The Futility and Corruption of the Drug War

by | Feb 24, 2017


I just finished watching the much-acclaimed series “Narcos” on Netflix. What a fantastic program. And what an excellent depiction of the futility and corruption of the war on drugs.

The series is a true-life account of Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord who headed up the Medellin drug cartel, a black-market drug group that smuggled hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Smuggling an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine into the United States, Escobar became known as the “King of Cocaine,” attaining in the process a net worth of $30 billion by the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, Escobar was the wealthiest criminal in history.

Amidst much acclaim and publicity, the U.S. government and the Colombian government, working together, targeted Escobar with arrest or killing. Escobar retaliated by effectively declaring war on the government, a war that consisted of assassinations and bombings. Every time the DEA (which was operating in Colombia, along with the U.S. military and the CIA) and Colombian officials tightened the noose on Escobar’s operation, Escobar responded with bullets and bombs, killing a multitude of government officials and private citizens.

The logic of the drug-war crackdown was clear: By eradicating Escobar, officials thought they would be eradicating 80 percent of the cocaine being shipped into the United States. So, all the death and destruction resulting from the crackdown on Escobar was considered worth it in the long run.

But that’s not what happened. The more they tightened the noose around Escobar, the more his cocaine competitors — that is, the ones who were supplying the 20 percent, expanded their operations, gaining them a larger market share. Among the principal beneficiaries of the crackdown on Escobar was the Cali Cartel, which, not surprisingly, became the next big target of the U.S. and Colombian drug warriors, with similar results — the more they cracked down on the Cali Cartel, the more their competitors stepped into the breach and gained a larger market share.

In 1993, they finally caught up to Escobar and killed him in a shootout. You can imagine how U.S. and Colombian officials trumpeted that drug-war victory. Another “milestone” in the war on drugs, the term they have used for decades whenever they kill or capture some big drug lord.

But of course it was all to no avail. Even though they killed Escobar and ultimately smashed the Medellin and Cali cartels, amidst great fanfare and publicity, other suppliers quickly took their places and continued providing cocaine users in the United States with their drug.

In other words, all those people who lost their lives in the drug war on Escobar died for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

There is something else to consider: what the drug war against Escobar did to law-enforcement agents, both American and Colombian. It corrupted them to the core. Frustrated over all the death and destruction that Escobar was wreaking across the country and over their inability to apprehend him, officials began employing brutal and illegal tactics in return, such as torturing prisoners for information and then murdering them so that they couldn’t talk about what the officials had done to them.

Of course, there was also widespread bribery that was taking place within the Colombian police. In fact, that was one of the reasons they had such a hard time catching up to Escobar — his informants within the police and Colombian military would alert him to whatever was going on.

The pathetic thing about all this death, destruction, mayhem, and corruption is that there was a much simpler way to have put Escobar, the Cali Cartel, and all the other black-market drug suppliers out of business, a way that would not have involved assassinations, bombings, torture, and corruption. All that the U.S. and Colombian governments had to do was legalize drugs.

If they had done that, Escobar and the rest of the black-market suppliers would have been put out of business instantaneously. That’s because of the difference between legal markets and black markets.

In legal markets, suppliers compete against each other by providing better goods and services to their customers. Think CVS, Walgreen, and other pharmacies. Notice that they are not out bombing and assassinating each other and other people

It’s totally different in black or illegal markets. Competitors in these markets deal with each other through violent turf wars that involve murder, kidnapping, bombing, and mayhem. While people like Escobar are able to thrive in a black market, they inevitably go out of business in a legal market because they lack the skills that are necessary in legal markets.

A good example of this phenomenon is alcohol. We don’t see alcohol dealers killing each other to get a larger share of the market. That’s because booze is legal.

But it wasn’t that way when booze was illegal. During Prohibition, there were people like Al Capone involved in the sale and distribution of alcohol, along with killing, mayhem, and corruption.

This same principle, of course, applies today. Notwithstanding all the hoopla to which all of us are subjected when the feds or state drug warriors make a drug bust, the result is no different than it was 20-30 years ago with Escobar. The minute they make the bust, the supplier is replaced by someone else.

There is only one way to eradicate drug lords and illicit drug dealers, along with all the death, destruction, and corruption that comes with them: End the war on drugs by legalizing drugs.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • Jacob G. Hornberger

    Jacob George Hornberger is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a Libertarian candidate for president in 2000 and 2020. He is the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.