A new commission known as the Comisión Asesora de Política de Drogas (Drug Policy Advisory Commission) convened on Tuesday for the first time, tasked with reviewing Colombia’s drug policy and issuing recommendations for a new National Drug Statute. Colombian Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa leads the commission—composed of former President César Gaviria, academics and topical experts—and announced on Tuesday evening that they would weigh a new proposal to decriminalize the personal consumption of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy.
While current Colombian law bans cocaine and marijuana, the country’s Constitutional Court has spoken out against the criminalization of their usage. Correa noted that the new National Drug Statute, which will be presented to Congress upon its completion, “will make the [Constitutional Court’s] authorization concrete, but broaden it to include synthetic drugs into what is defined as the personal dose.”
This legislative push has been a priority of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who sparked controversy over a year ago in calling on the world’s governments to reassess its global drug enforcement policies, and reiterated this stance during last April’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena and again at last week’s Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) meeting in Santiago, Chile. An increasing number of Colombians have been calling for this policy shift as a measure to combat drug trafficking and illicit use. But critics believe that decriminalization will complicate the debate on drug policy even further.
José Mujica’s administration plans to send a bill to Uruguay’s Congress legalizing the sale of marijuana as a crime-fighting measure, unnamed lawmakers told local press yesterday. Latin American news agency Efe and Uruguayan newspaper El Pais were among the media outlets citing “official sources” detailing President Mujica’s upcoming announcement of the bill.
Under the proposed measure, lawmakers familiar with the draft bill said that only the government would be allowed to sell marijuana—in the form of cigarettes—and only to registered adult users. The government would take responsibility for the quality of the cigarettes and levy a sales tax, revenues from which would go toward financing rehabilitation programs. Purchase amounts would be regulated, and those who surpass those amounts would be mandated to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. The government hopes that moving the sale of marijuana into the open will remove the profit incentive for drug dealers and divert users from harder drugs, including the highly addictive cocaine paste known as pasta base or paco.
President Mujica’s office did not immediately confirm the reports, although he told The Associated Press in an email that an upcoming announcement of a series of measures to combat public insecurity could include “the marijuana issue.” Other measures include a plan to combat the sale and use of pasta base, with severe fines and penalties and greater regulations on broadcasting images of violence on television.
There are no laws against marijuana use in Uruguay. Personal consumption has never been criminalized, and last year lawmakers from President Mujica’s Frente Amplia (Broad Front—FA) proposed a bill to decriminalize its cultivation. Uruguay is also considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, but rising violence has become a concern for President Mujica, who went on national radio and television on Tuesday to give a call to action. According to Uruguay’s Interior Ministry, the number of homicides during the period from January to May jumped to 133 this year, up from 76 during the same period in 2011.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday he expects to be interviewed by investigators looking into Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed program run by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in which federal agents were supposedly authorized to smuggle hundreds of illicit weapons into Mexico.
During an appearance in Chicago, Holder said he would speak to investigators from the DOJ’s inspector general’s office when they request it. That office has been conducting an investigation into the individuals responsible for employing the tactic known as “gun-walking,” in which illicit weapons were smuggled into the hands of drug traffickers as part of an effort to trace them to the highest echelons of Mexico’s drug cartels. Fast and Furious was launched in October 2009 and ran until January 2011. ATF lost track of hundreds of the firearms, many of which have since been linked to crimes against U.S. civilians, including the fatal shooting in December 2010 of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
House Republicans are also currently investigating the operation. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has subpoenaed the Attorney General’s office for 80,000 pages of documents concerning Fast and Furious and threatened to hold Holder in contempt of Congress if he doesn’t comply. So far, Holder has only handed over about 7,000 pages, though he has given all 80,000 pages to the DOJ’s investigator general.
Democrats are also increasingly critical of Holder’s handling of the operation and investigation. Two House Democrats recently demanded that the DOJ release the findings of the inspector general’s investigation ahead of this year’s presidential election.
Yesterday Peru’s government shared plans to increase investment in social programs and infrastructure in the country’s impoverished center—a region with the world’s highest coca-leaf production. These investments will complement a renewed military offensive against narcotrafficking.
Speaking at a press conference, Peruvian Minister of Defense Alberto Otárola admitted that the government had previously neglected the area. “The state has had its head turned the other direction,” he told reporters, but now recognizes that one solution to narcotrafficking is in increasing social spending in zones heavily influenced by coca production. According to private reports, the area with the highest concentration of coca cultivation in Peru is the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (known as VRAE), a high jungle region in the south-central part of the country.
