By Tessie Castillo
When Rodrigo Velez received a call in 2008 asking him to become Ecuador’s new “Drug Czar,” he thought it was a joke. Velez managed a family-owned agro-business. He had no experience working in the public sector and knew little about illicit drugs.
As a courtesy, he agreed to attend one meeting. Government officials laid out a shocking proposition. The new President, Rafael Correa, of PAIS Alliance, a center-left party, wanted to decriminalize drug use. Would Velez lead national reform efforts?
At first, Velez declined. But officials insisted that the government needed his connections to private industry and skills bringing together diverse actors to solve problems. They explained the issues with overcrowded prisons and lack of drug treatment programs. Velez finally accepted.
When I met Rodrigo Velez in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the mystery surrounding his appointment became clear. What Velez lacks in experience, he makes up for in passion. The charismatic 60-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair loves to problem-solve, to connect people, and to pound new ideas into old institutions—sometimes literally. Throughout our interview, he slammed his fist onto the table for emphasis.
Ecuador’s new task force launched in 2008. Velez used his connections and charisma to gather industry leaders, academics, researchers and international law experts. One glaring omission from this group, however, was people directly impacted by drug policy and criminalization. Strict class divisions in Ecuador ensure that few policymakers invite marginalized populations to the table.