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Biden, Petro can turn their father-son angst into a drug-war asset

President Biden and son Hunter Biden (left) in
Manuel Balce Ceneta (left); Fernando Vergara
Fathers and Sons, Padres e Hijos: President Biden and son Hunter Biden (left) in Johns Island, S.C. last year; Colombian President Gustavo Petro and son Nicolas Petro in Bogota last year after Gustavo's presidential election victory.

COMMENTARY The legal troubles of U.S. and Colombian presidential sons involve the scourges of drug supply and demand — which is why the presidents could channel them into new drug-war strategies.

When President Biden met with Colombian President Gustavo Petro at the White House back in April, I wonder (but doubt) whether they discussed a painful problem they share.

Namely: sons.

Petro is in political hot water because his son Nicolás is in legal boiling water — charged with pocketing drug-cartel bribes to buy luxury homes and cars while funneling some of it into his father’s 2022 election campaign.

Biden is in politically choppier water now — Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this week caved to the MAGA raucous caucus and ordered a presidential impeachment inquiry — in no small part because his son Hunter is facing indictment for allegedly not paying $1.5 million in taxes and possessing a gun while using cocaine.

READ MORE: Trump wants to 'wage WAR' on Mexican drug cartels. But is he a reason they're winning?

There are Shakespearean layers to these familial ordeals. Gustavo Petro was, to say the least, an absentee father to Nicolás, who grew up while Papá was out being a leftist guerrilla during Colombia’s civil war. Hunter Biden lost his mother when he was two years old in a car accident that also seriously injured him, and then he lost his brother Beau to cancer eight years ago.

While those circumstances may help explain why the two offspring went off the rails, they of course don’t excuse it. Nor do they render their fathers legally guilty by association. Gustavo Petro insists that if his son did sneak narco-money into his campaign, he was unaware of it. And so far there’s no real evidence President Biden had any involvement in the ethically questionable business deals, from Ukraine to China, that Hunter used his family cachet to cash in on.

But whether or not the sins of the sons bring down the presidencies of the fathers, I see a way those troubles can actually become helpful policy props for the powerful pops. That’s because they involve two of this hemisphere’s worst scourges: relentless drug production in Latin America, and insatiable drug consumption in America.

Whether or not the sins of the sons bring down the presidencies of the fathers, they can be helpful drug-war policy props for the powerful pops.

This week the U.N. reports cultivation of coca, cocaine’s raw material, has reached an all-time high in Colombia. That’s of course saying a hell of a lot, since Colombia is the world’s número uno coca grower, responsible for almost two-thirds of total production.

At the same time, the U.N. warns that global cocaine use is experiencing a “prolonged surge.”

Nicolás Petro is sitting squarely in the thick of the supply crisis, including a 21st-century boom in the Colombian narco-mafias who allegedly greased his palms. Hunter Biden, a recovering cocaine and crack addict, is a middle-aged poster boy for the demand crisis — which, let’s face it, drives the supply crisis.

Drug treatment versus drug war

The thing is, those filial realities dovetail, sadly but usefully, with paternal politics.

Coca Beats Cocoa: Police wading through a field of coca shrubs in southern Colombia in 2012.
Fernando Vergara
Coca Beats Cocoa: Police wading through a field of coca shrubs in southern Colombia in 2012.

Last weekend President Petro, in response to the U.N.’s new coca production figures, said his government is determined to ramp up efforts to bring economic development — especially centuries-overdue infrastructure — to the economically threadbare rural regions of Colombia where coca farming is most rampant. He also called on Colombia’s neighbors to follow suit and ditch the “destructive militarized approach” to combating drug production that he said has failed.

Petro was essentially making two points. First: if Colombia, with help from developed nations like the U.S., were for once to give its campesinos viable livelihood alternatives to planting coca, there’d be less cocaine. Second: that really can’t happen until demand in cocaine megamarkets like the U.S. is dramatically reduced, thus making it less lucrative to plant the stuff.

Which fits the objective Biden set early in his administration of putting more emphasis on drug rehabilitation and other means of curbing consumption than on the conventional "drug war." His initial budget steered a historic level of national drug control spending to demand-reduction programs. For good reason: study after study has shown that money spent on drug treatment yields more drug-war results than the billions thrown at drug interdiction.

Gustavo Petro should point to Nicolás and say: “If the U.S. took this more common-sense tack, there’d be fewer cocaine producers out there to suborn problem sons like mine.”

President Biden should point to Hunter and point out: “If Colombia grew more cocoa than coca, there’d be less cocaine product out there to waylay wayward sons like mine.”

It could turn father-son angst into a hemispheric asset.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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