The 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States opened on Tuesday in Antigua, Guatemala, with the aim of producing “a comprehensive policy against the world drug problem in the Americas."
Guatemala has been at the vanguard of new thinking on the drug trade partly because it has few alternatives. The country is blighted by drug violence and losing control of its territory to organized criminal gangs that control drug shipping to North America and Europe. At the same time, its dangerously weak judicial infrastructure is powerless to stop them.
"We are opening the discussion (on drugs),” said Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. “This had not been done before. We expect to get the positions of all the American countries."
When Pérez Molina called for the decriminalization of drugs and drug transport in February 2012, he sparked debate on the subject.
But Guatemala is not alone. Uruguay has gone a step further: last year, President José Mujica called for state control of the production and sale of cannabis. A draft bill on this proposal has divided politicians in Uruguay, but is currently working its way through Congress; although the vote was postponed when opinion polls revealed that the majority of Uruguayans were against the proposal.
There is growing support across the hemisphere for a more lax approach to the “War on Drugs,” started by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 in an attempt to combat growing consumption in North America. Pérez Molina was backed by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in asking for more debates. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos said he would favor decriminalization if other countries went first, and legislators in both Brazil and Argentina have debated decriminalizing the personal use of drugs.
In remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on the UN to begin a serious debate on alternative ways to combat drug trafficking.
“Today, I am proposing formally that [the UN]…carry out a far-reaching assessment of the progress and limits of the current prohibitionist approach to drugs,” said the Mexican president. Calderón and his counterparts in Guatemala and Colombia made their remarks before the 193 nations of the General Assembly, challenging on an international stage the oppositional stance that nations such as the U.S. have taken toward drug legalization.
"It is our duty to determine—on an objective scientific basis—if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge," said Santos.
The OAS is already studying the idea of drug legalization in the Americas as a way to cut down on crime and cartel-related violence, and is expected to release a report with recommendations within a year. In Mexico, the government last reported in January that 47,000 Mexicans had been killed between December 2006 and September 2011, but it is now estimated that 60,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug violence since Calderón took office.
Calderón, who will step down as Mexico’s president in December when Enrique Peña Nieto is inaugurated, asked drug-consuming nations “to evaluate with all sincerity, and honesty, if they have the will to reduce the consumption of drugs in a substantive manner.”
In his address to the UN, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was expected to bring up drug legalization, as he has in the past, but he did not do so. Instead, he said that Guatemala was interested in convening nations that are “well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs” to consider “new creative and innovative alternatives.”
In an interview with the AP on Tuesday, Pérez Molina, a retired general who vowed to fight crime in Guatemala with an “iron fist,” said that he needed more military equipment to effectively fight drug trafficking. The U.S. cut off military aid to Guatemala after the country’s brutal civil war, but the U.S. has still spent $85 million fighting drug trafficking in the country since 1996. Under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the U.S. has spent $496 million since 2008 supporting security forces in Central America.