Chronicle of a debate foretold

Drugs on the Latin American summits
Thursday, April 5, 2012

nuevas-rutasPolitical divides in the Central American region around drug control surfaced sharply at the recent regional summit on “New Routes against Drugs Trafficking”, that took place on Saturday 24 March in Guatemala. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina called for an open debate on the security crisis and on policies to reduce the rampant drug-related violence, stating that current policies have been so ineffective that all options including the ‘depenalisation’ of drugs should be on the table.

All the Central American Presidents accepted his invitation to discuss a common proposal to present at the upcoming hemisphere-wide summit of the Americas. But when the day arrived only half of them showed up in Guatemala’s ancient capital, Antigua, with disappointing last minute cancellations from the Presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

On the eve of the Antigua meeting, a confusing press release from the Salvadoran Presidency seemed to indicate that the summit had been postponed altogether, announcing that President Mauricio Funes “will await a new convocation for the meeting where Central American leaders will discuss alternative mechanisms in the fight against drug trafficking in the region”. It then became clear on the following morning, with the red carpets already rolled out at the airport, that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo had also decided to stay at home. Present at the meeting were the Presidents of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, and Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, several representatives from other Central American countries including the vice-president of Honduras and the vice-minister of Foreign Affairs from Nicaragua. Others who attended as experts were the ex-president of Colombia and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, César Gaviria, and representatives of the Panamerican Health Organisation and the Carter Center.

At a short press conference afterwards, the only agreement the attending Presidents could share was that they intended to continue the dialogue at upcoming meetings in Honduras within the framework of the Central American Integration System (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana - SICA) and the OAS summit in Cartagena, Colombia, on 14-16 April.

The proposals

At the Antigua event, Pérez Molina presented four different strategies to consider. Firstly, to intensify interdiction efforts while introducing a funding mechanism through which the value of seized drug shipments would be reimbursed by the consuming end destination country. The US, for example, would pay 50% of the US market price for any kilogram of cocaine intercepted in Guatemala, in compensation for the high social costs and law enforcement expenditure of drug control efforts in transit countries. Secondly, the establishment of a Central American Penal Court for drug trafficking offences with regional jurisdiction and its own prison system, to relieve the national criminal justice systems from the high burden of prosecution and incarceration for drug law offences. Thirdly, the ‘depenalisation’ of the transit of drugs by the establishment of a corridor through which cocaine could flow unhindered from South to North America without destabilising the whole region in between. And finally, the creation of a legal regulatory framework covering production, trade and consumption of drugs, without providing further details about how such a regulated market would work or the possibility of varying mechanisms for different drugs.

A good debate apparently unfolded at the meeting regarding the phasing and further refinement of the various proposals. Pérez Molina also estimated that 15% of the prison population in the region were incarcerated for drug consumption offences and that depenalisation of consumption and possession of drugs could potentially alleviate prison overcrowding.


Pérez Molina is not the first president in the region to call for a robust debate and put a set of alternative strategies on the table, including the option of a legally regulated market. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya did the same in 2008, shortly after hosting the first SICA conference on the causes of insecurity in the region. Zelaya addressed a meeting of the Heads of National Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA) that took place in Tegucigalpa, but found little support for his proposals and was then ousted in a coup in June 2009.

The recent sequence of events has again been closely related to the SICA dynamics and to attempts to get international attention and donor support for the regional security strategy. At an international conference in Guatemala in June last year, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, presented the outline of a funding mechanism based on compensation for drug seizures, one of the four proposals echoed by Pérez Molina. In December the issue was discussed again in the context of the ‘Mesoamérica’ integration promoted by the Tuxtla Mechanism for Dialogue and Reconciliation. Apart from the eight SICA countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic), Tuxtla also includes the region’s two big neighbours Mexico and Colombia. At this forum the frustrations from the SICA countries regarding donor interest became intertwined with the Mexican debate on how to break the spiral of violence –in which President Calderón hinted at “market options” as a euphemism for regulation of drugs- and with Colombian President Santos’ incipient call for opening the drugs debate.

