Decriminalising drugs in the Western hemisphere

In a break with his past positions, Guatemala’s president recently suggested decriminalising illegal drugs.

Witness: Life in San Salvador
Decriminalising drugs could allow states to shift funds from security towards education and health care [EPA]

Scranton, PA – United States Vice President Joseph Biden recently travelled to Mexico and Honduras in the midst of growing frustration with the US war on drugs. In Mexico, Biden met with current President Felipe Calderón as well as several contenders in the country’s presidential election this July.

From there, Biden flew to Honduras for a meeting of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) during which he met with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, and Panama, and others. While Biden’s Central America visit was initially designed to discuss regional security more broadly, debate mainly revolved around Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s suggestion that the region consider decriminalising the use and transportation of drugs.

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Central America and Mexico are situated between the major drug-producing nations of South America (Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States. Ninety per cent of the cocaine destined for the US passes through the region. While the US has moved to restrict the flow of drugs moving into the country via the Caribbean and air routes, violence in Mexico and Central America has increased as rival drug trafficking organisations fight over access to the lucrative drug market in the United States.

The Northern Triangle of Central America is now comprised of three of the most violent countries in the world in terms of homicides per 100,000 people. Honduras (86 homicides per 100,000) and El Salvador (70) had the two highest homicide rates in the world in 2011 and Guatemala (39), while far behind, still ranked among the most violent. Homicide rates in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico have also seen sharp increases over the last few years. While there are no solid numbers as to what percentage of homicides have been caused by drug trafficking, it is clear to all parties that the drug trade is fuelling, in one way or another, much of the region’s violence.

President Otto Perez Molina’s call to discuss decriminalising drugs was welcomed by many, but it is still unclear why he suggested that the region consider decriminalising illegal drug use and transportation at this moment in time. It is quite possible that Perez has come to the same conclusion that many others have – that the US-directed war on drugs has failed. For all the billions of dollars spent and lives lost in the war on drugs, there’s very little positive to show for it. The only way for the region to reduce the violence associated with drug trafficking between its South American source and North American destination is to decriminalise its production, transportation, and consumption.

This is not an unreasonable position. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia have criticised US drug policy and have called for some level of decriminalising illegal drugs.

I understand that Perez’ justification for his policy reversal isn’t the primary concern for those who seek a fundamental change in the region’s drug policy, but it is an important question, and the Guatemalan people should know better how President Perez came to this decision. Before his victory in a November runoff, Perez had been campaigning for president ever since he founded the Patriotic Party in 2001. He ran on a mano dura (“strong fist”) platform that he insisted was necessary to tackle rising crime before losing to Alvaro Colom in the 2007 presidential election. In 2011, Perez was again the mano dura candidate. His campaign rhetoric also addressed social and economic issues in greater detail compared to 2007.

Policy shift

However, in his 10 years of campaigning for the country’s highest office, not once did he suggest decriminalising drugs as a potential solution to the country’s security situation. His first public utterance on the subject occurred in January 2012. Did Perez come to this important policy shift between his November election and January inauguration? If not, why didn’t he consider the issue important enough to share with the Guatemalan voters?

These questions are especially important following recent improvements in Guatemala’s security situation under Perez’s predecessor. On the one hand, former President Alvaro Colom oversaw four of the most violent years in the country’s history outside of the 1960-1996 civil war. Between 2008 and 2011, approximately 25,000 people were killed in Guatemala, a country of over fourteen million people.

However, after increasing for all but one year between 2001 and 2009, the country’s murder rate has decreased two years in a row. After peaking at 46 per 100,000 in 2009, it fell to 41 in 2010 and to 39 in 2011. While still high, the homicide rate is now at its lowest level since 2004. The last administration also arrested 14 of the country’s most-wanted drug traffickers, declared states of siege in two departments – bringing temporary relief to the people living there – and seized seven times more drugs, drug money and goods than the two previous administrations combined.

The justice system has also improved, in part due to the joint work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Guatemalan law enforcement officials. Now those arrested will be replaced by new most wanted traffickers. Part of the explanation for the increased drug interdiction is that more drugs now pass through Guatemala, but I would like to know why the president does not believe that it is possible to continue to reduce violence without decriminalising drugs.

What explains, then, the low number of murders carried out in January and February 2012, the first two months of his administration? Is this just the best that Guatemala can do and that any further reduction requires decriminalisation? Or is he interested in something else from the US government?

