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Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena

Carolyn Kaster/AP Images
President Obama with the Colombian singer Shakira and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena, where he was attending the Summit of the Americas, at which leaders openly discussed the legalization of drugs for the first time, April 15,2012

A couple of decades ago, perhaps, a discussion of the war on drugs declared by Richard Nixon back in 1973 could reasonably have centered on whether eradication of narcotic-producing crops and the violent extermination of drug-trafficking groups was the way to rescue the young and vulnerable from the threat of addiction. It was the existence of addicts, after all, and the desire to avoid creating more of them, that justified the entire notion of drug prohibition. But the startling, unprogrammed, and rebellious discussion about drugs that took place among hemispheric leaders in April at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, barely mentioned addiction, because it’s too late for that. The discussion that for the first time in forty years challenged the United States’ dominance on drug issues focused urgently instead on the ways that the financial health, political stability, and national security of virtually every country in the Americas has been undermined by the drug trade.

It is not the kind of discussion President Barack Obama might have been expecting only weeks before the summit started. He is enormously popular abroad and particularly so in places like Cartagena, where a large black population claims him as one of their own. And no hemispheric meeting has ever strayed from the official US line on drug combat. But for the first time the leaders at the summit openly debated—although behind closed doors—whether the best way to stop the rolling disaster was an end to the US-sponsored and -dictated war on drugs, and at least partial legalization, or regulation, of the drug trade.

The very word “legalization” has been taboo for so long that it was a shock to hear it mentioned as a sensible option by unimpeachable allies of the United States like Juan Manuel Santos, president of the host country; President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala; and Laura Chinchilla, president of the normally low-profile and peaceful nation of Costa Rica. Several presidents, notably Peru’s Ollanta Humala, were strongly opposed to any softening of approach, but it was only Obama’s opposition that carried weight. And it was a foregone conclusion that he would not deviate from the standard position that legalization is unthinkable; it is, after all, an election year.

The official response to whatever would get said in Cartagena was made clear in the days before the meeting by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Vice President Joseph Biden, and lastly by Obama himself. “The United States is not going to legalize or decriminalize drugs,” the president told a consortium of Latin newspapers the day before the summit, “because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in all our countries, in terms of health and public safety. Moreover, legalizing and decriminalizing drugs would not eliminate the danger posed by transnational organized crime.” But the fact that so many senior US officials felt they had to comment on the issue is a sign of how strongly the White House felt the need to get in front of the debate.

To a great many Latin America observers legalization does not sound like an outrageous solution at all, given what is happening on the ground. Fifty thousand people have been killed since the Mexican government launched an all-out antidrug offensive five years ago. Whole areas along the US border and southward are no longer under government control. Prisons, now full to bursting, have become operational centers for imprisoned drug chieftains throughout Latin America.

Where once there were two or three trafficking groups, there are now dozens of full-blown mafias. Where a handful of countries were involved in the trade, mainly the Andean countries and Mexico, today there is hardly a country in the hemisphere that remains untouched by the blight. Under financial pressure from the drug offensive, traffickers have diversified and gone transnational, smuggling everything from CDs and DVDs to weapons, women, and children for the prostitution trade through Central America and the Caribbean. International banks have been systemically corrupted.1 Contact between hugely rich traffickers and international terrorists is now something that US government officials take for granted. It’s a sorry record.

“We are faced with a way of [dealing with] drug traffic that not only won’t work, it never worked,” César Gaviria, a former president of Colombia, said in a phone conversation before the Cartagena summit. Spry and irreverent, Gaviria speaks in the high-pitched voice of many hyperactive people. He was president during the drug war’s harshest years—1990–1994—and subsequently spent ten years as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS). He is now back in Colombia, observing developments in drug policy with what can only be called disgust, and he is too impatient to bother with diplomatese. “Fifty years have gone by since the United Nations Convention [on Narcotic Drugs, signed in 1961] and forty since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, and the policy is a crashing failure [fracaso].”

President during the years when the powerful drug trafficker Pablo Escobar mounted a war against the state, Gaviria had an opportunity to observe at brutally close range the futility of the drug war, and its costs. Three years ago he joined former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil on a commission that has set out to study the failures of the war on drugs, and to search for alternative ways to fight the drug mafias, reduce consumption, and mitigate the harm done to countries that produce the raw material for drugs (coca leaf, poppy, marijuana). The three presidents first proclaimed their ideas about the need for some form of legalization in 2009. Since then, they have been joined by former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan and former chair of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, among dozens of other public figures. The group’s advocacy of a different approach to drug issues opened the way for the rebellion at the Cartagena summit, spearheaded by Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala.

Pérez Molina, a retired general, former intelligence chief, graduate of the Pentagon’s School of the Americas, and now the new president of Guatemala, is no stranger to the war on drugs. In 1993 he was responsible for the capture and extradition to Mexico of Joaquín Guzmán, still considered the most powerful drug trader in the world. Guzmán subsequently spent almost eight years in jail in Mexico (he escaped in 2001), but the size of his trafficking group ballooned, as did those of his many rivals.

Meanwhile, in a poor and stratified country devastated by a decade-long war, Pérez Molina watched social structures and institutions crumble as Guzmán and his rivals fought over control of Guatemala as a drug trans-shipment corridor. The homicide rate went from an already high twenty-four per 100,000 in 1999 to a staggering forty-one in 2010. (By comparison, the overall rate in Mexico, whose violence receives far more international press, was eighteen last year; in the US it was about five.) The optimism felt by those on all sides of Guatemala’s civil conflict when a peace agreement was finally concluded in 1996—Pérez Molina was among the signers—was shattered as the country’s immigration, security, justice, and social services felt the subversive impact of drug money.

Less than a month after his swearing-in, on February 12, Pérez Molina asked his Central American colleagues to consider both a unilateral cease-fire with the drug traffickers and ways to legalize drugs in order to eliminate the profits that drive the drug trade. As is so often the case in matters concerning Latin America, the United States was caught unaware. On February 27, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano flew to Guatemala for what someone present at that conversation called a “concerned” meeting with Pérez Molina. She left the same day. Pérez Molina stuck to his guns.

The all-but-instant and strikingly favorable response to Pérez Molina’s proposal upended the official agenda at the summit. The scant attention given to the meeting in the United States mostly involved prurient handwringing over the discovery that some Secret Service agents and GIs like to party and to consort with prostitutes when off-duty. But the meeting’s host, President Santos, had made sure that the subject of legalization and its alternatives was put on the official agenda, and most of the national leaders were ready to argue about it.

More blunt even than her Guatemalan colleague was President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, a country known for its vanguard ecological conservation programs, and for the fact that in 1948 an enlightened junta abolished the army, clearing the way for Costa Rica to become the most stable and prosperous country in Central America. While most other participants were tight-lipped about the discussions underway at the Cartagena convention center, and reporters were not allowed near the summit, Chinchilla gave a breathtakingly forthright interview to a Colombian national daily. “For Costa Rica the road—our road, at least—is not the war on drugs,” Chinchilla said,

because we have no army and we are not willing to be hooked onto that convoy of destruction, of militarism, of exorbitant expenditure, that distracts states from their efforts toward social investment…. Costa Rica has already made progress in decriminalizing drug consumption, [because] we believe it’s a question of public health, and not of criminal law.2

The tone of the various declarations by centrist presidents—Pérez Molina, Santos, Chinchilla—was unprecedented in its willingness to confront the United States by demanding that it, too, consider the possibility of legalization. A few days before the summit I asked Guatemala’s planning minister, Fernando Carrera, if Pérez Molina’s campaign for legalization was, in fact, an attack on the US. To the contrary, he answered: “The president and his team think we have the credentials to tell the United States that we’re not their enemies…. We think we’re doing a great favor by bringing the topic out into the open.”

Carrera, a thoughtful and soft-spoken economist who has an MA in philosophy and political development from Cambridge, talked about the pernicious way the drug trade is never defeated when it is attacked, but simply migrates from one country to another, leaving a disaster in its wake. “What Mexico has done [during President Felipe Calderón’s five-year-old war against the drug trade] is to sweep the problem under the rug and all the way over to us, and in turn we swept it over to Honduras. Honduras is today one of the most violent countries in the world, and the principal thoroughfare for drugs on their way from the producing countries in the south to the consuming countries in the north.

“I’d be the last person to say that we shouldn’t prosecute [drug] criminals,” Carrera said. “We have a weak estado de derecho [rule of law] and we don’t want it further weakened. But the problem isn’t Guatemala’s; the problem is the transit from the producers to the consumers. That traffic forces us to invest an enormous amount of resources in order to try to solve a global problem.” Accordingly, his boss suggested at a pre-summit meeting of Central American leaders that countries that expend enormous and scarce resources on controlling drug traffic destined for the United States “be compensated [for their effort] monetarily by the consuming nations, and that this economic compensation be distributed 50 percent to the fight against the drug trade, 25 percent to education, and 25 percent to health.”

  1. 1

    As Ed Vuillamy reported in The Observer some months ago, one international bank alone, Wachovia, “allowed certain customers to launder millions of dollars” in drug money from a single chain of currency exchange bureaus in Mexico City. The total amount of transfers in bulk accepted by the bank from this chain over a three-year period was $378.4 billion, according to Wachovia’s internal investigators. This amounts to one third of Mexico’s annual budget. See “How a Big US Bank Laundered Billions from Mexico’s Murderous Drug Gangs,” The Observer, April 2, 2011. 

  2. 2

    Wilson Vega, “‘No nos enganchen a un convoy de destrucción’: Laura Chinchilla,” El Tiempo, April 13, 2012. 

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