Pulitzer Center Update

This Week: The War on Drugs

La Moskitia: Front Line in the Drug War. Image by Matt Schwartz.


President Richard Nixon was the first to declare a “war on drugs” and begin using military tactics to root out what is clearly a social problem. Successive U.S. administrations have soldiered on, but more than four decades later, there is no end in sight.

“[T]he U.S. has tried paying coca farmers to switch crops, spraying herbicides out of helicopters, raiding jungle laboratories, stopping and searching small fishing boats, forcing down aircraft, tapping phones, hiring informants, and extraditing drug lords,” writes Pulitzer Center grantee Matt Schwartz, who traveled to the frontlines in Honduras to report for The New Yorker.

Meanwhile, on the home front, several states have begun the process of legalizing marijuana; the Justice Department has advised federal prosecutors that possession of small amounts of pot is not an enforcement priority; and President Obama recently commuted the sentences of eight prisoners convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

“Overseas, however, the U.S. approach to drugs still looks a lot like war,” writes Matt. “What is remarkable is how many times the U.S. has tried such militarized counter-narcotics programs and how long it has been apparent how little they amount to.”


A decade ago, Brazil pictured itself as “the Saudi Arabia of ethanol.” In a bid to break its energy dependence on foreign fossil fuels, the Brazilian government invested heavily in biofuel production. Many other investors, including some energy multinationals, saw the potential and jumped on the bandwagon.

“This should be a golden era here on Brazil’s farming frontier, where some of the world’s biggest corporations have invested billions of dollars in land, equipment and mills to turn sugar cane into ethanol,” Pulitzer Center grantee Juan Forero reports in the second of this three-part series on Brazil’s energy sector for The Washington Post. “But oil — the fuel that ethanol was supposed to be slowly replacing — got in the way.”

The hydraulic-fracturing—fracking—boom in the U.S. has helped keep gas and oil prices low and the global financial crisis forced the Brazilian government to prop up the state-controlled oil company Petrobras with billions in subsidies. Brazil also began tapping its own newly discovered reserves of off-shore oil. Although the off-shore drilling has been slow going, it has resulted in the closure of some sugar cane mills. While this may have stalled Brazil’s ethanol boom, Juan reports that most energy experts still believe in the inevitability of ethanol as the fuel of the future.