Despite efforts by governments in Latin America, illicit drugs continue to provide one of the largest incomes for criminal organizations, enabling them to penetrate and corrupt political and social institutions. Criminal organizations exploit the vulnerabilities of the state and take advantage of governments’ inability to provide security to their citizens. With few exceptions, the weak capacity of Latin American governments is reflected in high rates of homicides, notorious levels of impunity, and the feeling of mistrust that citizens harbour regarding justice institutions and the police.

Drug law enforcement in Latin America operates in a context of institutional fragility in which the “war on drugs” has mostly failed to reduce supply and demand, while generating new problems and vast collateral damage. The perverse incentives created by the prohibitionist approach in the face of a persistently strong market demand for drugs has been an important cause of violence and crime in many places. At the same time, state responses to repress this illegal market have serious negative side effects, but only a limited capacity to impact upon the drug chain.

Given this reality, different voices are demanding changes in the way the state responds not only to the drug problem but also to the threat of multiple criminal economies that affect the everyday lives of the citizens. The assumption is that moving away from the “war on drugs” can contribute to de-escalating violence and crime and can deprive organized crime groups of resources.

The modernization of drug law enforcement can be a galvanizing force for changing the broader criminal justice system and perhaps show the way toward fixing a broken system.

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