VIENNA A U.N. anti-narcotics drive has backfired in part by making drug cartels so rich they can bribe their way through West Africa and Central America, U.N. crime agency chief Antonio Maria Costa said on Wednesday.
The 10-year "war on drugs" campaign had cut drug output and the number of users, he said. But it had a "dramatic unintended consequence" -- profit-gorged trafficking gangs destabilizing nations already plagued by poverty, joblessness and HIV-AIDS.
"When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing," Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told a U.N. drug policy review meeting.
"While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack (by Latin American traffickers transshipping cocaine to Europe), drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions," he said.
A key part of the problem was the failure of many countries to take U.N. conventions against crime and graft seriously and the prevalence of corrupt border, army and police officials.
"As a result, a number of countries now face a crime situation largely caused by their own choice. This is bad enough. Worse is the fact that quite often, vulnerable neighbors pay an even greater price," said Costa.
He was launching a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs to review the decade since a U.N. General Assembly special session set targets to tackle producers, traffickers and end users.
Papering over internal dissent over how to make anti-drug policy more effective, the 53 nations on the commission were expected on Thursday to enact a declaration committing them to the program to fight the drug trade for another 10 years.
"If we look at the physical dimensions of the problem -- tonnes of (narcotics) production and numbers of addicts -- we can state that humanity has made measurable progress (since 1998)," said Costa.
BALANCED, COORDINATED POLICIES NEEDED
Global addiction had stabilized for several years, with demand falling for some drugs and rising for others. "This is no longer the runaway train of the 1980s and 1990s," he said.
But he conceded world markets were still supplied with about 1,000 tonnes of heroin, around 1,000 tonnes of cocaine and untold volumes of cannabis (marijuana) and synthetic drugs.
"So there is still much more to be done," he said.
One solution was for nations to coordinate a more sensible and balanced anti-narcotics policy, he said. Drug control was disjointed, eradicating crops rather than poverty and displacing the drug trade from one country to another, Costa said.
Critics of U.N. anti-drug policy want more stress put on "harm-reduction" policies, such as needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV, or even legalization to remove the mafia element responsible for bloody turf wars and failing states.
Protesters outside the Vienna meeting waved placards saying: "The war on drugs destroys lives" and "Drug law isolates."
They handed out mock $1,OOO banknotes with Costa's picture under the inscription, "The United Nations of Prohibition."
Costa agreed with more harm-reduction efforts but rejected calls for legalization as dangerously naive and defeatist, likening this to accepting pedophilia and human trafficking.
"We should invest in the solid middle ground between criminalization and legalization -- by framing our collective efforts against drugs less like a war, and more like an effort to cure a social disease."
(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Jon Boyle)