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Ex-Colombian president: Duterte repeating my mistakes

Former Colombian President César Gaviria has warned that President Rodrigo Duterte is committing his mistake by taking a tough stance against drugs.

Gaviria suggested to Duterte in an opinion piece in the New York Times that instead of using force against drug users and traffickers, he should start looking at the drug situation in the country as a social problem.

"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," said Gaviria, who was the President of Colombia from 1990 t0 1994.

He also warned Duterte against including the military in the drug war and reminded him of the importance of human rights.

"While the Filipino government has a duty to provide for the security of its people, there is a real risk that a heavy-handed approach will do more harm than good. There is no doubt that tough penalties are necessary to deter organized crime. But extrajudicial killings and vigilantism are the wrong ways to go," Gaviria said.

"After the killing of a South Korean businessman, Mr. Duterte seemed as if he might be closer to realizing this. But bringing the army in to fight the drug war, as he now suggests, would also be disastrous. The fight against drugs has to be balanced so that it does not infringe on the rights and well-being of citizens," he added.

Gaviria said that Colombia has been one of the primary suppliers of cocaine. To eradicate the narcotics trade in his country, Gaviria said that North American and Western European governments "poured billions of dollars into a relentless campaign" against drugs and destroy cartels. In fact, he pointed out he was personally involved in notorious narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar's fall. The drug lord was killed in a shootout in 1993.

"My government and every administration since threw everything at the problem — from fumigating crops to jailing every drug pusher in sight. Not only did we fail to eradicate drug production, trafficking and consumption in Colombia, but we also pushed drugs and crime into neighboring countries," he said.

"And we created new problems. Tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in our antidrug crusade. Many of our brightest politicians, judges, police officers and journalists were assassinated. At the same time, the vast funds earned by drug cartels were spent to corrupt our executive, judicial and legislative branches of government," he added.

Gaviria argued that his own war on drugs did not eradicate the narcotics problem in his country.

"This heavy-handed approach to drugs did little to diminish the drug supply and demand in Colombia, much less in markets like Western Europe and the United States. In fact, drugs such as cocaine and heroin are as accessible as ever from Bogotá to New York to Manila," he said.

"The war on drugs is essentially a war on people," he added.

Social problem

For Gaviria, the real solution to the narcotics trade is to improve public health and combat corruption. As the founding member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, he also believes in decriminalizing drug users.

"Real reductions in drug supply and demand will come through improving public health and safety, strengthening anticorruption measures — especially those that combat money laundering — and investing in sustainable development. We also believe that the smartest pathway to tackling drugs is decriminalizing consumption and ensuring that governments regulate certain drugs, including for medical and recreational purposes," he said.

"Winning the fight against drugs requires addressing not just crime, but also public health, human rights and economic development," he added.

Gaviria also suggested to Duterte not to hit hard small-time drug criminals and users. Instead, he should start looking at illegal drugs as a social problem.

"The application of severe penalties and extrajudicial violence against drug consumers makes it almost impossible for people with drug addiction problems to find treatment. Instead, they resort to dangerous habits and the criminal economy. Indeed, the criminalization of drug users runs counter to all available scientific evidence of what works," he said.

"We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one," he added.

"Strategies that target violent criminals and undermine money laundering are critical. So, too, are measures that decriminalize drug users, support alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders and provide a range of treatment options for drug abusers. This is a test that many of my Colombian compatriots have failed. I hope Mr. Duterte does not fall into the same trap," Gaviria said. —ALG, GMA News