The mix led to the adoption of a paragraph in one of the final documents calling on “consumption countries” to reduce the demand of drugs or to “explore all possible alternatives to eliminate the excessive criminal profits, including regulatory or market options aimed at that purpose”. It was this legacy that Pérez Molina was confronted with when he assumed the Presidency of Guatemala in January. In February the Group of Friends of the SICA Security Strategy met again in Washington, where it became clear that very little of all the funding pledges made last year would actually be honoured. In the final declaration of the SICA summit in early March in Honduras, the Presidents –in the presence of US vice-president Biden- then welcomed Pérez Molino’s proposal to further discuss the search for alternative drug control mechanisms in Guatemala later that month.

A busy agenda

Newspapers and drug policy activists worldwide were quick to brand Pérez Molina’s initiative as a ‘call for legalisation’. The polarised framing of the proposals further fuelled political tensions within the region and pressure from the US, almost bringing the discussion to a stalemate even before it really began. The US publicly stressed that they were open to discussing all options even though they were sure that depenalisation would only make things worse. Intensive diplomatic efforts were set in motion to prevent the debate getting out of hand in the region, with a string of visits from senior US officials. Firstly, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited the region at the end of February, followed by Vice-President Joe Biden in early March, and then in quick succession at the end of March, the Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield and U.S. Under Secretary of State Maria Otero undertook separate trips. On March 30th, the three Presidents that did not show up in Guatemala held their own summit in San Salvador. They agreed to bring a proposal to Cartagena based on the SICA Regional Security Strategy and expressed their opposition to any steps towards ‘depenalisation’. And finally, on April 2nd, the Presidents of US, Canada and Mexico came together, the third American presidential troika within ten days, to discuss preparations of the Cartagena summit and the hot topic of drugs on its agenda. And there are still a few Ministerial meetings in the SICA pipeline prior to the Cartagena summit.

The Cartagena summit provides a next opportunity to take the discussion forward. Yet there is a risk that it is a moment where this debate could be suffocated and stalled in the absence of appropriate proposals that take into account the political realities of the moment in that particular institutional environment. The other risk is that the Central American frustration might be bought off by US agreement to some minor drug policy adjustments and the re-direction of some of the funds for the US-designed Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the southward expansion of the Mérida Initiative for Mexico. Most of the money is currently allocated for security forces and equipment to further escalate the war on drugs, while the SICA security projects prioritise social programmes and violence prevention. The dramatic explosion of violence has made the search for innovative policies to reduce violence a greater political priority than drug control. The full-frontal drugs fight promoted through CARSI, similar to the previous Mérida initiative, could even be held partly accountable for the increase of violence. One recent example of an effective approach is the truce negotiated between the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, the two most violent gangs in El Salvador. The weeks after the truce in early March, homicides dropped to less than half the ‘normal’ rate. El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras; 66 people per 100,000 inhabitants were killed in 2010, compared to 18 in Mexico, 5 in the US or 1 in The Netherlands.

Bringing the Guatemala initiative and the Latin American drug policy debate to the next level requires a recognition that there is not one solution for ‘the drug problem’ and that a more sophisticated range of policy responses will be required to reduce the levels of drug-related violence and drug-related health and social problems, while also alleviating overburdened justice systems and overcrowded prisons. This approach also needs to differentiate between the various submarkets, because cannabis, stimulants and opiates all require their own tailored policy responses. The Antigua meeting clearly shows that political agreement about grand policy shifts in this field will not be easily found. Clear procedural proposals for how to carry this debate forward in a productive manner are therefore required.

Another relevant forum is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which will have a ministerial summit on defence, interior and justice issues on the 3rd and 4th of May, also in Cartagena. The drugs debate will feature prominently on the agenda there as well, but may lose the urgency felt so strongly in Central America unless those countries are allowed to participate as observers. One way to keep things moving forward is to organise Latin American expert meetings and informal policy dialogues to elaborate and discuss a series of reform proposals. Such gatherings should take into account the current political realities, the legal context of the UN treaty system, and the many reform efforts already underway in Latin America with regard to decriminalisation and proportionality of sentences, Bolivia’s efforts around the coca leaf, the potential of a like-minded coalition to explore the legal regulation of the cannabis market, more detailed proposals for regulating or managing the different drug submarkets, and the feasibility of harm reduction policy measures to reduce the level of drug-related violence.