“Our region is seriously threatened by organized crime, but there is very little responsibility taken by the drug-consuming countries,” Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said at a December meeting of Latin leaders in Caracas. Colom said the hemisphere was paying the price for drug consumption in the United States with “our blood, our fear and our human sacrifice.”
With transit countries facing some of the highest homicide rates in the world, so great is the frustration that the leaders are demanding that the United States and Europe consider steps toward legalization if they do not curb their appetite for drugs.
At a regional summit this month in Mexico, attended by the leaders of 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries, officials declared that “the authorities in consumer countries should explore all possible alternatives to eliminate exorbitant profits of criminals, including regulatory or market options.”
“Market options” is diplomatic code for decriminalization.
The complaints are not exactly new but are remarkable for being nearly unanimous. The critique comes from sitting presidents left to right, from persistent U.S. antagonists such as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and from close U.S. allies such as President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, which has received almost $9 billion in aid to fight the cartels.
‘Rethinking’ the war on drugs
The criticism has been bolstered by opinion leaders in the region, including the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, who called for the legalization of marijuana and an overhaul of U.S. thinking on the 40-year drug war, which has cost a trillion dollars by some estimates but has done little to reduce supply and demand.
Senior Obama administration officials say the resentment is understandable, given that the production and transit countries are shouldering more of the violence, but they say the rhetorical attacks against the United States are misdirected.
“I refuse to accept that there has not been progress” in the fight against drug trafficking and consumption, said William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said there has been a sustained reduction in demand for cocaine in the United States. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of Americans aged 12 and older who are current users of cocaine has dropped by 21 percent since 2007. The purity of seized cocaine is down; prices are up.
“No one single issue drives this global drug problem,” Brownfield said. “Everybody plays his role, everybody shares responsibility.”
Yet while cocaine use may have declined in the United States in the past few years, it is surging in Europe and Asia. In the United States, seizures of methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana are increasing, and the most recent health surveys found that American 10th-graders are more likely to smoke pot than tobacco.
“The biggest challenge faced by many Latin American countries is the rising threat of organized crime funded by U.S. drug consumption. That is without a doubt,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute.
Lack of political will
“But the cruel irony is that drug violence is down in the United States, and so it is hard to build a political constituency that wants to do much more to help Latin America,” he said.
Leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean say that the United States is not only responsible for the cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana that moves north, but also — far more dangerous to them — the bulk cash profits and military-style weapons that flow south.
One of the most outspoken critics of U.S. drug consumption has been Mexico’s center-right President Felipe Calderon, a U.S. ally in a drug war that has left some 45,000 dead in Mexico.
“We are next to the largest illegal drug market in the world,” Calderon said in September at a public dinner held in his honor by the Council of the Americas in Washington. “We are living in the same building, and our neighbor is the largest consumer of drugs in the world and everyone wants to sell him drugs through our door and our window.”
The United States has provided Mexico with almost $700 million of $2 billion in promised aid, including Black Hawk helicopters, police trainers, sophisticated eavesdropping technologies and a mountain of classified drug intelligence, from snitches to drones.
Presidents from Bolivia to Mexico say that the U.S. government is failing to control the nation’s hunger for narcotics, even as U.S. politicians lecture Latin American nations on how to confront their problems of criminal impunity, official corruption and failed institutions.
“All the money, regardless how much it is multiplied, and all the blood, no matter how much is spilled” will not stop the drug trade “as long as the north continues consuming,” said Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega.
Latin American leaders zeroed in on what they see as glaring contradictions in U.S. law, which allows for-profit dispensaries to legally sell “medical marijuana,” while at the same time marijuana growers south of the border are hunted down by the military.
“If all you're doing is sending our citizens to prison while in other places the market is legalized, then we must ask: Is not it time to review the global strategy against drugs?” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
“I wonder if the world's eighth-largest economy, California, which so successfully promotes its modern technology, movies and fine wines, will allow the importation of marijuana into their own market,” Santos said.
At the summit in Venezuela’s capital this month, Ortega suggested that the group “monitor and rate” anti-drug efforts by the United States, just as the U.S. State Department does for the region.
In another forum, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla proposed that the United States reimburse the transit countries.
“Our region is victim of the brutal onslaught of organized crime, which jeopardizes the safety of our population and attacks the foundations of our democracy," Chinchilla said. “I propose the creation of a fund that would oblige countries with drug users to pay a kind of fee for every kilo of cocaine intercepted in the Isthmus.
“We speak of a drug-trafficking route that moves about a hundred billion dollars a year, culminating in the world's largest market and biggest consumer of these substances, the United States,” said El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, who added that the United States had a “moral responsibility” to do more.