San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Will Central America legalize illicit drugs?

GUATEMALA CITY – On Monday, newly inaugurated Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina announced that he and other Latin American leaders would consider decriminalization of illicit drugs to fight trafficking in the region.  

The Guatemalan president made the statement as Central America leaders seek to curb multinational cartels, such as Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, which traffic billions of dollars of illegal drugs and cause excessive violence in the region.

Pérez Molina first made the statement on a radio program Saturday, sparking controversy in Guatemala and abroad. Like many other proponents of drug legalization, Pérez Molina said decriminalization could shift police and military focus from petty drug users to the leaders of cartels that move billions of dollars of drugs through the country each year.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala was quick to respond with a statement on their website Sunday evening, which outright rejected such a policy. “The United States continues to oppose such measures because evidence shows that our shared drug problem is a major public health and safety threat,” the embassy statement said.  

Strong warnings from the U.S. did not stop the Guatemalan president from reiterating his intentions in a press conference Monday with El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, who initially declared his support of a discussion on the issue. By Monday evening, Funes clarified his opposition to the idea, saying it would create a “moral problem.”

Pérez Molina called U.S. opposition “premature,” and said he wanted to involve the U.S. in the discussion. He also pointed to U.S. consumption as a principal cause of the problem. “If drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem will continue,” he said.

The tension between Guatemala and the U.S. comes just one month into Pérez Molina’s four-year term. He came into power in January after a campaign that highlighted his intention to stop crime with an “iron fist” through increased military and police operations.  

Two days before his inauguration, the president’s top advisers made it clear he wanted to regain U.S. military aid, which was revoked in 1978 because of human rights abuses by the military during a 36-year civil war. Pérez Molina climbed the ranks to head of military intelligence during the war, which ended with Peace Accords in 1996.  

Raquel Zelaya, executive secretary of ASIES, a Guatemalan think tank, said Pérez Molina’s statements intended to “make the U.S. react.”  

“The question in the back of everyone’s mind is: What does the U.S. do to stop drugs from entering their country,” Zelaya said.  

Central American leaders are justifiably desperate for a solution to ongoing violence. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have consistently topped the list of homicide rates for the last decade. The gruesome nature of drug cartels was seen in May 2011 when 27 farm workers were found decapitated by Los Zetas in Guatemala’s northern Petén region, an area notorious for drug trafficking.  

Regardless of his intentions, Pérez Molina made it clear he was not alone in considering decriminalization – he has apparently discussed the issue with his Mexican and Colombian counterparts, although neither has confirmed it. Colombia’s head of Congress also announced Monday his intention to propose the idea of legalization.

 On Tuesday, Costa Rican Public Security Minister Mario Zamora noted the potential benefits that legalization of illicit drugs could bring for local drug users: “When a Costa Rican family pays 500,000 [$980] or 600,000 [$1,200] per month so that a family member can detox from drugs, it’s extremely expensive. Unfortunately, a family can’t do that. So, when talking about the legalization of drugs I would mention the options for detoxification and rehabilitation that break the horror of slavery [that exists] between the person and the drug [and] that dominates him through addiction.”

Clayton R. Norman contributed to this story from Costa Rica.

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