Tag: central america

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Obama’s Latin America Trip

President Obama’s trip to Latin America is likely to focus on economic topics, but two security issues deserve scrutiny during his stops in Brazil and El Salvador. 

Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Brazil has become somewhat frosty, especially over the past year.  U.S. leaders did not appreciate Brazil’s joint effort with Turkey to craft a compromise policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.  The Obama administration regarded that diplomatic initiative as unhelpful freelancing.  And when Brazil joined Turkey in voting against a UN Security Council resolution imposing stronger sanctions on Tehran, the administration’s resentment deepened.  Obama should not only try to soothe tensions, he should shift Washington’s policy, express appreciation for Brazil’s innovative efforts to end the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue, and consider whether the milder approach that the Turkish and Brazilian governments advocate has merit.

In El Salvador, worries about Mexico’s spreading drug-related violence into Central America are likely to come up.  El Salvador and other Central American countries are seeking a bigger slice of Washington’s anti-drug aid in the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear Merida Initiative.  President Obama should not only resist such blandishments, he should use the visit to announce a policy shift away from a strict prohibitionist strategy that has filled the coffers of the Mexican drug cartels and sowed so much violence in Mexico, and now increasingly in Central America as well.  Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working any better with currently illegal drugs.

Freedom for Thee, But Not for We

I expected and got some pushback about my post comparing the Berlin Wall to the wall along our southern border. Happily, it was more civil than the reactions I often get when I talk about immigration and free movement of people.

One fair comment focused on the key distinction between the Berlin Wall and our border wall: the direction the guards were facing.

From the perspective of the state, it’s easy to conceive of border guards facing “in” or “out”—and those facing in suggest much worse than those facing out. But from the perspective of the individual, what matters is whether or not the border guards are facing you. Our border wall keeps Mexicans and Central Americans from freedom and a better life precisely the way the Berlin Wall did East Germans.

Another pointed out the inconsistency between liberal immigration policies and the welfare state. But the solution is not to wall off the country; it’s to wall off the welfare state. David Friedman has pointed out that liberal immigration policies can create political incentives to hold down welfare benefits.

Twenty years ago, West Germany took into its fold an impoverished population whose capacity for self-governance had surely been eroded by years of totalitarian rule. Today, one of that population is its center-right chancellor. Liberalizing immigration would be a project far smaller for the United States, it would bring overall economic benefits, and it would help restore our country’s status as a beacon of freedom.

Those who wish to immigrate to the United States did not create the political or economic conditions in their birth countries. Yet many treat their desire for a life like ours as blameworthy. It’s incoherent for individualists to think that way about immigrants to the United States while treating the reunification of Germany as something to celebrate. Such incoherence is reflected in our ’wall’ policies, which indeed boil down to “freedom for thee (Europeans), but not for we (Americans).”

Worrying Delevopments in Guatemala

In the last week there’ve been deeply worrying developments in Guatemala. Rodrigo Rosenberg, a highly respected Guatemalan lawyer, was killed Sunday outside of his house by unknown gunmen. On Monday, a posthumous video recorded by Rosenberg was released where he blames the country’s president, Alvaro Colom, for his assassination. Constantino Díaz-Durán, former editor of elcato.org, tells the story in a piece appearing in the Daily Beast.

Since Monday, thousands of Guatemalans have flocked to the streets demanding Colom’s resignation, but they have been met by an equal number of government supporters who are resorting to violence and intimidation against the protesters. This is the modus operandi of the hard-left in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador. But nobody would’ve expected a center-left government led by a mild-manner president like Colom to employ such tactics.

However, there are more worrisome signs that the government is planning to crack down on dissenters. Yesterday a man was arrested after encouraging people through Twitter to withdraw their savings from Banrural, the bank involved in the corruption charges that Rosenberg made against the Colom administration. He’s been charged with “inciting financial panic.” Hours later, another man was arrested for distributing copies of Rosenberg’s video in the streets. The government claims he was “inciting the public.”

Whatever happens in the following weeks will determine the future of Guatemala’s institutional democracy. The United States should be paying closer attention to the situation, considering Guatemala’s position as Central America’s most populous democracy.