In the central-western canyons of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, where waterfalls and abandoned mines blend in with secret landing strips and vertical mountain plots, the few remaining peasants can choose between cultivating corn on barren cliffs and receiving 300 pesos for each kilo of marijuana grown on their land. Not much perhaps, and certainly a great deal less than the 5,000 pesos per kilo the plane crews obtain for their work, but nonetheless a better living than they can eke out from a countryside breathtaking in its beauty but not really meant for human inhabitation.For the pilots, the payoff is much more substantial: A small single-engine plane can carry half a ton of marijuana; the profits are huge, and the risks, at least on the Mexican side of the border, virtually nil. There are dozens of short landing strips in the area, and the planes fly so low that they cannot be detected by radar, balloons or any other surveillance mechanism. Once near the border, the cargo will be loaded onto trucks, cars, buses–nearly anything that moves–and sent on its way into the United States. The land transport is the tougher work, more dangerous and better paid.This chapter of the war on drugs in Mexico was lost before it began. So seems to be the case in Colombia, where changes have occurred, but not exactly in the direction the local and foreign authorities would have wished. Colombia was not traditionally a coca leaf-producing nation; the crops were grown and harvested in Peru and Bolivia, and then shipped to Colombia for further refining. But since Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori declared his own version of a no-fly zone between the borders of his land and began shooting down anything that flew or moved, the new cartelitos decided to sow vast fields of coca leaf in Colombia. There are more than 270,000 acres of such fields in several areas of the country, which together with its poppy crop for heroin and its traditional marijuana plantations is now taking full advantage of its resources and climate.The war on drugs in Colombia is being lost, too. And if we are to believe the indictments brought against more than 50 American Airlines and Miami International Airport employees recently for smuggling drugs into the U.S. in food bins, ashtrays and even garbage bags, no one is winning the war anywhere.Especially not in Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush’s travails have led Latin Americans to wonder about the hypocrisy being demonstrated. What is the purpose of investing hundreds of millions of dollars, plunging countries into civil war, strengthening guerrilla groups and unleashing enormous violence and corruption upon entire societies if American leaders can simply brush off questions about drug use in their youth? The issue is not whether these are private matters (they undoubtedly are) or whether small-time peccadilloes 30 years ago should disqualify someone from contending for the White House; they clearly should not. The issue is that none of this is being perceived as anything worth worrying about by the American people, according to the polls. So then why should Latin Americans get worked up about drug abuse in the United States–either by prominent politicians in the White House or teenagers in the ghettos? Either cocaine and marijuana are terribly dangerous substances and breaking the law by consuming them is a major offense that should be severely punished or these are minor, personal matters that do not really count in the scale of life, in which case the rationale for a bloody, costly and futile war against them is simply foolish. Talk of drugs in the American presidential campaign, together with the growing sense of despair sweeping through many Latin American countries, could launch a wide-ranging, free-wheeling debate between North and Latin Americans about this absurd war no one really wants to wage. It could begin with a clearheaded evaluation of what has been achieved, what has worked and what has failed. It could then encompass ways in which market and price mechanisms can be brought to bear on the drug business to make it less lucrative.Legalizing certain substances may be the only way to bring prices way down, and doing so may be the only remedy to some of the worst aspects of the drug plague: violence, corruption and the collapse of the rule of law. While this may appear as anathema to many in the United States, its costs and benefits must be assessed in the light of the pernicious, hypocritical and dysfunctional status quo. That comparison will hardly favor business as usual.