombian Liberal Party elevate his status within society, but also served to widen his trafficking network, going beyond the continent, to reach the likes of Spain. Sometimes known as “The King of Cocaine” he became the wealthiest criminal in history, with an estimated net worth of US $30 billion by the early 1990s. And if you think that’s substantial, it is now equivalent to about $54 billion in 2015. It is evident that the Medellin Cartel had grips on more land, and possibly people, than we care to realise, seeing as during the height of its operations, the Medellin Cartel brought in more than US $70 million per day, estimating roughly $22 billion in a year. Smuggling 15 tons of cocaine per day, worth more than half a billion dollars, into the United States, the cartel spent over US $1000 per week purchasing rubber bands to wrap the stacks of cash, storing most of it in their warehouses.

From both contemporary and past reactions to drug trafficking, it is evident that no action goes unnoticed. Whether you’re reading about the soaring number of deaths on the streets of the Philippines, or if you’re watching the renowned Netflix series Narcos, or the occasional BBC Three documentary, you get a sense of just how colossal these networks are. Forget about the shady dealer you may have heard about that hangs about around your local student dives, and just think… somewhere out there, there are people putting their lives on the line to stay alive, under conditions we can’t even begin to imagine, with workers of all ages.

The notoriety of the Latin American drug trade didn’t seem to stop there, even after the dramatic death of Escobar, who along with his bodyguard were chased and killed by Colombian National Police. With the not too recent prison break of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, it is evident that drug cartels still reign with significant prominence through-out Central America. Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel transports multi-ton cocaine shipments from Colombia through Mexico to the United States, now considered to be the world’s top consumer.  The organization has also been involved in the production, smuggling and distribution of Mexican methamphetamine, weed, ecstasy and heroin across both North America and Europe. By the time of his 2014 arrest, El Chapo had exported more drugs to the United States than anyone else, seeming to surpass Escobar’s glorious legacy, with more than 500 tons of cocaine transported to the U.S. alone.

This is only a tiny percentage of the Central American drug trade, both past and present, and has affected many lives in the process, as well as taking them. We have seen this tragic loss by the recent crackdown on drug trafficking by Rodrigo Duterte. As of December 2016, the death toll has risen to just under 6,000 lives. Whilst Duterte insists that he is not a killer, his regime poses questions that we ourselves may find difficult to answer. Can the idea of just stop taking drugs, be a realistic option? Is it easier to say, rather than to do? Who’s the real bad guy- the man trying to stop a dangerous network with violent methods? Or the masterminds behind the networks, who started it all? Where will it really stop?

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History student and new Features Editor for 2016/17. Consumer of chocolate, of tea and vodka, voyeur of Scandinavian crime dramas , and writer...or attempting to anyway.

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