Central America Drug Legalization Debate Heats Up


Though it is very unlikely that Central America will decriminalize the consumption and sale of illegal drugs, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina says his proposal to do so will reduce crime tied to the trade in the region.

In a radio interview broadcast on Feb. 11, Pérez Molina said that under his proposal “it would no longer be a crime to transport drugs.”

“All of this must be regulated,” he said. “With the technology and the millions of dollars the United States has given, the problem hasn’t gotten any better.”

Even though the debate is using the terms “decriminalization” and “legalization” interchangeably, some note there is a big difference: to legalize drugs would permit their production, sale and consumption, while decriminalization would mean the state would not prosecute who consume drugs on a small scale.

After Pérez Molina’s comments, the United States sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on a whirlwind visit to the Guatemalan capital on Feb. 27, to try to convince Pérez Molina otherwise.

“The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem,” she said.

A week later, the US Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Honduras to meet with Central American leaders to dissuade them from taking to the Guatemalan leader’s proposal.

He said while it was “worth discussing” the issue, there is no possibility that President Barack Obama would change his policy on illegal drugs.

Biden said the United States has spent US$381 million since 2008 fighting drugs in the region and that the administration would ask Congress for an additional $107 million.

At the end of the meeting with Biden, the Central American leaders said in a joint statement that the illicit drug trade has had enormous social costs on the region and that the United States has a big hand in that, since it is the largest market for those substances.

But even though the region’s governments had continued to discuss the issue, “this debate is not going anywhere; the United States stopped it cold,” said Salvadoran analyst Roberto Cañas to Latinamerica Press.

Following the meeting with Biden, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla suggested that the violence caused by the drug trade should be addressed by the United Nations Security Council. For his part, Pérez Molina suggested that Central American countries should be compensated for every kilogram of drugs that are seized or destroyed. Of the funds received, half would be used to fight drug trafficking, one quarter for education and another quarter for health care.

Gangs and trafficking

The countries of the so-called North Central American Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are among the most violent in the world, largely due to the prevalence and power of organized crime.

El Salvador ended 2011 with 4,374 murders, giving the country a rate of 70 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the Salvadoran police, there are some 29,000 gang members in the country and many of the murders are tied to the drug trade. A March 23 statement that was reportedly issued by the two largest gangs — the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 — said their ranks numbered 100,000.

Online news site El Faro on March 14 said that the government negotiated with both gangs’ leaders, who had been in maximum security prison, to a lower security facility in exchange for ceasing to order murders from prison. The average daily murder rate of 14 fell to five or six, amid the scandal of having the country’s government negotiate with gangs.

Geographic advantage for traffickers

Central America serves as a bridge between the cocaine-producing countries of South America and the United States. The region has started to feel the influence of the Zetas cartel of Mexico, according to police reports.

An estimated 50,000 people were killed over the last five years in Mexico due to the drug trade.

“It’s a shame that the region is so hobbled by the United States, to the point where it doesn’t look for more alternatives to the violence,” said Cañas.

Pérez Molina’s proposal has aroused fears in the conservative social and political sectors in the region, as well as drug-addiction centers.

“Central America has become a regional plaza for drug consumption, just like Holland did when it legalized marijuana consumption in 1976,” said Jaime Zablah, executive director of the El Salvador Anti-Drug Foundation.

For Zablah, the legalization of substances like marijuana and cocaine will hurt the public’s health and stretch hospital budgets, which are already stretched thin.

In El Salvador, one-third of patients started using drugs before the age of 15, with marijuana being the most prevalent, comprising 76 percent of drug use, Zablah’s organization said.

In favor of legalization

Proponents of drug legalization said that in no part of the world have repressive measures worked to stamp out drug consumption, since cultures have used drugs for millennia.

“They need to look for a rational mechanism, in steps, outside of the realm of the taboo and morality,” said Cañas.
He added that the experiences in some European countries serve as an example of positive steps.

“You’d have to analyze this scientifically to see if legalizing drugs brings an immediate increase in their consumption,” said Cañas.

Marijuana continues to be the most widely-consumed drug in Europe, and even though there are relatively lax laws against it there, there hasn’t been a marked increase in use, but rather a decline.

According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s 2011 annual report, there has been a decline in the consumption of cannabis among adults aged 15 to 34.

In 2003, the European Union adopted the concept of damage reduction, which takes aim at the negative impact of drug use without necessarily criminalizing their consumption.

Part of that plan was the distribution of clean syringes to heroin addicts to avoid HIV infection, programs that have been replicated in Canada, Australia and some Asian nations.

It also opened supervised areas where drug addicts can receive small doses of the drug to consume on site, avoiding the chances of overdoses.

“We need to study this issue more deeply because some countries have cut down on [drug trafficking] as soon as it was no longer a big business,” María Isabel Rodríguez, El Salvador’s health minister, told Latinamerica Press.

A hypothetical decriminalization of drug consumption and sale would have to be approved by legislators in Central America, and El Salvador may lead the way.

“Optimally, criminalization can’t be the [solution] because it’s clear that that has failed, but we also don’t want to propagate drugs among our young people,” said Benito Lara, a lawmaker of the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party. “We won’t close the debate on other alternatives.”

Edgardo Ayala

Edgardo Ayala is a journalist and writes for many news agencies, including Inter Press Service (IPS)

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