Man Who Took Down Pablo Escobar Tells Philippines President: Drug War Came at ‘Tremendous Price’

By Victoria Kim 02/14/17

César Gaviria, the former president of Colombia during the Escobar era, challenged Duterte's anti-drugs strategy in a recent op-ed.

César Gaviria
César Gaviria Photo via YouTube

As of this past January, more than 7,000 Filipinos have been killed under the new president’s fervent crusade to rid the Philippines of drug dealers and drug users.

Upon winning the election last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a violent “war on drugs” in his country—targeting not just drug dealers, but drug users as well.

As the president of Colombia during the era of Pablo Escobar, César Gaviria dealt with the similar challenge of having to “fight” his own drug war. Escobar was one of the most notorious drug traffickers in history—supplying about 80% of cocaine in the U.S. and building a multi-billion dollar empire during the 1980s.

In a New York Times op-ed published Feb. 7, Gaviria reflects on his involvement in hunting down and killing the infamous drug lord. “I was personally involved in taking down the planet’s most notorious drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar, in 1993," he wrote. "While we managed to make Colombia a bit safer, it came at a tremendous price."

His op-ed challenged Duterte’s current anti-drugs strategy. Gaviria warned that Duterte is headed down the same path of pouring “billions of dollars into a relentless campaign to eradicate drugs and destroy cartels.” The Colombian government “threw everything at the problem,” Gaviria recalled, including “jailing every drug pusher in sight.”

But instead of reducing drug production, the government's “heavy-handed” anti-drugs crusade resulted in tens of thousands of lives lost, and only created new problems.

Gaviria urged Duterte to move away from “repressive policing and bigger prisons” to a more balanced strategy that would also address public health, human rights and economic development. “I was also seduced into taking a tough stance on drugs during my time as president,” wrote Gaviria. “The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable.”

It was only when the government changed course and treated drugs as a social problem—not one that can be solved through brute force—that Colombia began to see positive change.

The “enormous” human cost is not worth it, said the former president. “We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts.”

The momentum of the Philippines drug war took a slight hit in the past month, when it was revealed that the national police force had kidnapped and murdered a South Korean businessman in October. 

Duterte, reportedly enraged by the incident, pulled the national police’s involvement from the drug war and replaced it with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) with support from the military.

What will it take for Duterte to accept the merits of a more humane approach to “fighting” drugs? Gaviria said he learned this the hard way. “No matter what Mr. Duterte believes, there will always be drugs and drug users in the Philippines,” he wrote.

“Illegal drugs are a matter of national security, but the war against them cannot be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone. Throwing more soldiers and police at the drug users is not just a waste of money but also can actually make the problem worse. Locking up nonviolent offenders and drug users almost always backfires, instead strengthening organized crime.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr