03/07/10 - Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown, from the Brookings Institute & author of "Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the Drug War" + + + Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron

Century of Lies
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Vanda Felbab-Brown
Brookings Institute
Download: Audio icon COL_030710.mp3


Century of Lies, March 7, 2010

The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more, now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.


Dean Becker: Hello, welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. I am glad you could be with us. A little bit later we’ll hear an interview with Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron. But first up I am proud to welcome for the first time from the Brookings Institute, the author of Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the War on Drugs, Vanda Felbab-Brown. Are you with us Vanda?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: I am here.

Dean Becker: Welcome, welcome. Finally got our wires straight. Yes ma’am, as I indicated to the folks, you’re with the Brookings Institute. And I did a little research, you extended countless man hours and reached out to many folks in gathering the data with which to write this book, correct?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: That is true. One of the pleasures and challenges of writing Shooting Up was that I ended up doing a lot of field work in all the priniciple case studies. Namely Colombia, Afghanistan through Burma. And also in some of cases that [ ] information and [ ] such as [ ], India. But [ ] broad municipal case studies.

And during the [ ], during these interviews I talked with government officials, intelligence officers, military officers. But also the producers of illicit crops, the farmers and producers of synthetic drugs, drug lords, insurgents, paramilitaries and whole lots of interesting people.

Dean Becker: Well interesting. OK I am looking for it, I can’t seem to find it but today the Dallas Morning News was talking about the situation down there in Ciudad, Juarez. And I think that represents kind of the at least the current apex, the the of the horrors of this drug war. Your thoughts on this situation in Mexico.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Well the situation is indeed very serious. And clearly the government needs to [ ] the strategy to have a far more effective law enforcement than it has. For many decades when Mexico was [ ] country ruled by the PRI, the government had a sort of corporatist arrangement with the drug trafficking organizations. The key law enforcement security agencies were also managing de facto directing the cartels in the corporatist arrangement that mimicked the rest of the politic arrangements that Mexico practiced at the time.

But by the mid 1980s this arrangement started collapsing for a variety of reasons including because of the PRI’s control over the society started collapsing. And this collapse sort of intensified in the 1990s. And finally then Mexico became a full democracy then the [ ] was elected and the PRI was voted out of power, the arrangement collapsed altogether.

And the government for appropriate reasons decided that it can no longer have the [ ] with the crime groups and it needs to take them on. But the Mexican government did not anticipate at all just what kind of violence this would unleash, violence among all the drug trafficking organizations and between them and the states. And also did not anticipate just how tremendously ruined, corrupted and weakened Mexico’s law enforcement had been by then.

Dean Becker: Yes.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: From the lowest beat cop to the highest anti-organized crime institutions law enforcement was fundamentally hollowed out and corrupted. And very many cops working for the cartels. And so part of Mexico’s challenge is of course is how to reform law enforcement, how to beef it up, how to make it effective so that the purpose of police is what it should be. Namely [ ] the safety of the citizens and bring law and order which is the inescapable duty of a government to its people, without which democracy and civil liberties, economic prosperity cannot exist.

Dean Becker: And OK again we are speaking with Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institute. Great new book, I just finished it today. I want to thank you for writing this, Vanda. Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the War on Drugs. It has so much information that I you know I’d heard parts of but it’s all batched together here with lots of footnotes and appendix and it helps educate you to the subject and it’s a great book Vanda.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Oh thank you very much.

Dean Becker: Now we were talking about the situation in Mexico and how it hollowed out the law enforcement efforts if you will. We had a similar situation in Colombia a couple of decades back where your book examines it quite thoroughly. Where there was a very similar situation with you the the the cartels shooting up the supreme court and otherwise usurping government authority.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Mhmm.

Dean Becker: And people talk about the balloon effect with cocaine, with cocoa growth. That you know if it’s in Peru, they shut it down. It moves to Colombia, they shut that down. It goes to Bolivia and so forth. And I guess what I am trying to get to here is that in essence by what we have done in Colombia, a balloon effect pushed these actors, these bad actors or the focus to these bad actors in Mexico.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: That is correct. I would preface my comment by saying that while there are many similarities or some similarities between Mexico and Colombia there are also some glaring differences. Mainly that Mexico fortunately hasn’t seen the emergence of insurgencies and paramilitary groups that that not only deeply involved in the drug trade and continue to be deeply involved in the drug trade in Colombia. But it also fundamentally threatens the state and the society.

But none the less the challenge from the Colombian cartels same as cartels of Medien and Cali in the 1980s was quite similar to what we are seeing in Mexico today. And indeed you are right that one of the reasons why the Mexican cartels became so prominent and why they had an interest in fighting as hard as they do over drug trafficking routes, turf and over corruption [ ] is because after the destruction of the Cali and Median cartels they became the primary traffickers of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

And indeed the balloon effect has taken place not so much with respect to cocoa cultivation because Colombia still continues to produce very large amount of cocoa. And indeed [ ] last year’s data was as much cocoa as before plan Colombia the US assistance package.

