San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Pérez Molina: Drug strategy a ‘failure’

GUATEMALA CITY – In January, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina made waves in Latin America by proposing decriminalization of illicit drugs as an alternative to the bloody wars being fought with drug traffickers. For the last two months, many doubted the former general’s sincerity and speculated he was trying to leverage the United States into more military aid.

But since then, Pérez Molina has gone against U.S. recommendations and demanded a frank conversation about new ways to fight the problem. The Guatemalan president will make his plan center stage at the Summit of the Americas this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia (TT, March 30).

Pérez Molina began his week by writing an op-ed in the British daily The Guardian titled, “We have to find new solutions to Latin America’s drugs nightmare.” In the article, the former general laid out a basic proposal for moving from prohibition to regulation of illicit drugs. He not only called for a policy shift, but also a shift in attitudes about drug use: “Drug consumption is a public health issue that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal justice problem,” he wrote.

Pérez Molina called for more resources for education, public health and social protection instead of pouring money into a prohibitive military strategy to fight drug trafficking – a strategy he deemed “a failure.” All of this comes from a former general and head of Guatemalan military intelligence who won the presidency last year with promises of an “iron fist” against crime.

Despite U.S. opposition, other countries are showing support for efforts to seek an alternative strategy to the region’s war on drugs. On Monday, Lady Molly Meacher, president of the British parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, met with Pérez Molina. She reiterated the backing of the group, which had already sent a letter of support weeks before. However, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has not yet backed the Guatemalan president’s initiative.

Pérez Molina hopes to disseminate his message worldwide by way of the country’s ambassadors – 31 Guatemalan diplomats already have discussed drug regulation proposals and questions that still remain about how it would work. Those diplomats will take the proposals to their respective consulates in the coming weeks.

Pérez Molina also publicly released a PowerPoint presentation he has used to explain his stance. “Dialogue for a Policy of Drug Regulation” outlines the ideology behind a new framework for drug-market regulation. The presentation notes that complete eradication of illegal drugs around the world is “utopian,” but that prohibitive policies continue because a shift would be “politically unacceptable” in consumer countries, namely the U.S.

In explaining the policy, the president is frank about difficult issues that must be resolved for an effective strategy. Some of the most challenging are questions of justice, including whether convicted drug felons will receive amnesty, and what to do with drug bosses who have accrued fortunes trafficking illegal substances.  

But the plan is brief and far from being ready for application. It ends with a request for dialogue.

While Pérez Molina seems to be pushing a regulation policy ahead, he still faces tough opposition. The U.S. government has repeatedly rejected such a proposal. Presidents from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – Mauricio Funes, Porfirio Lobo and Daniel Ortega, respectively – did not attend a summit hosted by Guatemala in late March to discuss the issue. Pérez Molina said the U.S. encouraged a boycott of the summit.  

At home, only 21 percent of Guatemalans support legalization, based on an initial poll.

But the greatest obstacle, according to Edmundo Urrutia, from the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty, is a history of repressive and violent reaction to illicit drugs.

“So many people have been educated in this vision [of violently pursuing drug traffickers and users],” he said. “It will be very difficult to change these structures, values, perceptions, and above all, the interests created by drug-trafficking policies.”

But Urrutia acknowledged the proposal has fallen on “fertile ground” in Latin America. Violence and high levels of inequality have made prospects bleak for many in the region, and trying something new is a welcome concept by many Central Americans.

Pérez Molina has allies in his push for dialogue – Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla are among the most vocal. 

As Santos explained in an interview with The Washington Post, “the [current] discussion [on the war on drugs] is not rational.” The U.S. bluntly claims legalization is not feasible and has yet to participate in discussions on the issue. Honduras and El Salvador cite moral aversion to such a proposal. 

The hope of Pérez Molina and Santos, among others, is that such a discussion will take place at the Summit of the Americas. With U.S. President Barack Obama in attendance, this may be their best opportunity yet.

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