Pubdate: Sun, 25 Mar 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Chris Kraul and Alex Renderos


Three Central American Leaders Fail to Agree on Changing Their Laws, 
Possibly Including Legalization.

A conclave of Central American presidents meeting in Guatemala to 
discuss a major overhaul of their drug laws - including legalization 
or decriminalization - failed to arrive at a consensus Saturday and 
agreed to meet again soon in Honduras.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina had invited five counterparts 
to discuss what he described as growing frustration with Washington's 
anti-drug policy, which many in the region say is exacting too high a 
price in crime and corruption.

Some sort of policy declaration was expected after the meeting, yet 
at day's end there was no reason given for its absence.

But a disappointing turnout may have been a factor: Panama's Ricardo 
Martinelli and Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla attended; the presidents 
of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua stayed home.

Central America has experienced a surge in violent crime in recent 
years as it has become a favored transit route for cocaine and heroin 
processed in South America and moved north to consumers in the United 
States. Weak economies, democratic institutions and judicial systems 
have made the area fertile ground for drug gangs.

In an unprecedented move that reflects many leaders' desire for a new 
approach to fighting drugs, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos 
recently put legalization and decriminalization of drugs on the 
agenda for discussion at next month's Summit of the Americas. 
Thirty-four heads of state, including President Obama, are schedule to attend.

It apparently was Santos' bold action that spurred Perez to attempt 
to forge a unified front with regional leaders in advance of the April summit.

The U.S. remains firmly opposed to liberalizing drug laws. Vice 
President Joe Biden said on a visit to Mexico this month that there 
was "no possibility" that the U.S. would support a move toward 
legalizing drugs.

In an interview with The Times last week, a U.S. counter-narcotics 
official said: "We looked at decriminalizing and legalizing, and it 
just doesn't work for us."

But Central American leaders increasingly protest that they are 
ill-equipped to contain powerful drug traffickers. While coca 
cultivation, cocaine trafficking and related violence have declined 
in Colombia, for which the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia anti-drug 
program is partly credited, crime is on the upswing in Central America.

Honduras has been especially hard hit, with the city of San Pedro 
Sula taking the place of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez as the most violent 
metropolis in the hemisphere when it comes to homicides per capita. 
Jungle regions of eastern Honduras are striped with dozens of illegal 
air strips used by traffickers.

The relatively new Texis cartel in El Salvador has numerous police 
officials and politicians on its payroll, intelligence sources have 
told The Times, and the infamous Mexican Zetas gang has turned part 
of the Peten jungle in northeastern Guatemala into its strategic 
stronghold. Just to the north, tens of thousands of people in Mexico 
have died in drug-related violence since 2006.

Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin 
America, a think tank that favors the liberalization of drug laws, 
said drug use should be treated as a "health problem, not a criminal problem."

She noted a 2009 study signed by three former Latin American 
presidents - Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of 
Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico - declared that the war on 
drugs was a failure and called for alternative policies, including 
the decriminalization of marijuana.

Youngers said that although the Central American leaders are not 
unanimous on legalization, "the important thing is that they are 
having this kind of discussion, and the best we can hope for is they 
continue meeting and develop a framework for doing so."

Special correspondent Kraul reported from Bogota and special 
correspondent Renderos from San Salvador.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom