Pubdate: Tue, 22 Apr 2014
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Jose De Cordoba

Colombian President Santos Seeks New Path On Drug War

Leader Says He Hopes for Breakthrough on Drug War in Peace Talks With 
FARC Guerrillas

MEXICO CITY--Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the war 
against drugs has failed, and the world must come up with new 
approaches to deal with a scourge that has killed thousands of Colombians.

In an interview on Monday with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Santos 
noted a softening of hard-line antidrug policies both in the U.S. and 
in Latin America. He said the world had to develop more "realistic 
and pragmatic" ways to fight drug trafficking.

"How do I explain to a peasant in Colombia that I have to put him in 
prison for growing marijuana when in Colorado or in Washington state, 
it's legal to buy the same marijuana?" he said. "The world needs a 
more effective, fresher, more creative focus to win this war, because 
until now we haven't won, and the cost has been enormous."

Mr. Santos was on a one-day visit to Mexico to attend a ceremony in 
honor of Nobel-prize winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 
who died here last week.

The Colombian leader, who faces a critical re-election test in May, 
said that an important breakthrough in the war on drugs would be 
achieved if, as expected, negotiators for his government and for the 
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, reach an agreement 
on stamping out drug trafficking by the guerrillas, the third point 
in a proposed peace plan.

The FARC, which the U.S. considers to be a terrorist and drug 
trafficking organization, relies heavily on cocaine trafficking to 
finance its activities. The two sides have been locked in tough 
negotiations for the last 17 months in Havana to end the five-decade 
guerrilla insurgency.

"I expect to reach an agreement on that third point in the near 
future," he said. If the FARC stops drug trafficking and becomes a 
partner with the government in eradicating drugs, it would have 
"enormous implications repercussions for Colombia and the world," he said.

As Colombia cracked down on its cartels in the past 25 years, the 
drugs trade simply moved resources to other parts of the region, 
causing violence to soar in Central America, Mexico and the 
Caribbean, the president said.

"We have arguably been the most successful country in learning how to 
dismantle these organizations, so we speak with a certain moral 
authority on this," he said.

Mr. Santos said an Organization of American States report published 
last year, which said that it was time to seriously discuss 
legalizing marijuana as a way of reducing drug violence, should be 
widely discussed so when the United Nations holds a special general 
assembly meeting on drugs in 2016, "there is a critical mass to 
really reopen the discussion."

Last December, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the 
growing, sale and smoking of marijuana, in an attempt to wrest the 
business from criminals. Before that, presidents such as Mr. Santos, 
and Guatemala's Otto Perez Molina had said it was time for a change 
of approach. The U.S. government has so far been cool to the change 
of attitude in Latin America, even as individual states, such as 
Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana.

A former defense and finance minister, Mr. Santos has overseen a 
healthy economy in Colombia, where the economy may grow as fast as 5% 
this year, he said. Despite that, his approval ratings have fallen in 
recent months and he is under fire from both the left and right as he 
heads to elections. A poll last week from pollster Datexco suggested 
the president might lose in a runoff to former Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa.

But Mr. Santos, who still leads a crowded field of five major 
candidates, said he was confident he would win re-election even 
though he may have to go to a second round if he doesn't win more 
than half the vote.

"This time four years ago, I was 10 points behind in the polls, and I 
won with the largest victory margin in the history of the country," he said.

 From the right, Mr. Santos' attempt to negotiate a peace with the 
FARC has drawn the constant and sharp criticism of hard line former 
President Alvaro Uribe, who now sits in Colombia's senate. Mr. Uribe, 
a prolific and combative user of social media, accuses Mr. Santos 
nearly every day on his Twitter account of negotiating with terrorists.

Mr. Santos dismissed Mr. Uribe's criticisms, saying the former 
president had tried and failed in his own attempts to seek a 
negotiated peace with the FARC, and had negotiated fruitlessly with 
another guerrilla group in Cuba for two years. "When I do it, it's 
legitimizing terrorism," he said.

Mr. Uribe has also blasted Mr. Santos for not strongly criticizing 
the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which has 
jailed opponents, cracked down on press freedoms, and harshly 
repressed street protests during the last two months. More than 40 
people have died in the protests which show no sign of abating.

"I have profound differences with...Maduro, but we respect each 
other," he said.

He said Colombia was one of four countries, including the Holy See, 
that are involved in pushing for dialogue between the Venezuelan 
government and the opposition. "Dialogue is how we can resolve these 
very complicated situations that Venezuela is living through," he said.

 From the left, Mr. Santos has drawn fire from critics who say he was 
wrong to agree last month to remove leftist Gustavo Petro from his 
post as mayor of the capital Bogota, the country's second-most 
important political job.

Mr. Petro was removed from office after his efforts to use the courts 
to thwart his firing by the country's conservative inspector general 
failed. Alejandro Ordonez, the inspector general, has the power to 
dismiss politicians he believes are incompetent or corrupt.

Earlier, Mr. Ordonez had ruled that Mr. Petro had bungled the trash 
collection system in Bogota, a city of eight million people.

But Mr. Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who laid 
down his arms years ago to go into politics, struck a nerve with many 
Colombians, arguing that the decision to remove him put the peace 
process in peril because it showed that the government was unwilling 
to allow the left to rule in Colombia.

Mr. Petro has drawn comparisons with the fate of another leftist 
party, the Patriotic Union, composed largely of guerrillas who had 
lay down their arms in a prior peace process.The party had 1,400 
members assassinated by right-wing death squads in the late 80s and 
early 90s, scholars say.

Mr. Santos said he didn't want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to 
follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was 
ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom