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Drug legalization gains support in Central America

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Guatemalan President Otto Perez has invigorated the drug legalization debate in Central America, where leaders are under pressure to contain staggering crime rates and battle violent drug cartels.

In recent comments Perez said he would propose decriminalizing drugs during April’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia as a strategy to combat powerful traffickers that use Central America as a warehouse and transit point for South American cocaine heading to the United States.

New legislation is unlikely anytime soon — and the details, such as which illicit drugs he means, are still unclear — but Perez has caught the region’s attention and has provoked a divisive response from U.S. officials.

“We know it’s a difficult and polarizing issue,” Perez recently told journalists. “We are bringing it to the table and we want a serious debate about it.”

Murder rates have soared in recent years in Central America, driven in part by drug traffickers and street pushers who battle for routes and territories.

Four of the isthmus’ seven nations are among the world’s 10 most murderous with homicide rates up to 17 times those in the United States. Bloody Mexican cartels looking to prey on vast, unprotected land and corrupt institutions have brough their violent business here, where nearly half the inhabitants live in poverty.

The region’s leaders, with scant resources, have lobbied for more support from the United States to fight organized crime and have slammed the United States for not reducing demand for the drugs. A Republican-controlled U.S. Congress hungry for aid cuts and a slow recession recovery have meant few increases in financial support, analysts say.

During a recent visit to Central America, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano defended her country’s firm stance against legalization and said the U.S. would continue to fund the war on drugs.

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“The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem,” Napolitano said. “We should be finding better ways to prevent someone from becoming addicted to illegal drugs and better ways to intercept the production or distribution of illegal drugs.”

In a statement, the U.S. cited drops in Colombia’s murder rates after the U.S.-funded Colombia Plan — a five-year, multi-billion dollar crusade against South American cocaine growers — as evidence that staunch law enforcement works.

Washington also spent $1.6 billion in Mexico under the Merida Initiative, according to the U.S. State Department. That money has helped finance a drug war that has since 2006 resulted in the deaths of more than 47,000 people, according to Mexican prosecutors' statistics.

The U.S. donated some $300 million to Central America in 2011 for security projects, but leaders facing an expensive and potentially deadly battle have begun to pool ideas in search of a new approach.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who favored the debate, said that decriminalizing drugs could cripple criminal profits, so long as it’s a multilateral approach.

“Our country is open to any proposal that will reduce drug production and contraband … which is the activity that organized criminals use to destroy our societies,” Funes said during a visit to Guatemala. “It must be a regional effort. If we only do it in one country, for example in Guatemala, then Guatemala will become a drug paradise,” he said.

President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, where small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption are legal, said she is open to the discussion, joining Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Colombian head-of-state Juan Santos who have also clamored for a rethink of drug policy.

In Honduras, whose congress recently approved an army-led strategy to fight drug gangs, President Porfirio Lobo dismissed legalization alongside Panama’s foreign minister, Roberto Enriquez.

Perez, however, has not given up in the face of such doubt. The founding member of the right-wing Patriot Party, he has suggested legalizing the “transit, production and consumption” of illegal drugs and has sent Vice President Roxana Baldetti on a consensus-building mission to neighboring states.

The leaders have not yet said which illicit drugs should be legalized. When pressed on the specifics, Perez only responded that it should be an "integral" strategy.

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Skeptics of the plan say that Perez, who is pressing the United States to re-establish embargoed military aid to Guatemala, could be using legalization as a threat in order to speed up army support, a risky move for a president looking for greater U.S. backing.

“It could push the U.S. Congress to give them more money, or it could really upset Congress and they could cut aid all together,” said Heather Berkman, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “I doubt this goes anywhere. Latin American leaders feel stuck and this is a move to get more resources rather than a real solution to improve their situation.”

Guatemala spends roughly $200 million per year on its drug war — small change compared to the estimated $30 billion in annual sales that the drug trade pulls in — and the Guatemalan Congress has never debated a legalization bill. A proposal to define a quantity for personal consumption of marijuana and levy a small fine on violators never advanced beyond legislative committees.

