Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

Latin American Countries Call for Alternatives to War on Drugs

GUATEMALA CITY, Apr 13 2012 (IPS) - The countries of Latin America will raise their voices at the Sixth Summit of the Americas to condemn the “failed” war on drugs and propose alternatives, such as the controversial depenalisation, in order to curb drug-related violence, especially in Mexico and Central America.

All indications are that the summit, to be held Saturday and Sunday Apr. 14-15 in the Colombian city of Cartagena, will reach agreement on the need to reform anti-drug policies, but not on what their new direction should be.

“We have had a militaristic policy that has not been successful, while the drug traffickers have been successful in infiltrating state bodies and corrupting wide sectors of society,” Carmen Aída Ibarra of the Guatemalan NGO Movimiento Pro Justicia (Movement for Justice) told IPS.

In the circumstances, “seeking alternatives is a legitimate course of action, because if we continue the war, which is not having a significant impact in terms of the amount of drugs seized or arrests made, we will keep supplying the victims,” she said, referring to the Central American countries.

“In Central America, the escalating drug-related violence involving drug trafficking organisations has reached alarming and unprecedented levels,” worsened by corruption, poverty and inequality, according to the 2011 report of the International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations body.

More than 70,000 youth gang members operate in Central America, which is used as a land bridge for the transit of drugs produced in South America to the United States. Annual murder rates are as high as 82 per 100,000 population in Honduras, 65 in El Salvador and 40 in Guatemala, the report says.

In Mexico, “over 35,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in the period 2006-2010,” it says.

Faced with these levels of carnage, Latin American presidents and former presidents are calling for a reform of the methods of fighting drug trafficking, which have so far been focused on repressive measures, backed by the United States.

Rightwing Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will propose “partial or complete depenalisation of drug trafficking and consumption” in place of the “failed” war on drugs – perhaps the most controversial of all upcoming proposals.

“Consumption and production of drugs should be legalised, within certain limits and conditions,” Pérez Molina said in a column published on the eve of the summit by the British newspaper The Guardian. His view is directly opposed to that of the United States, the world’s largest consumer of drugs, whose authorities are against decriminalisation.

“This idea has sparked a process that will have positive results for changing a failed strategy that has had terrible effects, for instance in Mexico,” Edmundo Urrutia, the head of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Guatemala, told IPS.

Former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and César Gaviria of Colombia reiterated their proposal for “regulating drug sales, advertising and consumption, without legalising them,” according to a letter sent to Cartagena summit delegates.

Meanwhile, presidents like Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia have shown openness to other anti-drug policy options.

“If we find that there is a better alternative that will undermine the profits of the criminal organisations, and that maybe the problem of consumption can be addressed in a more effective way, then everybody will win,” President Santos said this week.

International criminalisation of drug trafficking prevents each country from finding national solutions to its own longstanding problems, according to Ricardo Vargas, the head of Acción Andina Colombia (Andean Action Colombia) and an associate fellow of the Transnational Institute, a think tank based in the Netherlands.

“This is the cornerstone of the debate in Mexico, Central America and Colombia,” Vargas told IPS.

“In Central America, there is deep-rooted social conflict; there are states that are still authoritarian, like Honduras; conflicts over land; very powerful landlords; and discrimination against indigenous people,” he said.

According to Vargas, “the model that sees drug trafficking as associated with violence, and that responds by militarising the region, only makes matters worse…and the United States should re-examine the situation.”

Acción Andina, the Transnational Institute and six other civil society organisations signed another open letter in the run-up to the summit, calling for a review of the results of the war on drugs, which has brought about “the concentration, specialisation and diversification of organised criminal groups.”

Some people believe there is no other solution than to decriminalise drugs.

“The first step is to depenalise drug use and reinforce health and education policies in our countries, based on respect for life, democracy and the rule of law,” Erubiel Tirado, the coordinator of the diploma course on national security at the private Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, told IPS.

The United States “does not play an important role in combating the roots of the problem, because although it has recognised that its enormous domestic drug consumption provokes the war on drugs in the rest of the hemisphere, it does very little to reduce demand,” he said.

However, not everyone agrees with depenalisation.

The presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama have rejected such a measure, which they see as counterproductive – the same view expressed by the U.S. government, most recently on Wednesday Apr. 11.

“President (Barack) Obama doesn’t support decriminalisation, (but) he does think this is a legitimate debate,” said Dan Restrepo, senior director for Western hemisphere affairs at the White House National Security Council.

The debate continues while the Summit delegations are pouring into Cartagena.

“Drug cartels have infiltrated the police, the prosecution service, and the judiciary. And in El Salvador even lawmakers have been on the drug traffickers’ payroll,” Salvadoran political analyst Roberto Cañas told IPS.

In Cañas’ view, “it is time to depenalise drugs,” since so far, the war on drugs “has failed.”

However, there are powerful interests that oppose such a move, he said, such as “money laundering, a major activity, for which no statistics are ever publicised in El Salvador.”

* With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira (Cartagena), Emilio Godoy (Mexico City) and Edgardo Ayala (San Salvador).

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