Latin American countries are rightfully fed up with fighting Washington’s war on drugs.
In the four decades since President Nixon declared the war on drugs, its battles have been fought predominantly in Latin American nations — leaving behind a trail of death and corruption while failing to achieve any of its goals.
After a bloody, decades-long war in Colombia, the epicenter of drug trafficking simply moved north to Mexico. Upon taking office five years ago, Mexican President Felipe Calderon fully embraced the war on drugs and the country quickly entered a spiral of violence that has left tens of thousands dead, even as the cartels remain as strong as ever.
At the same time, Central America has become a hub for drug smugglers. American-style street gangs operate as the armed muscle of the drug cartels, bringing the violence in Central America to levels that rival those of the civil wars of the 1980s. The bloodshed has even spread to countries that until recently enjoyed some of the lowest crime rates in the world, such as Costa Rica and Belize.
In addition, the perception in the region is that the United States makes tough demands on their governments to combat drug cartels, while doing too little to reduce demand at home. The United States remains the largest drug consumer market of the world. Furthermore, its lax gun legislation has made the United States the main source of weapons for drug cartels, and its financial institutions receive much of the profits of the drug business.
While some high-profile retired Latin American presidents and U.S. officials have in the past advocated decriminalization to address the failure of the existing approach, only recently have current leaders of Latin American countries have joined in calling for such measures.
First, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, a conservative and leader of the staunchest ally of the United States in the war on drugs, declared the war to be a failure and supported decriminalization.
Then, a few weeks ago, President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, a conservative former general, said he would consider legalizing the possession and transportation of drugs and called for a meeting with the presidents of Central American nations to debate the issue.
This sounded the alarm in Washington, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Vice President Joe Biden were sent to the region to deliver the message that the United States is not interested in debating alternatives to its failed strategy.
The arm-twisting was somewhat successful, as the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua withdrew from the planned summit. But the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama did not back down. In late March, they gathered in Antigua, Guatemala, to discuss alternatives to the war on drugs.
We desperately need these alternatives. Forty years of the war on drugs have caused death and destruction and increased the power of criminal organizations without a significant reduction in drug use.
The United States must acknowledge this failure and join Latin American countries in embracing alternatives to the war on drugs — including legalization or at least decriminalization of drug use.
Otherwise, the United States may soon find itself fighting this unwinnable war alone.
Juan Blanco Prada, currently based in Brazil, analyzes Latin American issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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