While pushing a hardline approach to crime, Guatemala’s new President Otto Perez has revealed himself as an unlikely advocate for drug liberalization, a position which may be winning the support of other presidents in the region.

Perez, a former general who swept to power promising to crack down on crime with an iron fist, has surprised onlookers by declaring that there should be debate on legalizing drugs. During his presidential campaign he had said that he was opposed to legalization, and promised his drug policy would consist of tough measures like deploying the army to fight cartels.

Now he is in power, Perez argues that the US-led war on drugs has not managed to reduce drug trafficking, and that legalizing the trade would cut crimes like money laundering and arms trafficking, and corruption of government, judiciary and police.

What changed his mind? One theory is that Perez is not really committed to legalization, and is using the proposal to put pressure on the US to increase anti-drug funds, and to resume military aid that was suspended during the civil war. While this is no doubt a consideration, Perez’s commitment to liberalization appears deeper than this. In the last few days he has taken concrete steps to push the debate forward, saying that he would bring the subject before a summit of Central American leaders in El Salvador in March. Drug liberalization is not the only progressive policy he has spoken in favor of; he also surprised onlookers by declaring that attacking hunger and poverty would be part of his plans to combat crime, saying “Hunger is also violence, and is also a security problem.” It is likely that he did not make his position on drugs known during the presidential campaign for domestic political reasons. As an op-ed in Prensa Libre points out, the measure would probably have very little popular support within Guatemala.

Another factor suggesting Perez is sincere is that he is part of a wider trend of Latin American presidents expressing their openness to drug liberalization. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly said that he would welcome legalization, if there were a global consensus in its favor, and criticized the shortcomings of the war on drugs. His foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, said this week·that she would raise the topic at the upcoming Summit of the Americas meeting. Mexico’s Felipe Calderon has suggested he might be open to reform, while El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes expressed support for Perez’s proposal after a bilateral meeting on Monday, although he clarified hours later that he did not personally advocate legalization.

It is no coincidence that these four men are the leaders of the countries worst affected by drug trafficking in the region, if not the world. Their willingness to contemplate drug liberalization speaks of a determination to take action, with all other options having been exhausted.

Analyst James Bosworth comments that the legalization promoted by Perez, and his counterparts in Mexico and Colombia, is not the same one imagined by some supporters of drug policy reform:

The proponents of this approach intend to fully shift from a war on drugs to a war on crime, and make no mistake, for them it’s a war. This is a hawkish and militarized approach to ending the drug war by taking away criminal finances and then hitting the criminals and gangs hard with the full strength of militaries, police units and private security firms before the bad guys can regroup.

The exact terms of what Perez is suggesting remain unclear. He said that his proposal was still being developed, and that it had not yet been decided whether it would be legal to sell and distribute drugs, but it would be legal to transport them. He did not specify which drugs this would cover, but said the trade would be carefully regulated.

This, then, is distinct from the kind of liberalization proposal seen in California, for example, which in 2010 held a referendum on making it legal to grow and possess certain quantities of marijuana. Perez does not seem focused on the idea of decriminalizing drug use, but rather on bringing the drug trade within the law, allowing it to be regulated and taking money away from trafficking groups.

This would have to be a region-wide effort, as Perez and other presidents have repeatedly stated. Depenalizing drug use can be done by one country in isolation. Colombia, for example, has experimented with depenalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs such as cocaine and marijuana. Legalizing the transport of drugs, however, could not take place solely in Guatemala without creating enormous complications. Where would a legitimate cocaine transportation company ship its product to, if cocaine remained illegal in Mexico and the US?

The US was quick to express its disapproval of the idea. The US Embassy in Guatemala City releasing a statement the following day saying that even if drugs were made legal in Central America, drug trafficking organizations and gangs would still be involved in activities like human trafficking, arms trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and so on. The embassy argued that crime could even increase, due to criminals focusing their efforts on these other revenue sources.

InSight Crime has made a similar point in the past, arguing that, while ending drug prohibition would cut the revenue streams of Mexican groups in the long term;

In the meantime, there would likely be panic in the Mexican underworld, as the 500,000 people who presently make their living from the drug trade would have to find another way to pay the bills. While a small number might take it as a cue to pursue a legitimate way of life, most, presumably, would not.

They would turn to alternative revenue streams such as kidnapping and extortion, as many are already doing in Mexico. These crimes are arguably more damaging to society than drug trafficking, as they inherently involve high levels of violence in order to be effective. Drug trafficking, on the other hand, foments violence only as a by-product — the real aim of traffickers is to get their drugs to market with minimal disruption.

Perez’s radical proposals are unlikely to be realized in the near future, given the implacable opposition of the US government to drug liberalization. But if they are put into practice, the resulting shake-up in Guatemala’s criminal world could put his iron fist policies to the test.

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