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Rehabilitating the war on drugs: Central America and the legalisation debate



The war on drugs is America’s forgotten war. The UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted in 1961 and US President Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” in July 1971. For over 40 years, it has continued largely unnoticed outside the region and, for the last decade, has been almost completely overshadowed by the war on terror and the related conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today the drug cartels’ ability to corrupt (through bribery or violence) has become so strong that, according to one senior Organization of American States official, they threaten democracy in many of the countries they operate in.  Drug trafficking is now a global enterprise worth over $320 billion annually, according to a UN estimate for 2003.  The cartels are increasingly branching out into other criminal activities, further filling their coffers with the proceeds of human trafficking, arms smuggling, oil theft, bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion.

The war against the cartels has so far cost the United States at least $1 trillion;  it continues to cost more than $100 billion globally each year, together with an unknown number of lives.

The illicit drugs trade and the militarised government responses are the greatest threats to state and human security in the Americas. Many analysts and policymakers now conclude that the war on drugs has largely failed.  The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has identified several serious unintended negative consequences of the war on drugs, which the international Count the Costs consortium has distilled into seven key costs. The consortium contends that the war on drugs:

  • Undermines international development and security, and fuels conflict.
  • Threatens public health, spreads disease and causes death.
  • Undermines human rights.
  • Promotes stigma and discrimination.
  • Creates crime and enriches criminals.
  • Causes deforestation and pollution.
  •  Wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement.

Mexico’s control paradigm

The most recent ‘battles’ in this war have been fought in Mexico under President Felipe Calderón. In December 2006, the newly elected Calderón sent 4,000 troops and federal police to Michoacán in an attempt to tackle organised crime and drug violence in the state. More than 50,000 police and soldiers are now involved in the nationwide fight against the Mexican drug cartels in an aggressive strategy supported by the United States with funding, equipment and training. Mexico is paying a huge price for this strategy: since Calderón came to power, the monthly death toll from violence attributed to organised crime has steadily increased in both number and geographic scope, with nearly 50,000 people killed by the beginning of 2012, according to figures from the Mexican government.

The war on drugs is the ultimate manifestation of the dominant security orthodoxy, which believes that military force can ultimately control insecurity. In the same way the war on terror essentially aimed to ‘keep the lid’ on terrorism and insecurity without addressing the root causes of perceived injustices, the war on drugs aims to keep the lid on the rising tide of cartel violence without addressing the root causes of illicit drug consumption in North America. Security policies based on this ‘control paradigm’ are often self-defeating in the long term as they simply create a pressure cooker effect.

In some respects Mexico’s militarised strategy is working: it is shifting the problem elsewhere, both within Mexico itself and across its borders. As robust law enforcement programmes and infighting within and between the cartels during the 1990s shifted the focus of the American illicit drugs trade from Colombia to Mexico, Calderón’s strategy now seems to be increasingly forcing the cartels into the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This is supported by figures from the International Narcotics Control Board, which reveal a sharp decline in cocaine seizures in Mexico but an increase in seizures in Central America.

Guatemala calls for debate

It is within this context that, on 14 February 2012, the newly elected president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, made the surprise announcement that he wanted to open a regional debate on the legalisation of drugs.

It is an interesting position for Molina to take, as the legalisation of drugs is a topic usually reserved for politicians and parties with generally liberal positions. In contrast, Molina is a former army General who founded the right-wing Partido Patriota in 2001 and was known as a hardliner during his presidential campaigns of 2007 and 2011.

However, Molina’s announcement should probably be seen in the context of Guatemala’s ongoing attempts to persuade the United States to resume military aid, which was halted in the early 1990s over concerns about human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war. If his initiative is little more than political positioning it is regrettable, as the drug cartels’ shift from Mexico means that Guatemala should be looking for innovative and effective solutions to the illicit drugs trade. According to the US Department of State:

Guatemala’s location between the Andean drug producing countries and the U.S. market made it an ideal transshipment point easily accessible to drug-trafficking organizations (DTO). The United States estimates that approximately 95 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through the Mexico and Central America corridor. Of this, an increasing amount – nearly 80 percent – stops first in a Central American country before onward shipment to Mexico. As a result of the country’s weak public institutions, pervasive corruption, and vast under-governed area along its borders, the United States estimates that approximately 15 percent of the primary flow of cocaine entering the United States transited Guatemala. In addition to marijuana for domestic consumption, Guatemala produced opium poppy for export.

