A growing dissent

The rise of tensions between the United States and Latin America on drug control

20 May 2012
Translator: Valentin Farro - TraNZealnd

Latin America's desire to cast aside the ideological model imposed by the United States is not new but has been advocated for two decades.  The challenge now is to maintain this momentum in the face of efforts to silence the debate.

News that the drug issue was to be included on the agenda of the Sixth Americas Summit was welcomed by the international press and government and non government sectors that address these issues.  The Latin American bloc finally decided to frankly tell the United States that the model used for the war on drugs has failed and that the time has come to envision new strategies. In reality, however, the issue is not as new as it seems. Latin America has a relatively long tradition of voicing its disagreement with drug control policies and for more than two decades has been taking advantage of important international forums to express its discontent.

A suggestion from Mexican President Felipe Calderon to begin to consider "market alternatives" if the main consumer nations do not manage to curb their own demand for illegal drugs; declarations from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in favor of a high level regional debate about the failure of the war on drugs and the need for new approaches; the proposal from Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina for "new approaches against drug trafficking" are important recent landmarks. However they follow a succession of episodes in which countries south of the Rio Grande have dared to question the model imposed by the United States to combat drugs. They may have done it in a timid and surreptitious fashion, but they have done it.

From a 'shared responsibility' to questioning the 'war on drugs'

As a production and illegal trafficking zone, Andean nations have faced the harsh economic and social impact of these activities for decades, as well as the rising crime rates, corruption and violence generated by drug trafficking and the war on drugs. The problems caused by the illegal flow of narcotics and measures to control them were the motive for another international event that coincidentally also took place in Cartagena de Indias 22 years ago. The 15 February 1990 Cartagena Declaration, signed by the then presidents of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and the United States, could be considered the timid beginning of a regional process that  most recently led to several presidents questioning the effectiveness of the war on drugs. While the 1990 Declaration reconfirmed the role of the forces of order to control supply, it begins its text by specifying that every strategy commits the "...parties to implementing or consolidating a general intensified program against illegal drugs, must take into account the reduction of demand..." This directly assigns the consumer nation - the United States in this case – its part in the success or failure of the policies. Over the past two decades this process has been marked by a number of public declarations that demonstrated the unease of Latin American countries facing a problem that is outside their control, and their interest in changing a model that has not yielded results.

One of those declarations was the San Antonio Declaration, 1992, signed also by Ecuador and Mexico as well as the above mentioned countries. This Declaration was slightly more explicit than the one signed two years earlier: "We are convinced that our anti-drug efforts must be conducted on the basis of the principle of shared responsibility and in a balanced manner. It is essential to confront the drug problem through an integrated approach, addressing demand..." Twenty years ago, countries were already calling for more "balance" in the policies and the inclusion of demand to neutralise the dominant focus  on the supply side.

In 1993 Mexico, one of the countries hardest hit by drug trafficking and the impact of the war on drugs, began to seek the necessary support to hold an international conference in the framework of the United Nations in order to discuss different aspects related to the prohibitionist policy. These included the need to review drug conventions regarding the classification of cannabis, options for decriminalisation and harm reduction practices that some European countries were beginning to explore. Mexico suggested there were other ways to address the problem than those imposed by the United States. In the context of a Mexican crusade for change, that year the Mexican government sent a letter to the UN General Assembly regarding drug control that caused quite a stir and marked the tone of the meeting. In the missive Mexico called for more attention on demand because "drug consumption is the driving force that generates drug production and trafficking..." Moreover, it strongly criticised  U.S. anti-drug operations in Mexican territory and also criticized the unilateral U.S. mechanism used to certify narcotics. Mexico also censured the "attempts to impose hegemony" and the "geographic Manicheism". Finally, the letter lobbied for a "balanced approach" in the management of drugs.

Several years later in 1998 Mexico's idea culminated in a special Session on drugs at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGASS). Manipulation by Washington blocked Mexico from presiding over this meeting despite its predominant role in initiating the session. Unfortunately, the end result of the assembly was a reconfirmation of the prohibitionist approach, and backing for the rigid policies that were already in place, even though this is what Mexico had questioned from the outset. However, in the  process running up to the conference,  Mexico, and other Latin American countries, like Peru and Bolivia in defence  of the traditional use of coca, were able to broadly express their frustration regarding the inherent imbalance in the international drug control system, questioning the prohibitionism that forms its foundation.

