The upcoming Summit of the Americas, held in Colombia’s Caribbean hotspot Cartagena in April, must discuss the legalization of drugs as an alternative of the failing war on drugs.
The so-called War on Drugs has been going on for over 40 years, but despite the colossal resources that have been thrown at this failed social experiment, the world’s appetite for illicit substances keeps heading stubbornly upwards and drug–trafficking is as flourishing as ever, sowing mayhem and chaos all over the planet. To whoever is willing to analyze the issue without ideological or moralist goggles, it is painfully obvious that this doomed war is about as winnable as the war in Afghanistan (or the war in Iraq for that matter).
The list of retired world leaders speaking out against drug prohibition and calling for a paradigm shift on drug policy is growing by the day, and includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and a long string of ex-presidents, ex-drug czars and top drug-warriors, most notably from Latin America. The flow of retired high-level officials coming out of the War on Drugs closet is turning into a stampede.
Unfortunately, it was so far considered political suicide for lawmakers of all nationalities, kept in tight line under the hawkish watch of U.S. Prohibitionist-in-chief, to acknowledge the abysmal failure of the War on Drugs while they were in office.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was a notable exception, tiptoeing over a careful legalization line even before he was elected, and keeping his stance once in office. Mexican president Felipe Calderon started his mandate with a fierce determination to tackle the problem once and for all, but nearing the end of his 6 years term, and after a semi-official body count toppling 50,000, doubt seems to be creeping in. His determination was first shaken by the Monterrey massacre in August 2011, while the fast-and-furious debacle rightly infuriated him. The first expression of regional discontent came on December 6th, 2011, with the publication of a declaration calling for the exploration of “regulatory or market-oriented options”, signed by 10 heads of states of the Central-American and Caribbean region members of the Tuxtla System for Dialogue.
But the big surprise came from Guatemala where, a few days after taking office in January 14th, 2012, President Otto Perez Molina, a former general elected on a law and order platform, started talking about legalization as a way out of the War on Drugs conundrum.
Following discussions with his Colombian counterpart, Perez Molina further declared on February 11th his intention to present a proposal for drug legalization in Central America at the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas. Guatemalan Vice-President Roxana Baldetti will begin a tour to discuss the proposal with regional leaders and garner support for it, starting with Panama, Costa Rica and Salvador on February 29th.
Unsurprisingly, the move was greeted by a quick rebuke from the US government, who sent Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to tour the region on February 28th, one day ahead of Roxana Baldetti’s own tour. Napolitano gained support for the continuation of the war on drugs from the Presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama, three of Baldetti’s prime targets. Suspecting harm twisting would of course be disingenuous. Earlier in that tour, Napolitano declared that the Mexican war was not a failure, despite its 50,000 body count, though she came short of calling it a success.
The Guatemalan President’s initiative is unprecedented and marks the first time since the launching of the War on Drugs by Richard Nixon in 1971 that a foreign head of state actively challenges the U.S.-led policies of drug prohibition and try to build a coalition against it. A former top-brass Guatemalan military, Molina has impeccable credentials to launch such a move. Guatemala is on the major transit route from Colombia to the U.S. and drug violence has exploded there over the past few years, turning this already impoverished and unstable country into one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
It remains to be seen whether Molina will be able to withstand the U.S. pressure. A lot will depend on the attitude of Colombia and Mexico, the most influential countries in the region. Should these countries decide to seriously explore alternatives to the War on Drugs and move resolutely towards more pragmatic and realistic policies, the balance of power would be drastically altered and other countries could be persuaded to align behind them, but nothing can happen without Colombia and Mexico onboard.
There are reasons to believe that the recent development represent a lasting shift in Latin American approach to the intractable drug trafficking problem that has caused tremendous damage to the region over the past 3 decades. There is growing realization that the current prohibitionist approach is powerless to tackle the issue, as any apparent success on one front just displaces the problem. Methamphetamines displace cocaine. Guatemala replaces Mexico. A splinter of mini-cartels take over mega-cartels after their demise, in endless vicious circles. Violence is contained, at best, as seems to be currently the case in Colombia.
Latin American deeply resents that the U.S. has long blamed producing and transiting countries while being unwilling and unable to curb demand at home. Adding fuel to the resentment is the constant flow of American weaponry and the extremely lax U.S. gun laws that American lawmakers are too terrified to challenge. Latin Americans also realize that they are bearing the brunt of the human cost of a war that has been largely imposed on them, and were they somewhat feel as innocent bystanders, especially in transiting countries.
More worrisome, the region is facing its own drug problem. As drug-related services and transactions are often paid in kind, a move started by the cartels in the late 1980s, the substances used as payment end up fueling an explosion of the local demand. As a result, the turf wars between gangs and cartels are increasingly fought over local territories rather than transit routes.
At the same time, Latin American countries are increasingly eager to assert their independence from their often over-bearing Northern neighbor. The current power vacuum in the US, where the government is practically held hostage by a fanatical political fringe, reinforces this desire for independence and creates favorable conditions. The intransigence displayed by the Obama administration and Napolitano might end up backfiring.
I have argued for quite some time, most notably in my recently released book “World War-D” that drug policy reform will start in Latin America, and be lead by Colombia and Mexico. We might be witnessing history in the making, but there might be ways to force the hands of history.
Recent history has shown the power of public opinion. We all need to show our support to Guatemala and its potential Latin American allies. Colombia and Mexico must rise to the occasion. We also need to put pressure on the Obama administration to ensure that it doesn’t stall Molina’s proposal, and that it allows a truthful debate at the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas and beyond.
This is why I created a petition demanding drug legalization to be discussed in Colombia to Obama, Santos, Perez Molina and his vice-president, Calderon and the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica, Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Your support to end the insane War on Drug is necessary.