The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


The huge amount of profit from the drug trade has been known to corrupt officials and lead to cartel members becoming part of local and national government. This has been the case in various Latin American, Asian and African countries.

Traffickers have increasingly used corruption to undermine democracy and stability. Corruption poses a growing and significant obstacle to development. Those involved in the illegal drug-market work, to varying degrees, with ‘legitimate’ elected officials, judges, police and military officers and bureaucrats in order to continue their operations and trafficking un-hindered. Indeed, as one scholar has stated, these drug traffickers “…have become parasitically integrated into the political and economic activities [of these countries].”[1]

The vast amounts of profits that these illegal actors acquire have enabled them to purchase significant stakes in the legitimate economy and gain a deep control over politicians.

Bribes and threats, plata o plomo (silver or lead) have corrupted huge segments of the judiciary and police forces throughout Latin America. Indeed, the region is ranked overall by Transparency International as the world’s second most corrupt region after Africa. Corruption frequently stems all the way to the top of the political and judicial systems. Two brief examples illustrate this point: one Colombian President was found to have taken money from a drug cartel towards his election campaign and Bolivia’s former Drug Czar has been accused of colluding with international cartels.

Guatemala, a country located on trafficking routes from South America to the US, is an example of how drug cartels can infiltrate a political system, thereby causing political violence and undermining democratic governance. As one scholar has noted:

“Controlling the political system is their goal. If they can control a small town, they can build a landing strip there and use it as a base. If they have someone in Congress, all the better.”[2] 

A New York Times article added to this point, stating “With plenty of money to spend, drug dealers finance as many campaigns as they can and put forward candidates who are on the take. Resistance is met with gunfire.” [2] This duel approach to corrupt with money and threats of violence often leaves political figures with no choice but to submit to the cartels through fear for their lives and the lives of their family.

In 2011 President Otto Pérez Molina invited the Beckley Foundation to establish a Latin American Chapter in Guatemala, with the aim of producing evidence-based analysis of the effects of current international drug policy on the situation in Guatemala and examining how alternative drug policy options might reduce the violence and corruption suffered by Guatemala and other countries in the region.


However, the negative effects of the current international drug policies are not restricted to Latin America. One ex-senior counter-narcotics official who use to work in Afghanistan has commented that he discovered:

“…how deeply the Afghan government was involved in protecting the opium trade”[3]. Commenting on such prohibitionist efforts as ground-based eradication in Afghanistan, the same official claimed “Ground-based eradication was inefficient, costly, dangerous and more subject to corrupt dealings among local officials than aerial eradication. But it was our only option.”[3]

This is untrue. There is another option. Only whilst drug traffickers can afford to buy political support at each and every level of both government and society will corruption remain a major problem preventing democratic governance. The illegality of drugs inflates their street value massively; production is relatively cheap. The illegality of a substance is what creates the profit and hence the control.

In light of these negative consequences, it is obvious that the current international legislative shackles on drug policy need to re-examined. Alternative options are available, and a global consensus is growing that we have to abandon drug policies that are misinformed, out-dated, or based on idealogical biases. With this aim, the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform is advocating for a changed approach at the highest levels of international dialogue, and working towards a new set of drug policies based on health, cost-effectiveness, harm-reduction, and respect for human rights.

[1] Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs & Democracy in Rio de Janiero: Trafficking, Social Networks & Public Security, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 180

[2] Iduvina Hernandez quoted in: Marc Lacy, ‘Drug Gangs Use Violence to Sway Guatemala Vote’, New York Times, 4 August 2007

[3] Thomas Schweich, ‘Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?’, New York Times, 27 July 2008