The recent Central American Drug summit was supposed to be the first attempt of the region’s Presidents to get together and open up the debate around current drug policy. The summit was called by the Guatemalan President, Otto Perez Molina, who timed the conference just a month ahead of the Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Cartagena, Colombia. This was a crucial opportunity for the Central American leaders to focus on drug policy away from the influence of the U.S. delegates who consistently oppose regional changes in drug policy. Obama will be present at the OAS and he is not likely to be flexible on the matter, if they could solidify a viable strategy locally beforehand then their stance will be significantly strengthened at the OAS. However, in an anticlimactic turn of events, only two of the five invited leaders, as well as Perez Molina, attended; Ricardo Martinelli for Panama and Laura Chinchilla for Costa Rica. Missing was Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
This is happening now because Central America is in crisis. Gangs have taken over the streets and the three regions El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have soaring murder rates comparable with Jamaica. The murder rates in Guatemala have doubled since 2000. Honduras has been covered in illegal airstrips used for drug trafficking and is home to the bloodiest city in C. America, Ciudad Juarez, where drug traffickers regularly go on killing sprees fueled by turf wars. El Salvador’s problems are getting worse as it’s been reported that a relatively new gang, the Texis cartel, who have certain police officials and politicians on puppet strings, have taken hold. The worsening situation in Central America is a consequence of the balloon effect. Just as when you squeeze a balloon the air simply moves from one area to another, when you put the squeeze on the gangs in a production country such as Mexico or Columbia, they will migrate to neighbouring countries with less stable governments and economies. Central America does not produce or consume cocaine and heroin, they just find themselves between production and consumer countries, so it has become a transit country and a promised land for gangs.
Perez promised a hard-line on the gangs, who have caused so much bloodshed, in his presidential campaign. However after election he announced that the drug war is not working and advocated decriminalization. Though others are saying this legalisation approach is softer than before I couldn’t disagree more. Perez wants to hit the gangs in the place it hurts them most, their profit margins. He proposes that a legal framework to regulate the manufacturing, transportation and consumption of drugs should be created in place of current drug policy in South and Central America. With a legal framework the bloody gang culture is no longer useful as trade is done in the open and disputes are settled in court rather than in the streets. Other ideas such as a separate judicial and penal system for drug law offenders and a 50% tax to consumer countries (of which the USA is one) for every kilo of cocaine seized in Central America were also discussed. However the absences made any real decision-making impossible.
So lets see who is holding back the movement in C.America so far. President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador was one who sent representatives in his place. Funes’s government has put the army on the streets with the police force in an attempt to crack down on the gangs. The military presence has not helped so far and with so many soldiers who are not trained to deal with civilians, human rights violations are inevitable. Porfirio Lobo, the President of Honduras, was also absent. This man is in favour of the death penalty so we can start to see why friendly drug law reform might not be at the top of his agenda. His government was also criticized by Human Rights Watch for the 2009 coup, which brought him to power, as many journalists and opposition party members have been killed off suspiciously since. With this hanging over his head Lobo is expected to tow the U.S hard line in order to stay on its good side following its recent readmittance to the Organisation of American states in 2011. Lastly Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua was also missing. Ortega, who has a history of corruption and at least one rigged election is not a likely advocate of drug law reform; especially when you consider his anti-abortion laws, which show how much he values personal autonomy.
Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos has made sure that debate on the drug war will happen at the OAS by adding it to the agenda. Though opposition to reform is tough, it is loosing support as people and now finally Presidents wake up to the horrific situation that the drug war had led to.