America / Foreign Policy

Latin American Drug Legalization and US National Security

True to form, the American media has continued its focus on domestic politics leading up to the November presidential election. So far, the GOP primary and the fallout from Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke have dominated this week’s media attention. Lost in this news coverage were Vice President Joe Biden’s trips to Mexico and Central America. As I have noted in a number of previous posts, there is a drug war going on in Mexico and Central America. The importance of this particular visit to the region by the US Vice President is that Central and South American leaders wish to discuss the possibility of drug legalization. This discussion could potentially derail the cooperation the US enjoys with its hemispheric allies on the War on Drugs/Terror that is a crucial component of US national security strategy.

Biden’s first stop was in Mexico, where he met with current Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the three candidates who seek to assume his office in July’s elections. Afterward, he met with Central American leaders in Honduras. In the face of a desire to discuss the issue of legalization, Biden was diplomatic but held firm: “Washington does not think that [legalization] is the answer and will not legalize drugs.” It is important to remember, however, that American hemispheric hegemony is in steady decline and a declaration from Washington is no longer an end to a debate.

The Vice President laid out the reasons why the Obama Administration will not legalize drugs. Biden noted, “in every country that has experimented with the legalization or decriminalization of drug consumption, the part of the population that consumes illegal substances grows.” He asserted that the potential benefits of drug legalization (e.g. reducing prison overcrowding), therefore, are outweighed by the other societal problems it would inevitably create. While these may seem to be legitimate concerns to some, Latin American leaders currently face a situation that the United States has never experienced.

Counterdrug efforts by the United States and its partners in Mexico and Colombia have squeezed Central American countries, almost to the point of collapse. These smaller nations do not posses the central government infrastructures necessary to defeat the better-funded and better-armed transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that operate in the region. Corruption and low public opinion of state institutions are also pervasive problems for many of these countries, and as a result, their development has been severely hampered. Many of these nations also suffer from chronic poverty and high levels of crime, which have only been exacerbated by the increased presence and influence of TCOs. The death toll in Mexico is now approaching 50,000 since Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and began an armed confrontation with the TCOs. The homicide rates in some Central American countries surpass those of live-fire war zones in the Middle East. Common crime and drug consumption are on the rise, which combined with impunity rates of over 90%, have contributed to prison overcrowding. In such an environment, it is no surprise that citizen security is consistently shown by opinion polls as the most relevant issue to inhabitants of these countries. If Mexican and Central American citizens feel insecure they may seriously entertain drug legalization, which could undermine the United States’ current national security strategy.

The leaders of many of these Latin American countries feel trapped, and are looking for any solution to their citizen security dilemma. They have asked for assistance from the United States on the premise of “shared responsibility.” I agree that the US needs to take responsibility for being the largest drug consumer in the world and for its role in arms trafficking and money laundering. However, the Obama Administration already has taken some responsibility. According to the US Vice President, the US has provided approximately $361 million in anti-crime aid through the Central American Regional Security Initiative. While this aid is substantial, Central American leaders do not believe it to be sufficient. The high crime, homicide, and poverty rates and low development rates seem to justify their dissatisfaction. Biden added that the Obama Administration has asked for more money from Congress. Although he also pledged to continue the fight against TCOs and to provide funds to the Latin American leaders with whom he met, this did not assuage them.

After Biden’s visit, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced, in a joint statement by Central American leaders, that the Central American countries would further discuss drug legalization at a meeting on March 24th. More worrisome for the United States and their unwavering stance on legalization, is the role of Colombia in the legalization debate. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, leader of the United States’ strongest Latin American ally, welcomes the discussion of legalization. Colombia could be classified as the poster-child for American counternarcotics aid and its “success” in “winning” the War on Drugs. Lack of Colombian support on this issue could hurt the United States’ uncompromising position.

Barack Obama will most likely face his fiercest test from Latin American leaders in April at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The legalization debate will probably have gained momentum among Latin American leaders. Personally, I do not see their current situation improving significantly in the next month. American hemispheric influence is waning, and so is the support for the War on Drugs among its allies. Each of these countries must do what is best for its country’s development and citizens. If legalization is their chosen path, it will have a major impact on the United States’ national security strategy, which is centered around the War on Drugs/Terror in the western hemisphere.

– Max Rava

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