Pubdate: Wed, 11 Apr 2012
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2012 The Washington Post Company
Author: Juan Forero


At Hemispheric Summit, Obama Will Hear Calls for Broad Changes in Tactics

BOGOTA, Colombia - When President Obama arrives in Colombia for a 
hemispheric summit this weekend, he will hear Latin American leaders 
say that the U.S.-orchestrated war on drugs, which criminalizes drug 
use and employs military tactics to fight gangs, is failing and that 
broad changes need to be considered.

Latin American leaders say they have not developed an alternative 
model to the approach favored by successive American administrations 
since Richard Nixon was in office. But the Colombian government says 
a range of options - including decriminalizing possession of drugs, 
legalizing marijuana use and regulating markets - will be debated at 
the Summit of the Americas in the coastal city of Cartagena.

Faced with violence that has left 50,000 people dead in Mexico and 
created war zones in Central America, regional leaders have for 
months been openly discussing what they view as the shortcomings of 
the U.S. approach. But the summit marks the first opportunity for 
many of them to directly share their grievances with Obama.

Those leaders who have most forcefully offered new proposals, or 
developed carefully argued critiques of American policy, are among 
Washington's closest allies. They include Colombian President Juan 
Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who marshaled U.S. aid to 
weaken drug syndicates; Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former 
military man who has long battled drug gangs; and Mexican President 
Felipe Calderon, whose nation has been engaged in an all-out war with cartels.

"There's probably been no person who has fought the drug cartels and 
drug trafficking as I have," Santos said in an interview last week 
with The Washington Post. "But at the same time, we must be very 
frank: After 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes 
you look to your left, you look to your right and you are almost in 
the same position.

"And so you have to ask yourself: Are we doing the correct thing?"

Perez, whose small country has been engulfed by violence that his 
security forces can barely contain, has been the most forceful and 
surprising proponent of far-reaching policy changes. The military and 
police under his command have continued to battle traffickers, he 
said in an interview from Guatemala City. But he said they have 
little to show for their effort.

"The strategy that we have followed these 30 or 40 years has 
practically failed, and we have to recognize it," he said.

In Washington, the White House Office of National Drug Control 
Policy, which oversees anti-drug policies for the Obama 
administration, declined to comment on the debate. But during a 
two-day visit to Central America and Mexico last month, Vice 
President Biden laid out the U.S. position, saying, "There are more 
problems with legalization than non-legalization."

"It's worth discussing," he told reporters, "but there's no 
possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on 

U.S. statistics signal some progress, such as a 40 percent drop in 
cocaine use in the United States since 2006 and a 68 percent plunge 
over the same period in the number of people testing positive for 
cocaine in the workplace.

And in Colombia, where the United States has been heavily involved in 
upgrading the military and in funding aerial fumigation of drug 
crops, the amount of land dedicated to growing the plant used to make 
cocaine dropped by nearly two-thirds from 2000 to 2010. Estimated 
potential production of cocaine, meanwhile, tumbled from 700 metric 
tons in 2001 to 270 metric tons in 2010, although it picked up in 
Bolivia and Peru, according to U.S. statistics.

Latin American leaders, however, point out that the United States 
remains the world's largest cocaine market and that there have been 
record levels of violence from Venezuela to El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

Cesar Gaviria, a former Colombian president who has been a forceful 
critic of the U.S. policy, said American officials acknowledge the 
failure of the policy behind closed doors and do little to defend it 
publicly. He said it is simply a policy on automatic pilot.

"You reach the conclusion that all this killing in Mexico and Central 
America has been in the name of a failed policy that the United 
States does not believe in or vigorously defend," said Gaviria, 
speaking in his Bogota office.

Much of the momentum for a shift began after Gaviria, former Mexican 
president Ernesto Zedillo and former Brazilian president Fernando 
Henrique Cardoso issued a report in 2009 calling for drug policy 
reform. They have been joined by a range of intellectuals, among them 
Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and retired officials, including 
former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz.

What they and many current presidents in Latin America propose is not 
a wide-open policy of legalization but a softening of the laws.

Decriminalizing drug possession would free billions of dollars spent 
in the criminal justice system, advocates say, while vastly improving 
drug treatment. Heavy drug users, who drive the illicit trade, could 
be weaned off drugs through maintenance models that provide drugs 
legally but under close supervision.

Legalizing marijuana, which advocates argue would present only a 
modest risk to public health, would weaken cartels and free up 
funding for other uses, advocates say.

"They're not saying, 'Legalize everything today,' like alcohol and 
tobacco," said Ethan Nadelmann, who has advised Latin American 
leaders and is the director of the New York-based Drug Policy 
Alliance, an advocacy organization that has criticized U.S. tactics. 
"What they are saying is we need to give the same consideration to 
alternative, regulatory and non-prohibitionist drug control policies 
in the future as we've given to the failed drug war strategies of the 
last 40 years."

Leaders discussing drug policy at the summit said they do not expect 
a change soon. Rather, the idea is to plant the seeds of changes in 
the years ahead.

"We understand perfectly that this is an election year in the United 
States," said Perez, Guatemala's leader, noting that no major policy 
shift could occur without a regionwide consensus. "There is not a 
decision that has to be made in this moment, or in six months. This 
is a process of discussion."

Santos, who said he wants talks to take place "without a specific 
proposal" in mind, said that if there are changes in the future, they 
should be based strictly on serious studies.

"There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach 
that conclusion after an objective discussion," he said. "The U.S. 
says, 'We don't support legalization, because the cost of 
legalization is higher than no legalization.' But I want to see a 
discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, 
really, the cost is lower or not." 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom