Guatemalan Drug Gangs & Me - The Human Cost of Prohibition


"Someone has to do something for Guatemala. The government doesn't do anything," says a Guatemalan resident calls "Miguel."

In the past few years, the drug war has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths in Mexico and the situation in Guatemala is just as bleak. Last year alone, 5,000 people died in drug-war-related incidents.

Corrupt police do little to protect Guatemalans, and Guatemala's corrupt court system convicts only 5 percent of arrested criminals.

In Guatemala City, private security guards outnumber police officers five-to-one, and robberies at gunpoint are common. For the impoverished people who live in Guatemala's biggest city, life has become extremely dangerous.

Not all crime in Guatemala is committed by drug gangs, but there is no aspect of life in the country that has not been made far worse by prohibition and the black markets and violence such a policy inevitably creates.

This past May,'s Paul Feine spoke with "Miguel" about what it's like to live in a city controlled by drug gangs and corrupt cops.

Approximately 5 minutes.

Produced by Paul Feine and Alex Manning.

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  • Alice Bowie||

    I'm so shocked that the free-market in this "low-government" intervention capitalist country can't fix the problem.

  • ||

    Yeah, cuz drugs are TOTALLY legal in Guatemala!

  • the human cost of property||

    Kelly Thomas died for your sins.

    For property values are the root of all police brutality.

    The POLICe protect and serve the POLIS' property values. No bums can be tolerated. No drugs can be tolerated.

    The War on [That which drives down property values] must go on.

  • ||

    You're a brave man, considering all of the journalists who've been killed in the drug war lately.

  • anonymous||

    The causal chain that links prohibition to organized crime will always have one more link than the causal chain that links illicit drug use to organized crime. To make the case that prohibition is a more important cause than any other cause of violent crime, one must bring evidence instead of mere speculation, and one must be able to show that other causes are less important.

    This reporting undermines the case for legalization of drugs because it demonstrates, contrary to the assertion of the authors, that citizens in Guatemala City are beset by crime that isn't directly tied to the drug trade. The victim says that criminals in Guatemala City are involved in the drug trade, but the particular crimes that he complains of arguably have nothing at all to do with the drug trade.

    Logically, if extortion were legalized internationally, there would be less violent crime due to the prohibition on extortion. It would be a stretch to conclude that life would be any rosier in Guatemala City if crime were reduced by legalizing extortion.

    Seriously, what is particular about prohibitions on drugs that should draw our attention? The fact that criminal organizations make money selling drugs just doesn't do enough to set the drug trade apart from any other criminal enterprise.

  • Sven||

    I recommend Economics 101 at your local community college. Go to the first class of the semester, and they will explain to you that demand creates supply. Trying to outlaw market forces like the demand for mind altering substances, which has been an integral part of human society since shortly after we gained consciousness, is as futile as outlawing sugar.

  • ||

    That's a valid argument for legalization, but it doesn't really speak to his point.

  • anonymous||

    Many popular drugs are recent inventions. Additionally, the modern forms of most drugs that have been around a while are far more potent than their predecessors. You will be hard pressed to produce archaeological evidence that a class of truly comparable substances are a constant feature of human society since the emergence of Homo sapiens, much less an integral one.

    Since you've offered a generality about the demand for psychotropics, as opposed to the demand for any particular drug, consider if you will the argument that what people really demand is some kind of pleasure, the demand for psychotropics being merely a specific form of that demand. My understanding of the libertarian position is that, according to them, not all pleasurable things should be allowed, because some things that are pleasurable to one person may cause harm to others; however, things which are pleasurable to one person but cause no harm to others should be permitted, even if they harm the person who derives pleasure from them. So far so good? This leaves many issues to be worked out, such as the harm caused by providing drugs to children, but I think it's a fair statement of the libertarian position and a good argument. When the argument goes beyond that in the attempt to criticize drug policy it gets thorny. If the libertarian concedes that some pleasures should be prohibited because they cause harm to others, then even if there were one pleasurable thing that was constantly in demand in all times and places--a dubious proposition, but just supposing--that alone would not provide justification for allowing people to freely indulge in it.

