San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Vice President Biden stands firm in Latin America drug debate

MEXICO CITY – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in Mexico Monday that he was open to joining a growing Latin American debate about legalizing illicit drugs, but only to show that a change of policy would not work.

Biden’s two-day visit to Mexico and Central America comes amid frustration about the failure of U.S.-backed efforts to combat regional drug violence and new debate about decriminalizing illicit drugs spearheaded by Guatemala.

“It’s totally legitimate for this to be raised, and the reason it warrants a discussion is that on examination, you realize that there are more problems with legalization than non-legalization, including the notion of taking the criminal element out of the system,” Biden told reporters in Mexico City.

“[Legalization] is worth discussing, but there’s no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

Biden pointed to the “unquestioned negative health effects” of illicit drugs and said consumption would inevitably increase if they were made legal.

The U.S. vice president said he discussed the frustration and anxiety of communities affected by Mexico’s raging drug violence – blamed for nearly 50,000 deaths since 2006 – with Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

He said that taking down drug gang leaders is not the only solution to the problem, and that both the United States and Mexico could do more to tackle related issues, such as money laundering.

“You can go out and decapitate an organization, and it’s like the hydra-headed monster, it’ll grow another head. But you go and follow the money and the monster withers,” Biden said.

Calderón reiterated the need to strengthen “actions against arms trafficking to our country” – with some 90 percent of illegal weapons in Mexico estimated to have come from the U.S. – and to tackle money laundering, in a statement from the Mexican presidency.

Biden also met with three main presidential candidates who are vying to replace Calderón in July 1 elections. The frontrunner is Enrique Peña, from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which led Mexico for more than 70 years until elections in 2000.

Peña is trailed by Josefina Vázquez of Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) and Andres Manuel López Obrador, from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

When asked whether he saw any change in U.S.-Mexico relations with any of the candidates, Biden said: “No, and I’m not being flippant about it, but no.”

Biden was due in Honduras Tuesday to hold bilateral talks with President Porfirio Lobo and meet with Central American leaders.

About 90 percent of the cocaine which arrives in the U.S. passes through Central America and Mexico, where drug-related violence has increased in recent years, as well as production of synthetic drugs.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina last month proposed decriminalizing drugs and vowed to drum up regional support for the move.

Drug-related violence has reached “alarming and unprecedented” levels in Central America as Mexican drug cartels have shifted their operations, according to a recent U.N. report.

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