Despite efforts by governments in Latin America, illicit drugs continue to provide one of the largest incomes for criminal organizations, enabling them to penetrate and corrupt political and social institutions.
Remarkable drug policy developments are taking place in Latin America. This is not only at the level of political debate, but is also reflected in actual legislative changes in a number of countries. All in all there is an undeniable regional trend of moving away from the ‘war on drugs’. This briefing explains the background to the opening of the drug policy debate in the region, summarises the most relevant aspects of the ongoing drug law reforms in some countries, and makes a series of recommendations that could help to move the debate forward in a productive manner.
In Latin America, trafficking cocaine so it can be sold to someone who wants to use it is more serious than raping a woman or deliberately killing your neighbor. While it may seem incredible, that is the conclusion of a rigorous study of the evolution of criminal legislation in the region, which shows that countries’ judicial systems mete out harsher penalties for trafficking even modest amounts of drugs than for acts as heinous as sexual assault or murder.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.
In April 2012, most of the hemisphere’s presidents gathered at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia and held a closed-door meeting where drug policy was the only topic discussed. Following that meeting, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the Organisation of American States (OAS) was being tasked to analyse the results of hemispheric drug policies and to “explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and become more effective”. Thus began a one year process led by OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, with the support of OAS staff from the Secretariat for Multidimensional Security and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), as well as a range of independent experts.
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic institutions.
Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government.
As the hemisphere’s leaders gather in Colombia this week for the VI Summit of the Americas, their on-camera discussions will be dominated by perennial convention topics: poverty, cooperation, the need for roads. But behind closed doors, they are expected to tackle a more contentious issue: the narcotics trade.
Present international drug control policies are deeply-rooted and change will no doubt come slowly. However, as a result of the Cartagena summit, for the first time a meaningful debate on developing and implementing drug control policies that are more humane and effective is underway. The genie is out and will be very hard to put back in the bottle, as much as U.S. officials might try.
The global debate on drug policy is getting more interesting, due in no small part to initiatives from Latin America. The Uruguayan government’s June 20 announcement that it will propose legislation to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana is just the latest development to challenge business as usual in the “war on drugs.” The question of alternatives to the drug war took center stage at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in April, which culminated in an announcement by President Santos tasking the Organization of American States (OAS) with evaluating present policies and laying out other possible options.
Over the past year, the world has eyed Latin America as it has forged forward, in both policy and politics, with a rethink of the “war on drugs.” (See our recent cover story on “Latin America reinventing the war on drugs” here.) But tomorrow, the world will be watching the United States, the birthplace of the “war on drugs,” as three states vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala face the need to modify their approach to the fight against drug trafficking and are urging the world to do the same. But Mexico and Colombia’s willingness to make the necessary changes is unclear. The three countries are connected by a powerful circuit of trafficking of drugs – whose main market is the United States – weapons and money from illegal activities. But the extent of the problem and the way drug organisations operate in each one of these countries vary.
Voters in Colorado and Washington state who approved the recreational use of marijuana Tuesday sent a salvo from the ballot box that will ricochet around Latin America, a region that's faced decades of bloodshed from the U.S.-led war on drugs. Experts said the moves were likely to give momentum to countries such as Uruguay that are marching toward legalization, to undercut Mexican criminal gangs and to embolden those who demand greater debate about how to combat illegal substances.
Latin American drug policies have made no dent in the drug trade; instead they have taken a tremendous toll on human lives. In 2009, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) embarked on an ambitious project to document the real impact of Latin America’s “war on drugs” and to show its human cost through the video testimonies of the victims themselves.
Over the past several decades, Latin America has seen penalties for drug crimes—even low-level selling—skyrocket. And in many Latin American countries, non-violent drug offenses receive significantly longer sentences than many violent crimes, such as homicide and rape. A new study of criminal legislation explores this phenomenon in seven Latin American countries (Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentina).
This Friday, May 17, in Bogotá, Colombia, Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza will present Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with the outcomes of the hemispheric drug policy review that was mandated by the heads of state at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
On May 17, 2013, the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to share the results of the hemispheric review of drug policies. This task was entrusted to him by the Heads of States of the Americas at the Sixth Americas Summit held in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia.
This year’s annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, marked a milestone in the Latin American drug policy debate. For the first time, the drug policy issue was the primary theme of a hemispheric meeting and, in a closed-door meeting of the foreign ministers, a process was laid out for continuing the discussion, culminating in a Special Session of the General Assembly to be held in 2014.
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, address you on this Fourth Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security (MISPA) to follow up on the call upon governments to revise the orientation of drug policies that are being implemented in the Americas. This request for the governments took place during the 43rd Session of the OAS General Assembly which took place last June.