Why Is Latin America Considering Legalizing Cocaine?

Drug-related executions have surged in parts of Latin America, sparking calls for new solutions to the drug problem.

What does celebrated Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa have in common with the president of Guatemala and the editors of The Economist magazine, not to mention a century-old U.S. toothache remedy?

Simple: legal cocaine.

The Peruvian is for it, as is Guatemalan leader Otto Perez, as well as a growing assembly of influential Latin Americans.

I think it is important for us to have other alternatives. … ” Perez told CNN en Español earlier this year. “We have to talk about decriminalization of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption.”

As for The Economist, the venerable British publication has long advocated removing criminal sanctions from cocaine, arguing this is the only way to reduce the otherwise relentless toll of death, corruption and social disintegration the drug has engendered on account of being illegal.

On April 14 and 15, heads of state and government from across the Americas, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts, will gather for a two-day summit in Cartagena, Colombia, and the so-called war on drugs will figure near the top of their agenda — for one overriding reason.

It isn’t working.

In Mexico alone, more than 50,000 people have perished in a violent campaign against narcotics that began five years ago, when President Felipe Calderón threw down the gauntlet in a do-or-die battle against Mexico’s mighty drug cartels.

Since then, some parts of Mexican territory have degenerated into lawless, quasi-feudal regions where criminals exert as much influence as the state. Basic human rights protections have been weakened or abandoned altogether. Law-abiding folk have fled or now dwell in fear. Thousands of people have simply disappeared. And the cocaine trade? It marches on, as insidious and profitable as ever.

In the makeshift republics of Central America, the situation is even worse, while Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — the main cocaine-producing nations — are also obliged to suffer the corrosive effects of the narcotics trade.

“Organized crime is our reality,” says José Gil Olmos, a reporter for the Mexican newsmagazine Proceso. “It’s a Medusa.”

All this, thanks to a leafy and otherwise harmless shrub endemic to South America, called coca, from which cocaine is refined.

Oh, and that toothache remedy?

Roughly a century ago, the Lloyd Manufacturing Co. in the United States produced a treatment for oral complaints that promised an “instantaneous cure,” sold for just 15 cents a package, and whose principal ingredient was none other than cocaine.

Many such products were available back then, for the simple reason that cocaine used to be legal in the United States and Canada, as were opium and marijuana. The makers of Bayer pharmaceutical products marketed a cough remedy derived from heroin.

Coca-Cola owed its trademark kick to the presence of a discreet dash of cocaine in each and every bottle.

Somehow, civilized society managed to survive these substances, when they were legal.

Now they are illegal — and witness the result.

The international trade in narcotics has become a massive criminal enterprise that corrupts police forces, cripples judicial systems and undermines the integrity of entire states, against a backdrop of ruthless violence.

“For the first time, there is widespread recognition that present policies have failed and there need to be new alternatives,” says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a privately funded think-tank. “Latin American countries have basically forced the U.S. into agreeing to discuss other alternatives, including legalization.”

Nobody expects the Barack Obama administration to turn its back on a century-old U.S. regimen of strict narcotics prohibition — or certainly not soon, and especially not in an election year — but Latin Americans have spent decades paying for that regimen with cash, criminality and blood, and they have just about run out of patience.

“The administration is well aware that the debate on drug legalization is roaring like an express train,” says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “It’s not going to be easily stopped.”

For its part, Canada seems to be no more forward-looking on the narcotics file than is Washington.

“The Canadian approach is simple,” says Marcel Martel, a history professor at York University and an expert on organized crime. “It’s repression. Stephen Harper hasn’t indicated he plans to revisit the way Canada handles illegal drug use.”

But leaders in many Latin American capitals have been forced by circumstance to do precisely that, or else watch their countries degenerate into narco-republics, governed by fear, payola and hit men, a slide already well under way in some cases.

Desperate for solutions, many Latin Americans now favour legalizing cocaine and other drugs, including heroin, ecstasy and marijuana. That, they argue, would put the drug traffickers out of business.

