By EKOW BARTELS-KODWO
At a poorly attended summit of Central American leaders, the host, President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, reiterated calls for the decriminalization of recreational drug use.
Molina became the first sitting head of state to openly advocate for such a controversial stance when speaking at the Central American Security Summit in Antigua, Guatemala. Billed initially as a groundbreaking summit during which “alternative solutions” to the War on Drugs were to be discussed, the conference’s emphasis on how to manage the War on Drugs, as well as talk of decriminalization, were sidelined before the conference even began.
After accepting invitations to the conference, three heads of state, representing half of the countries in the region, pulled out on short notice. This was likely the result of pressure from Washington, which has long opposed legalization, and the reluctance of the Organization of American States (OAS) to face up to the issue of drug trafficking and related violence.
Molina declared that the War on Drugs had failed, asserting that it was time to reconsider drug policy in the region. He hoped the summit would put an end to the stigma surrounding the discussion of decriminalization as a serious policy alternative to outright prohibition. He added that the conflicts surrounding Central American countries have cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars annually and tens of thousands of lives.
Referring to the current policy, Molina said: “We have seen that the strategies that have been pursued against drug trafficking over the last 40 years have failed.” He added that there was a need to “look for new alternatives” and “end the myths, the taboos, and tell people we need to discuss this”.
President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica decried the cost in terms of human lives and asked rhetorically: “How much have we paid here in Central America in deaths, kidnapping and extortion?”
While by no means unequivocal, it signified an important shift when it comes to dealing with the drug gangs that have terrorized the Central American countries from their bases in Mexico.
It remains to be seen, however, how unyielding such calls for legalization will be in the face of U.S. opposition.
Molina’s suggested alternatives to decriminalization included a tax levied on the U.S. for all drugs seized in Central American countries because the U.S. is the largest consumer of these drugs and that Central American governments set up a court with regional jurisdiction that deals with transnational issues similar to the UN’s International Criminal Court.
Overall, two factors remain to be weighed. First, will the U.S. encourage some of the new alternative solutions presented by Molina? But, even more important to the bona fide post-colonial sovereignty of these countries is whether or not those Latin American states ultimately do favour decriminalization and whether or not their leaders are bold enough to raise the issue at the Summit of the Americas this April, at which the United States is going to be represented by President Barack Obama and not Vice President Joe Biden as was the case in early March.
Whatever be the case, it is time to put heads together in order to put a halt to the menace that continues to undermine the fundamental and systemic national security of the Central American region in its entirety. The time has come for the U.S. to allow the region to start seriously looking at less costly policy alternatives to the War on Drugs, in order to move the society from one that is shameful to one of which future generations can be proud.
The summit came in the wake of Biden’s trip to the region in early March, wherein he restated the U.S. opposition to the decriminalization of drugs in Latin America, and attempted to muster support for a renewed push in the U.S.-led War on Drugs.
Speaking in Mexico City, Biden told reporters that, while the discussion on decriminalization was a “legitimate” one, the dangers of legalization outweighed any benefits.
Biden’s visit came shortly after the OAS warned against the crippling social and economic effects that Central American and Mexican drug cartels are having on the region.
In remarks to the OAS-sponsored Conference on Transnational Organized Crime in Mexico City, OAS Secretary for Multidimensional Security, Adam Blackwell, said that the state of transnational crime in the region not only threatens to undermine institutional security and stability, but also poses a systemic threat to democracy.
Blackwell admitted that there had been an increase in drug-related violence in the region, but stressed the importance of remaining steadfast in the ongoing fight against the criminal organizations behind it.
“I urge you to direct our efforts to the development and strengthening of our institutional capacities, through knowledge-sharing, the exchange of information and experiences and, wherever possible, joint action,” he said.
This increased pressure on area countries from the OAS and the U.S., as demonstrated by Blackwell and Biden, to stick to the script with regard to the War on Drugs, is symbolic of how oblivious the hand-me-down U.S. policy regarding the country’s neighbours in the western hemisphere is to changing realities on not just the War on Drugs, but also on seemingly unrelated issues such as the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
This is an edited version of analysis by Ekow Bartels-Kodwo, Research Associate at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs.