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.”

But for all the broken silences and taboos, for all the new frankness with which drug issues were discussed in Cartagena, other aspects of the drug war went unmentioned before and after the summit that, it seems to me, are both central to the discussion and permanently invisible in it. I spent a great deal of time in a drug-plagued community in Rio de Janeiro years ago, and it seemed to me inescapable by the end of that stay that race, inequality, and class segregation, which cut across all aspects of Latin American societies, underpinned Brazil’s enormous drug problem as well.

I lived in the hillside favela, or slum, of Mangueira back then, which at the time was dominated by three separate drug traffickers, each one king of a different part of the hill. The amount of violence was astonishing, but not nearly as much so as the official indifference to it. On the night of my first visit to the headquarters of Mangueira’s famous “school,” or carnival parade association, the president of the association was gunned down a few blocks away. One of my friends, a beautiful young woman by the name of Fia, was strangled to death a few days after carnival.

Shortly after I moved into a room in a house at the top of the hill I watched television with a little boy in the household. We watched a murder scene and he said, “that’s not the way you kill a man,” and demonstrated the right way to twist a knife in someone’s gut. Later I learned that he was the son of one of the hill traffickers, the nice one who provided pencils and chalk for the dismal school, and who was considered so fair that he was called upon to act as judge by the community.

No one expected fair treatment from the police or the justice system. (Even if justice for the guilty in the favela was sometimes a beating, sometimes death.) The traffickers were a principal source of work—mainly delivering and selling drugs and fighting the competition—for the hill youth. Grown men stood in line for hours whenever the city announced an opening for garbage workers, which was, by a very long stretch, the best-paid job and the one with the highest status in Mangueira. But the young men weren’t crazy about drowning in garbage for a living.

In the months between my first visit and Fia’s death I became a sort of unofficial photographer for families who had never owned a photograph of themselves or their children, and so I was invited into many homes and learned that almost without exception—I can remember only one—every family I talked with had a violent death to mourn. All this violence was directly or indirectly related to the ongoing war between the police and the community traffickers, and among the trafficking groups themselves. No case that I can recall was ever brought to trial. Each day it became clearer that the favelas—for Mangueira was only one of hundreds in the city—were being left to drown in their own blood, hidden from view as they were from the prosperous (and white) neighborhoods in the south of the city, and so hard to make behave.

The notable thing about Brazil’s long drug-related crime problem is that the country has never engaged in a US-imposed or -supervised war on drugs. What it’s had instead is a large and prosperous consumer market for cocaine and marijuana, and prohibition laws so lax that in Mangueira I watched people in fancy cars from beachside Rio line up for blocks at the bottom of the hill every weekend, waiting to buy their party dose of drugs, undisturbed by the forces of law and order that chose sometimes to kill and sometimes to jail the favelados.

For years, the myth that developing countries do not have drug problems was cherished in Brazil as elsewhere, but it has no basis. What is true is that traffickers systematically foist drugs onto young people in poor communities so as to create a local market,3 and that poor addicts in developing countries tend to get the highly dangerous leftovers of rich consumers’ drugs. Brazil is only the latest country to suffer the impact of widespread use of crack.4

Is there, in fact, a realistic alternative to prohibition? Suggested options 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 regulated approach that would ban advertising of marijuana, restrict its distribution to government outlets, and tax the profits heavily.

Legalization could well turn out to be a lower priority if, as a recent editorial in the Salvadoran online newspaper pointed out, governments concentrated first on far less controversial and inexpensive solutions:

Political parties, infiltrated by the drug trade, are still receiving money without having to declare its origin, because neither a campaign-financing law nor a political party law have been approved. Nor has there been a tax reform that will allow governments to obtain sufficient funds with which to finance better salaries for the police, with better equipment for them and under better control; more and better prisons….

And, the writer could well have added, a functioning justice system.5

There were no radical conclusions to the Cartagena summit, which wound up as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left in a huff over the meeting’s failure to come out with a statement about her country’s right to the Malvinas, known in English as the Falklands. With only the United States and Canada dissenting, the other countries present reached unanimity at last in favor of Cuba’s admission to the 2015 summit. The host, President Santos, bravely risked playing a pick-up game of soccer against Bolivia’s Evo Morales (who can be seen on YouTube at a similar game with his political opponents, kneeing a rival player somewhere in the nether region).

Barack Obama maintained a prudent silence throughout most of the gathering, if the subsequent praise for his “ability to listen” is an indication. And since they could not arrive at a unanimous pronouncement on the drug issue, the presidents recommended that the Organization of American States, a recognized burial ground for sweeping initiatives of any kind, study the problem.

But something important happened nevertheless. A taboo was broken, a conversation began, and the secretary-general of the OAS, Chile’s José Miguel Insulza, seemed to indicate in carefully couched language that a radical restructuring of drug legislation might be a very good thing indeed. Above all, the strong sensation remained that the war on drugs, which will take a long time to draw to a close, has become too destructive to be defensible. It would not be an easy demise; unemployed traffickers, smugglers, and hitmen are dangerous, and as a forthcoming collection of essays points out, the mechanisms for legalization are neither simple nor risk-free.6

As for all the addicts in Bogotá, Seville, New York, or Kraków, shivering on street corners waiting for their next fix, there’s no solution in sight for them, with or without decriminalization, regulation, or outright legalization. But one could hope for a policy by which the 6 percent of its national budget that, for example, Colombia currently spends on antidrug, antiguerrilla, and antiviolence operations could instead contribute to family stability through schools and job training, family welfare centers and parks, voluntary weapons-surrender programs, friendly neighborhood police, and well-lit streets. These are policies that might keep children safe and off the streets, where they find nothing to provide pleasure or escape except the toxic dreams of drugs. There will always be alcoholics, heavy smokers, and drug addicts, but a society that provides for the welfare of its citizens is likely to produce fewer of them.