Guatemala's president says that leaders of drug-consuming countries in the west have to accept it has brought Latin countries to their knees
In any war there are innocent victims. In the 40-year war on drugs, the central American state of Guatemala can lay claim to being just such an innocent casualty. It has been caught in the crossfire between the nations to the south (principally Peru, Colombia and Bolivia) that produce illegal narcotics and the country to the north (America) that has the largest appetite to consume them. Guatemala does little of either.
The problem is that the drugs – principally cocaine – have to be transported from the producing countries to the US, from the south to the north. Unfortunately for Guatemala, it's in the way.
But Guatemala's location at the tip of Central America did not always present a problem. As recently as 2008 the US National Drug Intelligence Centre estimated that less than 1% of the estimated 700 tonnes of cocaine that left South America passed through Central America. But that was before the war on drugs intervened, and Guatemala was caught in the fallout.
Prior to 2008 the favoured method of transporting drugs from South America to the US was by sea (via the Caribbean or the Pacific) or by air; land-based smuggling was rare. But two things happened to radically change that, both initiatives of the "war on drugs".
First, Mexico and Colombia – partially funded by the US – stepped up surveillance of aircraft and airspace. Simultaneously the US began more vigorous co-operation with Mexico to stop drugs shipments by sea. In July 2008 the Mexican navy, apparently using US intelligence, made the rather remarkable capture of a "narco-submarine", a semi-submersible loaded with cocaine destined for the US.
According to a report in the Economist, US officials were monitoring 10 such vessels a month by 2008. Colombian cartels favoured shipments by sea as they did not have to do business with – and pay – cartels in other countries to move the drugs to the US.
But by 2009, with sea and air routes increasingly unreliable, the trade was shifting to land. And with that, the concept of the "transit" nations was born – countries in Central America through which drugs were passed en route to the world's largest drugs market, America. Increasingly it is the transit nations that are being caught up in the horrific fallout from the war on drugs (see Ed Vulliamy's report, right). In Guatemala's case, US officials now estimate that 300-400 tonnes of cocaine are transported through the country each year – up from seven tonnes in 2008.
This is often the problem with the war on drugs: shifting the problem from one region to another. As President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia made clear in an interview with this paper 14 months ago: "We are now helping other countries – the Caribbean countries, Central American countries, Mexico – because our success means more problems for them. There's the balloon effect." Meaning if the problem were eliminated in one country or region, it would pop up somewhere else because the demand – principally from the US – remains unchanged.
The transit nations are now recognised as a distinct set of countries caught in the war on drugs. As they produce and consume few drugs they are among the more innocent victims. But now they have a bullish and vociferous spokesperson in Guatemala's president, Otto Pérez Molina. A previously hardline director of military intelligence (accused by some of gross human rights abuses and torture during his tenure – claims that he denies) Pérez Molina became president a year ago. He surprised many when, within weeks, he declared that the war on drugs had failed and that the international community needed to end the "taboo" of debating decriminalisation. Since then he has taken a lead role at the Summit of Americas in Cartagena last April and at the UN Assembly in September. Next week he takes the debate to the home of the world's economic elite, the Davos forum in Switzerland.
Pérez Molina is unequivocal about the need to search for an alternative to the current paradigm, but he is not alone. Increasingly, politicians across Latin America are asking if the price of war has been too high for their nations while consuming nations, especially in the west, escape with far less damage to their institutions. As Santos said last year: "For Colombia, drugs are a matter of national security; for other countries it is mainly a health and crime issue."
This is at the heart of the awakening in Latin America, a feeling that drugs prohibition has allowed rich and powerful cartels to rise to such prominence that they threaten the institutions of the state – the police, the judicial system, the army, the media, and the body politic. In Latin America it is not about rehab and criminality, it is about an existential threat to the state.
Pérez Molina, in an interview with the Observer before his visit to Davos, says the need to look again at the efficacy of the war on drugs is no longer optional. "I believe this has been forced on us by the situation we have to live with in Guatemala, in Central America and throughout the region over the last 40 years. We have seen that prohibitionism and the war against drugs have not given the results hoped for. Quite the opposite. The cartels have grown in strength, the flow of arms towards Central America from the north has grown and the deaths in our country have grown. This has forced us to search for a more appropriate response."
The situation in Guatemala has become more serious as Mexican cartels – taking refuge from an attempt to militarily defeat them – have inserted themselves into Guatemala and sought to control the trafficking routes through that country. And with the cartels come other nightmares: kidnapping, extortion, contract killers and people trafficking.
The cartels are now posing a serious threat to the Guatemalan state, as Pérez Molina concedes: "Drug traffickers have been able to penetrate the institutions in this country by employing the resources and money they have. We are talking about the security forces, public prosecutors, judges. Drug money has penetrated these institutions and it is an activity that directly threatens the institutions and the democracy of countries."
