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Regional drug summit draws tepid support

From the print edition

ANTIGUA, Guatemala – In the backdrop of the centuries-old ruins of Antigua, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina proudly announced four proposals for a Central American strategy against drug trafficking to close the New Paths Against Drug Trafficking Summit, March 24. Unfortunately, other nations’ officials had left before he made the announcement.  

Despite his bold claims for a new regional strategy, other heads of state seem hesitant to overtly support Pérez Molina’s new direction. Only two other presidents, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli, were present at the summit, hosted by the Central American Integration System. The summit included delegations from from eight countries, including the Dominican Republic.

Support for Pérez Molina’s policy shift has been sporadic. Just one day after backing a debate for decriminalization of illicit drugs in February, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes reversed his position, saying that drug legalization would make Central America a “paradise” for drug traffickers. Funes did not attend the summit, sending his defense minister, David Munguía, instead.

Honduran leaders, currently under U.S. congressional scrutiny for alleged human rights abuses, have staunchly opposed the proposal. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo cited “God’s will” when he first rejected the idea on Feb. 18. 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he wouldn’t decriminalize illicit drugs in Nicaragua because the army and police are already winning the war on organized crime.

This regional lack of support for decriminalization did not prevent Pérez Molina from suggesting even more potential strategies to “deepen the fight against drug trafficking.”

His first proposal suggested compensation for Central American countries for every kilogram of drugs seized or destroyed. Guatemalan authorities recently destroyed the equivalent of $838 million of poppy plants. If the proposal were implemented, the United States would be asked to pay Guatemala $838 million. Being able to determine the destination of such drugs and accurately value them could be contentious, and concurrence with such a policy on the part of the U.S. seems unlikely.

Another proposal would establish a temporary Central American drug trafficking court. Any crime – from murder to money laundering – associated with drug trafficking would be tried in the court. Pérez Molina said that such a body would alleviate the strain on justice systems in the region, especially those in Guatemala and Honduras, where impunity is rampant.

Another proposal suggested legalization of the transport of illicit drugs in the region, a policy that would allow traffickers to move freely within the countries. Pérez Molina described the region as “sandwiched between producer and consumer countries” and suffering unjustly for their location.

While leaders agreed a new policy is needed and declared their support for Pérez Molina, their absence during the presentation of the new proposals was notable. The Guatemalan president cited “travel urgency” as the seven delegations left before his 20-minute press conference.  

Nevertheless, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros said, “Chinchilla and Martinelli’s responses to the proposals were magnificent.”

If the decriminalization proposal was used simply to get the attention of the U.S. and other countries – as many analysts have suggested – it seems to be working. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited the region in late February. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with regional leaders soon after. And William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, toured Guatemala and Honduras this week. 

On Friday, Costa Rica’s Chinchilla traveled to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also to discuss drug trafficking and violence in Central America.

The region’s leaders do agree with Pérez Molina that “the fight against drug trafficking in the last 40 years has failed.” 

While they have not reached a consensus on the specific policies yet, Central Americans can expect their leaders to announce changes in the fight against drug trafficking soon. Regional heads of state will meet again April 11-12, two days before the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

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