Latin America’s new strategy in the war on drugs

The retired general who won Guatemala’s presidency in November seems an unlikely advocate of a kinder approach toward counternarcotics policy. Otto Pérez — whose party’s symbol is a clenched fist — campaigned on the promise that his government would crack down on the crime ravaging parts of the country. A former member of the special forces known as Kaibiles, he also served as director of military intelligence.

But his reluctance to join a stalemated war against drugs is understandable. As a military man and a pragmatic politician, Pérez wants to fight battles he has a chance of winning. The two Latin American presidents joining Pérez’s call for a debate on legalization also campaigned on the issues of crime and public safety: Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, a former minister of defense, and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, a former minister of public security.

Pérez, Santos and Chinchilla suffer from the counternarcotics fatigue spreading among Latin American politicians and pundits who see the “war on drugs” as a debilitating waste of blood and treasure. They are looking for an honorable withdrawal from a seemingly unwinnable fight. They want to put their resources and energy into more politically profitable pursuits — strengthening public education, eliminating hunger or combating street crime.

The issue is likely to dominate this weekend’s Summit of the Americas, which Santos is hosting in Cartagena. Pérez has promised to push his proposals for global drug regulations, arguing that the consumption, production and trafficking of drugs can be better controlled if brought into the legal economy.

Pérez faces opposition from his counterparts in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and, crucially, the United States. While visiting Mexico last month, Vice President Biden insisted that there was “no possibility” the United States would consider the option and cited the impact of drug addiction on health, mortality and economic productivity.

But the current policies aren’t alleviating the harm caused by drug addiction. The Justice Department’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment says that “the overall availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing.” Seizures of chemical precursors and illegal laboratories in Guatemala suggest that traffickers have responded to reductions in Colombian cocaine production by diversifying into synthetic drugs.

Meanwhile, fragile democracies such as Guatemala’s, still struggling to bolster the rule of law after decades of military rule and internal conflict, are further undermined as drug money, especially in transit or border regions, permeates politics and neutralizes law enforcement.

Washington has failed to convince many Latin Americans that they have an equal stake in the battle against narco-trafficking. Although Pérez’s proposal to regulate the drug trade is the most radical from a sitting president, he is hardly alone in voicing doubts about U.S.-supported ­anti-drug strategies. His frustration with these policies is echoed by leaders who have been key allies in Washington’s counternarcotics crusade.

Although he avoided fighting words such as “legalization” or “decriminalization,” Mexican President Felipe Calderón told the U.N. General Assembly in September that, if consumer nations can not reduce demand for illegal drugs, they should “look for other ways, including market alternatives, that prevent narco-traffickers from continuing to be the origin of violence and death.”

Colombia’s Santos urged world leaders in January to break the “taboo” on discussing alternatives: “Taking the profits away from organized crime and letting the state use those profits to launch propaganda campaigns against consumption; those are practical solutions, which I believe could be effective if taken worldwide.” A blue-ribbon commission whose members included former Latin American presidents voiced similar arguments three years ago.

Calderón and Santos speak with the moral authority of leaders who think their countries have paid an unacceptable price, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives, in their efforts to stem the flood of drugs to the United States. Now Pérez, the leader of a much smaller country with a far weaker state, has joined the chorus of skeptics.

These leaders have yet to grapple publicly with the impact that legalization might have in their countries. Would decriminalization reduce drug-related killings, or would traffickers simply move into other, equally violent rackets? Would historically weak states have the capacity to regulate the sale and transport of narcotics, or would black-market dealers continue to traffic drugs and corrupt state institutions? Would consumption increase in production or transit countries? If so, could cash-strapped governments handle the consequences to public health?

Latin American leaders are desperate to end the corruption and carnage wrought by today’s drug policies. Rather than dismiss demands for a new approach, the United States should join the debate on legalization and its potential costs.

Mary Speck is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group’s Latin America and the Caribbean program.

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