By Ekow Bartels-Kodwo
At a poorly attended summit of Central American leaders, the host President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala reiterated calls for the decriminalization of recreational drug use. Although some regional former heads of state have called for such a solution, President Molina became the first sitting head of state to openly advocate for such a controversial stance when speaking at the Central American Security Summit in Antigua, Guatemala. Billed initially as a groundbreaking summit during which “alternative solutions” to the War on Drugs were to be discussed, the conference’s emphasis on how to manage the War on Drugs, as well as talk of decriminalization, were sidelined before the conference even began.
After accepting invitations to the conference, three heads of state, representing fully half of the countries in the region, pulled out of the conference on short notice. This was likely the result of pressure from Washington, which has long opposed legalization, and the reluctance of the Organization of American States, the (OAS) to face up to the issue of drug trafficking and related violence.
President Molina declared that the War on Drugs had failed, asserting that it was time to reconsider drug policy in the region. The summit, he hoped, would put an end to the stigma surrounding the discussion of decriminalization as a serious policy alternative to outright prohibition. He added that the conflicts surrounding their countries have cost Central American countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually and tens of thousands of lives. Referring to the current policy, Molina opined “We have seen that the strategies that have been pursued against drug trafficking over the last 40 years have failed.” He added that there was a need to “look for new alternatives” and “end the myths, the taboos, and tell people we need to discuss this.” Also in attendance was Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, who decried the cost in terms if human lives, asking rhetorically, “How much have we paid here in Central America in deaths, kidnapping, and extortion?”
The summit came in the wake of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to the region in early March, wherein he restated the United States’ opposition to the decriminalization of drugs in Latin America, and attempted to muster support for a renewed push in the U.S.-led War on Drugs. Speaking in Mexico City, Vice President Biden told reporters that, while the discussion on decriminalization was a “legitimate” one, the dangers of legalization outweighed any benefits.
Biden’s visit came shortly after the OAS warned against the crippling social and economic effects that Central American and Mexican drug cartels are having on the region. In remarks to the OAS-sponsored Conference on Transnational Organized Crime in Mexico City, OAS Secretary for Multidimensional Security, Adam Blackwell said that the state of transnational crime in the region not only threatens to undermine institutional security and stability, but also poses a systemic threat to democracy.
In his further comments at the conference, Secretary Blackwell admitted that there had been an increase in the regions drug-related violence, but stressed the importance of remaining steadfast in the ongoing fight against the criminal organizations behind it. He stated, “I urge you to direct our efforts to the development and strengthening of our institutional capacities, through knowledge-sharing, the exchange of information and experiences, and wherever possible, joint action.
This increased pressure on area countries from the OAS and the U.S., as demonstrated by Mr. Blackwell and Vice President Biden respectively, to stick to the script in regards to the war on drugs, is symbolic of how oblivious the hand-me-down U.S. policy regarding her neighbours in the western hemisphere is to changing realities on not just the war on drugs, but on seemingly unrelated issues such as the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The calls by Presidents Perez Molina of Guatemala and Chinchilla of Costa Rica, while by no means unequivocal, signify a shift of tectonic proportions when it comes to dealing with the drug gangs that have terrorized the Central American countries from their bases in Mexico.
It remains to be seen, however, just how unyielding such calls for legalization will be in the face of strident U.S. opposition. Already, President Molina has suggested alternatives to decriminalization. He proposed a tax levied on the U.S. for all drugs seized in Central American countries because the U.S. is the largest consumer of these drugs. He also proposed that Central American governments set up a court with regional jurisdiction that deals with transnational similar to the approach of the UN’s International Criminal Court.
Overall, two factors remain to be weighed. First, will the United States encourage some of the new alternative solutions presented by President Perez Molina? But even more important to the verifiably bona fide post-colonial sovereignty of these countries is whether or not those Latin American states ultimately do genuinely favor decriminalization and whether or not their leaders are bold enough to raise the issue at the Summit of the Americas this April, at which the United States is going to be represented by its Diplomat-in-Chief, President Obama and not Joe Biden as was the case in early March. Whatever be the case, it is time to stop throwing away the ecclesiastical baby with the bathwater and to put heads together in order to put a halt to the menace that has plagued, and continues to undermine the fundamental and systemic national security of the entire Central American region. The time has come for the United States to allow the region to start seriously looking at less costly policy alternatives to the war on drugs, in order to remove this deepening stain on the conscience in order to move the society that we live in from one that we have cause to be ashamed of living in to one that future generations can be proud to be a part of.
Ekow Bartels-Kodwo, Research Associate at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs.