Drug legalization debate gaining momentum in Central America

Honduras President invite Colombia and Mexico to the March 24 SICA meeting in Guatemala

On March 9, Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, acting as the SICA president and at the request of its members, invited Colombia and Mexico to join the next meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Guatemala on March 24.  Both presidents Santos and Calderon accepted the invitation. The meeting will focus on the recent proposal by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to legalize drugs.

Lobo Sosa notably declared: “President Calderón, President Santos, and the leaders of the Central American isthmus have agreed that the manner in which we are [dealing with drug trafficking] is not the solution because we continue to lose human lives.”

Although the debate has been brewing for a while, 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.

The current debate was launched by Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, a former general elected on a law and order platform. Perez Molina surprised everyone a few days after taking office in January 14th, 2012 when he declared the war on drugs a failure and asked for an open debate to explore alternatives, including legalization. Following discussions with Colombian President Santos, President Perez Molina further declared on February 11th his intention to present his proposal for drug legalization at the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. He sent his Vice-President Roxana Baldetti on a tour to promote his proposal to regional leader on February 29th.

The move was greeted by a quick rebuke from the US government, who dispatched Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to the region on February 28th, one day ahead of Roxana Baldetti’s own tour. Napolitano was followed by US vice-president Joe Biden, who visited Mexico to reiterate US commitment to the War on Drugs, before heading to the March 6 meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA) hosted by president Porfirio Lobo Sosa in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Considering President Lobo Sosa initial opposition to legalization, this latest move represents an interesting development. In his declaration, President Lobo Sosa affirmed  “This very important proposal is something that we need to assess and manage in a positive way so that, if the discussion is successful, we can offer to the world a better solution, if we are able to find it, to the terrible problem of narco-trafficking.”

This latest development reaffirms the determination of Latin American countries to the legalization debate and seems to indicate a willingness to accelerate the process in preparation for the Summit of the Americas on April 14-15. While the March 6 SICA meeting, undoubtedly hold off by Biden presence at the meeting, didn’t produce much more than an intent to open the debate, we can expect concrete proposals at the March 24th meeting. President Perez Molina announced that workgroups are actively preparing the details of his proposal.

There are good reasons to suspect that Colombian president Santos has been involved with the Perez Molina initiative from the very start, as alluded to by Perez Molina himself. The fact that President Santos is now coming out more openly is significant. Colombia is considered the best US ally in the War on Drugs, and is often touted as a success story and a model by the US anti-drug apparatus. The Colombian themselves have a more measured appreciation. While there has been undeniable progress since the peak of narco-violence in the 1990s, Santos himself acknowledges that the problem is contained at best. Colombia is still the main cocaine producer in the world and while the mega-cartels of the past may have been destroyed, it has opened the gates to the Mexican cartels and has resulted in an explosion of mini-cartels. The loss of its Colombian ally would be a major blow to the US anti-drug strategy, a blow that could prove fatal if Mexico was to join the legalization camp.

It is too early to say where the Perez Molina initiative will lead to, and what its true objectives may be. It may be a ploy to increase pressure on the US government to allocate more resources to the region, as has been argued. On the other hand, if any lesson can be drawn from the Colombian and Mexican experience, it is quite obvious that their war-like strategy came at a very high human cost for these countries. Central American countries have borne the brunt of narco-violence for the past three decades and as this violence keeps increasing, they seem to be genuinely ready to call it quits and to be looking for more realistic and workable alternatives. These already impoverished countries do not have the resources to deploy a US style prohibitionist system, and it would be folly for them to even attempt to. They are plagued by systemic corruption, youth unemployment, poor education and gang violence. Their gang problem itself is largely the result of the US policy of deportation of illegal immigrants with criminal records to their native countries. As the US prison system is a notorious training ground for criminals, where inmates are far more dangerous when they get out than they were when they got in, the US has been sending droves of hardened criminals south of their border, with catastrophic consequences for the receiving countries. This, added to the constant flow of weapons flooding the region because of the US impotence at regulating its own gun industry, is adding to the profound discontent in the region, which is tired to take the blame and pay the price for an issue that they rightly perceive as being imposed onto them.

In any case, it would be well advised for all the drug policy reform activists the world over to come resolutely in support of the Perez Molina initiative and to contribute as much as possible to the debate going on in Latin America.

I have argued for quite some time, most notably in my recently published “World War-D”, that Latin America is the only part of the world where drug policy reform can emerge. We might be witnessing this emergence and might be on the verge of a major paradigm shift in drug policy.

This, folks, is history in the making. Be part of it! To that effect, I invite you to sign and promote the Perez Molina petition: http://signon.org/sign/support-guatemalan-president

Jeffrey Dhywood is an investigative writer, author of “World War D – The Case against prohibitionism, roadmap to controlled re-legalization” http://www.world-war-d.com/. Follow on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/worldward or Twitter: @JDhywood

Jeffrey Dhywood
Investigative Writer

News from the drug policy reform front

The drug policy reform movement is gathering steam in Latin America and US activists are not even paying attention, even though it is happening at their doorstep!