    Let's get specific now. People like to eat. Sometimes they literally eat each other. There is archaeological evidence that early humans (and Neanderthals) engaged in cannibalism. Cannibalism has been attested in numerous cultures. Must we therefore conclude that the demand to eat human flesh is an integral part of human society and therefore efforts to outlaw cannibalism are, to say the least, backwards?

  • Sven||

    A few years ago, some French scientists discovered a new tribe in Papua New Guinea which had never been in contact with the outside world before; they were living the same hunter gatherer lifestyle of their forefathers. the first thing they did is offer the French guys a pipe with some madly psychedelic plant stuff in it and they all got high. Of course that’s anecdotal evidence but for some further research on your end, I recommend “A brief history of drugs” by Antonio Escohotado. It makes total sense that people have the desire to alleviate the stress that arises from becoming aware of their own mortality, and for some people that desire can become compulsive. Comparing that to cannibalism, which by definition involves harming other people, is of course absurd. People have a sense of right and wrong, and they know that prohibition is not morally justified, so they disobey the law.

  • anonymous||

    The comparison to cannibalism is pretty much a reducto ad absurdum. In other words, I noticed the absurdity first. The comparison adequately highlights the principle that some pleasurable things are also widely regarded as horrific rather than good and integral to society. Additionally, cannibalism is more ancient and more widely attested than any particular madly psychedelic plant stuff. The fact that other people in other times and places have done something is simply not a good reason to allow people to do that same thing here and now.

    "People have a sense of right and wrong, and they know that prohibition is not morally justified, so they disobey the law."

    There's a serious flaw in that argument, namely that the fact that people disobey the law suggests that, whatever their sense of right and wrong, in practice they often do the wrong thing. People also practice cannibalism, even in places where it's explicitly against the law. If that example bothers you, take extortion. I doubt that you'd say people who practice extortion do so because they want to do good, and laws against extortion are morally unjust, so they break them.

    You know there's a strong moral case to be made for obeying all the laws of the society in which one lives. Did you ever read Plato's Crito? I don't expect you to agree with Socrates, but I want to stress the idea that even if I stipulated that your statement about prohibition were true, your proposition that people who know how to discern good from evil knowingly break the law is controversial.

    If you want to distinguish between good laws and bad laws, okay, however, you ought to be able to demonstrate why it's a bad law. Your criteria should be so clear that people who chose to be bad and break good laws couldn't possibly use the same argument you use.

    Incidentally, do you know the case of Armin Meiwes? He ate a man who contractually agreed to be eaten. Do you see any harm in that?

  • Sven||

    I am German, so you will understand that I have a huge problem with people advocating to follow the law no matter what. I am familiar with the Meiwes case, it is a tricky question, akin to assisted suicide, which in principle should never be prohibited of course. In practice, this gets tricky of course, especially once we move are dealing with people who are clearly seriously mentally ill. Should we just let people jump off buildings? This needs to be decided through the democratic process. Again, comparing this to someone who picks a weed in nature and then lights it in a pipe and inhales the smoke is absurd. Especially if the prohibition of that behavior leads to negative consequences which are unparalleled in human history. There is no conclusive research, but I believe it is safe to assume that prohibition is the most wasteful and destructive public policy ever adopted by democratic societies ever. Your desire to feel better about yourself (because you feel that we need to be “doing something” to reduce drug use) is destroying entire societies (Mexico, Colombia etc).

  • anonymous||

    1. To start at your last point, the case of Colombia doesn't support the argument that prohibition in the US has destroyed an entire society. On the contrary, the drug dealers and the terrorists who were once on the verge of irredeemably destroying Colombian society have been defeated militarily and politically with assistance from the United States, and Colombian society is better for it.

    2. Mexico has many problems. The argument that the destructiveness of the drug dealing gangs can be reasonably blamed on prohibition in the United States logically requires one more step than the argument that the people who directly provide financial support to drug dealing gangs are responsible for the destruction they cause. You haven't come close to making a case for taking that step, or for ignoring the responsibility of drug users, drug dealers and advocates of drug use.

    3. You are projecting thoughts and feelings onto me. I disavow having any such sentiments or ideas. Here my main concern is that advocates for drug legalization are using bogus arguments which, rather than highlight the righteousness of their cause, undermine it.

