Monday, December 2, 2013

Escobar in an Alternate History

Escobar dead on a rooftop in 1993.
Pablo Escobar, who made himself one of the world's richest men by exporting Colombian cocaine to the United States and and other nations, was gunned down on this day two decades ago.

Which got me thinking...What would have happened if f cocaine had been legal back then? First of all, Escobar would not likely have been in the business. Escobar, after all, started off as a small-time criminal. Some say that Escobar's first criminal undertaking was stealing headstones from cemeteries, scraping them clean, and reselling them.

Pablo in the slammer.
Instead, some ambitous conventional businessman with lots of greed and few scruples would have entered the business. Mexican Carlos Slim comes to mind - not because he's particularly unethical, but because for many years Slim invested in the cigarrete industry. Instead of car bombs and kidnappings, Colombians would have been dulled to death by corporate meetings.

But that's not what happened. Instead, cocaine was illegal 20 years ago, meaning that only outlaws profited from it. As we all know, much of Colombia, particularly Medellin, descended into chaos and bloodshed.

And what has prohibitionism accomplished? Probably the best measure is how much it has raised retail prices by choking off supply. By that simple measure, the War on Drugs has failed.

You can't read this chart, but the upper column shows that inflation-adjusted cocaine street prices have dopped from $278 per gram in 1990, to $195 in 2000 and to $169 today.

There probably are multiple reasons for cocaine's price drop, including consumers' shifts to other drugs (some of which are more addictive and harmful than cocaine.)

But the fact is that, 20 years after what was arguably law enforcement's greatest blow against drug trafficking, the industry continues rolling on.

The DAS building in Bogotá, bombed by Escobar in 1989.
A poster on a Bogotá street features Escobar.
A man places a music player on the tomb of Luis Carlos Galan, perhaps Escobar's best known assassination victim. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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