Falling back on the control paradigm as applied elsewhere will likely severely damage the country’s social and economic fabric; even if it achieves some successes, it may do little more than push the problem elsewhere. There are, though, some indications that this might be a serious attempt by Molina to open the debate on the legalisation of drugs – not least of all Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s tour of other Central American leaders to seek support for a debate.

Guatemala’s neighbours have responded variously to Molina’s announcement. During the joint press conference in Guatemala City, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes agreed to begin debating the subject; however, he did not commit outright to the idea and has since seemed to back away from it. Presidents Ricardo Martinelli of Panama and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras have rejected the idea, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla firmly supports it, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has not taken a clear public position. Central American leaders and representatives met with Molina in Guatemala to discuss the issue on 24 March, though no consensus position was reached.

On 22 February, the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, announced that Mexico is willing to debate the legalisation of drugs, even though it does not consider it to be the best approach.  On 14 March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the war against the drug cartels was failing and that, as host the sixth Summit of the Americas, he would encourage a debate about illicit drugs at the summit on 14-15 April.

The response from others was more unequivocal. The US embassy in Guatemala immediately expressed the United States’ discontent with such a policy. On 23 February, Russian Federal Drug Control Service chief Victor Ivanov articulated Russia’s opposition to the legalisation of drugs. Then on 5 March, during a two-day visit to Mexico and Guatemala, US Vice President Joseph Biden reiterated the United States’ firm opposition to legalisation. 

Maintaining the status quo

What do the external powers fear so much? In short, the potential decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs in Central America threatens the foundations of deliberate policies enacted by North America and elsewhere.

Central to any war fought using the control paradigm are the principles of protecting the homeland by keeping the violence ‘over there’ and the near complete attention given to tackling external consequences rather than resolving any internal causes. These principles formed the core of the war on terror strategy and lie at the heart of the war on drugs. Legalising drugs in Central America would mean the fight could no longer be carried out elsewhere and would force the consumer markets of North America to look inwards at the internal drivers of the illicit drugs trade.

The United States is already experiencing the pressure cooker effect of the control paradigm in the form of a rapidly increasing federal prison population – half of which is now inmates serving time for drug offenses.  Figures from the US Department of Justice also reveal that black males between the ages of 18 and 34 constitute nearly one fifth of the whole prison population.  This socially and economically unsustainable situation may well become an internal driver of social change in its own right and eventually force the United States to re-examine its war on drugs.

Of course some Central American elites are equally wedded to the control paradigm, in the genuine belief it offers the best chance of security for their countries. Others see their country’s (and perhaps their own) long-term interests as best secured by supporting the United States when it takes a clear stance on an issue. And some believe that legalising drugs will result in dramatic increases in drug consumption and addiction in their countries. These differing viewpoints and motivations highlight the need for a regional debate on this issue and for countries to move forward together. 

A sustainable security strategy

An alternative approach to the control paradigm could offer some support to a genuine Guatemalan initiative to decriminalise drugs in Central America. Proponents of the ‘sustainable security’ framework argue that it is impossible to successfully control all the consequences of insecurity and so strategies must be developed to resolve the causes. In other words, ‘fighting the symptoms’ will not work, you must instead ‘cure the disease’. This framework is formulated on understanding integrated security trends and developing preventative responses.

Legalising some drugs and decriminalising others therefore makes a great deal of sense from a sustainable security perspective and is worth exploring as part of an integrated and multifaceted law enforcement and public health strategy. What follows is an outline of the six key elements of a sustainable security alternative to the war on drugs.

The decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs would be a nuanced, staged and managed process. The process might begin with decriminalising possession up to an agreed weight (justifiable for personal use) of those drugs that independent scientists agree pose the least harm to the individual and society. National standard fines should be agreed for local municipalities to impose alongside community service over infractions under that weight. Those caught in possession of decriminalised drugs over that weight would still face criminal penalties.