Otárola’s announcement followed one made last month by Peru’s new cabinet chief Oscar Valdés, who said that the government would tackle drug trafficking by increasing development and state presence in the VRAE region. This would include building new roads and bringing in the Agriculture Ministry and other organizations to promote crop substitution.
After Colombia, Peru is the world’s second largest producer of cocaine, though analysts predict it could soon surpass its northern neighbor if it doesn’t take steps to combat the drug trade. Though Otárola insisted that the solution to the problem in the VRAE region “is not a military but a political one,” Peru’s armed forces are likely to continue playing a role in the fight against narcotrafficking. This will include seeking the capture of former Shining Path members who now play an armed role in the drug trade, as well as the mass eradication of coca-growing fields. Last week President Ollanta Humala replaced drug czar Roberto Soberon—who had previously suspended manual coca plant eradication, arguing it hurt poor growers—with Carmen Masias, who said in an interview that Peru had “let down its guard” on eradication last year.
Otárola also confirmed yesterday that two U.S. surveillance planes will assist Peru in combating drug trafficking and hunting down former Shining Path guerrillas, flying over the coca-growing regions in the VRAE and Upper Huallaga Valley.
On Thursday, demonstrators at the Supreme Court in Montevideo protested the criminalization of marijuana possession. Under the slogan, “No más presos por plantar" (No more prisoners for plants) supporters of the Movement for the Liberation of Cannabis protested the arrest of an Uruguayan artisan and of Alicia Castilla, the Argentine author of Cultura cannabis. Both were arrested for being in possession of marijuana in their residencies.
A memorandum addressed to the Supreme Court by the movement’s supporters argued that the ambiguity of Law 14.294, which punishes narco-traffic and prohibits the cultivation of cannabis but exempts those that hold a “reasonable amount exclusively for personal consumption” is the term in question as to who decides the amount and the reason for possession.
In late 2010 Congressman Luis Alberto Aparicio Alejando Lacalle Pou submitted a bill to Parliament to decriminalize the cultivation and harvesting of marijuana for personal consumption. “My generation lived and lives with drugs, unlike our parents or grandparents, so it isn’t a taboo subject,” Pou told AFP. He added that "Uruguay’s narcotics law is completely contradictory.”
Sebastián Sabini, deputy of the ruling party Frente Amplio, shares Luis Alberto’s view, but believes a limit of 25 grams of marijuana and eight plants in the home should be set, in order to "provide legal certainty for citizens on how far it is considered possession for personal use and in what point becomes trafficking. "
In 2007 a report composed by the National Drug Board found that marijuana is the most consumed drug in Uruguay. The survey of about 200,000 people found that 12.2 percent had experimented with the drug.
The most recent wave of drug-fueled gang violence in Acapulco, Mexico killed up to 30 people this weekend, according to Mexican government statements. The fighting began last Friday when a scuffle between competing gangs evolved into a gun battle that left five burned vehicles and seven dead. The shootings then continued Saturday and Sunday, igniting prolonged gunfire and mounting casualties—including a 17-year-old male. According to police, several of their positions were fired upon yesterday, but no officers were killed.
This latest episode is the most recent blow to Acapulco's tourism revenues, which are projected to fall by as much as 88 percent this year as U.S. college students cancel spring break trips due to reports of violence. In 2010, drug violence in Mexico claimied 16,000 lives despite efforts by local and national authorities to control the problem. In the pacific resort city of Acapulco, which has seen growing violence in recent years, attacks are largely attributed to three specific cartels: the Beltrán Levya brothers; the Michoacana family; and Los Zetas.
Despite this weekend's turmoil, Zeferino Toreblanca, Governor of the state of Guerrero, insisted that the streets were secure and the city was open for business.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield was in Honduras last week to sign over $1.75 million in Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) funds—part of a larger $200 million sum he pledged to Central American nations. Brownfield, who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, noted that the funding would support prison management, anti-gang community policing efforts and security enhancement of borders and ports. In the latter case, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Border Tactical Unit would provide training to Honduran Frontier Police.
The $200 million in CARSI funds will aid Honduras and six other Central American countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. The CARSI program is an enhanced version of the Mérida Initiative. According to the State Department, CARSI has a list of five goals including to “re-establish effective state presence and security in communities at risk” and to “disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America.”
