Earlier this week, Guatemala’s newly elected President Otto Perez Molina said that the US’s inability to decrease illegal drug consumption has left Guatemala in a position where it must consider legalizing the use and transport of drugs. He plans to raise the issue of legalization of illicit drugs at an upcoming summit of Central American leaders. This is significant because Perez Molina was elected on a platform that promised a mano dura (firm hand) approach to fighting crime and the transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that are responsible for the majority of criminal activity and high levels of violence throughout Guatemala and the entire region. Perez Molina claims that a discussion of legalization does not represent an “about face” on his platform, but is part of a more comprehensive strategy to combat the high levels of crime and violence associated with drug trafficking. More importantly, Perez Molina has forced the United States and the current administration to return its attention to Central America because legalization flies in the face of strong US pressure to increase drug interdiction levels throughout the hemisphere and its efforts to encourage hemispheric cooperation in the War on Drugs.
Perez Molina’s remarks have gained a bit of traction with other leaders in the region. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said that while he does not personally support legalization because of its potential to “create a moral problem,” he supports Perez Molina’s right to start such a discussion. Probably more worrisome to the United States is that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has signaled that he would be open to the idea of legalization if the entire world agreed. If America’s strongest hemispheric ally and largest recipient of counternarcotics aid in the hemisphere (Colombia) is willing to partake in such discussions, it shows that the United States has either lost its position of prominence as the leader of the War on Drugs or that its allies have finally realized that their weak government institutions and lack of financial resources can no longer fight such a war. I believe it to be the latter.
Central America has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Many of these homicides are direct results of its geographic position. Central America is essentially an “illicit corridor” for drug, arms, and human trafficking; cash smuggling; and money laundering between North and South America. Cognizant of this fact, the US Embassy in Guatemala responded to Perez Molina’s remarks by saying that legalizing drugs would not stop TCOs because of their diverse criminal activities. The US Embassy might be correct, but it ought to be listening to the leaders in the region that have become increasingly frustrated with the American inability to curb illicit drug consumption and demand in its own country.
Given this dire situation, I have previously proposed that the United States and the international community take more of an interest in Central America. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s 2013 budget would actually cut funding to these small resource-constrained countries in Latin America. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that some political analysts have argued that this rhetoric from Perez Molina is nothing more than a maneuver to get attention and secure the continued US funding that these countries desperately need to foster development.
Whether or not this is anything more than political posturing should not matter because Perez Molina’s remarks also included a more telling statement. The Guatemalan President asserted that his country “is not doing what the United States says, we are doing what we have to do.” Even if one points out that this statement is not anti-American, it most definitely reflects the frustration that some Latin American leaders and countries are feeling at fighting a seemingly endless and losing battle on behalf of the United States. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States need to recognize that Latin America is making its voice heard and showing that even smaller countries can play an important role in hemispheric affairs. The US might not be ready to concede the War on Drugs, but maybe its leaders should notice that their allies are getting weary because there is no chance that the US will win this war without hemispheric cooperation.
– Max Rava
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