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OAS: Is the war on drugs a failure?

ANTIGUA, Guatemala – Four decades after Washington launched its international “war on drugs” in Latin America (the U.S. no longer uses that term), members of the Organization of American States’ General Assembly are questioning the logic behind what is increasingly viewed in the region as a failed policy.

In a General Assembly meeting that started Tuesday in the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala, OAS members will begin to explore alternatives to a strategy focused on military and law enforcement intervention to fight the trafficking of illegal drugs, mostly from South America and destined for users in the United States.

The 45th session of the OAS General Assembly began Tuesday night, drawing foreign ministers and three presidents from 34 countries throughout the region, including the U.S., represented by Secretary of State John Kerry and top-tier drug policy officials.

This month’s session, which lasts through Thursday, will focus on finding alternative strategies to the drug war, which has had a devastating impact particularly on Mexico and northern Central America, which have become the most violent region in the world.

“This is a long-awaited debate … to look for solutions to a phenomenon that affects us all, although not equally,” OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said. “The most vulnerable are the ones who are paying the highest price in terms of violence.”

Tens of thousands of Latin Americans have died in violence linked to drug trafficking in past decades. Yet as the U.S.-backed policy in the region focuses on law enforcement and cracking down on drug cartels, the cartels simply change strategies, adopt more sophisticated methods, alternate trafficking routes, open new markets and increase money laundering operations – despite large and frequent drug-seizure operations, captures and extraditions conducted by police agencies and governments.

Toward legalization?

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who called for legalization of some illicit drugs to help curb the mounting violence in his country, is hosting the summit. Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and the Dominican Republic’s Danilo Medina also will attend.

The debate is centered on an OAS report commissioned during the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, which called for an analysis of alternative strategies to the drug war. The study outlined four possible strategies to confront drug trafficking: strengthening institutions and public security, decriminalizing illicit drugs, promoting more community-based programs and terminating cooperation between consuming and transit countries.

The proposal to legalize at illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine is gaining momentum in the region. Marijuana already is legal in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington. Other states have medical marijuana laws, in direct violation of U.S. federal law. And the South American country of Uruguay is close behind, as are Argentina and Brazil, which are considering decriminalizing personal use.

Brazil drug violence

Antonio Scorza/AFP

At least 14 Latin American countries support debating new anti-drug policies, including all of the countries of Central America, Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera said.

Washington, in response, sent its big guns to this week’s summit in Guatemala. On his first official visit to Latin America, Kerry stood behind current U.S. anti-drug policy in the region, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson.

“No international entity is going to dictate legalization, and certainly not to the United States,” Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield said. Brownfield and Jacobson were joined in the U.S. delegation by anti-drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.

But for Carrera, the taboo of drug policy already has been broken: “it was thought that everything was outlined and the only thing left to do was blindly apply a paradigm,” he said.

Monster with seven heads

The OAS report approaches the issue from a public health perspective instead of a public security one by focusing on prevention and treatment programs.

According to the OAS, 45 percent of cocaine users worldwide, half of heroin users and 25 percent of marijuana users live in the Americas, the second most violent region behind Africa, with 16 homicides per 100,000 residents. That’s double the world average.

The United Nations calculates that the illicit drug market generates $85 billion annually in cocaine sales – $35 billion of that in the U.S. Those figures alter economies, corrupt institutions and result in widespread violence, the U.N. stated.

“An illegal economy that reaches billions of dollars and is operated by multinational criminal networks inevitably expands into illegal weapons sales, contraband, piracy, human trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and extortion,” Insulza said.

Civil society groups urged the OAS to place human rights at the center of the debate.

“The national policies for drug control that allot criminal penalties for personal drug consumption is a fundamental violation of human rights,” a Human Rights Watch press release stated. The group urged governments to adopt policies of decriminalization for personal consumption. 

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