Drug War Debate Divides Latin America, U.S. at OAS Summit

Latin American governments traditionally allied with the U.S. on anti-drug efforts are increasingly divided as countries from Costa Rica to Colombia seek a debate over legalization at a regional summit.

Officials from the 35 members of the Organization of American States are meeting in Guatemala City today in a special session called a year ago to address counter-narcotics policies.

Uruguay last year made sales of marijuana legal and leaders or former leaders inMexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Ecuador and Belize have said legalization should be debated.

A marijuana plant is pictured. | AP Photo

“Drug policy is not responding to the interests and necessities of our country,” Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said today at the summit. In a reference to the U.S., he added “It is responding to the interests of another country that is conducting a fight for prohibition and against consumption.”

As the human and financial toll from drug trafficking climbs, the U.S., which backed an $8 billion effort to fight drug-smuggling rebels in Colombia and funds interdiction and alternative crop programs across the hemisphere, has seen its historic position against legalization undermined by voter-backed referendums in Washington and Colorado supporting marijuana sales.

‘No Common Position’

“There is no common position, least of all in the Americas,” Ecuador President Rafael Correa said during a visit to Guatemala last month. “The strategy against drugs has been a disaster. Things are being discussed now that used to be taboo.”

In a report published this month, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, who once led security operations supported by the U.S.-funded “Plan Colombia” counter-narcotics program, called for a fresh debate over how to fight illegal drugs.

“The world needs to discuss new approaches,” he wrote in the report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it.”

Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solis in June called for a debate on legalization, adding that “it’s not an issue we can solve right now.” Former Mexico President Vicente Fox has called the current approach toward illegal drugs “useless” and a “total failure.”

‘Simplistic’ Approach

William Brownfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, called legalization “simplistic” during a trip to Panama this week, and the White House this month identified 22 countries as major illicit drug-producing or drug-transit countries, 17 of which are in Latin America or the Caribbean.

“The United States is committed to monitoring the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington and share our findings with allies in the hemisphere,” Brownfield said today. “We shouldn’t embrace ideas that haven’t yet been proven and risk greater addiction to substances. We must approach this problem in a practical way.”

In a statement this week, the White House said “International cooperation remains the cornerstone for reducing the threat posed by the illegal narcotics trade and related crimes carried out by criminal organizations.”

Coca Production

Illegal production of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, is at its lowest level since estimates were collected in 1990, the U.S. said. The U.S. is the single-biggest consumer of cocaine, while nearly all coca production takes place in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

U.S. funding for anti-narcotics operations in Latin America and the Caribbean could fall by as much as 29 percent in 2015, including cuts to security initiatives such as Plan Colombia, the Merida Initiative for Mexico and the Central American and Caribbean Regional Security Initiatives, according to a report this month by the Congressional Research Service.

At a meeting of the OAS General Assembly in June 2013, member states called drugs a “public health problem” that must be accompanied by a “human rights perspective,” while demanding stronger efforts to fight the supply and demand of illicit drugs.

“There are still a lot of countries that associate drugs with violence and there is a fear that legalization could lead to more violence,” OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said in a phone interview. “We have to be flexible. Things don’t change overnight.”

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