Homeland Security chief visits as drug resolve softens

The Obama administration is sending the secretary of Homeland Security to Latin America to confront the diminishing official resolve to continue the war on drugs.

She is Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor, who will visit México, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panamá starting today, said a release from the U.S. Embassy here.

The visit comes at a time when presidents of Central American states are discussing the possible impact of decriminalizing drugs. Costa Rica has effectively decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use because the nation’s chief prosecutor has said his office will not prosecute these cases.

With Ms. Napolitano will be other security officials.

Among those suggesting an end to the U.S. war on drugs is Vicente Fox, the former Mexican president, who left office in 2006. That was when the bloodshed was beginning in México. His successor, Felipe Calderón ordered the army to crack down, and the result is more than 12,000 deaths.

Some Latin leaders have been characterizing the war on drugs as a failed policy for three or four years.

The embassy release did not mention the changing attitude in Central America. It said that Ms. Napolitano and her associates would discuss increased trade and travel and an exchange of information

Otto Pérez, the new president of Guatemala suggested earlier this month that Central American countries should debate the decriminalization of drugs with the goal of reducing violence and the
income to trafficking cartels. He is a former general and generally regarded as a law-and-order hardliner. His country, too, has been ravaged by drug-related violence. Some sections are outside the control of the central government.

Pérez voiced that idea in a meeting with Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador.

President Laura Chinchilla said last week that she would be meeting with Roxana Baldetti, Guatemala’s vice president, to discuss decriminalization. The Guatemalan official will be visiting Costa Rica.
Ms. Napolitano will be visiting Ms. Chinchilla Tuesday.

The U.S. government has invested substantial funds in Costa Rica to stem drug trafficking. Among the investments have been facilities at Peñas Blancas to inspect trucks headed north and the construction of a checkpoint facility in southern Costa Rica on the Interamericana highway. There also are the continued presence of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships off both coasts seeking smugglers.

Despite the efforts, some estimates are that 80 percent of the drugs get through Central America and México and enter the United States, one of the principal markets.

Decriminalization does not necessarily mean legalizing drugs. There have been a number of concepts advanced, although some U.S. and Latin leaders believe that legal drugs would represent a big increase in sales tax income.

Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman who is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has said the best way to fight violent drug cartels would be to pull the rug out from under their profits by bringing these transactions out into the sunlight.

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