San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Regional Policy Shift

Last month, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has spent the better part of his nearly four years in office chasing after drug cartels, told an audience of politicians that perhaps it is time for a change in strategy.

The country has been ravaged by a skyrocketing homicide rate. Nearly 28,000 people have been murdered since Calderón assumed office in 2006, making the country number 20 on the worldwide list of murderous nations. Drug-related crimes have grown by 47.5 percent since 2005, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. And cocaine users have doubled from 1.2 percent of the population to 2.4 percent.

Despite the launch of a new “war on drugs” in 2007, it was clear to Calderón that something wasn’t working.

“I know that the strategy has been questioned, and my administration is more than willing to revise, strengthen or change it if needed,” Calderón said at the Aug. 10 meeting. “What I ask is simply that political and social actors (offer) clear ideas and precise proposals on how to improve this strategy.”

The Central American Highway

Mexico isn’t alone in facing the burgeoning security issue posed by the drug trade. High crime rates have been trickling down the spine of the isthmus. In El Salvador, homicides are reported at a rate of 13 a day. Honduras is experiencing some of the highest murder rates in the world, with an estimated 61 homicides per 100,000 residents, and its government arrests close to 16 people per 100,000 a year on drug trafficking charges.

Averaging 49 murders per 100,000 residents, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom called his country “more violent now than during the (1960-1996 civil) war.”

And, while armyless Costa Rica is not posting the same grim numbers as its Central American neighbors, security and counter drug trafficking operations have earned a top spot on its political agenda.

The surge in violence is unquestionably linked to the influx of drugs, said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow in foreign policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. “Violence levels have gone through the roof,” he said. “And there is no way you can 

explain the numbers without mentioning the crucial role narcotics are playing in the region.”

Today, nearly 88 percent of cocaine destined for the United States goes through Central America and Mexico, whereas in the past, the main shipping route was through the Caribbean (see graph P. 5). According to the United Nations, “the overwhelming dominance of the Central American transit corridor is a recent occurrence,” as interdiction efforts led traffickers to reassess their routes.

Even with more than a half-billion dollars allocated to strategically address drug trafficking by way of the U.S.-sponsored Merida Initiative, the problem has seemingly worsened, sending regional heads of state searching for new solutions.

“There is a sense of perplexity and a sense of resignation,” said Casas. “People are throwing their hands in the air and saying there is very little we can do about it. We saw a very clear turn toward harsh law and order, which was utterly ineffective.”

President Barack Obama, who originally said there would be no change in policies to counter narco-trafficking operations, announced an initiative directed at curtailing consumption in May.

Rather than direct more money at dismantling drug cartels or erecting high walls between the U.S. and Latin America, Obama has decided to confront “the complex challenge of drug use and its consequences.”

He explained the new method involves an emphasis on “boosting community-based prevention, expanding treatment, strengthening law enforcement, and working collaboratively with our global partners.”

The Organization of American States responded with the announcement that it, too, would promote prevention and rehabilitation efforts. The aim is to encourage treatment over incarceration and to target core drug users, who account for 80 percent of consumption, said Secretary General José Manuel Insulza.

“The time has come for new ideas, for a more forward-thinking dialogue, and for ever more proactive action,” he said.

A Legalization Push?

But it’s not just the conventional methods that are making headlines. Political leaders are also considering the possibility of some shade of legalization, as black market profits fuel the drug trade.

Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya called on the United States to legalize drugs in February 2008 in order to reduce the dire effect that trafficking was having on his country.

While Mexico’s Calderón said he would accept dialogue on the topic, he added that any action taken by Mexico would be fruitless without a similar policy adopted in the United States.

Drug legalization has long been a taboo topic in the U.S., usually brushed off as a left-wing, hippie campaign – more a ploy to feed a “mental escape” for privileged college students and baby-boomers than a serious proposal for curtailing the effects of drug trafficking.

Yet, California legislators are reviewing two proposals that would legalize the production and sale of marijuana and apply a tax to fund drug education and rehabilitation.

A study done by the RAND Corporation think tank in July predicted that if either of the two proposals were to pass, it would cut the price of the drug by as much as 80 percent and increase consumption.

“There is considerable uncertainty about the impact that legalizing marijuana in California will have on consumption and public budgets,” said Beau Kilmer, the study’s lead author. “No government has legalized the production and distribution of marijuana for general use, so there is little evidence on which to base any predictions about how this might work in California.”

Meanwhile, in states like California and Colorado, medical marijuana dispensaries have sprouted up rapidly, fueling the debate while providing what some call a remedy for the sick and others consider a pot smokers’ way around the law.

Casas said there needs to be more open discussion of the issue, although he couldn’t support legalization for lack of data.

“The United States is being ill-served by a very intolerant debate when it comes to drugs,” he said. “Whoever comes up with an alternative approach to the drug situation is publicaly massacred.”

“The nature of this debate has to change.”

A Mexican ‘Plan Colombia’?

Adding to the uncertainty regarding drug policy in the region was a recent proposal by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a apply a version of  “Plan Colombia” in Mexico. Referring to the U.S. program of providing combined military and economic assistance to Colombia to fight the drug cartels, Clinton said last week in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations that the situation in Mexico is beginning to mimic that of Colombia 20 years ago, where 40 percent of the country was under the control of insurgent forces.

“I know Plan Colombia was controversial,” she said. “I was just in Colombia and there were problems and there were mistakes, but it worked. (In Mexico), it’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support.”

She applauded Mexico for wanting to do it on its own, but said, “I feel a real sense of responsibility to do everything we can. We’re working hard to come up with approaches that will actually deliver.”

However, Clinton was widely criticized for her remarks, and U.S. President Barack Obama quickly rejected the comparison between Mexico and Colombia outright.

At a nationwide conference on security in mid-August, Calderón said, “We are facing a very serious problem and it comes without precedents …We need to have a new attitude in confronting this issue; an attitude of cooperation and an attitude of openness. And a commitment to find efficient, innovative ways.”

He said, “This problem is not as big as the will of (Mexico’s) people.”

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