A Challenge TO US-Led Drug Prohibition

I filed this piece below on the growing calls in Central America for drug legalization while in Mexico for some overseas media outlets

From Jamie Dettmer in Mexico City

The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for adopting a policy of benign neglect towards Latin America but that changed abruptly in March when a series of top officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, scampered down south to court Central American leaders.

What has the administration spooked is the rising chorus in Latin America of politicians questioning publicly the sense in maintaining a prohibition on drugs.

Calls for legalizing narcotics have been heard before in Latin America but generally the chorus has included only fringe or retired front-rank politicians. In 2009, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia blasted the war on drugs, arguing the time had arrived at least for decriminalizing marijuana.

This time, though, sitting presidents are leading the chorus, the first serious challenge by foreign governments to the U.S.-led policy of drug prohibition since the launching of the “war on drugs” by Richard Nixon in 1971.

In the vanguard are the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica — all of whom are facing violent incursions in their territory of expansionary Mexican cartels. They insist the time has come to rethink current counter-narcotics policies and they want a multilateral discussion to consider legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, the use of not just marijuana but of all illicit drugs.

Even the region’s hard-line drug warriors, Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, who has waged a five-year-long militarized “war on drugs”, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who has been no slouch either in combating traffickers, have voiced sympathy with their neighbors’ position.

Calderón and Santos shocked Washington last year by raising the idea of legalizing soft drugs like marijuana. The Mexican president then argued that “if drug consumption appears impossible to stop, then the decision makers should look for more options – including market alternatives – in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.”

And Santos is prepared to go a step further. His government is preparing to announce later this month legislation to decriminalize personal drug possession, placing a five- gram limit on marijuana and a limit of one gram for cocaine and Crack.

What makes the legalization talk down south doubly disturbing for the Obama administration is that back in the United States the signs are that public opinion may be shifting too and especially when it comes to legalizing pot. According to a Gallup poll in the autumn, an unprecedented one in two Americans supports pot’s legalization.

Only last week, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson argued that people should not be sent to prison for marijuana possession. “I’m not a crusader,” said the 81-year-old religious broadcaster. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

With drug violence ravaging Central America – the region has the highest homicide rate in the world and is more deadly than Afghanistan when it comes to killings – the viewpoint that the war on drugs isn’t succeeding is what’s driving the region’s leaders to demand alternatives to interdiction and prohibition.

The advocacy of a narcotics rethink got a boost earlier in February when new Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a rightwing former army general, became a convert, stunning Washington DC and observers alike by announcing that the U.S. inability to cut drug consumption left his country no option but to consider legalizing narcotics.

This total reversal by Pérez Molina, he had promised to emulate President Calderón in using the military to take on the drug cartels and street gangs, has emboldened the legalization advocates. Neither Gen. Pérez nor his disgruntled fellow rebels changed tune following Vice President Biden’s March 6 meeting with them in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa.

The Central American rebels heard the Vice President out when he said that the U.S. wouldn’t be legalizing drugs and remained determined to assist them in defeating transnational cartels with funding and intelligence help. But after the meeting they announced they would consider Pérez’s legalization proposal at a bigger March 24 meeting in Guatemala.

Biden avoided getting drawn into a public debate about drug legalization both in Tegucigalpa and a few days earlier in Mexico City, where he met the three leading presidential candidates to succeed Calderón. But come March 24, the Obama administration will have little choice but to debate the pros and cons of legalization openly with the Central American leaders.

And the Obama administration has reluctantly agreed to drug legalization to be on the agenda for next month’s Summit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena.

The issue of legalization is likely to remain on the political front-burner, if for no other reason than that July’s Mexican presidential elections could result in a significant shift away from Calderón’s war on drugs and on his reliance on the military to wage it. That would trigger reverberations across Latin America.

The crackdown launched by President Calderón in 2006 after enforcers from a second-tier cartel shocked the country by scattering dramatically five severed human heads across a crowded disco dance-floor in the mountain town of Uruapan, has been one of the biggest and most unrelenting efforts in Latin America to bring major drug traffickers to heel.

But the war has taken a tremendous toll with nearly 50,000 dead in drug-related slayings, Mexican jails overcrowded and prone to riots and massacres and accusations flying around of human rights abuses by an increasingly frustrated military.

Meantime, despite law-enforcement successes with drug seizures and crushing second-tier cartels, the top crime organizations, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation, appear undaunted and stronger than ever. And the violence has just become more barbaric, from a firebombing of a crowded casino to the murder of bloggers and journalists who tweak the cartels. Severed heads and body parts have become commonplace since 2006 as have teenage assassins.

With no end in sight, legalization advocates argue that Calderón’s war is an example of how when the drugs war is waged uncompromisingly with the full weight of the military and police, the effects are the reverse of what’s desired.

Two of the three leading presidential candidates vying to succeed Calderón have vowed to implement change; the third, Josefina Vazquez Mota of Calderón’s ruling National Action Party, appears to be suffering in the opinion polls because of the increasing unpopularity of the drugs war.

The current frontrunner, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a former, competent state governor, wants to withdraw the military from the fight but has offered no clear timetable for doing so. He has indicated that he thinks that Calderón’s militarized approach has destabilized Mexico. And after meeting Biden, he told reporters, “the discussion is not whether we should or shouldn’t fight against it (organized crime) but what we can do to achieve better results.”

Pena as president would likely be more forthright than Calderón in pressuring the United States to consider legalizing marijuana, on the grounds that it makes little sense in pursuing Mexican pot farmers and throwing them in jail while there is industrial production underway north of the border to supply medical marijuana to the U.S. states where it is legal.

Political commentators and analysts here suspect that Pena would calm interdiction quietly by following the tactic of past PRI presidents in allowing unofficially some cartels a degree of autonomy, so long as they keep the peace and avoid extremes of inter-cartel bloodletting.

The third candidate, the charismatic Andres Manuel López Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, who was a hair’s breadth from winning the presidency in 2006, has pledged to order the military back to barracks, arguing that you can’t fight violence with violence. “We need a loving republic,” he said on radio recently. “We need opportunities for young people so they don’t fall into the arms of organized crime.”

His emphasis is on the root causes of crime and he argues for redoubling economic-development and anti-poverty programs. He has also made clear if elected he would prohibit U.S. intelligence activities on Mexican soil and stop the Calderón-endorsed over-flying by U.S. unmanned drones. That it in turn would presumably trigger the U.S. to stop anti-drugs aid to Mexico that since 2008 has amounted to $1.6 billion in law enforcement aid.

Although lagging behind his two rivals, López Obrador, who’s nicknamed “El Peje” after a fish from his native state of Tabasco, is a highly effective campaigner, and political analysts expect him to surge when full-blown campaigning gets underway later this month.

Critics of the Obama administration argue that it has partly itself to blame for the genie of drug legalization popping up. They argue that the Obama administration inadvertently fueled the rebellion by failing to provide sufficient leadership and support to the Central American states affected by expansionary Mexican cartels moving operations beyond the reach of the Mexican military.

And the administration hasn’t helped its cause by proposing in its 2013 federal budget to cut by16 percent counter-narcotics aid to Latin America, including a 60 percent drop in assistance to Guatemala.