WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Jun 2021 | Commentary

Decades of Damage Done: The Drug War Catastrophe in Latin America and the Caribbean

Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) for an upcoming series of events:

This year marks the anniversaries of two watershed moments in drug policy that have generated disastrous consequences worldwide—and particularly for the people of Latin America and the Caribbean. WOLA will explore these issues in an upcoming six-part webinar series.

Sixty years ago, the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ushered in a prohibitionist global regime to combat the “serious evil” posed by “addiction to narcotic drugs.” The Single Convention obliges signatory countries to ban and punish drug activity for other than medical or scientific purposes. The 1961 treaty envisioned the virtual elimination of any cultivation of cannabis, coca and opium poppies for non-medical purposes. While the Single Convention also aims to ensure access to essential medicines, since its outset six decades ago, the treaty regime’s ethos has been punitive and prohibitionist.

Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared illegal drugs to be “public enemy number one” and announced an “all-out offensive” to be waged within and beyond U.S. borders in order to “fight and defeat this enemy.” In the five decades since, the U.S.-led “war on drugs” has escalated dramatically, repeatedly responding to the abject failure to eliminate illegal drug markets by doubling down on repression to curtail drug availability and to punish people who use drugs.

Far from achieving a “drug-free world,” decades of intense commitment to prohibition and the drug war have witnessed vast growth in the scale of illegal drug markets. Even worse, the drug war enormously amplifies the dangers of drug use, exacerbates the damage associated with drug markets, and fuels organized crime and corruption, all generating an incalculable toll of human bloodshed and suffering worldwide.

For Latin America and the Caribbean, the “war on drugs” is no mere metaphor, but a lived reality with devastating consequences for millions of people—the brunt of the harms felt by the most vulnerable communities, whether in the form of brutal repression, callous abandonment, or both.

Forced crop eradication pushes some of the hemisphere’s most vulnerable communities into even deeper poverty and greater reliance on illegal crops. Militarized enforcement results in human rights violations and prompts waves of lethal violence as trafficking organizations fight one another and fend off enforcement.

And mirroring what has occurred at a huge scale within the United States itself, the drug war in Latin America and the Caribbean stigmatizes and marginalizes people who use drugs and fuels dramatic increases in incarceration, mostly for drug possession or low-level drug trade activities and with a disproportionate impact on women and marginalized communities.

In marking the anniversaries of the 1961 UN Single Convention and the 1971 launch of Nixon’s drug war, WOLA will help shine a light on the disastrous consequences of prohibition and the drug war for Latin America and the Caribbean.

At the same time, by placing the advent of global drug prohibition and the U.S.-led drug war in a historical context, WOLA will highlight that the catastrophic contemporary reality was not inevitable and must not continue.

In a series of six webinars beginning in July, WOLA will examine the results of prohibition and the drug war in Latin America, describing the policies and their human impacts, and pointing toward alternative approaches consistent with protecting human rights and achieving social justice.

The initial webinar on July 15 will discuss the big picture (see event details below), setting the stage for five additional webinars during the second half of 2021 that will examine dimensions of the drug war including:

  • forced crop eradication (August 5, see below);
  • criminalization and mass incarceration;
  • corruption and organized crime;
  • police violence; and
  • militarization of law enforcement and other civilian functions.


The Catastrophe of Prohibition and the War on Drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean


Featuring: Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, University of the West Indies (Trinidad and Tobago); Julita Lemgruber, Center for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (Brazil); Milton Romani, former Ambassador of Uruguay to the OAS; and Rodrigo Uprimny, Dejusticia (Colombia).

Moderator: John Walsh, WOLA

Event Details:

Thursday, July 15, 2021

10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. EDT

Vicious Cycle:

Forced Crop Eradication and the Never-Ending War on Drugs

Featuring: Pedro Arenas, Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia); Abel Barrera, Tlachinollan Human Rights Center (Mexico); and Aida Quilcué, Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, CRIC (Colombia). Additional speakers to be confirmed.

Moderator: Adam Isacson, WOLA

Event Details:

Thursday, August 5, 2021

10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. EDT


Criminalized and Incarcerated in Latin America: 

How the “Drug War” drives the region’s prison crisis

Featuring: Juliana Borges, Writer and Researcher, São Paulo School of
Sociology and Politics Foundation, Brazil; Andrea Casamento, President, Civil Association of Family Members of Detained Persons (AciFad), Argentina; Bety Maldonado, Founder, Women United for Liberty, Mexico; and Catalina Pérez, Professor, Center for Economics
Research and Teaching (CIDE), Mexico. 

Moderator: Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow, WOLA

Event Details: 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m. EDT 

On a War Footing: How Armed Forces’ Counter-Drug Mission Threatens Human Rights

Featuring: María de Jesús Alvarado Espinoza, Family Member, Alvarado Espinoza et al. v. Mexico; Nitza Sitlaly Alvarado Espinoza, Family Member, Alvarado Espinoza et al. v. Mexico; Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, WOLA; Juliana Miranda, Researcher, Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Argentina; Arlene Tickner, Professor, Universidad del Rosario, Colombia

Moderator: Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, WOLA

Event Details:
Friday, October 29, 2021
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. EDT

Feeding the Fire: How Prohibition and the Drug War Fuel Corruption and Organized Crime in Latin America

Featuring: Ricardo Vargas Meza, Sociologist & Researcher, Corporación Viso Mutop & Transnational Institute; Julie Lopez, Investigative Journalist; Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, Program Director for Security and Violence Reduction, México Evalúa.

Moderator: Maureen Meyer, Vice President for Programs, WOLA

Event Details:

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.