Still, Perez has captivated regional leaders and Guatemala’s liberal lawmakers say his new pitch has revitalized an overdue dialogue.

“Whatever his motives are, it seems more tangible now,” said Alejandra Garcia, a member of the left-leaning Meeting for Guatemala party. “We probably won’t see any new legislation in the next four years, but you never know. This is Guatemala. There are a lot of surprises here.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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2 comments on this story

Mar 4, 2012, 2:58 pm
-0 +0

* Colombia, Peru, Mexico or Afghanistan with their coca leaves, marijuana buds or poppy sap are not igniting temptation in the minds of our weak, innocent citizens. These countries are duly responding to the enormous demand that comes from within our own borders. Invading or destroying these countries, thus creating more hate, violence, instability, injustice and corruption, will not fix our problem.

* A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

* The massive majority of adults who use drugs do so recreationally - getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

* Apart from the huge percentage of people addicted to both sugar and caffeine, a small minority of adults (nearly 5%) will always experience the use of drugs as problematic. - approx. 3% are dependent on alcohol and approx. 1.5% are dependent on other drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroine etc.

* Just as it was impossible to prevent alcohol from being produced and used in the U.S. in the 1920s, so too, it is equally impossible to prevent any of the aforementioned drugs from being produced, distributed and widely used by those who desire to do so.

* Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the drugs it prohibits.

* Due to Prohibition (historically proven to be an utter failure at every level), the availability of most of these mood-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

* Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement - even whole governments, while inducing an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

* Apart from the fact that the DEA is the de facto enforcement wing of the pharmaceutical industry, the involvement of the CIA in running Heroin from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan and Cocaine from Central America has been well documented by the 1989 Kerry Committee report, academic researchers Alfred McCoy and Peter Dale Scott, and the late journalist Gary Webb.

* It’s not even possible to keep drugs out of prisons, but prohibitionists wish to waste trillions of dollars in an utterly futile attempt to keep them off our streets.

* The United States jails a larger percentage of it’s own citizens than any other country in the world, including those run by the worst totalitarian regimes, yet it has far higher use/addiction rates than most other countries.

* Prohibition is the “Goose that laid the golden egg” and the lifeblood of terrorists as well as drug cartels. Both the Taliban and the terrorists of al Qaeda derive their main income from the prohibition-inflated value of the opium poppy. An estimated 44 % of the heroin produced in Afghanistan, with an estimated annual destination value of US $ 27 Billion, transits through Pakistan. Prohibition has essentially destroyed Pakistan’s legal economy and social fabric. - We may be about to witness the planet’s first civil war in a nation with nuclear capabilities. - Kindly Google: ‘A GLOBAL OVERVIEW OF NARCOTICS-FUNDED TERRORIST GROUPS’ Only those opposed, or willing to ignore these facts, want things the way they are.

Mar 4, 2012, 11:15 am
-0 +0

The drug lords have tunnel vision and are unable to see the bigger picture.  They do not understand the true power of hi-tech agriculture in finance and how it can support, employ and feed the people.
It is interesting that there is all of this time, money, hatred and killing invested in the drug war when you can raise produce and herbs in a specialized growing system and generate near as good of a return as raising marijuana or cocaine.  The demand for locally grown produce and herbs in every part of the world is greater than marijuana and cocaine.  It cost me 600k to setup every acre on this system and I have my cost back plus a healthy premium at the end of the first year.  See thegardenmaster dot com.  No wars, no armies, no killing, no prison, no hiding and no cross country distribution and no drug enforcement costs to the people.  It employs people, it feeds people and it reduces our tax exposure.  Cash in and cash out year-round.  They could be the heroes of the people instead of the enemies of the people. Google the poster. thegardenmasterqc@gmail.com

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Guatemalan President Otto Perez speaks during a press conference on Feb. 13.