Initially, I speculated that Perez might not believe that decriminalisation was a viable option, but that he was simply using this suggestion in order to get the United States to alter its policies towards Guatemala. The United States has maintained a ban on weapons sales to Guatemala since 1978, which limits the US military’s ability to cooperate with their Guatemalan counterparts.

Perez might also be looking for the US to contribute more financial resources to battle drug trafficking, something that his predecessors have argued for as well. If so, then his proposal was just the opening round of negotiations, and now the US will have to deal or call his bluff. Had the lifting of the ban and more resources been his ultimate goals, decriminalising all drug use, production, and transportation seems to have been too extreme a position to get the US to act. Perez would have been more likely to get a more positive US government response had he tapped into the growing support to decriminalise marijuana in California, Colorado, Washington and other US states.  

Finally, the United States needs to have a more satisfactory explanation for why it will support discussions surrounding the issue of decriminalisation but won’t consider decriminalisation at all. According to the New York Times, Biden “said that he sympathised with Latin American leaders frustrated over violence tied to the drug trade and with the consumption habits in its biggest market, the United States. But the few potential benefits from legalisation, like a smaller prison population, would be offset by problems, including a costly bureaucracy to regulate the drugs and new addicts.” There are very few people who wouldn’t trade less violence and fewer prisons for having to shift resources to support a larger bureaucracy in order to regulate the production, distribution, and use of illegal drugs.

Shortly after Perez voiced his initial concern, the US embassy in Guatemala argued that

“If the trafficking and use of illegal drugs were decriminalised tomorrow in Central America, transnational criminal organisations and gangs would continue to engage in illicit activity, including trafficking in persons and illegal arms, extortion and kidnapping, bank robbery, theft of intellectual property, and money laundering. Corruption and homicides in Central America are certainly exacerbated by the transit of illegal drugs, but with increased cultivation and consumption of decriminalised drugs, crime in Central America could well increase as the drug cartels shift their focus to these other forms of illicit activities.”

From what I can tell, no one is arguing that all of Central America and Mexico’s problems would disappear if drugs were to be made legal. A major policy change would not eliminate all the region’s problems, but it is disingenuous to dismiss out of hand the potential benefits of reduced corruption, violence, and militarised public security that would likely accompany legalisation. A better allocation of scarce resources towards education and health care, rather than incarceration, would also be welcome.

 Central America confronts narco-trafficking

Finally, there’s a good chance that the region’s economies would improve, as several studies have noted the negative impact that drug-related violence has had on the region’s development. I’m sure that legalising drugs will lead to new problems, but there’s a good chance that those problems will be less deadly than those that will disappear with decriminalisation.  

For the most part, President Perez’s suggestion has been warmly received throughout the region, earning praise from both the left and the right for calling for an approach based upon decriminalisation. While I am sympathetic, I am afraid that President Perez’s suggestion might have set back efforts to achieve a smarter regional drug policy. Perez must have known that the United States would come out forcefully against his suggestion to legalise the production, transportation, and consumption of all drugs.

Had Perez suggested that the region discuss decriminalising only marijuana, it would have been more difficult for the US to have fought back as forcefully against the notion. There have already been efforts in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, and other countries to decriminalise small amounts of marijuana. There does not appear to be much of an appetite to extend the same reform to cocaine or other drugs, as was shown by the US’s response to Bolivian President Evo Morales’s “coca, not cocaine”, policy. While still a long shot, a policy change targeted at marijuana would have been a much more viable goal than a reform involving all illegal drugs.

Perez also did not take into consideration that the United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign where taking a tough stand against external threats, wisely or not, is expected. As University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley said, “The last thing Obama wants is a decriminalisation debate in the midst of this campaign”. Remember, Perez did not bring up decriminalisation during his campaign for the presidency. It was only after he was elected that he found it opportune to introduce the policy. He should not have expected President Obama and his administration to have responded any differently. I understand that Perez and the other presidents want change now, but they might have just made it more difficult for President Obama to make any reforms.

Needless to say, Perez is determined to bring the issue up once again at a March 24 meeting of Central American presidents in Guatemala, and it is likely to be on the agenda when President Obama attends the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia next month. While we have not heard the last word on the matter, it is unlikely that we will see any major change in US policy, no matter how much it is needed. It is also unclear whether Perez’s decriminalisation suggestion will have adverse effects on bilateral issues between the US and Guatemala including immigration, Temporary Protected Status, and trade in his remaining four years in office.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American politics here.