The following are excerpts from an interview with Otto Perez, the president of Guatemala, conducted on March 24, 2012, via phone by The Washington Post’s Juan Forero. The interview was translated from Spanish.
What’s your assessment of the war on drugs?
“I think it is very clear that the war that has been staged against drug trafficking in the past 40 years has not had the fruits that we expected. I think that’s the case in the areas where it’s produced, in the areas where it’s transported, for example in Guatemala and [elsewhere in] Central America, and in the areas where it’s consumed, which is mostly in the United States.”
You’ve talked about legalizing drugs — can you explain?
“It could be a partial decriminalization or a complete decriminalization that would apply to the whole chain of production, transit and consumption. But obviously, that implies a commitment by all the countries involved. Not just one country can make that decision.”
Can you explain your call to make drug use a health issue?
“The other strategy that we are proposing is to emphasize the issue of health, the issue of education and prevention. And on the other hand, that we have a court with regional jurisdiction that would exclusively judge crimes related to drug trafficking.”
You have experience fighting the drug trade?
“I know narco-trafficking, from the battles that have been fought against drug trafficking. I cooperated and cooperated closely with U.S. agencies and international agencies. I was the intelligence director in my country.”
And how has drug trafficking developed?
“Narco-trafficking has grown, has penetrated institutions, prosecutors, judges. ... There’s a generalized level of corruption, money laundering. After everything that’s been tried, the result has been a growth [in drug trafficking] that shows that the strategy that has been followed for 30 or 40 years has failed.”
What do you think the U.S. response should be?
“The United States has to recognize that there is a need to debate the issue. There are many organizations in the United States that have closely studied the issue, that talk about decriminalization, that talk about the need to change the strategies that have been followed until this moment.”
Where is the debate headed?
“I think this will be a process, a process of dialogue, of debate, and in the end I see no other path than decriminalization. This will be sooner or later, but I hope it will be sooner. That is what I visualize at the end. There is no other way as long as the demand exists, as long as you see so many dollar revenues generated throughout Mexico and Central America.”
What do you say about the anti-drug success in Colombia?
“There’s been talk of success in Colombia, but look, in Colombia they are still producing cocaine, the cocaine keeps coming out of Colombia, and it continues to ship through Central America and it still gets to the United States. You don’t have the big cartels and the big capos that you had in decades past. But there are smaller cartels, smaller groups, that continue to produce.”