Latin America Wants to Talk About Drugs

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February 23, 2012
El Pais, Spain

Leaders from Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico are calling on the U.S. to regulate the trafficking of drugs for the first time.

English Translation

The critical level of violence caused by drug trafficking in Latin America has for the first time put the old debate about legalization of drugs on the agenda of the current presidents. The presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador, Otto Perez and Mauricio Funes, have called for an analysis of the option of regulating drug trafficking and the president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, has said that she would not oppose a “serious and rigorous” debate on the topic. These statements by Central American leaders reinforce the stance taken in November by the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, who was in favor of legalizing marijuana and cocaine if it would “eradicate the drug violence”,  and it also consolidates the first government alliance critical against the extreme prohibition policies led by the United States.

The joint declaration about regulation by Perez and Funes last Monday the 13th has garnered so much media attention that even the government of Felipe Calderon – the principal supporter of the U.S. strategy of military intervention and law enforcement during the past six bloody years that he has governed Mexico – five months before the end of his presidency, has accepted the idea of putting the problem on the table. His Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, acknowledged this Wednesday that it is necessary to promote the debate at “an international level.”

This incipient change amongst the current leaders of Latin America strengthens an already strong movement in favor of regulation, which includes some of the former Latin American heads of state who, now that they are no longer playing political games, have outspokenly criticized the model imposed by the Unites States, the political and economic godfather of those countries most embattled by the drug war. “Their policies have failed,” said the former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, at the Drug Forum in Mexico City. Cesar Gaviria, former president of Colombia and Cardoso’s partner in the Global Commission on Drugs Policy (the engine of the debate amongst the international elite), said at the same conference against Washington’s veto of outlining a new model: “are we going to continue allowing so many deaths because they are unable to discuss the problem?”

Murder rates and institutional corruption is increasing in the north of South America, the principal drug production zone, and in the United States, the principal consumer of drugs, which increasingly ravages the transit routes of drug trafficking: Central America and Mexico.

El Salvador and Guatemala occupy the second and seventh places on the list of countries with the highest homicide rates, according to the United Nations data from 2010. In that year, 66 of every 100,000 Salvadorians and 41 of every 100,000 Guatemalans were murdered. However, the focus remains on Mexico where the bloodshed has been proportionally lower, but with very excessive and gruesome measures. According to official data, in the last six years, 47,500 Mexican citizens have died as a result of crimes related to drug trafficking and the homicide rate has doubled from 10 to 20 for every 100,000 inhabitants since the 2006, the final year of Vicente Fox’s presidency.

Last Sunday, hours after a chaotic incident in a Mexican prison which resulted in the deaths of 44 prisoners and the escape of 30 members of the Zeta cartel, Ernesto Zedillo, a former Mexican president and a member of the Global Commission, said that the situation in his country is “tragic” and stated that the plague of drug violence is inextricably linked to the “wrong policies of the major consumption countries.”

Meanwhile, the big consumer, the United States, which, according to the United Nations, accounts for 37% of global cocaine consumption, clings to its prohibitionist creed. Immediately after Otto Perez switched his position, (before winning the presidency, Perez promised to lead with a firm hand whereas now he is leading the questioning of the war on drugs) the United States embassy in Guatemala released the following statement: “legalization would be a threat to health and public security.” However, the United States’ global effort against drug trafficking is decreasing. The Barack Obama administration will invest 17% less in its battle against drug trafficking in 2013 than in 2012, from 422 to 360 million euros.

The traditional anti-drug strategies are losing economic and political support while for the first time, the elites in Latin American governments are increasingly focusing on regulation, which aims to block the motor of crime by making the black market of drug trafficking legal and by reorienting public spending to prevention and treatment policies.

The next move could take place at the Summit of the Americas, on the 14th and 15th of April in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Otto Perez has announced his intention to use this event as a formal launching platform for the debate, Funes has taken a controversial step back in announcing that he will accept discussing regulation but does not personally defend it, and the Foreign Minister of Colombia, María Ángela Holguín, has agreed to discuss the question at the Summit. And the queen of the panel, for now, still remains perched in her box.

View the article in Spanish.

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