At a meeting of Central American leaders this weekend, Guatemala's President Otto Perez failed to win consensus for concrete proposals on drug policy reform, following his attempts to start a debate on legalization.
Perez asked the presidents of Central America's six biggest countries to attend the meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, on Saturday, in order to create a unified stance on drug legalization ahead of next month's Summit of the Americas in Colombia. Since taking office in January, Perez has emerged as a strong advocate for debate on drug legalization, making outspoken criticisms of the US war on drugs, and sending his vice president on a tour of the region to drum up support for reform.
However, only two of the five other leaders attended Perez's meeting: Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla, and Panama's Ricardo Martinelli. Honduras sent Vice President Samuel Reyes, while the other countries sent lower-ranking officials.
The attendees failed to issue any joint policy statement after the meeting. This lack of concrete results is unsurprising, given that the idea of drug legalization has been roundly rejected in the region:
El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes initially expressed support for Perez's calls for debate, saying, "This is a strategy that shouldn’t be ruled out," but later clarifyed that he was personally opposed to legalization. Salvadoran media reported that sources in the presidential palace said he did not attend the meeting because Belize and the Dominican Republic had not been invited.
Honduras' Porfirio Lobo has rejected the idea of legalization, saying that while the war on drugs has not been a success, "One must keep doing it ... because if we don't we will become a paradise [for drugs]." Legalization "is not the solution," he declared.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also slammed the idea, arguing that, “Decriminalization is like saying, 'we’ve lost.' It would be legalizing crime, because promoting drug consumption, facilitating drug consumption, is a criminal act.”
Costa Rica's Chinchilla has said she is open to dialogue on the issue, saying, "We have to look for more effective solutions than those we have had up until now." She suggested that the debate should go beyond legalization, however, because it would not be a "magic" answer to the problem of organized crime.
Panama's foreign minister has expressed the government's firm opposition to the idea, saying simply, "We absolutely do not agree with the decriminalization of drugs."
However, as officials in Guatemala's government have pointed out, Perez is not wedded to the idea of legalization but is rather trying to open a discussion on regional drug policy. He emerged from the meeting claiming success, saying, "We got rid of these taboos and myths that before kept the leaders of the region from talking or debating ideas, ideas that for a long time could not be talked about openly."
Another meeting is scheduled to take place in Honduras before the summit on April 14.
There are many theories as to why Perez, a former general who won presidency last year with a "hardline" campaign slogan, is pushing the drug reform issue so hard. One suggests that Perez is using the spectre of legalization to stir up debate, and indirectly put pressure on the US to contribute more to the country's fight against drugs. Perez has said he will push for the US to resume military aid to Guatemala, which was suspended during the country's civil war, and the legalization debate could be part of this drive.
Indeed, the policy options Perez set out at the meeting suggested that pushing for more US aid is his priority in the discussion. One of his more innovative proposals was that countries where illicit narcotics are consumed should help governments in Central America pay for interdiction efforts. Perez stated, "For every kilo of cocaine that is seized, we want to be compensated 50 percent by consumer countries," and later pointed to the US as having a "responsibility" for such efforts due to its status as the biggest consumer nation in the world, reported the Associated Press.
The details of this proposal are hazy, and it sounds more like an attempt to get additional US support for combating the drug trade in Guatemala. It may be a response to the fact that the US continues to criticize Guatemalan seizures, with the most recent State Department narcotics control report noting that, "Interdiction results remained low in comparison to the flow of narcotics through the country." The vast majority of these narcotics are in transit to the US, with the US government estimating that 15 percent of cocaine that enters the US passes through Guatemala.
The proposal would mean a significant boost in funds to Guatemala. When the police made a large drug seizure recently in Izabal, they used the figure of 100,000 quetzeles per kilo ($12,900) to calculate its value. Guatemala seized 3.96 tons of the drug last year, which would under Perez's proposal entitle them to more than $51 million in compensation from the US. This would be a major addition to US aid -- Just the Facts puts the US's total proposed grant aid to Guatemala in FY2013 at just over $111 million. Military and police aid makes up around $13 million of this.
The issue of US funding to the region is a thorny one, with presidents demanding more concrete help. The US is planning to provide $107 million in the coming financial year to Central America as a whole under the CARSI aid program.
Perez said that half of the funds generated with this measure would be funneled back into combating trafficking, with the rest put into programs to stop drug use. This provides a further insight into his reasons for bringing up the drug debate -- as analyst James Bosworth has pointed out, the president's openness to legalization does not clash with his "tough on crime" attitude, but rather is a practical means to gather more funds in order to hit the drug traffickers even harder.
In two separate proposals at the conference, Perez offered a more fleshed-out version of what a liberalized drug policy might involve. One suggestion was to decriminalize the transit of drugs, setting up a "transit corridor," presumably running through Central America, with border controls and a regional agency to manage the trade. Another was a more thorough version of legalization, establishing a legal framework to regulate the production, transport, and consumption of drugs.
A fourth proposal was to set up a region-wide criminal court focused on organized crime, specifically drug trafficking, money laundering, arms and people trafficking. This last one seems the most likely of Perez's suggestions to be put into practice, with drug liberalization seeming as far away as ever, and the US remaining reluctant to commit major funds to the Central American drug fight, whether on a per-kilo basis or not.
Edward Fox contributed to the reporting of this article.