It seems that there is a growing trend in Latin America to openly challenge Washington’s war on drugs. Yesterday, Manuel Zelaya, president of Honduras, openly called for the legalization of drugs as a way to tackle drug-trafficking violence. The venue for Zelaya’s plea couldn’t be less welcoming: a ministerial summit of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.
However, Zelaya is not alone in Latin America. In Argentina, the current government of Cristina Fernández is promoting the decriminalization of drug consumption. In Mexico, where drug related violence is tearing the country apart, the PRD, the biggest opposition party, has also openly called to legalize drugs. And this is not just a left-leaning phenomenon. Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s conservative president, has recently proposed decriminalizing small amounts of some drugs, including cocaine and marijuana.
There are several factors that explain why Latin American leaders are now calling for a different approach to the U.S. international war on drugs. First, the left-leaning governments that don’t enjoy good relations with Washington are less concerned with upsetting it. Second, drug-related violence and corruption are reaching highly disturbing levels, especially in Mexico and Central America and are overwhelming law enforcement authorities. In Guatemala the local army recently admitted that there are portions of the country’s territory under the control of local cartels. Washington’s war on drugs is threatening the stability of these democracies.
However, another important factor is that many Latin American countries are now less susceptible to punishment from the United States, thanks in part to free trade agreements. A decade ago, all Latin American countries but Mexico depended on unilateral trade preferences to export to the U.S. market. Upsetting Washington could represent losing these preferences. Today, 11 Latin American countries have implemented (or are in the process of implementing) permanent trade agreements with the United States that ironically gives them more stability in their relationship with Washington.
As Ted Galen Carpenter recently explained in an op-ed, the stakes are too high for stability and security not only for Latin American countries but also for the U.S. Let’s hope that more leaders in the region raise their voices against the failed international war on drugs, and call for sensible policies such as drug legalization.
Juan Carlos Hidalgo
October 14, 2008