Drug prohibition has had a devastating impact on Indigenous peoples in Latin America. Over the past century, it has been used as a justification to occupy Indigenous lands, bring violence and death to Indigenous communities, and criminalize Indigenous religious and cultural practices, among countless other human rights abuses across the region.
In the Andes, crop-eradication campaigns have militarized coca-producing areas and displaced Indigenous people to neighboring countries. In Brazil, anti-drug rhetoric has been used to justify police raids in Indigenous communities. In Mexico, where 21 percent of the population identify as Indigenous, both peyote and psilocybin mushrooms are prohibited for almost all Mexicans, and some species are in danger of extinction. Across the region, Indigenous people are also disproportionately incarcerated on drug charges, particularly for cultivation.
Throughout much of the region, Indigenous lands have become the epicenter of battles between ruthless drug trafficking organizations and corrupt police and military forces—each side holding Indigenous peoples hostage to their agendas, and threatening the communities with violence if they fail to contribute to their goals.
Latin America’s policymakers did more than uncritically import a fight that did not belong to them. They were themselves key agents in building the region’s drug war.
When President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 50 years ago, he launched a set of policies that not only targeted drug users and people of color in the United States, but were coercively exported around the world. Latin America, as one of the main stages for this US-led and sponsored global drug war, pays the price for this political choice every day. Judged by the ostensible goals of the drug war’s architects, the results have been scant. Colombia, the country that has received the most anti-narcotic cooperation from the US, is also the largest exporter of cocaine into the US.
However, Latin America’s policymakers did more than uncritically import a fight that did not belong to them. They were themselves key agents in building the foundations of the region’s drug war.
The white, colonial elite of Latin America were complicit not only in implementing the drug war, but in conceiving it as a way to control, criminalize and, ultimately, exterminate ethnic and racial minorities, particularly Black and Indigenous groups.
In Latin American military circles, for example, the “scorched earth” doctrine—utilized particularly during the Cold War years in Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia and El Salvador—was expanded to include Indigenous Peoples, their language, culture and traditional authorities. This was first employed in strategies to combat potential or active insurgents, and later as part of strategies to combat drug traffickers. Indigenous cultures, long blamed by white elites for countries’ inability to “progress,” have also become the targets of blame for the region’s “negative image” by politicians seeking to cooperate with the US War on Drugs.
Maintaining the drug war thus reinforces the idea that Indigenous peoples are secondary; that the pain and suffering they have been subjected to in the name of a global drug war is not important; and that their cultures, traditions, beliefs and knowledge are not worthy of being protected and valued. It denies them their humanity.
The prohibition of natural plants that are used by Indigenous Peoples for spiritual, medicinal and other purposes additionally contradicts the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples —intended to safeguard “the survival, dignity, and well-being of the world’s Indigenous peoples,” preserving and supporting their distinct cultural traditions.
A transformation of this magnitude will only come if Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of discussions, leading the change the world needs.
The use of the coca leaf by Indigenous peoples in the Andes, for example, precedes the arrival of the first European settlers, and its medicinal, nutritional, social, and religious importance for these communities has been widely recorded and acknowledged. A similar position is held by the cannabis plant in Africa and much of Asia, where it was cultivated, traded, and used as medicine in pre colonial times, and it has a sacred role in the Rastafarian, Sufi and Hindu religions. The opium poppy is another example with a centuries-old history of traditional-medicine and ceremonial use in Asia and the Middle East.
To dismantle Latin America’s use of the drug war as a tool to oppress Indigenous people, we must decolonize drug policies and create something new. For this to happen, we need to redefine humanity outside of coloniality, ensuring that Indigenous peoples and other communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war have their human rights recognized and protected. A transformation of this magnitude, however, requires a recognition of the deep-rooted prejudices against Indigenous cultures that persist in the region—a transformation that will only come if Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of discussions, leading the change the world needs.
Photograph of Colombian narcotics forces after the burning of an alleged coca producing facility in 2008, by the National Police of Colombia via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has previously received a restricted grant from the Open Society Foundations, which employs two of the authors, to support promotions related to the film Liquid Handcuffs.