Latin policymakers considering decriminalization of drugs

U.S. Coast Guard photo A Coast Guard helicopter tails a suspected drug smuggler's boat in this undated graphic posted to the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.

U.S. officials are trying to stem the growing frustration among Central American officials with the war on drugs.

A clear example is the new Guatemalan president, former general Otto Pérez, who is suggesting that the United States and Central American countries should debate the decriminalization of drugs with the goal of reducing violence and the income to trafficking cartels.

He voiced that idea over the weekend and Monday in a meeting with Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador.

The idea drew a quick response Sunday from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. The embassy noted in an unsigned statement on its Web site that the idea of decriminalization has come up before even in some U.S. states. Said the embassy:

“The United States continues to oppose such measures because evidence shows that our shared drug problem is a major public health and safety threat. In the U.S., drugs are present in roughly half of all those who commit crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Research shows, however, that drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated.”

The embassy aid that U.S. cocaine use has dropped 43 percent and the use of methamphetamine has been cut in half, adding:

“Just as these programs have shown that we can succeed in reducing demand for illegal drugs, the case of Colombia shows that strong multilateral commitment to combat narcotrafficking and transnational criminal activity can succeed. Violent deaths in Colombia fell by half between 2002 and 2011. The government recovered both control of its territory and the confidence of its citizens. With similar political will, other governments can have that same success.

“If the trafficking and use of illegal drugs were decriminalized tomorrow in Central America, transnational criminal organizations and gangs would continue to engage in illicit activity, including trafficking in persons and illegal arms, extortion and kidnapping, bank robbery, theft of intellectual property, and money laundering. Corruption and homicides in Central America are certainly exacerbated by the transit of illegal drugs, but with increased cultivation and consumption of decriminalized drugs, crime in Central America could well increase as the drug cartels shift their focus to these other forms of illicit activities.”

The embassy said that the difficult situation that Guatemala confronts today includes combating poverty and malnutrition, rebuilding institutions and respect for the rule of law, and re-establishing an effective state presence in all areas of the country. The United States provided $220 million in the last fiscal year to Guatemala, it said.

The violence in Guatemala and the territorial control exercised by drug cartels are not what Costa Rica faces yet, although some suggest that more problems are coming.

In fact, Costa Rica has taken steps to tacitly decriminalize drugs for personal use, at least in the eyes of the chief prosecutor, Jorge Chavarría. But then the security ministry announced what is basically a zero tolerance approach. Even in the legislature there is resistance to the U.S. war on drugs. Lawmakers have declined to approve supply stops for U.S. ships that are on anti-drug patrol. That approval is required by the Costa Rican Constitution.

Feelings are also mixed within the public. The Pacific coast fishing fleet has been infiltrated heavily by the drug cartels. Colombian smugglers are counting on fishermen here to provide fuel on the high seas, and some fishing boats carry drugs, too.

The anti-drug units of the Judicial Investigating Organization and the security ministry routinely intercept cocaine headed north, mostly hidden in tractor trailers. What is unknown is how much they fail to find.

Two court trials are in progress this week, one where the charge is money laundering and one where the crash of a light plane revealed more than 170 kilos of cocaine stashed in a wing. The latter case was expensive for Costa Rica because the surviving pilot spent more than 400 days in the hospital and generated substantial medical expenses.

Every week drug rings are broken up in communities all over the country only to have other vendors fill the void.

And periodically even police officers are linked to the drug shipments.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala suggests a societal approach: “The solutions to the difficult situation that Guatemala confronts today include combating poverty and malnutrition, rebuilding institutions and respect for the rule of law, and re-establishing an effective state presence in all areas of the country. The United States government’s assistance to Guatemala (valued at $220 million in the last fiscal year) is focused on exactly these objectives.”

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