Drug trafficking is nothing new. But with the current levels of violence we are seeing, its effects on society and economic activity are staggering. From the suffering of victims, to increasing levels of corruption and the weakening of institutions, drug trafficking is not only a criminal problem—it is an urgent development issue which needs to be tackled.
The drug business is particularly insidious. It is by far the largest illicit global trade, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), amounting to some $320 billion annually, compared with estimates of $32 billion for human trafficking and $1 billion for illegal firearms. On top of that, the illegal drug trade has negative impacts on the economies of individual countries, by hindering investment, promoting insecurity, and encouraging the growth of other informal activities.
The costs of the drug business can be huge. For instance, a recent report produced by the World Bank in 2011, Drug Trafficking and Violence in Central America and Beyond , suggests that at the national level, the costs of crime and violence—which include citizen security, law enforcement and healthcare expenses—are close to eight percent of these countries' GDP on average.
And on top of all of this, drug trafficking promotes levels of violence that terrorize entire populations. It undermines citizens’ confidence by weakening justice institutions and by encouraging very high levels of corruption, particularly at provincial and district levels.
So it is in the interest of societies to combat drug trafficking—not just with a law and order approach, but in a more comprehensive way. This was made clear by the participants at the Thematic Debate of the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Drugs and Crime as a Threat to Development, in which I participated earlier this week (see “The Fight Against Drug Trafficking: A Challenge for All of Us ”).
As the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report  titled “Conflict, Security and Development” emphasizes, preventing violence and building peaceful states requires strong leadership and concerted national and international efforts. Countries that have successfully curbed organized criminal violence, like Colombia, have been able to do so by mobilizing coalitions in support of citizen security, justice, and jobs to restore confidence in the short term, and by transforming national institutions over time.
That’s precisely what happened in Medellin. After two decades of failed security-only approaches, in the late 1980s, the Colombian city held perhaps the world’s record murder rate of 380 per 100,000. However, in the early 1990s, Medellin’s private-sector leaders and emerging network of civil society organizations—united by their rejection of violence—began to reweave the city’s badly damaged economic and social fabric.
The law enforcement agencies switched from an approach of protecting against attacks on state installations, offices, and government staff, to an approach of prioritizing citizen security,youth employment, and the physical environment of the city, including access to mass transportation for previously marginalized areas. Education systems and community policing became key ingredients in the fight against drugs and violence. By 2007 Medellin was a transformed city, with a homicide rate 90 percent below its 1991 peak. As this case shows, collective action, confidence, and long term institutional change are indispensable to break the cycle of violence and promote development.
Unfortunately, it seems that the resources devoted to a development approach still pale by comparison to those devoted to enhancing security. According to the UNODC, only about a quarter of all farmers involved in illicit crop cultivation worldwide have access to development assistance. So, unless we accompany the eradication of illegal crops with incentives for farmers to create profitable, new activities, the war on drugs will remain difficult to win.
Likewise, our development approach should be evidence-based, and by this I mean having a clear understanding of the risk factors involved, as well as designing strategies that are very specific to the local and geographical realities. In Afghanistan, for instance, efforts to eliminate illegal crops are harder in remote, poor areas, with limited access to land and irrigation, than in those with proximity to markets and more opportunities.
In addition, we shouldn’t limit our efforts to making improvements in specialized law enforcement agencies. We should have a holistic approach that combines prevention and criminal justice reform. It’s not just about a particular police department or military institution—it is about improving governance and instilling rule of law both at the national and the local level. It is about having better policies and public services, and about shifting the allegiance of some populations from drug-dealers to the principles of law and order. Urban development to upgrade slums, improve public transport, and access to markets is not just good development policy, but good for public safety.
Last but not least, the problem must be approached simultaneously in the key countries, at both the demand and supply sides of the illicit drug trade. Otherwise, drug production and trafficking will keep popping from one place to the other, leaving a trail of insecurity and poverty.