In 1996, the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted an Anti Drug Strategy in the Hemisphere that was signed in Montevideo and incorporated the concept of "shared responsibility." This concept is essential for the moral argument about the unjust nature of a model where producer and trafficker nations have to pay a higher price. It aimed, although only nominally, to correct the "imbalance" in the dominant approach. Since then, consumer nations are also considered responsible and are expected to act accordingly. This is to say, the focus cannot only be on the implementation of policies designed for supply but also on the implementation of policies for demand and on the responsibilities of the Northern consumer nations and measures to control the flow of chemical ingredients, money laundering, among others.

It was in the institutional framework of the OAS that Latin American nations would continue to take concrete steps to demonstrate their disagreement with the United States and attempt to advance in a different direction. One of these concrete steps, once again initiated in Mexico, was the 1999 creation of the Multilateral Evaluation Mechanism (MEM), whose objective was to counter the unilateral evaluation of the drug certification process carried out by the United States annually. This is an extremely politicised process under which, when the United States has tense relations with a country, it has often "de-certified" countries due to their lack of cooperation in drug control.

This dissent to US policies, while important, has been weak given it has emerged and become institutionalized in a terrain where Latin American countries, while a majority, do not have significant control. For this reason, the MEM has not managed to substitute the unilateral drug certification process  carried out by the United States, even though  that was its main objective. As a country that contributes the most significant funds to the OAS and to the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), the United States has the last word. In fact, the director of CICAD is traditionally a U.S. citizen. As a result, the debate about alternatives to the war on drugs that emerged in the weeks leading up to and during the VI Americas Summit in April 2012 is of particular importance. Not only because it took place in the context of the OAS, but because for the first time the majority of countries openly disputed  U.S. drug policies. This is something truly new.

What is also clear in the last decade is that the discourse has changed.  It no longer just emphasises the shared responsibility for drugs but also presents the anti-drug policy itself as one of the causes of the current problem.

Other bodies, other voices

What can be noted in the last decade is that the discourse has changed.  It no longer just involves emphasizing the shared responsibility but also presenting the anti drug policy itself as one of the causes of the current problem. That is the policy that is being questioned today. The region is suffering due to the focus on supply. This can be observed in declarations and documents in recent years that clearly manifest that the damages under this strategy far outweigh the benefits.

Right now it is still the Southern nations that are paying the highest political, social and economic price of the war on drugs, especially Mexico and the Central American nations. Yet, over the years, the "reduction of demand" argument voiced strongly by Southern nations  may have been weakened as Southern nations have also turned to consumption. In the first decade of the millennium there has been a surge and an increase of paco (crack) consumption, particularly in Southern Cone nations and an increase of consumption of other substances in countries that are typically producer nations. One of the consequence of prohibitionism was that it encouraged countries in the region to pass harsh legislation with disproportionate jail sentences for crimes associated with the production, traffic and consumption of narcotics. This lead to an explosion in the prison population and a crisis due to overcrowding in the prisons.

In search of a solution to these problems, several countries in the region (Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Mexico) have modified or are modifying their drug laws  to give a more lenient treatment for minor drug crimes  that contribute the most to the prison population. This reform of drug laws perhaps represents one of the most concrete, effective gestures that opposes the war-like and highly repressive vision that the United States has imposed on the continent for decades.

Parallel to the OAS and the United Nations' narcotic bodies, Latin American countries also have number of diverse institutional structures in which the issue of drugs and security have been gaining an increasingly relevant space. The Tuxtla Dialogue and Agreement Mechanism stands out and includes the Central American countries as well as Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. The final declaration of the Tuxtla Dialogue and Agreement Mechanism  in December 2011 prominently emphasised  the need for the United States and other consumer countries to adopt drastic and efficient measures against money laundering. Once again it insisted in the "reduction of demand" emphasizing in a novel manner that if a reduction in demand is not efficient then consumer countries should consider including "regulatory or market oriented options aimed at this purpose." The Mechanism also advocated for the introduction of effective measures to control weapons trafficking from the United States to Mexico.

Latin American countries also have at their disposition numerous regional multilateral spaces where countries can propose other approaches against illegal drugs without the shadow of Washington. These include the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries in the United Nations (GRULAC), the Rio Group, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC and UNASUR). The  UNASUR meeting in May this year will address the issue of  de-criminalisation of illegal drug consumers with an aim to unify a regional policy in this area. Over the past decade it has become clear that it is in the area of demand where the region could advance to impose its own policies.

