By Laura Carlsen

Vice President Joe Biden landed in Mexico City last night and he’s left little doubt about his mission—to lock in the regional drug war. His visit comes at a time of mounting calls to end prohibitionist laws and the drug war model.

Biden will be in Mexico City all day Monday meeting with President Felipe Calderon and presidential candidates, then in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, where he’ll meet with President Porfirio Lobo and have a “working lunch” with Central American presidents.

On a March 1 call with the press, a reporter asked whether the drug war would be on the agenda at the meeting with Central American presidents. Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Dan Restrepo, replied,

“The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs. At the same time, we’ve also been very open–the President has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly–of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, in this case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people’s daily lives and daily routines.”

His message is that the administration that presides over the nation with the largest illegal drug market in the world and actively funds a global war to enforce ineffective prohibition policies will not consider any form of legalization. But it supports “dialogue.”

Can that position really qualify as dialogue? A dialogue on how to “be most effective in confronting transnational criminal organizations” must start from the recognition that the current U.S. strategy has increased violence, done nothing to reduce crime or illicit drug flows and had a devastating impact on “people’s daily lives and daily routines” in Mexico and Central America.

A real discussion on effective strategies has to include the option of legalization. The Obama administration seems determined to block that option, despite a growing number of calls for discussion on legalization that include former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia and current presidents Santos of Colombia and Perez Molina of Guatemala.

Biden is just the latest envoy in U.S. diplomatic offensive to bolster the drug war. On Feb. 27, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in Guatemala with the same message. “The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem,” she told Perez Molina.

Pérez Molina recently called for decriminalization in the region and he reiterated his position at the meeting with Napolitano. “We are calling for a discussion, a debate. And we continue to insist… We want to open a debate to find a more effective way to fight drug trafficking.” The Guatemalan government has begun to lobby other Central American countries on the issue in anticipation of the meeting this week. Biden appears to have been charged on this trip with deterring any move toward legalization in the region and aligning nations in the war on drugs.

He has a tough road ahead of him. Latin American citizens and government leaders are openly protesting a model where their nations pay in blood and lives to fill U.S. defense contractor’s pockets and spread the Pentagon’s global reach–with few, if any, positive results. In Mexico, thousands filled the Central Plaza to draw the outlines of 60,000 dead in the drug war on the large esplanade in front of the National Palace and the citizen Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is planning a summer caravan through the United States to protest U.S. aid for the drug war through the Merida Initiative.

The Mexican daily La Jornada published an editorial Feb. 24 calling for debate on decriminalization and commenting on a statement by Sec. of Foreign Relations, Patricia Espinosa, that the Mexican government is against decriminalization but would consider debate. It concluded:

“Perhaps if the debate on the decriminalization of drugs had been begun before adopting the present course regarding public security, the country would have saved countless lives, widespread social suffering, grave processes of institutional breakdown and astronomical monetary resources. In whatever form, it is urgent and impossible to postpone the analysis of alternatives to the failure of a drug policy that is one only of the police, the military and the judiciary. In that sense anyone who takes this position–though it may be late and contradictory–is welcome.”

Despite the praise that has been and will be lavished on Calderon for his drug war, for other countries, Mexico has become the example of why NOT to pursue a drug war strategy. When I asked President Perez Molina and President Lobo how they felt about winding up like Mexico, both sought to distance themselves from the Mexican experience. I had the opportunity to ask as part of a fact-finding mission on violence against women led by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS that showed a huge increase in violence against women as militarization under the drug war has escalated.

Perez Molina answered that his country was in a different position: “Drug trafficking in Guatemala is different than in Mexico. We don’t see a war situation. The cartels have to maintain control of territory in Mexico but here it’s traffic, there isn’t occupation or control of territory. Here I don’t see the army in a war against the narco…” In other interviews he has also been reticent about allowing the level of U.S. intervention that the Mexican government has permitted.

Lobo recognized the risks and failures of the model but dodged the question of alternatives. “I don’t have the answer, people are dying, [drug-trafficking] pollutes us, and there is violence. There’s an increase in drug trafficking. The problem is, what’s the solution? Colombia put up a major fight and drugs keep flowing out. They have arms from the US and the money keeps flowing. In this we have to find a solution so this won’t end up being a war without end.”

Instead of sitting down with its neighbors to find a peaceful solution and truly assess whether the current strategy is working for anybody, the White House is sending a strong message to hold the line on the drug war. And Biden brings much more than his personal power of persuasion to the mostly closed-door conversations

It’s disturbing to see that the Obama administration has taken such a hard line against opening up debate on alternatives to the drug war. From here in Mexico, we see the costs so painfully close that the expected endorsements from Biden and company, far from being support, are a stubborn denial of reality. We can’t know what will happen in the private meetings, but statements before Biden’s trip emphasize support for the Calderon drug war and the commitment to continue the present model of security cooperation until the last day of his administration.

