Drug cartels in Mexico and across South America pose a grave and growing threat to the security of the United States, and Army General Martin Dempsey is well aware of it.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently returned from a tour of South America, during which he repeatedly told national leaders that the U.S. is concerned about terrorists utilizing drug smuggling networks to launch terrorist attacks.

Because if they can smuggle drugs into the U.S., they can smuggle almost anything else just as well.

To help protect against that threat, Dempsey called on closer security ties between South American nations and the U.S., suggesting that there may be greater opportunity to engage the drug cartels by exporting key lessons learned in America's experience fighting al Qaeda.

"We learned how to defeat al Qaeda by attacking the network along its entire length," he's quoted in The Washington Post as saying. "Now in that case we did most, if not all, of the heavy lifting. The question here would be, can we take the same paradigm in how to attack a network — but not do it ourselves?"

The statement could serve as a preview of President Barack Obama's planned remarks to the Summit of the Americas next month, during which many South American leaders will demand that the U.S. hear their arguments on drug legalization.

Much as the U.S. argues for specialized tactics and military force to counter the drug gangs, South American nations like Colombia -- a key U.S. military ally -- are pushing for a less violent approach to counter the cartels that works through simple economics. Specifically, legalization would undercut the gangs' profits tremendously, which many believe would have a pacifying effect on the supply-side marketplace, currently drenched in blood from Peru to Mexico's northern border.

Former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and even one former U.S. Secretary of State all agree that America's drug war has failed and a new strategy is needed. Their group, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, recently called for the drug war to shift its focus from enforcement and interdiction to medical treatment and harm-reduction policies.

Even some U.S. Senators agree: a subcommittee report last June, given to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), warned that the South American drug was has been a miserable failure, not just on the enforcement side, but on the efficiency side as well.

"It’s becoming increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government’s use of contractors, have largely failed,” she said in a media advisory. "Without adequate oversight and management we are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we’re getting in return."

"We have to look after those who are using drugs not as criminals, but as people who require some care," former Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso told Raw Story last year. "It’s not cool, necessarily, for a person to use drugs from time to time as a patient."

The formulation of that argument was also the impetus for a recent major summit of South American leaders, who attempted to formulate a regional security accord that would include drug legalization as a centerpiece. They failed to come to an agreement however, and a number of key leaders did not attend.

President Obama has never favored legalization, although as a candidate for lower offices he publicly declared himself a supporter of marijuana decriminalization, which would shift law enforcement focus away from simple users and onto the traffickers. He's also advocated some reforms, like focusing drug war budgets more on education, prevention and medical treatment, instead of repeatedly incarcerating the drug-using population.

The Obama Administration's budgetary outlays for combating drugs, however, have not reflected the president's rhetoric on the issue.

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