“Just light sprinkles,” the pilot rasped as my flight from Medellin, Colombia, descended through Miami’s murky skies. “In a few hours, it’ll be coming down hard.”
Hurricane Katrina was whirling toward Florida, soon to wreak staggering natural disaster on my former home, New Orleans. Behind me was Medellin, home of one of the world’s most tragic social disasters.
Three weeks of wandering Medellin’s streets left me enraged at the callous arrogance of the United States’ “War on Drugs,” its enrichment of corrupt American and Colombian elites and its savage violence against the poor and young.
Medellin is surreal. Glittering opulence is flanked by vast, impoverished barrios clinging to steep Andean slopes. Contrary to sensationalist American media reports, bullet-riddled bodies do not litter the streets. The city’s frenetic downtown, lush canyon neighborhoods and gleaming metro are safe.
Violence is down, even in Medellin’s most dangerous slums. Officials boast of “only” 1,400 homicides in 2004, a modern low. By contrast, Los Angeles had 500 murders.
Back in 1992, the deadliest year, Medellin suffered 6,800 murders (unofficial estimates are far higher), six times L.A.’s peak toll (1,180). The cultured, tile-roofed Antioquian city of flowers and fashion was dubbed “murder capital of the world,” ruled by ruthless cocaine cartels.
As in Los Angeles, most homicide victims at the vortex of the global drug-gang wars in Medellin are young. The internationally acclaimed 1998 film, “La Vendedora de Rosas” (“The Rose Seller”), starring Medellin’s street kids, illustrated the city’s real-life horror. Most of its young cast, ages 10 to 16, has since been murdered; the few who remain have returned to poverty, prostitution or prison.
Three-fourths of Medellin’s 100,000 homicide victims over the past two decades were under age 30, according to health statistics. These murdered youths and young adults were not victims of their own addictions – few Colombians die from abusing drugs – but of ours.
By international calculations, the United States consumes 60 to 65 percent of the world’s illicit drugs, including some 250 tons of South American cocaine every year.
Reports from the Drug Abuse Warning Network and the National Center for Health Statistics show America’s drug-abuse crisis is worse today than ever. In 2003, a record 26,000 Americans died from abusing illicit drugs led by cocaine and heroin. Our country’s dead drug abusers aren’t kids, either. Four-fifths of them are over age 35. Two-thirds are white.
The ugly truth is that the United States’ out-of-control drug habit – nested in respectable, middle-aged America – is driving a worldwide drug-supply scourge that slaughters thousands of street-level young in nodes like Medellin and Los Angeles. Callous “free-market” policies profiting the old and rich (and financing their massive drug appetites) trap millions of young in relentless poverty from which cartels and gangs offer the only escape.
America’s “War on Drugs,” far from stemming the epidemic, has systematically abetted 20 years of soaring drug addiction, morbidity, crime and death. Not that anyone important cares.
Why should they? Failure yields more profit than success. Military and biochemical industries servicing Washington’s notorious “Plan Colombia” reap lucrative contracts while failing to relieve the economic miseries driving South American coca production. U.S. law enforcement, government agency, consulting and advertising interests guzzle billions of drug-war dollars, while failing to reduce burgeoning American drug abuse.
Unlike derelict American reporters and their “experts” toadying to the powerful by berating “youth violence” and “teens and drugs,” Colombia’s media remain sympathetic to their unfortunate country’s young and poor, honestly chronicling their victimization imposed from afar. Colombia’s press exposes the corruption wrought by Washington’s underwriting of brutal paramilitaries and officially protected drug traffickers.
Here’s a moral paradox that Christian Republican pharisees and New Democrat sycophants should ponder: While marginalized young people and storefront idealists have evolved impressive strategies to reduce killings on urban streets, Washington’s cowardly major institutions stand silent and complicit amid burgeoning drug addiction among the old and drug-war profiteering by their happy-hour buddies.
What level of tragedy, what grotesque calamity, does it take to reverse the death-dealing lies and self-serving conformity? Today’s don’t-rock-the-boat, flatter-the-powerful, blame-the-kids-and-pass-the-bucks complacency among America’s big players is a crime. I hope our children – especially the 14 million American youth trapped in poverty while their golfing-condo elders bask in unheard-of riches – never forgive them.
We look back, baffled, on historical periods when people and institutions indulged indifference and pleasing delusions in the face of atrocities they could have prevented. Perhaps good citizens of the past didn’t know what was happening.
But we do. That’s why I believe we aging Americans preside over one of history’s most shameful times.