It was going to happen sooner rather than later. Three years ago, a trio of former Latin American presidents denounced drug prohibition and called to “break the taboo” of discussing policy alternatives such as drug decriminalization. Then, a few months later, we had a former Mexican president calling for outright legalization. Late last year, a sitting Colombian president said that he would favor drug legalization “if the rest of the world does it too.” This weekend, a sitting Guatemalan president said he will propose drug legalization for Central America in an upcoming regional summit.
Otto Pérez Molina thus becomes the first sitting head of state to propose ending the war on drugs. Being a conservative former general who ran on a platform of fighting crime with “an iron fist,” Pérez Molina is an unlikely champion of sensible drug policy reform. As he described it, under his proposal “It wouldn’t be a crime to transport, to move drugs. It would all have to be regulated.” Pérez Molina says that with legalization, “you would get rid of money-laundering, smuggling, arms trafficking and the corruption that has crippled judges, police forces and entire government institutions, not only in our country but in the region.”
Central America is one of the hottest battlegrounds in Washington’s hemispheric war on drugs. Guatemala, along with neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, are among the most violent countries in the world. Most of the violence stems from turf wars between juvenile gangs, but Mexican drug cartels are increasingly escalating it as they extend their influence and operations in the region.
As Pérez Molina said, Central America’s biggest liability in its fight against organized crime is its institutional weakness. Judges, policemen, politicians, and soldiers are easily corrupted by cartels. Despite increasing their security budgets by 60% in the last five years, Central American countries spent approximately $4 billion in 2010 on security and justice. This amount dwarfs with the estimated $25-35 billion that Mexican cartels—who run the drug business in Central America—pocket every year.
The problem with Pérez Molina’s proposal is, of course, Washington. Central America is merely a transportation hub of cocaine from the Andean region to Mexico and then to the U.S. It is estimated that 90% of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. goes through Central America. Methamphetamine labs have been discovered in Guatemala in recent months, which might signal a displacement of production of synthetic drugs from Mexico to Central America.
Though a step forward, the proposal for one or all Central American countries to legalize drugs will hardly solve all or even the majority of problems associated with drug trafficking, especially if the rest of the Hemisphere sticks to prohibition.
Still, this doesn’t take away from the remarkable significance of having a sitting president arguing in favor of drug legalization. Maybe president Pérez Molina should have a chat soon with Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos on this issue. Both could provide much needed leadership in an area where Latin America desperately needs it.