But the nature of the primary trafficking organizations, the cartel has changed. And Colombia being much more fractured and small and being able to impose great insecurity on a local level but no longer at the national level and not having an interest forcing insecurity at the national level.

But of course that allowed opportunity for the Mexican cartels to take over trafficking from the borders of Colombia in to United States. And greatly increased the strength militarily in what kind of weapons they can afford, greatly increased their ability to corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials, and also having a great interest in devoting great resources to maintaining access to these markets.

Dean Becker: You know I’m looking at a passage from your book here it reminds me of one of the last quotes from William Colby former head of the CIA couple of weeks before he died in a canoeing accident he said it’s possible that the Latin cartels are controlling every aspect of government.

Now I want to read from your book: Large scale illicit economy threatens the state by giving criminal organizations the means to enter politics and to corrupt and undermine the democratic process.

It’s been my contention Vanda that we are we are the soft touches. We keep funding our enemies. It’s like giving money to your buddy at the poker game so he can keep playing. Your thoughts, are we not chasing our tails sometimes with our empowering these bad actors?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Well I think the [ ] and the policies have various inadvertent effects and indeed counter narcotics policy has been marred over the past thirty years by both ineffectiveness and indeed frequently very counterproductive policies. And the thrust of the book is that looking at the nexus of drugs and terror or military conflict and illicit economies the policies that we adopt towards illicit economies are frequently counterproductive.

They are not simply ineffective because they fail to bankrupt belligerent groups. But they are indeed counterproductive because they empower them by making them more useful to marginalized populations that are dependant on illicit economies for basic livelihood and for provision of public good such as distribution mechanisms or or the socioeconomic benefit that the government fails to provide.

Dean Becker: You know Vanda I want to talk about you know if you reach back about five hundred years ago there were several imperialist powers, Great Britain, France, a little bit later United States. And they went to all the quote heathen countries and they demonized the use of cocoa and opium and even marijuana and called it the devil’s work.

And a couple of hundred years later came up with this prohibition. But in the in the Andes it is a it’s a tribal thing. It’s a personal thing. It’s, it’s the use of the cocoa plant still goes on. It’s still accepted and is still a religious use at times as well, is it not?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: It is you know I would [ ] the differences or however the difference between some of the cultural and personal uses such as chewing cocoa which is practiced in Peru and in Bolivia, [ ] in Colombia. And possession of drugs like cocaine or if you like industrial trade.

And I would also attest that although certainly an element of use and frequently abuse is a personal choice it frequently affects the broader community in multiple ways. And I can single from for example some of the opium addicts that I have seen in Burma. And frequently men that are suppose to providers for extended families but are so incapacitated by the smoking of opium that not only do they not provide for the family they spend the meager earnings that the family makes.

That strongly suggests that use goes beyond personal decision and really affects community. And unregulated use can very significantly and badly affect the community. So in my view there are good reasons for a society to decide how it wants to manage substances that are dangerous or that can be dangerous in any way.

Dean Becker: And then look, I can agree with you in part Vanda because I personally don’t want people doing you know cocaine and heroin and meth and all that stuff. But I also feel like we, we have to at least consider doing things differently… less…

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Well I agree. And broadly I think that has been a great failure of counter narcotics policy in several respects. Once they focusing at least in the United States dominantly on supply side suppression as both to accomplish reduction in demand rather the reduction in consumption in the United States which [ ] not work, and also to mitigate other to mitigate other concerns [ ] drugs and insurgencies.

The other aspect that has not worked on the domestic side in the United States of course to have domestic policy essentially designed as penalization and imprisonment. With the US having by far the highest prison rates or among the highest prison rates in the world largely on the basis of drug related charges. And evidence shows that people who are put in prisons on drug related charges frequently continue the habit, it doesn’t reduce demand.

So indeed I think there is very much need of a rethinking and looking at other models other examples how more effectively to reduce demand and that in my view should really be the core policy. There are much better much more effective approaches to both prevention and treatment and recognizing people who none the less end up being addicts they need to be managed and handled from a local enforcement perspective but also from public policy perspective.

Dean Becker: Alright thank you. We are speaking with Vanda Felbab-Brown. She is author of Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the War on Drugs. She’s with the Brookings Institute. Vanda I want to read another quick of sentence here from your book: During periods when and in regions where the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach to the illicit economy or has fully legalized it the population will cooperate with the government to a much greater degree and provide it with intelligence.

