Over the past weeks, an unprecedentedly open debate has arisen over the wisdom of prevailing anti-drug policy in the Western Hemisphere. The present U.S.- led strategy, which relies heavily on aggressive interdiction and law enforcement, is being openly called a failure and even counterproductive by some Latin American leaders, who are asking for renewed discussion of other options, including, most notoriously from the U.S. perspective, the legalization of consumption. The heavy emphasis of anti-drug policy on repression, say these critics, has encouraged the domination of the drug trade by well-organized, heavily armed, ruthless and extremely violent cartels, with horrifying effects.
Not coincidentally, the epicenter of the debate is Central America, a transshipment center for up to 80 percent of drugs headed for the U.S., where criminal gangs have overwhelmed weak governments and helped make some of these societies—especially Honduras and Guatemala—among the world’s most dangerous. One of the most interesting aspects of the debate is that the argument for legalization is being promoted most forcefully by Guatemala’s newly-elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-leaning ex-general and former director of military intelligence during the country’s civil war: nobody’s idea of a naïve idealist.
The U.S., whose treasure, power and prestige has been invested in the war on drugs (a term now officially abandoned) since the Nixon administration, has reacted defensively to criticism. The Obama administration sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on a tour of the region to attempt to tamp down opposition, while Vice President Joe Biden met with the regions’ presidents soon after. Biden said last week that while the U.S. was not opposed to discussing the merits of drug policy, there was no chance that the U.S. would change its position against legalization. In the end, Biden mentioned in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last week only that the Obama administration was asking the U.S. Congress for $107 million in continuing security assistance for the region in the coming year.
Despite the firm insistence of the U.S. in staying the course, the assertiveness of Pérez Molina and other Central American leaders in criticizing existing drug policy, promoting debate and proposing changes is a positive sign. Clearly, the drug war, after decades of titanic effort by all parties and billions of dollars spent, has failed to meet its objectives, and, as its critics assert, has had unintended and sometimes catastrophic side effects. The Central American nations, which are now bearing the brunt of the battle, have the right to question U.S. policy and have their concerns taken seriously; they might in fact know better than the U.S. how the war on the cartels is affecting their societies. Some have even gone so far as to compare the present questioning of U.S. policy to the 1980s Central American Peace Plan, where the countries of the region defied the Reagan administration and the Soviet Union to successfully negotiate and implement a home-grown solution to the region’s civil wars.
While there is little chance that the U.S. will address changes to drug policy during a contentious election year, much less challenge congressional opposition to significantly increase assistance to the region to address many of the social, economic and institutional problems underlying and enabling the violence, the debate has openly raised important questions that cannot be ignored, and are unlikely to diminish in the future.
Steve Mack is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is an environmental consultant and writer, and was the former editor of The Tico Times. He lives in Costa Rica.