Since former U.S. President Richard Nixon launched the U.S. “war on drugs” 40 years ago, the U.S. government has with rare exceptions dictated drug control efforts across Latin America. It has used threats of aid cut-backs, trade suspensions and international shaming to cajole governments to do its bidding in the so-called drug war. Some countries, like Colombia, became willing accomplices. But drug war strategies in Latin America were clearly stamped “Made in America.” U.S.-backed efforts have ranged from eliminating the only source of income for small coca farmers to putting militaries into a law enforcement role (often in countries only recently emerging from decades of military rule) to exporting harsh drug laws with mandatory minimum sentences that have filled prisons across the region with low-level, non-violent offenders.
Latin American governments are finally saying, “Enough is enough.” This Saturday, March 24, 2012 Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is hosting a meeting of Central American presidents to discuss alternative approaches to the drug war. Pérez Molina has emerged as the region’s leading advocate for drug policy reform and has achieved what many thought was unthinkable even a few months ago: He has placed legalization at the center of the policy debate. His motivations for doing so remain murky and some would certainly question whether he is a trustworthy ally for drug policy reformers. (WOLA documents allegations of serious human rights abuses in its report, Hidden Powers.) But the stark reality is that Pérez Molina – building on the previous work done by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Drug Policy Commission, as well as declarations by Colombia’s President Santos — has taken on this fight with gusto and in the process has changed the terms of the debate. Latin America is now driving the drug policy discussion across the hemisphere.
Central American presidents go into Saturday’s meeting divided on the legalization issue. Guatemala has received the most support for debating the issue from Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla (not surprising given her academic work on citizen security issues). The presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have been less accommodating. But all of the presidents have agreed on the need for debate. And significantly, all have recognized that present drug control policies have failed to stem drug production, trafficking or consumption and are ill-equipped to deal with the increasing levels of drugs flowing through the isthmus. A consensus has emerged in Central America – and increasingly across Latin America – on the need for a new paradigm for dealing with the drug issue; ideally a paradigm based on public health and human rights principles.
For its part, the U.S. government has reluctantly agreed to a debate. On his recent trip to Central America, Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States would engage in the discussion — how could they say no to that? But at the same time, he reiterated that Washington does not accept drug legalization as an alternative. As noted in a WOLA statement, “The dissatisfaction with the current approach has become so pronounced that the United States can no longer turn its back on the call for a thorough debate.” In a March 21 State Department Twitter Q&A on the upcoming Summit of the Americas, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson responded to a question posed by WOLA stating, “We welcome discussion of new approaches to ensure comprehensive solutions to the problem.”
The outcome of Saturday’s debate is far from clear; but the ball is now in Latin America’s court. Ideally, the meeting will culminate with a commitment from the Central American presidents to continue a rigorous and thorough discussion of drug policy alternatives that they will then take to the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia on April 14 and 15. President Santos of Colombia has already said that the drug issue will be put on the summit’s agenda. There, Latin American leaders should develop a concrete framework to advance the drug policy debate in way that generates an comprehensive and exhaustive discussion that includes drug policy experts, civil society representatives, community leaders and all stakeholders. Four decades after Nixon’s fateful speech, the failed prohibitionist drug policies exported by Washington are finally receiving the scrutiny that they deserve.
(This originally appeared in ‘Foreign Policy in Focus‘ on March 23, 2012)