    4. It's probably not safe to assume that prohibition is the most destructive policy democratic societies have ever adopted. You could look at your own country's history, or you could look at ours. We lost a half a million people to the war to end slavery, and slavery caused untold suffering for millions. Almost all the violence and destruction that's attributed to prohibition has to pass through the agency of criminals, specifically organized crime syndicates. Not only do you have to show that prohibition caused more suffering than slavery or genocide (I understand you may object to the characterization of Nazi Germany as democratic, but there is an argument there), you have to prove that the actions of the prohibitionists are more consequential than the actions of gangsters and all the others who knowingly and intentionally contribute to their criminal enterprises. Lots of luck.

    5. If you trust the question of whether people should be allowed to harm themselves, even fatally, to "the democratic process," then I'm afraid, sir, that you've endorsed the prohibition of drugs. There is a growing support for the legalization of marijuana in the United States, and that may soon happen through democratic means. The laws as they currently stand, it should go without saying, have been established by a democratic process.

    6. There's some equivocation in your position. In principle, I take it, we can't disallow cannibalism so long as one party agrees to being eaten. In practice it might be hard to find somebody who would agree to that without being mentally ill or otherwise unable to make a sound judgment about whether or not it would be desirable to be eaten. And of course one can imagine all kinds of complicating factors, such as whether a person is under duress. Still, it raises an interesting question. Do you believe that people who are mentally ill should have unrestricted access to drugs which may be harmful to them? Are you in favor of the government regulation of drugs, and, if so, on what grounds do you support regulating drugs?

    7. The fact that genocide was perfectly legal under Nazi rule is the basis of a strong argument against Socrates' position in the Crito that we should obey the laws of the place where we live. At this point I should like to introduce the distinction between civil disobedience and criminality. The criminal breaks the law because they feel like it, or to achieve some gain. The person who engages in civil disobedience, on the other hand, has a motive for breaking the law which can be clearly set apart from crude self-interest or anarchic caprice. Some of the leading advocates of civil disobedience have gone to great lengths to set their protests apart from common criminal acts. The movement of large-scale, democratic civil disobedience, bequeathed to us by Gandhi and, here in the States, Martin Luther King, Jr., would be unthinkable if it weren't able to stand above meaningless or self-interested lawbreaking. In the U.S. there is one day of protest against marijuana laws (4.19 (19.4), I believe) which falls into the tradition of civil disobedience. Most of the time, however, advocates for legalizing drugs don't focus their arguments in such a way that they can be clearly distinguished from those who advocate or make apologies for criminality in general.

    I understand that you think your cause is righteous, but you must understand that your view is not universally shared. If you want to see drug policy changed through democratic means, you must persuade people that the policy you advocate is better than the ones they already have. Pointing to a victim of extortion in Guatemala City does not make your case. If anything, it shows that people who deal drugs may also be involved in extortion. That's a problem for those who say that dealing drugs should be legalized, although they don't seem to realize it. Here the promise of the libertarians is particularly strong: not only will legalization end the problem of criminal gangs killing people as part of the drug trade, it will also alleviate the problem of extortion and other violence caused by gangs. You shouldn't be surprised that most people react skeptically to such a claim.

  • Sven||

    Sorry, I cannot answer all of your points due to time constraints, but let me make two points:

    1. As a user of recreational drugs, I am not harming anyone else, so to threaten me with imprisonment I guess it should be you who has to justify the criminalization of this behavior which really only affects the individual himself
    2. You need to understand that by criminalizing the ancient trade in mind stimulants, you create a monopoly with enormous revenue potential and then hand it over to whoever is the most brutal in defending that monopoly from the other criminals who want to get into the market. You then help those monopolists creating ever higher barriers to entry to that market by engaging them by in a “drug war” which requires enormous resources on both sides (the funny thing of course being that government can never outspend the cartels, since the cartels have hundreds of billions of dollars in capital (cash!) to work with

  • ||

    Prohibition is destroying lives on an unbelievable scale and yet the majority who support the drug war can't or won't see it -- despite the fact that they're perfectly aware that the exact same fucking thing happening with alcohol prohibition and organized crime. But they won't put 2 and 2 together to get 4, and the destruction goes on with no end it sight. People suck.

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