But would it? Even assuming such a measure were politically feasible — a huge assumption in the case of the United States and Canada — would legalizing narcotics somehow solve a problem that has so far resisted all other strategies?

Many experts insist it would not, or not on its own.

“Those who favour legalization say, if you legalize, then the criminals will be bankrupt,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a U.S. expert on the global drug trade and author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs. “That’s a hugely optimistic outlook.”

For one thing, the feuding drug cartels would not simply ride off into a peaceful retirement if their main sources of revenue were to be stripped from the criminal code.

“Drugs are not the only illegal activity in Mexico,” says Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal, director of the school of communications at the University of the Cloister of Sister Juana in Mexico City.

Even now, the narcotraficantes supplement their earnings from drugs with other revenue streams, including human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, auto theft and contract killing, among others. Legalizing narcotics would not reduce those activities.

In fact, says Felbab-Brown, the measure might well cause increased violence, because criminal organizations would need to compete that much harder for control of their remaining businesses or to develop new sources of income.

Some experts are promoting a third course that would more or less tolerate drug trafficking without making it legal, a compromise similar to the so-called Pax Mafiosa that prevails in parts of Italy.

Under such an arrangement, the drug trade would remain formally illegal but would face little government interference, as long as the cartels dramatically reduced present levels of violence.

“I think people would prefer this,” says Gil Olmos at Proceso.

Felbab-Brown thinks otherwise.

That sort of accommodation, she says, is effectively the system that prevailed in Mexico from the 1940s until the 1980s, a time when the country was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which operated in those days as a sort of corporate dictatorship headed by an all-powerful presidency.

She believes the arrangement worked then because the criminal ringleaders genuinely feared the PRI. But times have changed, and Felbab-Brown doubts the old entente between Mexico’s politicians and its drug lords can or should be restored.

“I do not believe a deal is achievable or even wise. It was precisely this deal that compromised the police and the judicial system in Mexico.”

The situation is even more parlous in Central America, where small states with frail institutions are largely helpless before the drug lords, whose activities they barely try to curtail.

Instead, corrupt and incompetent police forces spend their days and nights rounding up shiftless youths on minor or trumped-up charges and cramming them into overcrowded prisons, merely worsening an already grim state of affairs.

“Those prisons are universities for delinquents,” says Javier Martinez, outgoing mayor of the Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. “These are not criminals. They don’t represent a threat to society.”

Not now, maybe. But chances are they will.

Clearly, such measures are not working.

Martel at York University says they have never worked. In one form or another, the war on drugs has been waged for more than a century, he says, ever since the early 1900s, when U.S. and Canadian authorities succumbed to pressure from radical Christian groups and declared opium illegal.

Cocaine was banned a few years later and marijuana in the 1920s.

All these embargoes sprang in part from a racist motivation, says Martel, because the drugs were depicted as an external menace, foisted upon God-fearing white North Americans by Chinese or Hispanic “aliens.”

Alcohol was prohibited, too. But that ban was suspended in 1933 and for a simple reason — it didn’t work.

The sanctions against narcotics have been no more effective, yet they have remained in place.

“The U.S. and Canada have enrolled the rest of the world in their crusade against drugs,” says Martel.

At least some Latin American governments have concluded that the crusade has gone on long enough. It’s time to try something else.

But, if criminal penalties have failed, if legalization is not the answer, and if a Pax Mafiosa won’t work either, then what is left?

According to Felbab-Brown, there is no quick fix but only a sustained and tortuous exercise in state-building — the gradual creation of effective police forces, judicial systems and other institutions in countries where those agencies are now so deeply emaciated by fear and graft that they barely function.

“This will be an enormous project for Mexico and an order of magnitude greater for Central America,” she says. “We really need to think of organized crime as a competition in state-making.”

Unfortunately, it’s the drug lords who enjoy the preponderance of money, guns and savagery. They won’t go down soon or without a fight — if they go down at all.

“The Latin American drug story is not going to have a happy ending,” predicts a sorrowful Birns at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “There is no way out.”

Here’s hoping he’s wrong. But what if he’s right?

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