In his remarks in Tegucigalpa, Brownfield added that he chose to visit Honduras because it suffers from crimes—including gangs and illicit drugs—from consequences that often originate outside the country. In speaking of CARSI, he said that “the logic is that if Honduras is a victim of transnational threats, the solution should also be transnational.” Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Colombia, also visited Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia earlier this month.
This week, while participating in a university event in the Dominican Republic, former President Vicente Fox went out on a limb and pointed his finger toward Colombia and Venezuela for presumably being culprits in Mexico’s drug-cartel violence problem.
Ignoring the basic economic principle that demand drives production, Fox ridiculed himself by saying that Mexico’s challenges in combating drug-related violence are mainly due to the fact that “Colombia continues to produce way too many drugs. And Venezuela continues to make it easy to smuggle drugs.”
Reminding us of the fact that during his presidential term, diplomatic ties between Mexico and Venezuela were severed, Fox went on to say that “it seems that there is an association between Hugo Chávez and the drug cartels. This is what happens when someone loses the compass of democracy. Such is the case of Hugo Chávez, who has lost his head.”
In early January, three Argentine pilots of a private modern jet were arrested in Barcelona, Spain, for transporting nearly a ton of cocaine. The episode is embarrassing for the Argentinean government since Spanish investigators have proof that the cocaine was loaded onto the plane from an Argentinean military airbase. Moreover, this was the last and biggest of a series of three carefully planned trips. The Spanish authorities chose to watch the first two smaller shipments and wait to seize this larger shipment. They also chose not to reveal any information about the nearly year-long operation to Argentinean authorities.
The lack of Spanish cooperation with the Argentinean authorities reveals an absence of trust and makes an outside observer wonder about the possibility of government complicity. Indeed, there are government connections from previous administrations. Two of those arrested are brothers Gustavo and Eduardo Juliá, sons of Brigadier José Juliá who was head of Argentina's Airforce when Carlos Menem was president. The third, Matías Miret, is also the son of a former Airforce official in command during the country's dictatorship (1976-1983). The modern jet plane used in the last flight, a Challenger 604, was supposedly rented from the company Medical Jet based in Miami, which claims it was leased to the Argentines by an outsourced group. Spanish authorities have revealed evidence that the 944 kilos of cocaine confiscated from the jet originated from the Valle Cartel in Colombia and passed through Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, for processing before making its way to Argentina.
The recent episode is not only uncomfortable for the Argentinean government; it highlights the country's growing role in the international drug trade and the government's weak control over trafficking. At first, President Cristina Fernández´s administration wouldn't admit that the drugs were loaded on the Argentinean airbase, but evidence forced the new Security Minister (former Minister of Defense) Nilda Garré to concede that it was possible and that “some controls have relaxed a little.” Accordingly, Ms. Garré has begun calling for increased regulations for private aircrafts. This sounds like a good idea considering the private jet loaded with a ton of cocaine at a military airbase even passed through Argentinean customs before taking off for Spain.
According to a researcher from the University of Buenos Aires, there is significant drug trafficking throughout Argentina, but mostly taking place by sea. This Juliá brother case is unique because of the large quantity of cocaine transported by air. There is also evidence, however, that Argentina is not just a transit point. It is also a drug producing and consuming country. The exponential growth of the use of Paco, a cheap cocaine derivative often made from production leftovers, makes specialists believe that there is significant production taking place in the country. Around the year 2000, the combination of Plan Colombia cracking down on drug producing countries up north and Argentinean’s economic meltdown made sending cocaine paste directly to Argentina for processing a viable, economic alternative. As a result, consumption has risen among the poor and the use of cheap drugs by young slum dwellers is leading to increasing acts of random gun violence in Buenos Aires.
Last November, in an unprecedented display of force, the Brazilian authorities performed a spectacular crackdown on criminal gangs operating in the Complexo de Alemao, a big system of favelas in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro. Such display of force is by no means excessive: some of the gangs in Rio's favelas are well-armed, equipped with assault weapons, rifles, and in some cases with anti-tank and anti-aerial rockets. All of those, of course, bought with the proceeds of the drug business.
An interesting feature of this operation was the involvement of several agencies and forces. In addition to local police and the famous BOPE (portrayed in the acclaimed movie Tropa de Elite), military forces, including even the navy, participated in the crackdown. Reports say that the Army has been given the mission to preserve law and order in the favelas in the aftermath of the operation.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.