Last week the largest meeting between Latin American heads of state took place in Cartagena, Colombia. In anticipation of this meeting, there was one major topic on everyone’s minds – the apparent failure of the war on drugs. From this meeting, a rather disappointing brush aside ‘concluded’ the conversation.
As a conclusion of The Summit of the Americas, the Organisation of American States (OAS) ordered an investigation into the war on drugs, declaring that “in confronting the vast resources and violent and corrupting effects of drug trafficking, simply combining uncoordinated efforts—even those that have been successful—has only had a limited impact on the world drug problem, and therefore it is necessary to identify effective measures on the basis of an integrated and balanced approach.”
No more, no less, just that it will be looked at. But for the countries most affected by drug problems, this may not be enough. Extremely serious problems call for radical solutions, and Central America is now demanding that the continent hears its plea.
A Serious Debate
In the lead up to, and in anticipation of the Summit, the Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina expected slightly more. In an article he wrote in Britain’s Observer newspaper, the right-wing president, who is in charge of one of the most drug-affected countries in the world, came forward and controversially proposed the regulated legalisation of drugs.
“Isn’t it true that we have been fighting the war on drugs these past two decades?” he asked. “Then, how on earth is drug consumption higher and production greater and why is trafficking so widespread?”
His answer? The war on drugs is not working.
This is not a new concept, far from it. But the difference is that leaders and powerful figures all around the world are beginning to take the debate about finding an alternative method to the ‘war on drugs’ seriously. Particularly vocal are those who are experiencing the drug wars first-hand. And at the moment, Central American countries are doing the experiencing more than most.
“[Central America is] just a small territory that happens to find itself geographically between the largest drug consumption markets and the largest drug producers,” said Pérez Molina summing up their predicament.
As victims of geography, other Central American governments are also arguing against global policy, which remains the same, as their countries are crumbling. Maurico Funes, the president of El Salvador in recent weeks declared he shares Pérez Molina’s position, adding, “it is not just an initiative for Guatemala.” Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica also agreed that Central American leaders “have the right to discuss [legalisation] as we are paying a very high price.”
Central America and the ‘Balloon Effect”
Central American states are feeling an urgency of survival, pushing them to come forward in this debate.
Mexico is the 12th largest economy in the word, yet everyday there are reports of people being killed from the drug violence. The effect is even stronger on much smaller Honduras – which has the largest homicide rate in the world, with prisons that are virtually lawless. Or Guatemala, which aside from now having a murder rate higher than during their civil war, is dealing with the Mexican Zeta and Sinaloa drug gangs, preferring to pay locals in drugs rather than cash, bringing on a whole new dimension of problems. In all, a UN 2011 Global Study found that Central American countries are near “breaking point” with their levels of homicide.
Another UN report from the Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that in 2010 Central American countries had for the first time become major transit countries for drug trafficking. But it has been a long road of squeezing to fit into that place.
In 1971, US President Richard Nixon decided put an end to “public enemy number #1” and declared a war on drugs. Since then, the United States, the world’s largest consumer of drugs, has spent over US$1 trillion on fighting this war at the root, instead of focusing on treatment at home. In 2010 alone, the bill was US$51bn, yet according to the UNODC, the number of drug users has risen from 18 millions to some 210 millions in the last 10 years.
In 1989 the problem was Colombia. There, drug gangs were so strong they were running alongside the state as a parallel economy. Along came the United States with ‘Plan Colombia’, and a full on assault ensued. Aerial spraying crops and the army ‘taking on’ the drug gangs ended with lower levels of coca cultivation (the leaf which cocaine is extracted from) and a much less powerful drug-gang network. It also left thousands of locals injured and even dead from the chemicals sprayed in the air, heightened cultivation levels in neighbouring Peru and Bolivia, and countless murdered and displaced by army atrocities.
Closing the trafficking routes through the Caribbean by the United States coastguard just drove traffickers overland and through Central America. It is no coincidence that since Colombia has improved, Mexico’s drug situation has declined. And again, no big coincidence that since Felipe Calderón’s government started to fight back against the drug gangs in 2006, levels of drug related violence have increased in Guatemala and other Central American countries.