This is the issue that increasingly animates Latin leaders. While their countries battle to survive the political and institutional fallout of the war on drugs, the leaders of the consuming countries in the west remain disengaged from this aspect of the debate. One of the reasons Pérez Molina is travelling to Davos is to take the debate into their territory.
"I believe that, in the end, western countries fail to understand the reality that countries such as Guatemala and those of Central America have to live in," said Pérez Molina. "There has been plenty of talk, but no effective response. I believe, ultimately, this is due to a lack of understanding on the part of western countries.
"A message should be sent to the leaders of the countries with the biggest drug markets. They must think not only of their country, but rather of the context of what is happening in the world, in regions such as Central America, where this destruction, this weakening of democracy, is happening. They must be open to recognising that the struggle against drugs, in the way it has been conducted, has failed. That is a fact, a fact that can be analysed after 40 years."
Pérez Molina has gone further than other leaders in arguing explicitly for the introduction of a regulated market for drugs. Not full legalisation, but a controlled, regulated market for the production, distribution and sale of narcotics.
The prohibition of drugs, from a Latin and Central America perspective, is becoming more difficult to accept. Not just because of the economic, political and civic cost to those countries but because of the increasing paradox which recent events in the US highlight.
In November two US states, Colorado and Washington, voted to legalise marijuana. The federal government has indicated that it will not seek to overturn the will of the people in those two states. And yet America still helps to fund the Mexican government's attempts to eradicate cannabis plantations and seize shipments en route to the US. As one former Mexican foreign minister said recently, "Why are we busting trucks of marijuana in Mexico when they are selling it ... in some US states? There is no logic to it."
A senior official in the newly elected administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto said: "We can't treat a product as illegal in Mexico and try to prevent it being trafficked to the US when it has legal status there."
Pérez Molina recognises this paradox and hopes the US will too. The signs though are not encouraging. When Pérez Molina first announced his preference for a regulated drug market, the response was swift. "Within 24 hours, the [US] embassy here in Guatemala made a statement that they had rejected this position. However, some months later we saw at the Summit of the Americas that President Barack Obama said the US was willing to enter into a dialogue, even though they maintained their position of the rejection of regulation or decriminalisation.
"I believe that as he is entering his second term, [Obama] is going to be more open to this debate. In the end, this is the direction we all have to move in. There is going to be a change away from the paradigm of prohibitionism and the war against drugs, to a process that will take us towards regulation. I would expect a more flexible and open position from President Obama in his second term."
Pérez Molina's decision to take the debate to Davos signals a new front is opening up in the debate – namely to engage leaders of the business community. Many already are engaged. The Economist magazine has argued for the legalisation of drugs for more than 20 years. And there is a growing business lobby in the US that wants to shift the drugs market – and profits – from cartels to capitalists. Seven years ago Forbes, America's business bible – listed 500 members of the business community who favoured a regulated drugs market.
This is the debate that Pérez Molina wants to raise in Davos "with leaders of various sectors of societies". He said: "This must lead to the revising of various protocols, conventions at the UN, but it is also important for this to be accompanied by the civil society of the various countries. That change will come by combining these forces – politics must be combined with economics. That is why it is important for the issue to be present in Davos. It is important for the issue to be discussed and be present in those environments."
In looking at the alternatives to the war on drugs and in setting out radical proposals for a regulated market the Guatemalans have been consulting with the Beckley Foundation, probably the leading global advocate of deploying science and empirical evidence to drive the debate about the war on drugs. Amanda Fielding, head of the Beckley Foundation, was in Guatemala last week presenting its proposals for an alternative drug policy.
The proposals are likely to inform Pérez Molina's discussions in Davos this week as he is keen to shift the debate from one about morality to one governed by science. "Contacts such as the Beckley Foundation allow us to have more scientific evidence. That enables us to demonstrate that the struggle that has been conducted for these last 40 years has failed. With scientific data it can be demonstrated that, by placing the emphasis on health, on preventive programmes, on educational programmes, then regulation is an alternative that could enable us to avoid more deaths, more destruction and more crime, such as we have had until now."
And as he arrives in Europe, he comes with a message for drug users in the consuming countries. "I would call on them to reflect on the path of death behind [their] cocaine. It has left a path of destruction, it undermined the institutions and the democracy of countries in Central America, such as Guatemala. They should reflect not only on the harm to their own health, but also on the deaths that enable them to consume that cocaine.
"I believe they should reflect on this, to avoid these deaths that are occurring in transit countries. We don't produce and we don't consume, but we are countries that suffer deaths and place our institutions and our democracy at risk."
[Cocaine in package on black background via Shutterstock.com.]