Over the past four decades, the US has spent billions of dollars promoting and supporting a military battle against drug cartels across Latin America.
"We're looking at a change in the way that these leaders approach this issue .... Probably the most important [reason] is that they're more independent economically. They do more trade amongst their neighbours than they did before, they've less dependence on United States' economies and they're more independent from a financial aid perspective ... so given that they've greater independence, they're saying we need to take this on independently as well."
- Steven Dudley, the co-director of Insight Crime
But global demand for illicit drugs has increased and the violence related to the drug trade has worsened. More than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the last five years in Mexico alone. And the influence of drug cartels has grown across Central America.
Now a demand for alternative policies to the 'war on drugs' has come from unlikely sources, including Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina, a former general, and Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, a former defence minister.
When the leaders brought up the issue for debate during the Summit of the Americas on Saturday, Barack Obama, the US president, said Americans understand the toll of narco-trafficking on Central and South America and the Carribean. But he insisted legalisation is not the answer.
He also announced that the US would provide more than $130m to Central American countries to "support the regional security strategy".
Despite resistance by the US to legalisation, Saturday's debate in Colombia is still seen as a step forward.
"I think this is a step forward, but this is not sufficient, this is not enough. We have to move forward, faster."
- Laura Gil, a columnist for El Tiempo
So are leaders in the Americas ready for an honest debate about drug policies? Are there alternatives to the 'war on drugs'? And should Latin America legalise drugs?
Inside Story Americas discusses with guests: Laura Gil, a columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, and a former consultant to the Organisation of the American States; Steven Dudley, the co-director of Insight Crime, a think tank which focuses on crime and security in the Americas; and Jose Cardenas, a former official under President George W Bush.
"Drug addiction in the vast majority of countries is a very serious public health problem. Drug trafficking continues to be the principle financier of violence and terrorism. Colombia and many other countries in the region believe it is necessary to begin a discussion, an analysis of this issue, without judgment and without dogmas, and look at the different scenarios and the possible alternatives to confronting this challenge with the greatest effectiveness."
Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president
FACTS: THE WAR ON DRUGS:
- Latin American leaders are increasingly critical of US drugs policy
- The Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, has called for decriminalisation
- The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, is calling for a major strategy overhaul
- Colombia is the world's top producer of cocaine despite eradication efforts
- Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the three biggest producers of cocaine
- Mexico blames narcotics-related violence on US drugs consumption
- Drug consumption rates in Latin America are low compared to the US
- Mexico's battle against traffickers has led to a huge rise in violence
- According to the US justice department, Mexican cartels earn $39bn per year from the US
- Zogby survey: 75% of Americans think that the 'war on drugs' has failed
Source: Al Jazeera