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Biden in Honduras: US drug policy under scrutiny

As US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Honduras to meet with Central American leaders today, the long accepted playbook on a top issue — the war on drugs — is coming under sharp scrutiny.

As US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Honduras to meet with Central American leaders today, the long accepted playbook on a top issue — the war on drugs — is coming under sharp scrutiny.

In the past five years, drug-trafficking violence has led to spiraling death tolls, overflowing prisons, and overwhelmed justice systems across Mexico and Central America. Now, led by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, leaders are starting to question a policy review is needed, including a debate on legalizing narcotics.

It is not the first time players in the region have questioned hardline tactics. But now the message is coming from sitting presidents in staunch US allies, from Costa Rica to Colombia. So far the US has dug in its heels, but the pressure is mounting.

“This is a sign of what is to come…. Increasingly, countries are less afraid to explore other alternatives,” says Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, the president of CUPIHD, a civil society organization in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies. “It makes it harder for the US to continue justifying the status quo.”

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Mr. Biden was in Mexico Monday, where he showed no sign of shifting US policy on the matter.

“It’s worth discussing, but there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on legalization,” he said after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and the three presidential candidates for the upcoming July race.

He will likely have to again defend that stance in Central America today. President Perez Molina has gone the furthest in the debate about legalization and has promised to rally the isthmus to question whether a focus on drugs is diverting resources from going after crime. Costa Rica has stood behind him in that call, while both leaders in Mexico (where some 50,000 people have been killed in drug violence in six years) and Colombia have also said they are open to discussions about legalization. Already Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and Colombia have experimented with decriminalizing small amounts of drug use.

The question could arise at the Sixth Summit of the Americas to be held in Colombia in April.

US aid not enough

Latin America has long produced the drugs that are consumed in the US, and the US has spent billions trying to eradicate their source and punish the peddlers with policies like Plan Colombia, and more recently the billion-dollar aid package known as the Merida Initiative for Mexico and Central America.

Presidents on the receiving end have largely welcomed that aid, and criticized the US for being slow to deliver. But lately they are pushing for a new approach as a way to undercut profits for ever-powerful drug gangs, find a new source of tax revenue, and end the battles between illegal organizations that have contributed to historically gruesome violence.

After decades as the willing partner, Latin America started to demand solutions in 2009, in a commission headed by three former Latin American presidents —  from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia — that concluded that the “war on drugs” had failed.

“A paradigm shift is required away from repression of drug users and towards treatment and prevention,” wrote former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in an editorial after the commission report was released.

That was followed by a report, with business leaders and former officials from across the globe, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy last year that urged experimentation with legalization and regulation as a way to reduce violence.

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But in this newest iteration of the drug legalization debate, the players are not only sitting presidents, but those who share the US “tough on crime” ethos. “No one could accuse them of being soft on crime,” says Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “ They have the credentials.”

But so far their rhetoric has not influenced US thinking. On a trip to the region last week Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said clearly: “The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem.”

Part of the problem is timing, says Bruce Bagley, a drugs expert at the University of Miami. “The last thing Obama wants is a decriminalization debate in the midst of this campaign,” he says.

Bearing the burden of drug violence

The US stand on drug legalization has deep historic roots, from the country’s Puritan founding to middle class fear stoked in the 1980s from the crack epidemic. But perhaps most of all, the US does not bear the burden of violence that the “producing” countries do.

Many countries countries calling for a new approach have increasingly found themselves as drug transit zones. The violence has overwhelmed already dysfunctional justice systems and created even more corruption. At the same time, street gang violence has not abated. Honduras is the world’s deadliest country, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

“There are cracks in the facade of unity surrounding the US-led war on drugs, from erstwhile ‘allies,’” Mr. Bagley says. “They cannot bear it.”

Biden acknowledged that yesterday in Mexico. “The debate always occurs, understandably, in the context of serious violence that occurs with the society, particularly in societies that don’t have the institutional framework and the structure to deal with organized, illicit operations,” he said. But he also said that the legalization debate carries “myths” that are worth discussing.

Whether Latin America will ultimately create a united front on the issue is unclear. While countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have much more contentious relationships with the US, and some have gone so far as to kick out Drug Enforcement Agency officials, for example, they have not added a voice in support of legalizing use. Panama has already said, amid Perez Molina’s rallying call, that it does not agree with legalization. El Salvador‘s Mauricio Funes has waffled on the issue. In Mexico, while Calderón has said he would debate a fuller-scale legalization, Mr. Hernandez Tinajero says he was forced into the position by a public outrage over current levels of violence, not because he ideologically believes in it.

In fact, says Mr. Shifter, there is not a growing movement toward legalization itself, but rather a mounting frustration with the existing conditions. “There is not broad support for legalization,” he says. “There is a frustration with the status quo … and a desire to look for alternatives.”