Is the war on drugs over?

Central American leaders are looking to legalization, to America’s chagrin
Jamie Dettmer
An end to the war on drugs?
Marco Ugarte/AP

The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for not paying enough attention to Latin America. That’s changed abruptly in recent weeks, with senior officials rushing to head off a rebellion that’s threatening to upend the war on drugs.

What has the administration spooked is the rising chorus in Latin America of politicians publicly questioning the sense of the prohibition on drugs. At this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, several Central American leaders will outline their views on what they say is a failed war. And the Obama administration has had no choice but to allow discussion of drug legalization at the summit for the first time, although it tried to forestall it. “We are ready to discuss the issue to express our opinion on why it is not the way to address the problem,” said Mike Hammer, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Calls for legalizing narcotics have been heard before in Latin America, but they previously came mostly from fringe or retired front-rank politicians. In 2009, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia blasted the war on drugs and demanded alternative approaches. But in recent months, for the first time, sitting presidents have been questioning the efficacy of continuing with full-scale prohibition, including the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

All of them are facing violent incursions from expansionary Mexican cartels, and are struggling to contain spiralling drug-related violence and staggering crime rates, the consequences of the region becoming a favoured transit route for cocaine and heroin processed in South America and smuggled north to consumers in the United States. Decriminalizing narcotics would deprive the region’s mafias of the profits that enrich and empower them, the leaders argue.

The region’s hardline drug warriors are Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, who has waged a five-year-long military-based campaign against his country’s powerful drug cartels that has left more than 50,000 dead, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who has been no friend to traffickers. But even they have voiced sympathy with calls for a rethink, and shocked Washington last year by raising the idea of legalizing soft drugs.

Indeed, the Mexican president argued that “if drug consumption appears impossible to stop, then the decision makers should look for more options—including market alternatives—in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.” Santos went further in March by initiating legislation to permit the possession of small quantities of marijuana and cocaine for personal use.

In Central America—the region has the highest homicide rate in the world and is more deadly than Afghanistan when it comes to killings—the viewpoint that the war on drugs is producing meagre results at great costs is spreading. Advocates of a narcotics rethink got a boost in February when the new Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-wing former army general, became a convert. The Guatemalan leader, who had promised an “iron fist” against crime when he entered office the previous month, stunned the Obama administration by announcing that the U.S. inability to cut drug consumption left his country no option but to consider legalizing narcotics.

Pérez Molina’s conversion emboldened fellow Central American leaders, who declined to change their tune when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched in early March to meet them in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. The Central American rebels heard the vice-president out when he said that the U.S. wouldn’t be legalizing drugs and remained determined to assist them in defeating transnational cartels with funding and intelligence sharing. But after the meeting the leaders continued to push for at least a discussion about legalization at the Summit of the Americas. All seven Central American states, plus Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, have jointly declared that “if [cutting demand] is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the authorities of consumer countries must explore all possible alternatives.”

The Obama administration has not helped its cause by proposing, in its 2013 federal budget, to cut counter-narcotics aid to Latin America by 16 per cent. Regional leaders argue this is the reverse of what Washington should be doing. If there’s to be no legalization, they say, then the U.S. and consuming countries should contribute much more to the security forces in the region and fund improvements in education and health.

No one expects the leaders at the summit to agree to end the war on drugs. Since the meeting in Tegucigalpa, the Obama administration has lobbied regional leaders hard behind the scenes, and to some effect. A March 24 meeting called by Pérez Molina for regional leaders to discuss drug legalization ahead of the Cartagena get-together was undermined by a disappointing turnout. Alhough they did send senior officials, the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua stayed away, amid speculation that their absence was due to U.S. pressure.

Nevertheless, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda believes that while summits of the Americas tend to be talking shops that fail to accomplish much of significance, every now and then the multilateral get-together “actually helps to place key issues on the hemispheric table.” He suspects the narcotics question could be one of them. “Whereas only a smattering of political leaders and intellectuals advocated legalization in the past, nowadays officials are coming ‘out of the closet’ on drugs in droves,” he notes.

The legalization issue is likely to remain potent whatever happens in Cartagena, if for no other reason than July’s Mexican presidential elections. That vote could lead to a significant toning down of Calderón’s militarized war on drugs, with two of the three leading candidates who are vying to succeed the president vowing to withdraw the military from the fight. A third candidate, Josefina Vásquez Mota, of Calderón’s ruling National Action Party, is suffering in the opinion polls because of the increasing unpopularity of a drug war that seems to have no end.

Legalization advocates argue that Calderón’s war is an example of how, when counter-narcotics efforts are waged uncompromisingly with the full weight of the military and police, the effects can be the reverse of what’s desired. And even if such efforts showed some success, the Central American states have nothing like the firepower of the Mexican military—Costa Rica doesn’t even have a standing army. Indeed, they are already outgunned: Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel, infamous for its massacres and beheadings of rivals, has, according to Guatemalan officials, turned much of the country’s largest department, El Petén, into a strategic stronghold.

Faced with better-armed and better-funded foes, Pérez Molina insists, “We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss [legalization], discuss it, debate it.”