Danny Kushlick, from UK-based international NGO Transform Drug Policy Foundation, explains that “any victories against the cartels in one area only serve to squeeze the gangs into new territory.” It is a metamorphosing organ, like trapped air, just looking for the next space to move into, in what is aptly named ‘the balloon effect’.
“Many of the states [in Central America] are not robust enough to withstand the onslaught and their very existence is brought into question. This threat to security, and ultimately to the viability of nation states, has brought the crisis in the region to a crescendo,” says Kushlick.
Legalisation or Decriminalisation?
The topic of legalising of drugs is for many an extremely controversial one. But experts argue that different forms should be considered, from legalisation, to regulation, to decriminalisation.
Pérez Molina’s view is that “to suggest liberalisation – allowing consumption, production and trafficking of drugs without any restriction whatsoever – would be, in my opinion, profoundly irresponsible.”
He attests that it is important “to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalised but within certain limits and conditions.”
Kushlick, who investigates options of drug legalisation, agrees, stating that “a shift in the global regime from prohibition to one of management of production, supply, and use would bring numerous wide-ranging benefits to Central America.”
He explains that “first, with the reduction in price following legalisation and regulation, the narcos would leave the trade, as there would no longer be the huge untaxed profits to be made. This would have the knock on effect of reducing violence as gangs stop fighting over turf.”
“It would also reduce corruption amongst law enforcement officers and government officials as the need to corrupt reduces, and the money to bribe officials disappears. It would also reduce militarisation in the region.”
Kushlick has his concerns too, especially concerning legalisation without a global shift. He strongly feels that it should be a multilateral, global concern. “There are many countries around the world that do have the infrastructure to regulate drugs perfectly well – in fact many of them already do. For instance, half of the world’s opium poppies are grown for the legal market.”
From a different perspective, Victoria Donda, an Argentine politician from the Libres del Sur party who supports a move to decriminalisation instead of legalisation, agrees something has to be done. “There has been no change in statistics or in actual facts regarding the fight against drug trafficking. In fact, in most Latin American countries [traffic] has increased,” she replies, when asked on the subject.
“We think that the laws at the moment are encouraging the security forces and police to chase the consumer rather than the dealers,” she says. “The addict is a sick person and not a criminal – the law should change [to decriminalisation] and include prevention and policies in education.”
This said, she remains sceptical over whether a regulated legalisation could work, as “legalisation involves other issues like regulation of quantities and substances.” But, as part of a political party which has been looking into this issue for a while, Donda strongly points out that “this is not an option we are considering for Argentina.”
“If we eliminate the persecution against consumers, then the state and police only have to worry about chasing the drug dealers.”
And, in the Other Corner…
Prior to, and at the Summit of the Americas, amongst all the press about legalisation, US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden clearly outlined their opposition to any form of regional law against prohibition. It could be argued that, as mid-term elections are coming up, it would be simply political suicide to say anything else.
“I think it warrants a discussion,” Biden told reporters before the Summit, but confidently declaring that looking into the issue “you will only realise there are more problems with legalisation than non-legalisation.” Admitting that although drug legalisation could have positive effects – like reducing prison populations – he believes it would also lead to more drug use, health problems, and even more bureaucracies.
Small step as it is, the US is talking about drugs prevention in a way that has not been done before on top of the OAS’s mandate to look into ‘alternative methods’. And as any recovering addict knows too well, the first step is to admit you have a policy problem.
“The OAS is a US-dominated organisation and the policy review could be seen as throwing the issue into the long grass.” Kushlick warns against seeing too much in the US’s words, or the mandate. “It is crucial that we do not rely on it to deliver.” He sees the US agreement to open up a debate is more of a hope to diffuse the argument for legalisation and make it calmly go away, rather than light fire under it.
The US has to remember that large powers are looming south of the border, and its hegemonic influence in the region is waning. Many strong political figures from Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia are stepping forward offering a voice of change – the US may miss the boat to be a part of these talks. Latin American countries can, and if they gain a big enough consensus will, take action themselves.
As Kushlick points out, “the chances are that the initial moves will be taken despite, rather than because, of the US. However, it is difficult to envisage a fundamental global shift without the US coming along.”
The time for a debate is not coming. It is already here.
To know what locals think about the ‘war on drugs’ click here.