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Global Governance

Shift in Latin America’s Approach to Drugs – from Security to Health Issue

ANTIGUA, Guatemala, Jun 5 2013 (IPS) - The drug problem should be tackled not as a security issue but as a public health question, with policies for “prevention, treatment and rehabilitation,” delegations from the 34 countries participating in the 43rd General Assembly of the Organisation of American States agreed.

The meeting, which opened Tuesday Jun. 4 in the colonial Guatemalan city of Antigua, on the theme “For a Comprehensive Policy against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” will conclude Thursday Jun. 6 with a final declaration that, it is hoped, will express a consensus position on the most viable strategies to fight drug trafficking in the region.

However, in spite of agreement that the issue should be addressed from a public health standpoint instead of the law enforcement approach used in most countries in the region today, the draft Antigua Declaration of the General Assembly of the OAS does not include concrete actions, or even a vague road map for the future.

What remains contentious and what foreign ministers must resolve before the conclusion of the OAS meeting is the follow-up mechanism that should be implemented.

Fourteen countries are proposing that the OAS Permanent Council call an extraordinary General Assembly in 2014 in Guatemala, with the goal of moving forward in the debate on new strategies to combat drug trafficking and in the design of an action plan for the period 2016-2020.

Under this proposal, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) would be in charge of preparatory work for the meeting.

But the other 20 countries (Cuba has been suspended since the early 1960s) are opposed to the proposal, including the United States which is in favour of continuing to debate the drugs issue but is against an extraordinary assembly and CICAD involvement.

Canada is concretely proposing that the OAS Permanent Council, instead of CICAD, determine how the issue is followed up.

Another novelty is the incorporation of “a cross-cutting human rights perspective” and a gender perspective into public policies arising from the OAS summit, with the purpose of reducing demand and supply of illegal drugs.

Too little, too slow

Sandino Asturias, head of the Centro de Estudios de Guatemala (CEG – Centre for Guatemalan Studies), told IPS that the consensus on the need to treat drug trafficking as a health problem, rather than a public security issue, reflects a change in tackling this scourge even by the United States, as it implicitly admits that the armed fight against drug trafficking has failed.

In Mexico, under conservative President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), more than 83,000 people were killed in the context of the fight against organised crime, according to official figures. But the demand for drugs from consumer countries, especially the United States, has not declined. As a result, there is a growing consensus among governments in Latin America that it is time to consider new strategies.

“Some Latin American countries have been exerting pressure, and the idea that Washington only makes demands and the region must comply is beginning to change. I think there have been developments since the arrival of (U.S. President Barack) Obama, in the sense that there is more self-criticism,” Asturias said.

David Martínez-Amador, an expert with Proyecto Criminova in Mexico, which publishes academic papers on criminology, said that the health approach “has been put on the table.” But he criticised the fact that concrete policies, and sanctions against the use of armies in the war on drugs, have not been agreed.

“Like most of these forums, it ends with motivational speeches, hoping for discussions to continue while waiting for the extraordinary meeting; it’s a waste of time,” Martínez-Amador told IPS.

Several countries are taking steps to implement regulatory frameworks to legalise production of marijuana, including Argentina, Spain, Portugal, and in particular Uruguay, where parliament, at the behest of the leftwing Broad Front government, is debating a bill to legalise and regulate the sale of marijuana.

“This forum is just that, a forum, but when the doors close, each country has to blaze its own trail,” said the Mexican expert.

Turning the page

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, the host of this week’s OAS Assembly, proposed legalising drugs in early 2012, to shocked reactions.

During his election campaign he had said he was opposed to the idea, and days after he took office on Jan. 14, 2012, the government created a special agency to fight drug trafficking headed by its own drugs tsar, and confirmed that the Kaibil Commando, an elite army unit accused of the worst human rights violations during the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict, would lead the drug war.

No one, not even members of his own cabinet, could foresee that just one month later the retired general, who campaigned for the presidency on promises of coming down hard on crime, would declare that the time had come to consider decriminalisation as a possible solution to the rising tide of drug-related violence.

In April 2012, he tabled the issue again at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, although the United States responded negatively.

Several hypotheses have been put forward as to why Pérez Molina is defending the legalisation of drugs.

The British weekly newspaper The Economist speculated that the Guatemalan president was trying to get more funds from the United States, while Natalie Kitroeff, a researcher for the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said he was exerting pressure to lift the arms embargo imposed in 1978 on Guatemala due to human rights abuses committed during the civil war.

“The president is motivated by his image. (Pérez Molina) wants to be seen internationally as someone committed to democracy, not tainted by the past,” Asturias said.

The OAS summit is an opportunity for him to “turn the page” after the controversial trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, in which a witness directly implicated Pérez Molina of having participated in massacres in the highland department (province) of Quiché while commanding the Gumarcaj Task Force, Asturias said.

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