Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America

In This Review

Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America
By Benjamin Lessing
Cambridge University Press, 2017
354 pp.
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In this ambitious study, Lessing argues that governments cannot successfully pursue the three interconnected goals of combating narcotics trafficking, eliminating official corruption, and reducing drug-related violence all at the same time. The conclusion he draws from his three detailed case studies, of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, is that governments that launch all-out military campaigns provoke drug cartels to respond with their own brutal, escalatory attacks against the state, catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire. Such indiscriminate official crackdowns are misconceived because, as Lessing points out, the cartels do not aim to usurp state power—they are not political insurgents. They instead seek to dissuade the state from using overwhelming force to destroy them. A more rational approach for governments, he argues, is to adopt policies, such as offering lower prison sentences and imposing more calculated levels of repression, that give cartels incentives to behave more peacefully, even if that means tolerating drug trafficking and official corruption.

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