Whither antidrug policy? An interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown.


Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on illicit economies and international and internal conflict management, analyzes the unprecedented pace at which the illicit drug trade is expanding. Her perspective identifies common mistakes in antidrug-designed policies and stresses the need for governments to reprioritize their objectives. She debunks established myths around the commonality of drug trade and its impact on society. Often, policies are not successful because public officials do not effectively identify the central issues surrounding drug violence or the consequences of implementing antidrug trade policies. According to Felbab-Brown, governments need to distinguish "good" from "bad" criminals, as this will determine the degree of violence displayed. Also, when governments try to suppress illicit activities, they need to recognized that others will replace them. In an interview with the Journal's Ania Calderon, Felbab-Brown offers a novel analysis of drug violence and their association to the context of a country, as well as to the nature of antidrug policies.

Journal of International Affairs: Given that transnational organized crime and insurgency are correlated, though not always, and not everywhere, in your perspective, what are the causes of the relationships when these two do combine?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: In the case of drug trafficking, for example, there are many parts of the world where illicit economies include this type of organized crime. In arguably every single country of the world, there is some aspect of the drug trade; many of them consume, but they usually also generate some level of trafficking as well. Some areas are very big production centers while others are not, but today there is some level of consumption in almost every country, even if it is very small. Production seems to be more concentrated than consumption. Comparatively, there are far fewer places where you have some level of militancy, and usually the two emerge quite separately and independently from each other.

Insurgents rarely start the drug trade. More often than not, what happens is that the drug trade exists in some robust fashion where there are similar types of underlying conditions, such as poor governance, a lack of state presence, and a militant statute operating the area. Eventually, governments have to make decisions on how to react to the drug trade. Do they try to suppress it or, for ideological reasons, do they embrace it? Under some circumstances, do they transform it?

Some argue that participation in the illegal economy transforms the insurgents, in that they stop having political goals and become simply motivated by profit. This argument is often made about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for example. I find it simplistic and often inaccurate. Insurgents shape the illicit economy as a result of their militant presence as well as militant patterns of behavior, including organizational capacity, tactics, strategies, and often their goals as well. I cannot think of a case where insurgents themselves are the illicit economy. They usually lack organizational capacity. Nonetheless, they develop what we call the technology of illegality, meaning that they develop the capacity and the network to participate in the drug trade, as well as the knowledge to switch to other illicit trades in which they can participate.

Journal: How would you explain the difference between countries with drug trafficking and violence--for example Mexico, Colombia, or other countries in Central America--and countries with drug trafficking and related violence--such as the United States, Spain, France, or even England?

Felbab-Brown: This is a very appropriate question and one that is often lost in the debate. When you hear the perspective from Latin American governments, and frequently Latin American scholars, they do not make the distinction, and they blame the fact that drug trade means that there is violence. That is not the case. One can take the yakuza in Japan for example. Their primary activity is not drug trafficking; it is essentially that of the mafia, mainly extortion and enforcement of contracts, as well as construction. Nonetheless, the yakuza is the primary...

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