U.S. not budging on drug decriminalization stance

GUATEMALA CITY – U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano arrived in Guatemala Monday evening to discuss drug war strategy with President Otto Pérez Molina, who caused a stir in Central America a few weeks ago with his proposal for a discussion on illicit drug decriminalization. Napolitano reiterated U.S. opposition Monday night.

“The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem,” she said. She suggested a regional effort that would prevent drug use, intercept production and distribution, and stop money laundering.

But Pérez Molina was firm. “We are calling for a discussion, a debate. And we continue to insist it. … We want to open a debate to find a more effective way to fight drug trafficking.” 

Since Pérez Molina and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes first called for a discussion about decriminalization two weeks ago, leaders across the region have been quick to take sides. Most recently, Panamanian Foreign Minister Roberto Enríquez told the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario, “We absolutely do not agree with the decriminalization of [illicit] drugs.”

Nevertheless, Guatemalan Vice President Roxanna Baldetti will be visiting heads of state in Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua this week to present the discussion. Pérez Molina calls this the first of four steps in a discussion on decriminalization.

Napolitano arrived in Guatemala after a visit to Mexico in which she insisted that the war on drugs had not been a failure, but was “a continuing effort to keep our peoples from becoming addicted to dangerous drugs.” She called for a different way to fight drug trafficking focused on regional cooperation.

Despite U.S. opposition to decriminalization, Napolitano agreed with Central American leaders who claim U.S. consumption is fueling the problem. 

“It is incumbent on the United States to continue to look for ways to reduce demand, because that demand itself fuels the market for producing illegal drugs.”

In addition to better information sharing and police training, she also said the “supplying of equipment” would be part of U.S. strategy in the region. Napolitano was hesitant to estimate how much was needed for a regional or national strategy, but she made it clear that “there will be more and more cooperation as we go along.”

This is a hopeful sign for the Guatemalan government after U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal showed a 60 percent decrease in assistance to Guatemala for the drug war. There were similar cuts throughout the region. Pérez Molina and other Central American leaders claim that the low funding is not sufficient to fight the war on drugs.

“The door is open and we remain ready to work with Guatemala to provide whatever we can by way of assistance,” Napolitano said.

Napolitano will visit El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama on the rest of her tour.