Americas Summit: Path from the Drug War to Peace

Source: Fellowship of Reconciliation

The list is growing of sitting heads of state in Latin America who question the failed war on drugs and seek a debate on their legalization. Besides the voices of presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of Mexico, several Central American countries are joining the chorus, lead by Guatemala under the recently inaugurated government of Otto Perez Molina.

A proposal for decriminalization is being prepared in the context of the Central American integration organization, SICA, to be presented at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia on Aril 14-15. The region’s foreign ministers have been actively working on the issue, and member presidents will meet in Antigua, Guatemala on March 24 to agree on a joint proposal to bring to Cartagena. The Colombian and Mexican presidents have been invited to that meeting as well.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, for his part, spoke in early March in Vienna at the United Nations headquarters for the program on drugs. With a coca leaf in hand, he defended the ancestral right to chew coca leaves, prohibited by the 1971 convention on drugs.

Though it is one of the most ferocious promoters of the failed war on drugs, the United States has accepted having a discussion of legalization at the Americas Summit, noting that it has no plans to change its prohibitionist position. So said Assistant Secretary of State Mike Hammer in a press conference with the Spanish language media on March 8. Any attempt to legalize or decriminalize drugs is a taboo subject in U.S. politics, especially in a presidential election year, despite the fact that since October 2011, 50% of the U.S. population favors decriminalization the use of marijuana.

That the U.S. accepts this discussion, even with those limits, is an historic change, occurring in the context of huge efforts to prevent cracks opening in what was until recently a consensus on prohibition. Just a few weeks ago, Vice President Joseph Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were sent on tour to Central America and Mexico to counteract the “revolt” and make clear that they have no intention of yielding on militarization as a response to the drug problem.

That is precisely where the problem lies. Beyond the reasons for which the war on drugs is failed and counterproductive – drug policy reformers have documented extensive evidence on that point – at the center of the problem for Latin America is the militarization carried out in the name of the drug war. The military bases in the region that the United States maintains or uses are rationalized almost entirely for interdiction of drug trafficking. That is exactly the justification used for the new base the Pentagon plans to build on Saona Island in the Dominican Republic.

Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras are clear examples of the collateral impacts that U.S. military asistance to the region (in funds, weapons, equipment, training, etc.). In Colombia, protections in the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits assistance to military units in cases of gross human rights violations, were sufficient, and military aid continued to flow while the army systematically killed defenseless civilians to inflate their statistics on those killed in combat. In Mexico, the spiral of deaths coincides with the militarization of the counter-narcotics fight. And in Honduras, the U.S. military base maintained for drug control was used to depose the elected president, who was sent in pajamas to his exile in June 2009. Since that time, the country is submerged in an intense wave of repression and human rights violations.

The challenges ahead are large. There is a long way to go to a position of Latin America as a block that demands a reconsideration of the prohibitionist model, since several countries in the region continue defending it. Even in Central America is far from a consensus: even if Honduras changed its position to favor legalization, El Salvador quickly ceded to the pressure of Secretary Napolitano, joining Panama. Cuba – excluded from the Summit – is paradoxically presented by the State Department as being a model of prohibitionist strategy. Venezuela has also up to now been against any legalization effort.

The quest for peace in the drug war must therefore also come from below. It is no accident that the People’s Summit meeting in Cartagena from April 12 to 14, parallel to the Americas Summit, has adopted the militarization promoted by the United States, with the excuse of the drug war, as one of the reasons for social movements to mobilize. In addition, one of the requests to President Obama by U.S. churches and groups in this year’s Days of Prayer and Action is to end crop fumigation programs and replace them with investment in demand reduction through public health measures for prevention and rehabilitation.