HomeInvestigationsGorilla in the Room: Guatemala Takes the Lead

Gorilla in the Room: Guatemala Takes the Lead


After Guatemala's President Otto Perez controversially advocated open debate on drug legalization and decriminalization, it is time to detail the country's stance on legalization and what the government's hopes are for the upcoming Sixth Summit of the Americas.

Just three days into his presidency, Perez said a regional strategy on drug decriminalization and legalization should be debated "as soon as possible," and called out the United States for its failure to engage properly with the issue. However, since then he has played a careful political game, continually calling for an open discussion and refraining from exposing himself as a proponent of straightforward legalization.

Finally, on April 7, Perez penned an op-ed in The Observer in which he explained his position, calling for the regulation of drug production and consumption.·Specifically, he said: "Guatemala will not fail to honor any of its international commitments to fighting drug trafficking. But nor are we willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit. We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with alcohol and tobacco markets. Drug abuse, alcoholism and tobacco should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues."

Just what that means in practice is harder to say. For a deeper understanding of how Guatemala sees itself within the debate, we turn to Guatemalan Secretary of Planning Fernando Carrera. Carrera is the man who many say is the architect of Perez's proposals on drug-related issues. He recently gave a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars entitled "Drug Policy and Democracy in Central America: A View From Guatemala," that provides a crucial insight into how Guatemala is positioning itself in the ever-turbulent discourse on drug legalization.

"There is a gorilla in the room we need to talk about"

Carrera said much of the drive for Guatemala to open up a space for debate on a change in drug strategy comes from the realization that governments have historically refrained from tackling the issue at all. As Carrera put it: "There is a gorilla in the room we need to talk about."

The premise of the current approach to combating drug trafficking through eradication is fundamentally "Utopian," according to Carrera. We have rationally accepted that we cannot adopt this policy with alcohol and tobacco, yet somehow drugs have been placed in a separate category, he said.

This is not to say that Guatemala advocates the complete liberalization of drugs, where consumption and trafficking are dictated by the market. Carrera stressed that, like alcohol and tobacco, the government knows drugs can be bad for people, and should be regulated accordingly.

Such a shift toward the creation of a regulated market for "commodities with negative consequences" would create numerous challenges for both society and government institutions. Carrera admitted as much and highlighted four key challenges that would arise:

1. How to reduce violence and collateral damage related to drug markets, such as prostitution and theft. Even in a move from prohibition to regulation, this violence may not immediately disappear.

2. The strengthening of public health systems and social protection schemes.

3. The creation of economic opportunities for drug traffickers, since their business would not be as lucrative as under a system of prohibition.

4. Regulating the sale of such commodities (drugs). For example, how would they be advertised (if at all)? What would the age restrictions be? What taxes would be imposed? How would society be educated on the use of these drugs?

Why Now?

With the sensitivity of drug legalization and its possible implications apparent, Perez made an odd choice to take this subject on so early in his presidency. There are numerous theories as to why. Some in Guatemala say it was a smokescreen to distract people from a lukewarm tax reform law he was pushing through Congress at the time. Others point out that it is a no-lose strategy: if Perez has to continue with the current hardline strategy and it fails, he can always say that it's not his preferred method of fighting crime.

Whatever conspiracy theories exist, Carrera emphasized that there is an increasing sense that the existing approach is failing. Violence levels in Central America are rising, particularly in the "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and consumption rates in the US have dropped only slightly, while rising in Europe.

Perez simply did not want to be placed in a situation where he should be "tougher" on drugs, Carrera added. The only way to avoid this was to throw down the gauntlet immediately, even if the response from others was mixed.

Though Carrera does not mention them, Perez's positioning has been aided somewhat by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Santos has been more forthcoming in his welcoming of legalization as an alternative option, but combined, both presidents helped set the stage for Perez to push the door wide open on the debate, and take it on as an issue that could well define his presidency.


Perez is realistic about what the future holds for drug legalization, according to Carrera. Despite the progression from promoting debate to positioning itself as an advocate of drug regulation, the Guatemalan government is under no illusions that such a seismic shift in drug policy can be achieved overnight. It recognizes that any kind of reform of the international framework will take years, if it gets off the ground at all. Furthermore, any change in policy would need international consensus; under no scenario could some countries do it while others, for example the US, continue to practice prohibition.

That is why expectations for the upcoming Summit of the Americas are low. As Carrera outlined, Guatemala is merely hoping that the issue will be talked about and that leaders will come away saying: "It's not a crazy idea."

If governments begin to admit that drug markets cannot be eradicated, this would be a dramatic shift in the right direction, Carrera noted. Open and constructive dialogue is the only way to bring about such a change. However, with drug legalization still apparently off the agenda for this weekend's summit, Guatemala is in danger of coming away with little to show for its efforts, even given its relatively modest expectations.

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