Inside Story America

US hooked on Central American drugs

As Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras combat drug gangs we ask if US addiction is serving to nourish the cocaine trade.

Otto Perez Molina, the Guatemalan president, came to power promising to crush organised crime with an iron fist.

But barely a month into the job and he appears to be changing tactics, suggesting that drugs should be decriminalised in Central America.

Decriminalisation is not good for anyone, it can produce tremendous impact on our societies and our children, and can certainly increase the level of consumption. Regulation, for instance, offers clear rules about consumption, prevention, medical supervision and law enforcement. I’m in favour of testing a regulated market.

– Samuel Gonzalez, a former head of Mexico’s anti-crime office

Molina says he wants to win regional support for the idea and is already been publicly backed by Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador.

The reason, say Molina and Funes: The US failure to deal with its enormous drug consumption, a demand that feeds the Central American drug trade and lays waste to countries all along the route north.

Cynics argue that Molina – a former general – is playing politics by trying to pressure Barack Obama, the US president, to reverse plans to cut military spending for the drug war in the region.

Nevertheless, a growing number of former Latin American leaders say the failure of US anti-narcotics policy is leaving the region with little choice but to consider a radical new approach to the problem.

Guatemala, for example, has seen a dramatic increase in its murder rate with drug cartels now better armed and better equipped than the country’s military.

And so long as tackling drug consumption remains off the US political agenda, many believe the problem will only get worse.

We haven’t done what we need to do about getting a handle on US demand for drugs and that’s the first thing the Central American presidents should demand. One the one hand it’s politicking, on the other it’s a clear message to consider options to the drug war which has been a disaster in Latin America.

– John Walsh, a senior associate for Drug Policy and the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America

Molina says: “What we are putting on the table is an issue which is not exclusive to Guatemala or El Salvador or to Central American countries. It’s an issue for discussion in the whole region, but not just in Central America; it affects everywhere from the United States in the north to Colombia.”

And Funes, in echoing similar sentiments, says: “Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure or initiative which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs.

“As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and to try and block the production and trade in drugs.”

So is the US anti-narcotic policy failing Central America? Is the US demand for drugs to blame? And, is decriminalising drugs a viable solution?

Joining Lisa Fletcher on Inside Story Americas are guests: John Walsh, a senior associate for Drug Policy and the Andes from the Washington Office on Latin America; Jose Cardenas, a former Bush administration official and Latin America specialist, who has served in senior positions in the US state department, the National Security Council and US AID; and Samuel Gonzalez, who headed the Mexican government’s anti-organised crime office from 1996 to 1998.

“Central America is getting squeezed between effective policies, pressures on organised crime in Colombia and Mexico’s war on drug gangs. The squeeze has pushed a lot of these traffickers into central America. The US policy of obligation, responsibility to help has not been there to a necessary degree and a lot of these presidents want to get Washington’s attention.”

Jose Cardenas, a Latin America specialist

Drug transit points:
Central American countries happen to be located between the world’s largest drug producers and drug consumers. Drug traffickers are increasingly using Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as transit points for cocaine from South America, marking a major shift from the 1980s and early 1990s when drugs primarily transited through the Caribbean. A US Congress report says that 95 per cent of all cocaine entering the US flows through Mexico and its waters, with 60 per cent of that having first transited through other parts of Central America. Drug-related violence has worsened already high-crime levels in Central America. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world with 82 homicides for every 100,000 people, while El Salvador ranks second with 66 murders. Guatemala’s murder rate hovers around 40 per 100,000 people.

US drug consumption:
A government study showed that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly nine per cent of the population and up nearly one percentage point up from 2007. Fuelling that rise is marijuana consumption. In 2010, 17.4 million Americans used marijuana, compared to 14.4 million in 2007. Meanwhile cocaine consumption has declined to 1.5 million users in 2010, compared to 2.4 million in 2006. Still, the US remains the biggest market for cocaine in the world.