We have kind of the opposite of that here in America where more and more neighborhoods are, the residents are less likely to speak up or to support the cops in their you know efforts to stop the flow of drugs both due to threat of violence and because of distrust of the process itself. Your thoughts please.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: No indeed [ ] and one of the challenges for law enforcement of course is how to square the need to uphold laws. And the purpose of law enforcement after all is to uphold laws. And demand and provide for public safety of citizens for the integrity of political institutions political and legal institutions in the country.

And at the same time how to work with the community because the core of law enforcement of course needs to be enhancing the [ ] safety of the public safety of citizens and so you know [ ] imagine how it would be inappropriate prioritization for law enforcement to focus on violent offenses. But there are people who are users of drugs or people who are dealers of drugs as opposed to chasing after every habit or every pusher on the street who is a pusher because he or she sees the habit through such a manner.

But similarly it goes to broader issues such as for example illegal immigration and the increasing pressure including from the Obama administration to use regular police stations and police units to control to [ ] latino or Hispanic people in the United States are illegal or legal immigrants. And the reason I am [ ] that is because it is very apropos the conversation be started on Mexico.

One of the big fears about Mexico being that violence crime will spill from Mexico in to the United States. And a key element of success against the cartels in Mexico and in the United States of course will be human intelligence that law enforcement needs to get from local community. While to the extent that Latino communities reject police because they see that police will be doing wild dragnets and who doesn’t have visas, who doesn’t have a green card the more likely any spill over of the cartel violence will be far harder to manage for law enforcement.

Dean Becker: Exactly right. Again one more time we are speaking with Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the War on Drugs. Vanda we are not going to have time to get even half way through this book. I want to thank you first off.

I want to give the folks an idea. She talks about illicit economies and belligerence, the political capitol model of illicit economies great in depth discussions on Peru, Colombia, Afghanistan and some great conclusions and policy implications.

Vanda I want to kind of close out with this thought here that you know we have for ninety years, a hundred years kind of escalated this drug war to the point where we’re at now. We every once in a while somebody steps off a tractor down there in Mexico and decides he wants to become a billionaire. And there are tens of millions of growers of these illicit plants in various countries around the country, around the world. And is it possible to stop this machine. Is it possible to continue with our current efforts and crush the cartels?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Well [ ] separate the questions. I don’t think it would be very effective if we continue with ineffective policies that have been [ ] of US counter narcotics policy. But I do believe it’s important to maintain the struggle, that it’s important to combat organized crime. Because ultimately at the end of the day organized crime can pose very serious threats to states and very serious threat to society.

You look at Mexico today on the one hand some of the narcos are glamorized but the reality is very many Mexicans leave Mexico because they steal for the safety. Many of these cartels have become political organizations that also engage in kidnapping, various extortions as seeking to take over economy, they collapse the democratic and political processes. And they kill extraordinary number of people.

The numbers of drug related murders is an extraordinary rate, more deaths for example than in Iraq last year or Afghanistan last year. So we cannot just decide that crime can exist. Law enforcement needs to combat crime. But we need to think very effective, very hard about what policies are effective. And we need to recognize when polices are not effective and need to be rethought.

I actually feel fairly hopeful on about the state of counter narcotics policy in the United States today because for the first time in a long time I really see recognition in the congress, in the executive that the existing policies have not been effective. And there is at least searching and groping for policies that will be more effective.

I have seen one important change for example in the policy toward Afghanistan where the administration has backed away from forced eradication of poppy and is now much more focusing on interdictions against drug traffickers and on road development.

So I don’t think we’re there. We have adopted many policies, many wrong policies to continue but at least there is far greater recognition that has been that we have been on the right on the wrong track and that we need to change and adopt policies on the basis of what works and what doesn’t rather than on the basis of emotion.

Dean Becker: You bet yeah, you bet yeah. Alright well Vanda as I indicated I hope to invite you back later in the year and we’ll hit this again. Once again folks her book, Shooting Up - Counter Insurgency and the War on Drugs. Vanda, thank you so much.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Oh my great pleasure.

Dean Becker: Thank you.

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Bye.


How can you stop drug users from using?
How do you keep the sun from growing weed?
How can you end drug prohibition?
It makes the world go round.


It’s a privilege once again to be speaking with Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron. He’s author of Drug War Crimes – the Consequences of Prohibition. He has studied prohibition for a number of years and has written many studies in this regard and is being called upon more and more for his knowledge in this area by various governing bodies around the United States. Thank you for joining us professor.

Jeffrey Miron: My pleasure.

Dean Becker: Yes sir if you will later today I think is it you’re going to go to Rhode Island to speak to their legislators, is that correct?

Jeffrey Miron: That’s correct. Rhode Island has a senate panel that is populated by some experts on the drug policy area and they are having discussions about possibly decriminalizing marijuana in Rhode Island.

Dean Becker: Now let’s talk about the benefits of doing so.

