OTTAWA — Canada’s steadily increasing role in the U.S.-led war on drugs is bumping up against calls for change in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Conservative government has made tackling drug trafficking in the Americas a key priority in recent years, deploying the military and doling out millions of dollars to help countries in the region take the fight to transnational crime groups.
But key partners, including Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, all of which are on the front lines of the fight, have asked for a hemispheric and international debate on new approaches as drug violence continues to sweep their countries.
The division between Canada’s position and that of other countries was highlighted earlier this week when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, were asked about drugs during a joint press conference in Ottawa.
Meade Kuribrena, whose government has struggled with how to end the violence that has left tens of thousands of criminals, security forces and civilians dead without abandoning the country to drug lords, said the current strategy is not working.
“Even though we personally oppose legalization, we think that there should be an effort to construct a consensus around a new alternative and a new vision and a new way of confronting and dealing with drug problems in our region,” said Meade Kuribrena.
It’s a message that has been echoed by other governments within the Americas, and is why Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala — key partners for Canada in the region — have asked the United Nations to debate the issue.
In addition, the Organization of American States released a study in May that also advocated a re-think of the war on drugs while examining four alternative strategies, including the idea of abandoning the 40-year fight entirely.
Opinions within the region are anything but unanimous on the best way forward, and governments throughout the region aren’t about to cede the battlefield to the drug lords.
“The key thing is (Latin American and Caribbean countries) want to be able to experiment, they want out of basically the very constraining framework that’s been imposed on that file mostly by the United States,” said Jean Daudelin, a Latin America expert at Carleton University.
Philip Oxhorn, a Latin America expert at McGill University, said Canada could play a key role helping Latin America convince the U.S. of the benefits of a new approach.
“I know there’s a lot of concern in Latin America that this policy is creating huge costs that can no longer be tolerated,” he said.
“But Canada’s had a very consistent policy and I personally haven’t seen any indications that the current government at least is planning on changing that and working with Latin America.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a surprise admission in April 2012 “that the current approach is not working,” yet the Conservative government has continued to ramp up Canada’s involvement in the war on drugs.
During his press conference with Meade Kurbrena, Baird highlighted steps the Conservative government has taken to strengthen drug laws in Canada while applauding the continued efforts of Mexico and other countries to stamp out drug-trafficking.
“We do have great respect for the significant efforts of successive Mexican governments to tackle organized crime,” Baird said. He added that Canada is doing its part to help in the region.
“Not just in Mexico,” he said, “but working co-operatively to tackle crime in Central America. I think a great deal of progress has been made, and we want to continue build upon the partnerships that we’ve made.”
Briefing notes prepared for then-minister of state for the Americas Diane Ablonczy and obtained by Postmedia News showed the government’s tepid view of the OAS study.
“One of the objectives in our engagement in the Americas is to combat transnational crime and our programming investments demonstrate our commitment to this issue,” read talking notes prepared for Ablonczy in advance of a meeting with Latin American ambassadors in November.
“Canada looks forward to robust engagement in this process and sharing our domestic experience in addressing illicit drugs.”
The talking points are under a heading: “Defensive Line — OAS Drug Study.”
Separate briefing notes prepared for then-defence minister Peter MacKay following last year’s Mexican presidential election, in which Enrique Pena Nieto came to power, show Canadian officials have been closely monitoring attitudes in the region.
“Pena Nieto has clearly stated that he is committed to continue the fight against transnational criminal organizations,” the heavily censored note reads. “Pena Nieto has indicated, however, that he wishes to implement a new strategy to fight criminal organizations.”
A section entitled “Implications for Canada” is completely blacked out.
The fact the note was prepared by Defence Department officials is telling as the Canadian military has become quietly but increasingly involved in the U.S.-led war on drugs since the Conservative government came to power in 2006.
This has included deploying Canadian military surveillance aircraft, naval vessels and even submarines throughout the Caribbean and East Pacific to help U.S. drug interdiction missions.
National Defence reports that the total cost of operations in the region has increased from $25.3 million in 2008-09 to an estimated $282.2 million this year, while the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has also contributed millions of dollars for police training and other anti-drug efforts.
However, Foreign Affairs has also contributed millions of dollars to help train police officers and strengthen the criminal justice system in countries such as Honduras, while the RCMP has also become more involved.
Separate Defence Department briefing notes estimate transnational criminal organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean are worth more than $40 billion (U.S.), with cocaine being their main source of income.
The organized crime groups are a “corrosive” threat to governments and populations throughout the Americas, particularly in Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, the documents add.
Oxhorn said there is no denying the threat posed by transnational crime groups in the hemisphere, but clearly the current approach isn’t working.
“Otherwise we wouldn’t have been at this war for so long,” he said. “So an alternative is needed.”
July 26, 2013
Lee Berthiaume | Postmedia News | The Vancouver sun
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