I have said for a while that drug policy reform, or more precisely, legalization and control of the currently illicit drugs can only happen globally, or at least, it needs to involve enough of the key players of the illegal drug trade: producing countries, transiting countries and consuming countries. I have also said that Latin America is the only part of the world where can emerge a coalition of countries willing to legalize. Well, it looks like the process already started and is gaining momentum.

The latest event, which hasn’t received any press coverage in the US, might be one of the most significant in the long run. The International Forum “Drugs: A Balance to a Century of Their Prohibition” opened on Tuesday February 14th at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, inaugurated by no less than Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Now I let you digest this for a while. Just imagine such a forum inaugurated by the US first Lady at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

The forum is attended by various members of the Mexican government, including Secretary of the Interior Alejandro Poiré. The rooster of speakers includes many major tenors of the drug policy reform movement, including former presidents Cesar Gaviria from Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil, as well as former UK drug czar Mike Trace. The leaders of the major drug policy reform organizations in the world are there too, from LEAP founder Jack Cole, to Judge Jim Gray, Ethan Nadelmann, or Steve Rolles from UK-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF). Speakers come all the way from Australia, Switzerland, Netherland, and include of course many Mexican experts.

The live stream of the forum, as well as recorded sessions, are available on ArgosTV.

Wednesday saw a passionate intervention by former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, that you can listen on these links: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20468121 and http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/20469180. To hear a former president of one of the countries that has been the most affected by the war on drugs talk with such passion about the hopelessness of prohibitionism was heartening. Even politician can have epiphanies! Why do they wait to retire though, to truly speak up their mind? This, by the way, is the whole idea behind my own Calderon-Santos initiative: trying to convince the two key Latin American leaders to fully come out of the war-on-drugs closet and lead a coalition of the willing to legalize.

Steve Rolles gave a no-nonsense preview of a post-prohibition world, that bears a lot of similarities to my own roadmap at the conclusion of World War-D. If you want to find out how the rest of the world is looking at the war on drugs, I strongly encourage you to browse through the videos of the event.

The drug policy reform movement seems to be reaching a turning point with heads of states ready to jump onboard. This is indeed an important development. Up to now, only retired heads of states were vocal against the war on drugs. The coalition that I was calling for can now emerge. We all can accelerate the movement by expressing our support. The time has come for an international public opinion campaign to get behind those joining the reformist camp.

Some background on recent developments in drug policy reform

I have reported on this blog some of the major developments and will just recap here and refer you to previous posts.

The first clear indication of the emergence of a regional coalition for drug legalization came on December 6th, 2011, during a meeting of Latin Americans and Caribbean leaders in what is known as the Tuxtla System for Dialogue.  http://www.world-war-d.com/2012/02/04/will-global-drug-policy-reform-start-in-latin-america/

Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina started talking about drug policy reform 4 days after taking office on January 14th, 2012. He went much further on February 11th, announcing that he will propose drug legalization in Central America at the next meeting of regional leaders. The US promptly fired back that it would be a terrible idea, but Perez Molina stuck to his guns and briefly gained to his cause Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on Monday the 13th. President Funes backpedalled shortly after getting back to Salvador, but it would of course be twisted to allege the effect of US pressure.


A thinly-veiled call for drug policy reform at the XIII Tuxtla System for Dialogue

Last December 6th, 2011, the countries  from the Tuxtla System for Dialogue met in Merida, Mexico, to discuss, among others, the security situation in the region, focusing on organized crime and narco-trafficking.

The Summit was attended by the presidents of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom; Honduras, Porfirio Lobo; Mexico, Felipe Calderón; Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega; Panama, Ricardo Martinelli; Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández; and First Vice-President of Costa Rica, Alfio Piva and the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Belize, Wilfred Elrington; Colombia, María Ángela Holguín; and El Salvador, Hugo Martínez. On this occasion, President of Chile Sebastián Piñera also attended in his capacity as Special Guest.

They published a one-page joint declaration  that expresses the growing frustration with the global war on drugs within the Central American region, and his the clearest regional call for  drug policy reform to date. (Declaracion conjunta sobre crimen-organizado y narcotrafico) – http://www.presidencia.gob.mx/2011/12/declaracion-conjunta-sobre-crimen-organizado-y-narcotrafico/ 

Here, is the key paragraph of the declaration:

“Senalaron que Lo deseable sería una sensible reducción de la demanda de drogas ilegales. Sin embargo, si ello no es posible, como lo demuestra la experiencia reciente, las autoridades de los países consumidores deben entonces explorar todas las alternativas posibles para eliminar las ganancias exorbitantes de los criminales incluyendo opciones regulatorias o de mercado orientadas a ese propósito. Así se evitaría que el trasiego de sustancias siga provocando altos niveles de crimen y violencia en naciones latinoamericanas y caribeñas”.

or in plain English:

“They indicated that What would be desirable, would be a significant reduction in the demand for illegal drugs. Nevertheless, if that is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the authorities of the consuming countries ought then to explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end. Thus, the transit of substances that continue provoking high levels of crime and violence in Latin American and Caribbean nations will be avoided.”

The declaration uses almost verbatim previous declarations made by President Calderon and clearly bear his mark. It was largely ignored by the US medias, even though it represents a dramatic shift in attitude within the Central American and Caribbean region. Let’s hope that this new attitude will translate into a deliberate shift toward drug policy reform!