The US’ inability to cut illegal drug consumption leaves Guatemala with no option but to consider legalizing the use and transport of drugs, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said on Monday, a remarkable turnaround for an ex-general elected on a platform of crushing organized crime with an iron fist.
Perez said he would try to win regional support for drug legalization at an upcoming summit of Central American leaders next month. He got his first public support on Monday at a security meeting with Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes, who said he too was willing to consider legalization.
“We’re bringing the issue up for debate. Today’s meeting is intended to strengthen our methods of fighting organized crime,” Perez said with Funes. “But if drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem will continue.”
However, after returning to El Salvador, Funes said he personally doesn’t support legalization because it would “create a moral problem,” though he supports Perez’s right to bring up the issue for consideration.
“Imagine what it would mean,” Funes said. “Producing drugs would no longer be a crime, trafficking drugs would no longer be a crime and consuming drugs would no longer be a crime, so we would be converting the region into a paradise for drug consumption. I personally don’t agree with it and I told President Otto Perez so.”
Perez’s proposal comes as drug cartels have taken over large swathes of Guatemala and other Central American countries, fueling some of the highest murder rates in the world. A report by the US Congressional Research Service in May last year said that 95 percent of all cocaine entering the US flows through Mexico and its waters, with 60 percent of that cocaine having first transited through Central America.
In just a month in office, Perez has transformed himself from one of Latin America’s toughest advocates of military action against drug cartels to one of the region’s strongest voices for drug legalization. His stance provoked strong criticism from the US over the weekend and intense discussion inside the country.
One analyst said Perez’s about-face could be designed to pressure the US into providing military aid, currently banned by the US Congress because of past human rights abuses.
“This is kind of like a shot across the bow, saying if you don’t help us, this is what we can do,” said Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert and professor of political science at Haverford College, Pennsylvania.
However, Perez’s backers said the change grew out of the realization that if demand continues in the US, the small country will never have the resources to fight the flow of illegal drugs from producers in South America to the world’s largest consumer market in the US.
“Are we going to be responsible to put up a war against the cartels if we don’t produce the drugs or consume the drugs? We’re just a corridor of illegality,” Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president.
“The issue of drug trafficking and consumption is not on the North American political agenda. The issue of drugs in the US is very marginalized, while for Guatemala and the rest of Central America it’s very central,” he added.
US President Barack Obama would cut funds to fight drug trafficking in Latin America next year, according to his budget proposal released on Monday. While the Obama administration has promised to shift anti-drug resources from law enforcement and military intervention to treatment and prevention, funding would be restored to slightly higher than last year’s levels in the proposal after suffering a cut this year.