Latin America distances itself from U.S. on drug war

Jose Luis Varela
Agence France-Presse
February 9, 2010

Latin America is shifting focus in counter-drug strategies, moving away from a U.S. strategy of a "war on drugs" that is widely seen as having failed, experts here said.

afp_logoLIMA - Researchers from Latin America, the United States and Europe agreed that the debate is now centered on a search for local solutions rather than the broader policing strategy long dictated from Washington.

"There is an awareness that continuing to do what we have been doing does not work," said Ricardo Soberon, a Peruvian expert.

"Latin America has faithfully carried out policies dictated by Washington for 30 years, and we have found to our surprise that some countries are beginning to change that," he said.

He pointed to Ecuador, which in 2008 pardoned more than 2,000 people detained for carrying less than two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of drugs, and Bolivia's expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) the same year.

For several years, a group of former presidents led by Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo, Colombia's Cesar Gavira and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil has called for decriminalization of drug use.

That position has gained support from many leading intellectuals like the late Argentine writer Tomas Eloy Martinez and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.

"Why is it that governments, which day after day prove how costly and useless the policy of repression is, refuse to consider decriminalization?" Vargas Llosa recently asked.

For his part, Soberon said, "The obstacles to achieving legalization lie in an uninformed public opinion, Congresses that do not put the issue on their agendas, and a resistance to recognizing the errors of the current strategy.'

But Coletta Youngers, an expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said, "The frustration with the famous war on drugs has provoked reflection not only within societies but also within some governments of the region."

"Before when some countries began speaking of changes, there immediately was criticism from part of the United States. But now we've noted that Washington says nothing, and that is very good. They are letting countries develop their own policies."

Youngers said the United States was beginning to make changes of its own.

"The administration of (Barack) Obama has taken note of the reforms occurring in Latin America and is even considering changes in his own policy to put more emphasis on prevention," she said.

In Europe, said Dutch researcher Pien Metaal, the trend has been to decriminalize consumption and do away with disproportionately heavy sentencing for drug offenses while giving addicts easier access to health care.

"More and more countries of Latin America are looking to Europe as a model because Europe's more flexible policies are having very positive results in terms of health without an increase in delinquency," said Youngers.

Differences clearly remain within Latin America. Colombia, the world's biggest producer of cocaine, has maintained a hard line of military combat against the drug traffickers.

"The United States problems are replicated in Colombia, which has followed the same policy for a very long time: there is a bureaucracy and a language oriented toward war, and changing that will be difficult," Youngers said.

On the other hand, Argentina declared it unconstitutional in 2008 to punish personal drug consumption.

"There are better things to do than detain people who consume (drugs) in the street. We have to see this problem not from a law enforcement point of view but as a health issue," Argentine prosecutor Monica Currano said here.

"The moment has come for the ministries of health and development to grow up and take on the issue of drugs," she added.