Pubdate: Thu, 15 Mar 2012
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2012 The Economist Newspaper Limited

Drug Policy in Latin America


As Violence Soars, So Do Voices of Dissent Against Drug Prohibition

MEXICO CITY - LATIN AMERICA is rich in sought-after commodities, 
including narcotics. The coca leaf, from which cocaine is refined, is 
grown only in the foothills of the Andes. Mexico produces more heroin 
than anywhere but Afghanistan, as well as much cannabis.

Latin American traffickers are even diversifying into synthetic drugs 
such as methamphetamine.

The illegality of this successful export business means that its 
multi-billion-dollar profits go to criminal gangs.

Their battles for market control have a high cost: according to the 
UN, eight of the world's ten most violent countries are in Latin 
America or the Caribbean. Drugs are not the only business of 
organised crime, but they account for the bulk of the gangs' income 
and thus their firepower. Honduras, a strategic spot on the 
trafficking route, has the world's highest murder rate, about 80 
times that of western Europe.

All this is despite three decades of what has become known as the 
"war" on drugs in the region, inspired by the United States, and 
prosecuted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Latin American 
governments. Or is it because of the drug war? Hitherto, criticism of 
drug prohibition has tended to come only from retired political leaders.

In a 2009 report, three respected former presidents (Fernando 
Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Mexico's 
Ernesto Zedillo) declared the drug war a failure, and demanded 
alternative approaches. Mr Cardoso has called for the legalisation of 
some drugs.

Recently, sitting presidents have begun to speak up, too. Felipe 
Calderon of Mexico called for a "national debate" about legalisation, 
though he then seemed to forget about it. After an arson attack by a 
drug gang killed 52 people in a casino last August, he declared that 
if the United States was determined to keep importing drugs, it 
should seek "market alternatives" and "clear points of access other 
than the border with Mexico".

In November Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president, told Britain's 
Observer newspaper: "If [taking away traffickers' profits] means 
legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome 
it." The seven countries of Central America, plus Mexico, Colombia 
and the Dominican Republic, have jointly declared that "if [cutting 
demand] is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the 
authorities of consumer countries must explore all possible 
alternatives...including regulatory or market options."

Those calling for an end to the war cannot all be brushed off as 
liberal namby-pambies. Otto Perez Molina, Guatemala's new president, 
is a former general who when campaigning promised an "iron fist" against crime.

Last month he called for the decriminalisation of drug-trafficking, 
saying: "You would get rid of money-laundering, smuggling, 
arms-trafficking and corruption." In a poll for El Periodico, a 
Guatemalan newspaper, 79% were against decriminalising drugs.

But Mr Perez, who enjoys voters' confidence on security, has pressed 
on, sending his vice-president on a regional tour to drum up support.

The United States seems to have noted this war-weariness. During a 
visit to Mexico and Honduras earlier this month Joe Biden, the 
vice-president, said that legalisation was "worth discussing", but 
added that there was no possibility of the administration dropping 
its opposition to it. His call to stand firm was undermined by the 
announcement that funding from the United States for Central American 
security would be cut to $105m this year, from an average of $120m 
over the past three years.

Without more money, the region has no hope of containing its criminal 
mafias. The crash of a military helicopter in Guatemala last month 
left only two operational; next-door Belize has none.

Some wonder if the talk about legalisation is a ploy to extract more 
foreign aid. Mr Perez, for instance, wants the United States to 
restart aid to the Guatemalan army, banned because of past 
human-rights abuses. Mr Calderon, whose party faces an uphill 
struggle in July's presidential election, has often sought scapegoats 
for what many Mexicans see as the failure of his five-year war 
against the traffickers.

Some Latin American countries, like some in Europe, take a softer 
approach to drug consumption than the United States, focusing on 
education and treatment.

Several allow possession of small personal doses of drugs.

In Brazil drug users are sentenced to community work, rather than prison.

The country's supreme court is due to rule this year on whether drug 
consumption should be decriminalised.

The difficulty for many Latin American countries is that, short of 
legalisation, it is hard to replicate such "harm reduction" policies 
when it comes to drug production and transport.

It is prohibition which provides the profits that attract organised crime.

Take Bolivia, which last year left the 1961 UN convention on 
narcotics control because it wants legal protection for the 
traditional use of coca leaves, which are chewed by Amerindians and 
drunk as tea. On March 12th Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, who 
doubles as the leader of the coca workers' union, brandished a coca 
leaf at the annual meeting of the UN commission on drugs in Vienna, 
urging that his country be readmitted to the convention with an 
opt-out for coca.

Mr Morales has raised the permitted amount of coca for traditional 
use from 12,000 hectares (29,500 acres) to 20,000, pending a study of 
how much is actually required.

Foreign officials believe the increase is unwarranted. Most coca in 
Bolivia (31,000 hectares in total) is turned into cocaine for export, 
mainly to Brazil, where the cities are suffering a crack epidemic.

After Mr Morales expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration, 
Brazil's federal police have stepped up anti-drug operations with 
their Bolivian counterparts.

Peru has replaced Colombia as the largest cocaine exporter.

After Ollanta Humala became Peru's president last July, his first 
anti-drugs chief, Ricardo Soberon, a former activist in NGOs, 
announced a surprise suspension of coca-eradication efforts, but 
without putting any other policies in place.

Mr Soberon was sacked; his replacement previously worked for an 
anti-drug organisation funded by the United States.

On March 24th Mr Perez will host another meeting of Central American 
presidents, plus Mr Calderon and Mr Santos. The aim is to agree on a 
proposal to take to next month's Summit of the Americas, a regional 
get-together including the United States and Canada. Mr Santos, the 
summit's host, has said that he will put decriminalisation on the 
agenda. A debate has begun, but it will be a long one.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom