As a normally pro-forma gathering of hemispheric leaders gets under way in Cartagena, Colombia, this weekend, Latin America could instead be approaching its declaration of independence from the United States. For the first time, the region might come out against a US policy. The change in what seemed to be an immovable subservience has come gradually, but the immediate cause is drugs, and the surprising agent is Otto Pérez Molina, retired general, former intelligence chief, graduate of the Pentagon’s School of Americas, and now the new president of Guatemala.
Pérez Molina is no stranger to the War on Drugs. He campaigned for president promising to bring out the country’s dreaded Kaibil Army special forces against the drug trade; Guatemalan voters, judging crime and insecurity to be their greatest concern, elected him in November. But less than a month after taking office in January, Perez Molina asked his Central American colleagues to consider a unilateral cease fire and ways to legalize drugs.
The all-but-instant, and strikingly favorable response to Pérez Molina’s proposal has upended the agenda for this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, a gathering of the leaders of 35 Western Hemisphere nations. Unimpeachable allies of the United States, like Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who is the meeting’s host, have expressed their support for legalization. And, as is not infrequently the case in matters concerning Washington’s home hemisphere, the US has been caught unaware.
It shouldn’t have been. Despite billions of enforcement dollars spent by Washington, the overall amount of drugs being trafficked worldwide has remained more or less constant over the last forty years. Profits are higher. Many more countries are involved in the trade than even ten years ago, including, most worryingly, several of the most vulnerable African states. The trade’s ability to insinuate itself into every branch of government in drug-afflicted countries continues apace. Candidates to every elected post in Mexico, to name just one critically important country, are ruthlessly wooed by traffickers offering financing. Trafficking organizations not only grow and increase their connections to global mafias and terrorist networks, they have branched out into ever more sordid sidelines, including human trafficking. It’s a sorry record.
In fairness, the Guatemalan president’s announcement surprised just about everyone outside his immediate circle. Otto Pérez Molina is a retired brigadier general who was in charge of one of the most brutalized areas during the most nightmarish years of an anti-guerrilla war that tore his country apart throughout the 1980s. He has been repeatedly accused of large scale human rights violations committed during that time. He is a wealthy man who won the presidency with the fervent support of Guatemala’s highly conservative, if not reactionary, private sector. He is, in other words, Nixon in China: the least likely, and therefore the best candidate to call for an end to the drug war that the real Richard Nixon declared in 1973.
And indeed, when it happened, on February 11, Pérez Molina dropped the bomb as if he had just thought of it. He was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a new thoroughfare on the outskirts of Guatemala City when he commented that bloody confrontations with the drug trade would continue as long as the United States continued to provide a consumer market that made the drug business profitable, adding that at an upcoming meeting of Central American presidents [i.e., not the Summit] he would propose “the possibility of legalizing and regulating the production, transportation, and commercialization of drugs.”
“All the technology and resources and millions of dollars the United States have contributed have not managed to diminish the drug problem,” he said on Guatemalan radio later that day. 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.
In fact, the Guatemalan leader’s proposal turned out to be not nearly as impromptu as it seemed. A highly-trained military man, Pérez Molina likes success, and the War on Drugs, he seems to have realized has been a dismal failure. In 1993 Pérez Molina was responsible for the capture and extradition to Mexico of Joaquín Guzmán, still considered today the most powerful drug trader in the world. As a result, Guzmán spent almost eight years in jail in Guadalajara, but the presence of his trafficking group, and that of his bitterest rivals, the Zetas, ballooned, as did corruption and violence. In a poor and stratified country further devastated by a decade-long war, Pérez Molina watched social structures and institutions crumble under the impact of the drug trade. The homicide rate raced upwards from an already high 24 per 100,000 in 1999 to a staggering 41 in 2010. (By comparison, the overall rate in Mexico, whose violence receives far more international press, was 18 last year; in the US it was about 5.) The optimism felt by those on all sides of Guatemala’s civil conflict when peace was finally signed in 1996—Pérez Molina was among the negotiators—was shattered as the country’s immigration, security, justice and social services felt the subversive impact of drug money.
Of course, money is at the very heart of any discussion about drugs: the amount to be made from it, the amount it costs governments to defend themselves against the trade, the amount made by banks from laundering it. For Latin American governments, increasingly, it just hasn’t been adding up. Colombia, for example, has been spending six per cent of its GNP on internal security—more than any other country, according to former president César Gaviria—in an attempt to deal with another country’s problems.
“[The United States] still measures success by the number of arrests, or the number of kingpins in jail, or the amount of drugs interdicted, or the street price of drugs in Los Angeles,” President Gaviria told me in a phone conversation this week. “But what use is that to us?” President during the years of Pablo Escobar´s 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 Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the esteemed former president of Brazil, on a commission that has set out to study the failures of the War on Drugs, and to establish alternative ways to fight the drug mafias, reduce consumption, and mitigate the harm done to drug-growing countries. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has also supported these ideas.
For his part, Pérez Molina’s move appears to have been carefully discussed with Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia. As Minister of Defense in the administration of Alvaro Uribe, Santos used the funds provided by the United States under Plan Colombia to wage war against powerful guerrilla groups that control a large part of the Colombian drug trade. Santos is a sophisticated man, and he has spent the last thirty years observing how drug traffickers wield their profits like explosives that have been carefully placed to blow up as much of the edifice of state as possible. He is under no illusions that Colombia’s apparent success in reducing drug-related violence has had much effect on the actual volume of cocaine produced or traded in the Andean region. (It has not.)
Santos has kept track of the number of Colombian lives lost in drug-related violence; it now stands in the hundreds of thousands. Over the years he has become increasingly outspoken. “A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking,” he told The Observer in November. “If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it. I’m not against it.” In that same interview he lamented that many leaders who agree with him will not speak out about drugs for fear of being “crucified.” Once Pérez Molina shouldered the cross, Santos made sure that a discussion of legalization was on the Cartagena Summit agenda.
The debate is framed as a discussion of whether the current US-led War on Drugs policy has worked or not, and if not, whether there are viable alternatives. The first part of the question should not take very long to answer: It is hard to think of a single lasting accomplishment. In Colombia, for example, after all the years of bloodshed and devastation, cocaine production and export have gone down so slightly as to make no difference, and it would seem that Peru is now taking up the slack. Again.
The second part of the question is harder: is there a better way? Blanket legalization of an illegal substance has only been tried once before, with alcohol, in the United States. Neither Santos nor Pérez Molina, nor the many leading political figures around the world who have been pushing for an alternative to the current policy, favor a legalization like the one that ended Prohibition.
Suggested alternatives range from an acknowledgment that marijuana is already all but legal in the United States and much of the rest of the world, and should be officially so (it is generally estimated to be the largest moneymaker for the illegal trade), to a sort of universal legalization of drugs that would ban advertising, restrict distribution to government outlets, and tax the profits heavily.
Everything is open for discussion, and it seems likely that against all odds—and to the great discomfort of the many institutions whose budgets have depended for decades on a warrior stance—the discussion will begin in Cartagena this weekend. It’s hard to imagine a road map for what comes next. One hundred eighty-two countries have signed the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs of 1988, which propounds the criminalizing of drug use (the European Union is among the few that did not sign). Although there is growing agreement that criminalization is precisely what has led to the current havoc—overstuffed prisons, irresistibly high profits—it’s hard to imagine a majority of these countries voting to repeal the Convention.
Drug policy is an ideological live wire: it’s not even certain that Latin American leaders will achieve anything other than a mealy-mouthed agreement to discuss the possibility of a discussion. But it will be a start.