Jeffrey Miron: Well I mean it’s just basically sort of two pieces. One piece that I think is getting a lot of attention but actually relatively small is that if instead of arresting people for marijuana possession and using the police resources to bring them down to the station and get them booked and go through all those procedures.

Instead they were issued some sort of citation like a traffic ticket, you would save some police resources. So those police would be back on the street sooner deterring or prosecuting some other types of crime or perhaps you would need [ ] more police. So there’s a savings in police resources from decriminalization.

I think much more important than that is that the government should have to prove very convincingly to people who are using marijuana are doing some harm to innocent third parties before they do anything that penalizes marijuana users. Just as people who want to eat apples or consume alcohol or go downhill skiing or drive on the highway. The presumption is that Americans are free to do what they want as long as they are not harming others. The vast majority of cases people consuming marijuana are not harming anyone.

Dean Becker: You found several economists who have agreed with these opinions, some several hundred, correct?

Jeffrey Miron: Yes there was a study that I wrote about four or five years ago that was circulated to economists across the country and about five hundred academic economists signed a statement saying they were in broad agreement with the view that we should be scaling back or eliminating the criminal treatment of marijuana use and distribution.

Dean Becker: There have been other Nobel laureates, other economists including Milton Friedman and Gary Becker who have come to the same conclusion, am I right?

Jeffrey Miron: that’s correct. As a group economists are fairly sympathetic to legalizing marijuana, possibly other drugs as well. It’s basically because economists as a group understand that just because you banned drug s doesn’t mean you’ve eliminated drugs. You’ve mainly just driven the market underground.

By moving it underground you are likely to increase violence because the dispute resolution system in underground markets involve violence rather than judges, lawyers and and law suits. And that by driving it underground you are likely to make quality control more difficult so people suffer even worse effects of using some substances when they are driven in to underground markets. So yes not only some famous economists but economists as a group are fairly open to the idea of legalizing marijuana.

Dean Becker: Once again we are speaking with Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron. Jeffrey you had a study that looked at this on a national scale and also that looked at this for the state of California which is in much larger number than those you drive for Rhode Island, right?

Jeffrey Miron: Yeah it’s a much, much huger number. Now there’s a lot of numbers out there. My number is on the budgetary savings and the tax revenues are lower than those of other people. For example I think that the numbers that are being assumed in the California legislation that’s being proposed for it to be voted on this fall are too high.

But and I also think that really shouldn’t be the focus. The main focus shouldn’t just be that we are going to improve the budget situation. It should be that we are going to take a step in the direction of freedom of liberty of letting people do what they want to do as long as they are not harming anyone else.

And so the marijuana laws just like the alcohol prohibition laws they are completely sort of justifiable in a free society. They’re limiting private behavior for without a compelling reason. Of course there’s some private actions that should be limited by government. Theft and murder, those should be limited by government, but not consumption of a substance that may or may not be intoxicating as long as you’re not driving behind a driving a car, operating machinery or something like that.

Dean Becker: Professor Miron I am wondering if you might encourage others out there who are aware of these numbers to dare to speak. I mean it’s an issue whose time has come, am I correct?

Jeffrey Miron: Well I hope it’s an issue whose time has come and there certainly are lot’s of indications that there’s more openness to discuss this now. Maybe not quite yet to change it but at least there seems to be a lot more honest evaluation of it. People are talking about it as though it’s something which reasonable people can discuss.

I mean I think twenty-five years ago you sort of risked being labeled a total kook if you even raised the subject. Even fifteen years ago Bill Clinton fired his surgeon general for even raising the question of legalization. So absolutely I think anybody who is sympathetic to my perspective, to your perspective, should talk about it early and often and try to encourage others to reexamine why they think our policy is a good policy.


The drug war exists through fear
And little sister hysteria
Wrapped up tightly in the hearts of man
Big brother propaganda eternal issue
Lets forth the cornucopia of lies
Flowing like a river from the cartels to the cops
The poor people are so afraid to make it stop
Our fear makes Shorty Guzman a very happy man
These drugs are so dangerous
Yeeehaa, andale, arriba!


OK lets say drug prohibition does support terrorism, and murder, and murder, torture, and torture, corruption, bribery and whatever. What’s your point? Change the law. I gotcha. Make it cheap, more available, everywhere. Like soda or cheesy puffs.


Cocaine at the playground, crack stands at the laundromat, heroin at the mini mart. Like that?

Face it old man, that’s what we’ve got now.

Please visit the website of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: leap.cc


Drugs and terror world wars forever drugs and terror…


Dean Becker: Alright my friends I hope you enjoyed this Century of Lies. I urge you to pick up Shooting Up by Vanda Felbab-Brown. And I remind you that there is no truth, justice, logic, no reason for this drug war to exist. Please visit our website, endprohibition.org.

Prohibido istac evilesco.


For the Drug Truth Network this is Dean Becker, asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition.

The Century of Lies

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston