Americans have a massive blind spot on drug use in Latin America

Latin America

We live in an era when virtually every consumer choice is scrutinized for its ethics: Is it local? Is it vegan? Carbon-neutral? Yet the same largely urban, mostly affluent set that wouldn’t be caught dead driving an SUV, using a plastic straw or smoking a cigarette somehow still has no moral qualms about hoovering up a line of coke on a Friday night. The dynamics here are complex: Humans have been getting high since at least the days of Mesopotamia, and addiction is a grave public health crisis that I do not wish to trivialize. That said, it’s clear that in 2019, far too many Americans, Europeans and others continue to have an utterly anachronistic — and often racist — ethical blind spot when it comes to Latin America and the real-life consequences of recreational drug use.

I lived in Latin America for a decade and still write about the region for a living, so I’m probably closer to the story than most. But — sorry — ignorance is not an excuse after a week like this one, when the massacre of three women and six children (including two infants who were burned) in Sonora, Mexico, was the top story on U.S. national news. The exact circumstances remain unclear, but no one doubts that Mexican cartels were behind the killing. It comes at a time when drug-related violence is rising once again not only in Mexico — where there were a record 25,890 murders from January through September — but throughout much of the region. Cocaine trafficking is also, along with oil, a main source of hard currency sustaining Venezuela’s dictatorship, which has murdered thousands of dissidents and driven more than 4 million others from the country in recent years.

Yes, you could argue it’s the war on drugs, more than drugs themselves, that is fueling the bloodshed and mass displacement of people. But it’s not clear that decriminalization or legalization would be a silver bullet for eliminating the black market for narcotics or reducing violence. Until laws change, this is the reality we live in. So if cheeseburgers contribute to global warming and plastic bottles are destroying the oceans, then we also need to be talking about how America’s love for cocaine — which may have started rising again recently after several years in decline — probably contributed to a young family being incinerated in their car, along with thousands of other deaths that gathered less global media attention because they didn’t involve white American nationals.

There is a palpable stigma to making moral arguments about drugs; I can hear readers muttering “Well, Brian sure doesn’t sound like much fun” as they click back over to Instagram. But this deeply ingrained urge to roll our eyes, which dates back at least to the days of Nancy Reagan and “Just Say No,” has been exacerbated by something new in our culture, with my mustachioed seatmate from Cartagena as Exhibit A. The raging success of “Narcos” — and its ever-expanding number of imitators on Netflix — seems to have taken the glamorization and banalization of drug violence in Latin America to an entirely new level. There is now even a “Narcos” video game that lets players “side with either the Medellin Cartel or the DEA.”

I know the creators of these products have argued they’re also portraying the “dark side” of the drug trade. But even if you take that argument in good faith — I don’t — their work has in practice served as a balm for an entirely new generation to look at the drug trade in Latin America through the lens of entertainment first. So titillated by Escobar’s exploits are we that in February Medellin’s city government destroyed his former apartment building to put an end to the surge of “narco tours” undertaken almost exclusively by foreigners.

Again, there are a thousand other issues at work here, from U.S. gun laws to income inequality to the historical underinvestment in policing and courts in many Latin American countries — as well as questions of human chemistry and behavior that I do not pretend to understand. Nobody can be perfectly ethical in their consumer decisions; between my youth in Texas and my years in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, I alone have probably consumed enough steak to increase the Earth’s temperature by 0.2 degrees Celsius. It’s also important to note that countless Latin Americans have been willing participants in the drug trade, as well as increasingly enthusiastic consumers in recent years. To treat them as passive victims in this story would be disingenuous and, I suppose, paternalistic as well.

But it is past time that the global movement for conscious consumption be broadened to consider the fate of these people, too. We’ve got to find a way to talk about the morality of recreational drug use and the consequences for people who live in faraway countries, who are almost always more vulnerable than consumers are, without being dismissed as a prude, a killjoy — or the kind of person you’d never, ever want to sit next to on your way home from a blowout bachelor party.

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