“Why don't you tell the truth? You talk about extrajudicial killings but in reality, you care more about the drug traders than those whose lives are destroyed because of them,” one Facebook friend rebuked me the other day, after I disagreed with him about the modus operandi of the ongoing anti-narcotics operations in the country that have resulted in 63 deaths in just 11 days.
There is, and has always been, a massive support across the world for heavy-handed response to enforce the prohibition of drugs. Take Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines for example. He was elected in a landslide two years ago on the back of his promise to wage a war on drugs. His forces have killed well over 12,000 people since he came to power in July 2016, according to Human Rights Watch.
For all national and international outcries, Duterte has remained wildly popular with an approval rating hovering around 80 percent. And understandably, a key element of his popularity is his drug war. According to a detailed poll conducted by Social Weather Stations, 77 percent of Filipino voters approve the war whereas only 14 percent oppose it. While many of these supporters may deplore the loss of lives, they see them as an essential sacrifice to purge the society of a menace. Even those who find this bloody method “morally” unacceptable are praying for its success.
The death toll of Duterte's war on drugs dwarfs that of Bangladesh's, but the latter drew a comparison with the former because of their apparent dependence on extrajudicial methods. There's another commonality that not only these two but all wars on drugs share: they don't achieve their stated objectives. And that is because, as a classic economic maxim goes, when there is a demand, there will be a supply.
In a 2014 report titled “Ending the Drug Wars” by a London School of Economics think tank, such anti-drugs drives and measures reduce the availability of drugs, and hence increase prices for a short time; the price hike then provokes a new rise in supply, and finally, prices return to where they had been before. After a year of Duterte's drug war, a Reuters report found that the prices of drugs in the Philippines remained almost unchanged.
One could argue that both Bangladesh's and Philippines' wars on drugs fail or would fail to disrupt the supply chain because they mainly claimed low-level foot soldiers of the drug empire. In the case of Philippines, they even killed a huge number of mere users. Many observers, therefore, called for stern action against the bigwigs and kingpins but that was precisely what the United States tried to do for decades, mostly unsuccessfully.
The US did not target addicts or just mere peddlers, but the entire supply chain—from the producers, manufacturers, local distributors to local and international financiers. It even went after international drug cartels based in foreign countries.
Its long-fought war cost the American taxpayers a staggering USD 51 billion a year, according to Drug Policy Alliance, and in total, the country expended USD one trillion on counter-narcotics efforts as of 2012. Yet, the global drug business continues to soar, amounting to USD 300-500 billion a year. And various studies on the global war on drugs concluded that these methods were not only unsuccessful in terms of achieving their objectives but often were also counterproductive. If the global war on drugs has failed, there is little chance such a war would succeed anywhere else.
And then, there are serious concerns about the extrajudicial nature of the entire affair. “The lesson of drug wars in Latin America, and of previous dirty wars, is that extrajudicial violence resolves nothing and makes everything worse. Innocent people will be killed, and denunciations will also be used to settle scores and exploited by gangs to wipe out rivals,” observed the Economist.
Already in Feni and Gazipur, families of men killed in police shootouts have alleged that their killings had something to do with bribes. In Chittagong, security forces allegedly killed an innocent man based on inaccurate information provided by a source. The original man was later found and killed, so was the source. In Netrokona, the family of an alleged drug trader told the Guardian that the victim had no connection with the narcotics trade and that he was gunned down because he was a popular opposition activist. These dangerous developments indicate what lies ahead with the security forces given a carte blanche.
So, how do we tackle this problem? Malaysia in 1983 took an intense effort combining education, advertisement, rehabilitation, harsh mandatory penalties and even death sentence for possession of relatively small amounts of drugs. It was a mixed success but it could have been better, studies suggest, if the country had invested more in aftercare efforts.
Apparently, in the opinion of many experts, preventative measures are not better than cure in this case. They believe drug addiction should be seen as a disease rather than a crime and it should be treated as such, allocating more resources in health services.
There's no doubt that we all want the drug problem to be uprooted altogether, but our desire for quick fixes may very well lead the country to a more chaotic situation in which the line between a “drug suspect” and, say, a political rival may be blurred. No matter how well-intentioned these operations apparently are, we should unequivocally reject them because, as a Facebook user quoted by BBC put it, “Killing in crossfire is a bigger crime than trading drugs.”
Nazmul Ahsan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.