As we have indicated previously, Mexico has played a prominent role in the long history of tensions between the north and south of the Americas due to impact of the anti drug strategy there. In the context of Proposition 19 (a ballot initiative in November 2010 which sought to legalise  the recreational consumption of marijuana in California) the Mexican government publicly asked why the country should continue attacking growers and traffickers if the substance could barely be controlled on the other side of the border. As a high ranking Mexican military commander has said, these days marijuana from Mexico arrives in the United States soaked in the blood of the residents of Tijuana. While Washington continues to pressure the Mexican government  to wage a costly and bloody military campaign against the mafia, there are 16 states in the United States where marijuana is legal for medical uses.

Numerous Latin American figures who hold active government positions have started to publicly advocate in favor of a change in paradigm. At the beginning of the decade of 2000, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle publicly spoke about the possibility of legalizing the consumption of "soft drugs." Later he would speak in favor of legalising all drugs. In 2008 the president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya spoke publicly in favour of  legalization of drug consumption. The most interesting factor was that he did it in the framework of a meeting of the Heads of Agencies involved in combatting illicit drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean or HONLEA. While it is true that his comments did not find much echo, the proposal remains a significant precedent.

The process undertaken by Bolivian President Evo Morales to lobby for the removal of the coca leaf from the UN Drug conventions, is perhaps the most striking act against the rigid nature of the narcotics system. Since Bolivia has undertaken this process, the United States has used all its diplomatic muscle in the United Nations (up until now successfully) to stop the Andean country from advancing in this objective.

For decades  militarisation has been part of the policies to combat supply promoted by the United States. This policy has been particularly harmful in the Andean nations, in the transit countries of Central America and in Mexico where the problems of security have made some of them the most violent countries in the world. In a July 2011 speech in Guatemala during the International Conference in Support of  Central American Security, the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, asked the international community to contribute more to addressing the negative consequences in Central America of the war on drugs. This explains why Central American countries, which have deeply suffered the excesses resulting from the war on drugs, are particularly active in this material. This has even lead to the most recent proposals from the Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, to begin to consider the "decriminalization and legalization" of drugs.

Declarations to the international press from the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos  about the need to examine the current policies and to begin to consider alternatives, have had a major media impact, in particular when Santos announced that he would include the issue on the Summit agenda in April 2012 in Cartagena. This position, which received support from the majority of governments  present, without a doubt caused some upset in Washington which then rushed to dismiss it. However, the importance of the proposal from Santos and Perez Molina lies in the mere formulation of the need to debate the war on drugs within a body controlled by the United States. As we have previously signaled in this sense the summit produced at least one concrete result: the OAS now has the authority to analyse the current policies and seek more effective alternative approaches.  Which is to say the OAS has put an issue on the agenda that up until now has been considered taboo - the U.S. war on drugs - and will examine new strategies, including legal and regulated markets.

The voice of civil society

As well as official bodies, above all it has been Latin American civil society organizations  that have played a catalytic role in encouraging  debate about new pragmatic approaches and the need to remove ideological blinkers from drug policies.  

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy created by former presidents Cesar Gaviria, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo, which has been joined over the years by numerous personalities from the political, art and international business world, has played a key role in raising awareness and public acceptance that the "war on drugs" is a "lost war" and the region is suffering from its harmful effects.

A process that is  less publicly visible but which has been constantly developing is the one that has been carried out for years by important NGOs and research centers on drug policies focused on the region. The work carried out by Latin American dialogues, conferences, seminars of experts, etc, organized by WOLA, TNI together with local Latin American organizations, have produced a critical mass of information for those involved in developing drug policy. Organizations such as Intercambios (Argentina), DeJusticia and Acción Andina (Colombia) and the Collective for an Integral Policy Toward Drugs (CUPIDH) (Mexico) and the Drugs and Human Rights Investigation Center (CIDDH) Peru among others, have prepared the terrain for legislative changes in the area of drugs and have promoted a debate in the media for a political openness that has reached the levels we have recently seen in Cartagena.

Latin America has made it clear it wants to cast aside the ideological model imposed by the United States. The challenge now is to maintain this momentum in the face of efforts to silence the debate on the part of Washington and the most conservative sectors in international entities focused on drugs and in the countries themselves.

Translation: Valentin Farro - TraNZealnd

About the authors

Amira Armenta

Amira Armenta (Colombia/Netherlands) has a degree in Latin American history from the Université de Jussieu (Paris).