One wonders what will be said at the separate meetings with the presidential candidates. If the stated purpose is to repeat the U.S. commitment to respecting the electoral process and results, why not simply announce that publicly to all? Will Biden pressure the candidates to do the U.S.’ bidding on security policy, bringing to bear U.S. political and economic clout to assure continuance of the drug war?

Lopez Obrador announced he will deliver a letter to Biden stating, “We do not want to continue to favor military cooperation in the relationship with the United States, but instead place cooperation for development at the center.”

The U.S. has tremendous influence over Mexico and Central America, historically through aid and military presence, and even more now that free trade agreements have created even higher levels of economic dependence.

To use that influence to suppress debate on innovative and very possibly effective alternatives to the bloody drug war is bad politics and the opposite of the kind of “equal partnership and mutual respect” the Obama administration promised at the Trinidad and Tobago Summit in 2009. Part of the purpose of Biden’s trip is to prepare for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April. At that summit, the hemisphere’s nations will be able to judge whether Obama’s presidency changed relations as promised three years ago.

If Biden’s trip focuses on locking in policies of drug war militarization and discouraging independent regional initiatives, the Obama administration will arrive in Cartagena having broken those promises and dashed hopes of a more just realignment of relations in the hemisphere.

Laura Carlsen is Director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy based in Mexico City.


  • Felipe P. Manteiga
    Posted March 6, 2012 1:06 pm 0Likes

    The major drug problem lies in the U.S. How many banks have been penalized due to money laundering since W took power? How many major names in the drug industry have gone to jail since the new Century began?

    Now, criminal activity in the cities have declined because the price of drugs have plunged. Margins are so low that many ” retailers” have quit–the risk is not worth the effort.

    Yet, approximately 300,000 small drug dealers are in jail (at a cost which might surpass a thousand dollars a day). Of the more than 3,000,000 inmates, almost one million are behind bars due to drug related indictments.

    Latin America has paid a very heavy price for failed domestic U.S. policies. The corrupt touch of drug lords, like Pablo Escobar did in his Medellin hay days, has corroded the soul of civil society; embryonic democracies suffered the pain caused by still weaker ethical foundations. Armed forces and police, across the Americas, including the U.S., became tainted, and often complicit in criminal activities.

    I have signficant respect for V.P. Biden, and worked hard for his election as an strong pillar in the Obama Administration. And I know, all too well, he is following orders and political imperatives. Big Pharma, U.S. organized crime (specially the Russian, Ukranian and Jewsih “mafias”), beverage and cigarrete companies, confused religious groups and family associations, all form an unholy alliance with major political influence..

    Unfortunately, this time, my admired V.P> is wrong. Faced with the systemic failure of the U.S. drug policies, and the unmitigated harm it has caused and continues to cause (e.g., Cali, Tijuana, Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City, Santo Domingo) south of the border, those governments who have a modicum of dignity, courage, and guts left should proceed with their own drug policy.

    A compromise should be negotiated with a clear end game: drugs will be legalized in Latin America.

  • Jeroen
    Posted March 6, 2012 9:50 pm 0Likes

    Altough great part is true I think it’s time we start looking at solutions instead of looking for public opinions. Mano Dura, guatemalans president came to power with a promess of death sentence to drug smugglers and for other severe drug related criminals. And now he ‘s crawling back? Asking for legalisation? Otherwise he would need to kill half of the population. If jobs get paid 40 Q a day at the most, equals 7 USD a day, and a drug related job has unlimited cash what would you do? Imagine you’re poor and do not have any education and plenty of kids to support.

    90% of the cocaine is consumed in the US and not in Latin America. Let’s educate the consumers in the US about the risks of addiction.

    Let’s create jobs for the people in Latin America instead of spending millions in drug warfare. How can we possibly hold on to a strategy in which about 50,000 persons have lost their lives in not even 6 years in Mexico alone. It is a complete failure. For human life that is but if we take into account that the weapon industry has never sold so many guns and weapons as in the past 6 years. They are making huge profits. It is all known.

    The UN is known in Central America for their expensive lunches, and drug smuggling. The goods for Mitch of 1998 are still lying there they have never been used. The hate against the US is bigger than ever and will only grow if severe steps aren’t taking adequately. Since may 2011 US citizens cannot travel safely through Guatemala because the goverment of Guatemala can not guarantee their safety.

    Legalizing could be the way if all countries would participate but that will never happen. Which means we need to get back to an european model, controlling the borders. With a US Mex border of over 5,000 km that it’s impossible and with the mexican guatemalan border without airplanes that can fly at night because they do not have lights on their planes, we are lost.

    The only result that we see is that the price of a gram of coke has gone up in the streets in the US from 50 USD to 200 USD. So it did have some effects. It did exactly, now the cartels are making even more than before!

    And don’t forget that the US in 2006 just before the Mexican elections were about to invade Mexico. The most fraudulent elections ever to be held in a country on the american continent. It costed more than two years to win back the confidence of Latin American countries in Mexico. They were boycotted by most of them.

    Believe half of what they say and none of what they do!

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