If successful, this strategy could be extended to include more harmful drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana (the principal targets of the American war on drugs) and encompass the regulation of production and distribution. (There will be some drugs – for example medical marijuana – that could be rapidly legalised and regulated.)

A decriminalisation programme would immediately cut off the drug dealers and illegal producers from certain areas of the market and stop the criminalisation of sectors of the population using currently illicit drugs. It is not, however, a panacea. Though forming a central pillar of a sustainable security strategy, in and of itself it would not be effective; other integrated programmes need to be implemented.

Principal among these programmes would be the separation of the law enforcement and military elements of tackling drug-related organised crime. An intelligence-led law enforcement model should replace the current war on drugs approach, with the military limited to involvement in those activities for which they are best suited (such as border patrol in remote areas). In many countries in Central America, citizen security challenges will continue to be more significant than traditional national security threats, and so funding and other resources need to reflect this.

Communities can empowered to tackle the problem themselves through citizen security models similar to the approach taken in Nicaragua, which supports social and institutional structures (such as neighbourhood watch schemes) to keep Northern Triangle drug gangs out of the country. Forging proper links between citizens and the police at the community level will help strengthen these structures. For this to be effective, though, lack of personal safety must be addressed. The means must be developed for citizens to report and respond to corruption and criminal activity without fear of reprisal. Without the proper level of safety for all persons involved in the legal process – from victims, to investigators, to judges – much drug-related crime will go unreported.

Central to the success of this will be addressing corruption in the police, who are often trusted even less than the military. A 2008 Americas Barometer survey found that 44 per cent of people thought their local police were involved in crime, while only 38 per cent felt their local police protected citizens.  In a 2009 Latinobarόmetro survey, 65.3 per cent of respondents had little or no confidence in the police.  Increasing police numbers and providing more funding will therefore be pointless without fundamental criminal justice and rule of law reforms. This will be a long-term process of change beginning in officers’ recruitment and training, and continuing throughout their careers with supervision, assessment and continuous development, and ending with career advice and support if and when they leave law enforcement.

Within many Central American countries there are three levels of conflict occurring: one between the state and the cartels, one between the different cartels, and one within the individual cartels themselves. This has created large numbers of fighters and weapons under the cartels control. Also, the cartels have multiple sources of income outside the illicit drugs trade – including human trafficking and arms smuggling – sources they could shift their focus to if drugs were no longer profitable. If the sustainable security proposals outlined in this briefing were successful, then at some point Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes will therefore be required.

DDR would entail collecting small arms and light weapons (a large percentage of which come from the United States), disbanding armed criminal groups, and reinserting and reintegrating former cartel members into their communities. Central to the reintegration element of the programmes will be strategies to address poverty and social inequality in Central America. The police and private security companies will also need to undergo processes of demilitarisation.

The regional war on drugs is not a Central American problem, it is an American problem. So regional agreements will need to be negotiated and, although it lies outside the scope of this briefing, to be truly effective this sustainable security strategy would need to be complemented by radical increases in funding for drug education and treatment programmes in North America. 


By focusing on ineffective supply reduction strategies, the war on drugs is destroying the countries of Latin America in order to protect those of North America.

Central American states must be allowed to develop their own policy strategies rather than be pressured to continue strategies that only benefit others. At the same time, Central American leaders must not allow themselves to be lured by promises of military aid. Assertive and capable leaders are needed who are willing to relinquish the comforting myth of the control paradigm and recognise that a new regional strategy is needed.

The goal of such a strategy is to undermine the power of the drugs cartels and ensure the health and security of citizens. Central America deserves nothing less. Anyone doubting the need for need for this rethink need only look to two large banners that appeared on 21 March 2012 in Peten province, northern Guatemala. Signed “Z-200” in the name of Los Zetas  – the most powerful Mexican cartel – the banners read:

To all the civil and military authorities and the general population… [stop] persecuting the clan or we will start to kill, we are going to launch grenades in the discos and shopping malls of Peten… this is Z territory, we don’t want a war against the government, this is the warning. Sincerely, Z-200.

A genuine Guatemalan initiative to launch a regional debate on the decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs could offer the seeds of a much-needed sustainable security alternative to both the war on drugs and the violence Los Zetas and the other cartels promise.

This policy briefing was published in English and Spanish on 4 April 2012, ten days before the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

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