In a historic meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, Saturday, three Central American heads of state attended a regional summit to discuss alternatives to the current drug prohibition regime, which has left their countries wracked by violence. No consensus was reached and three other regional leaders failed to attend, but for the first time, regional heads of state have met explicitly to discuss ending the war on drugs as we know it.
Otto Perez Molina on the campaign trail (photo courtesy Surizar, flickr.com/photos/puchica/)
"We have realized that the strategy in the fight against drug trafficking in the past 40 years has failed. We have to look for new alternatives," said the host, Guatemalan President Oscar Pérez Molina, a former army general who first called for such a meeting last month, shortly after taking office. "We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss it, debate it."
According to the Associated Press, Pérez Molina said
that drug use, production, and sales should be legalized and regulated. He suggested that the region jointly regulate the drug trade, perhaps by establishing transit corridors through which regulated drug shipments could pass.
Also in attendance were Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, a harsh critic of US-style drug policies and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy
was an invited guest and addressed the summit. Outside of Central America, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have expressed support for the meeting.
Not attending were Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. While Funes initially expressed support for the summit, he has since backed away. Lobo and Ortega have opposed the idea from the beginning. Funes and Ortega did send lower ranking members of the governments to the meeting, and the Salvadoran delegation called for a future meeting on the subject, saying it remained a topic of great interest and import in the region.
Some leaders are pushing for a discussion on alternatives to the drug war to be on the agenda at next month's Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where President Santos has also been signaling an openness to debate on the issue. US President Barack Obama is expected to attend that summit, setting the stage for a particularly sticky diplomatic dance, given US opposition to changes in regional drug policies.
But US-backed drug policies have in recent years brought a wave of violence to the region, which is used as a springboard for Colombian cocaine headed north to the US and Canada, either direct or via Mexico. Mexican drug cartels have expanded their operations in Central America in the past few year, perhaps in response to the pressures they face at home.
High levels of poverty and the strong presence of criminal gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras, have combined with the cartel presence to make the region one of the world's deadliest. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with Jamaica, have the world's highest murder rates.
In its most recent annual report
, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said violence linked to the drug wars has reached "alarming and unprecedented" levels in the region. It also noted that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with Jamaica, have the world's highest murder rates.
"How much have we paid here in Central America in deaths, kidnappings, extortion?" asked Chinchilla. "Central America has to ask whether it is time that we raise this issue at the Security Council of United Nations."
Pérez Molina suggested that, barring legalization and a regulated drug trade, consumer countries should be taxed for the drugs seized in the region on their behalf.
"For every kilo of cocaine that is seized, we want to be compensated 50% by the consumer countries, he said, adding that the United States has a "responsibility" because of its high rates of drug use.
While Saturday's summit produced no common platform or manifesto, it is an important step in the fight for a more sensible, effective, and humane response to drug use and the regional drug trade. Leading US drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance
lauded its occurrence as "significant" and "remarkable."
"The rapid evolution of this debate is nothing short of remarkable," he said. "It has progressed in just a few years from the advocacy of activists and intellectuals, to distinguished former presidents, and now to current presidents demanding that all options, including decriminalization and legalization, be seriously evaluated and debated," he noted.
"The significance of this meeting cannot be overestimated, notwithstanding the fact that no one expects a consensus to emerge from this meeting on alternative drug policies," Nadelmann continued. "Virtually no one would have predicted" that such a meeting could take place "with the support of presidents in Mexico and Colombia, to discuss drug policy options including decriminalization and legalization. What was once taboo is no longer. The discussion will continue next month at the Summit of the Americas -- in Cartagena, Colombia -- with President Barack Obama and virtually all other heads of state from the region in attendance. At this point it is no longer possible to put this genie back in the bottle."
But that doesn't mean the US won't try, Nadelmann said.
"Unfortunately the biggest obstacle right now to informed debate is the head-in-the-sand resistance within the Obama administration and Congress to any real discussion of alternative drug policy options" because of fears of attack by political foes. "One result is that US government officials will be increasingly handicapped in the international drug policy discussions at Cartagena and elsewhere, armed only with defenses of failed US policies but bereft of any in-depth analysis of the options that other governments are putting on the table."