What’s behind the new President’s proposal
to decriminalize drugs throughout Central America?
Whatever the answer, it’s important and refreshing
to have brought up this much-needed debate.
While decriminalizing drugs without the required reflection
would open up a Pandora’s Box with uncontrollable consequences,
a well-grounded debate leading to responsible decisions
could open the way to a peace we don’t have today.
Juan Hernández Pico
It was inevitable that the proposal of Guatemala’s new President, retired General Otto Pérez Molina, to discuss the possible decriminalization and even legalization of drugs in Central America would become headline news in the mass media both in our region and around the world.
It’s a highly unusual proposal for a Central American leader, particularly given its aim of lining up six of the region’s seven Presidents behind it (the missing one being the President of Belize, a country Guatemala still considers part of its national territory) and making it a discussion issue on the agenda of the upcoming Summit of the Americas in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos backed Guatemala’s proposal, expressing his conviction that it and any other intended to tackle the extremely violent consequences of the drug trade should be discussed at the summit.
It’s not the first time a novel proposal on drugs has been offered up at the presidential level. During a summit of Central American Presidents in 2010, the recently elected President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, declared that it wasn’t good policy to use our countries’ limited resources to fight drug trafficking when Central Americans don’t receive enough help from the United States to make this fight likely to succeed.
Napolitano and Biden: No and yesIt didn’t take long for the United States to react to Pérez Molina’s proposal. US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano categorically refuted both its appropriateness and its timing, arguing that it would give organized crime carte blanche to do what it wanted and would be like a Pandora’s box that, once opened, would spread an epidemic that would affect the health of a multitude of youths and adults in the Western Hemisphere.
Nonetheless, Washington took the uproar sparked by Guatemala’s proposal seriously enough to send both Napolitano and William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, to Central America. And US Vice President Joseph Biden said at the Summit of Central American Presidents held in Honduras on March 7 for his visit that he understood why Central Americans were so frustrated by the large number of victims in a fight against drug trafficking that had apparently produced no results. Although he defended the official US position, he did agree to open up the debate.
The backdrop to the proposalWhat led Pérez Molina to suggest a debate on the best methods for tackling drug trafficking and drug use in the region? The first answer is that, like everyone else, he’s increasingly convinced of the failure of the military strategy for fighting this now globalized business.
There are various other plausible hypotheses, such as the idea that Pérez Molina is trying to use his proposal as a way to force the United States into giving much more economic and military aid. Or that he wants to assume the hegemony in Central America, and in the spirit of the colonial Captaincy General, which centered on Guatemala, aspires to a regional leadership that would convince Guatemala’s population that he respects the culmination and closing of a Mayan era of 13 baktuns in 2012 and is making good on his promise to lead Guatemala and Meso-America into a new era.
Yet another hypothesis to consider is that having been betrayed as a military officer by the Clinton government in the nineties by being forced to sign a peace treaty that robbed him of a military victory, Pérez Molina may be proposing this debate today from a nationalist military posture. And of course, this audacious proposal could also be an attempt to draw a discreet veil over the accusations of human rights violations still hanging over him.
There has also been a lot of talk that Pérez Molina himself had links with the drug trade at some point either during or after his military career. A few years ago assassination attempts were made against first his wife and son and then his daughter, and it was rumored at the time that those responsible were drug traffickers who had never received the millions in profits from a major drug deal. While it’s just a rumor for which no evidence has ever been produced, it’s obviously always very hard to provide proof for such matters.
The anti-guerrilla I’m personally inclined to analyze the motivation behind Pérez Molina’s proposal from yet another, more rational perspective. Pérez Molina fought in a war against what he and his colleagues considered an illegal and illegitimate enemy, although an important part of the Guatemalan people didn’t share that view. For the military, the guerrilla opposition used clandestinity to expand its revolutionary social struggle and defend itself from the stigma of both illegality accompanying its use of arms, considered a state monopoly, and of “subversion,” at that time synonymous with “communism,” that much-feared specter in a country whose elites had no fear of the horrors of “savage capitalism,” the primitive stage of accumulation it was still in.
The general and his colleagues won that war militarily but were unable to destroy their guerrilla enemy. Although the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) clearly embraced a Marxist philosophy and ideology, the Guatemalan State and the national army that led and represented it at the time had no choice but to sit down at the negotiating table with that enemy.
International public opinion considered an armistice less dangerous than the terrorist, genocidal means used by that army and State, in massive violation of human rights. Meanwhile, the pole the Soviet Union had represented during the Cold War no longer threatened the Western world’s tendency to promote democratic governments, even those only democratic in the formal sense, and Cuba had also stopped being a potential exporter of revolutions.
This personal institutional experience led a disillusioned Pérez Molina and his colleagues to state that “we won the war, but lost the peace.” That was obviously an exaggeration because they hadn’t managed to destroy the enemy, just more or less corner it. And their horrendous violations of human and humanitarian rights that must be respected in any war meant a loss of any claim to legitimacy for their war.
They lost the peace because, unlike what happened in Argentina and Uruguay in the eighties and in El Salvador in the nineties, they couldn’t include in the national reconciliation agreement and its corresponding law the political decision
to guarantee a fresh start in which crimes against humanity such as genocide, forced disappearances and torture, would be forgotten. They had to accept that the sword of justice and against impunity would continue hanging over their heads.
That that sword still has a sharp edge was demonstrated in the recent sentencing of the soldiers responsible for the massacre of Dos Erres in the Petén and of soldiers responsible for the massacre at Plan de Sánchez in Rabinal (Baja Verapaz) as well as the trial and imprisonment of several generals from the top of the chain of command during the war, particularly former President and retired General Efraín Ríos Montt himself.
So it’s not irrational to hypothesize that Pérez Molina doesn’t want to embark the country’s Army, National Civil Police, rag-tag Air Force and small Navy on a war with countless victims, no chance of victory and against an economic and military force just as clandestine as the guerrilla forces, if not more so. It’s a war against a globalized empire, with far superior funding power and access to arms than the second guerrilla wave in Guatemala had between the seventies and nineties.
The globalized drug business is The primitive accumulation stage of capitalism tends to be called “savage capitalism” and to be stigmatized both socially and ecclesiastically. Pope John Paul II condemned savage capitalism in his 1991 encyclical, commemorating the centenary of the first social encyclical, known as Rerum novarum. But as Brazilian bishop Pedro Casaldáliga concisely adds: “All capitalism is savage.” It’s its very nature.
the most savage form of capitalism
This is proved by the haggling over minimum wages, the scandalous benefits obtained by the pharmaceutical companies, and the big companies threatening coups d’état if progressive taxes are approved. It’s also proved by the uncompensated expulsion of tenant farmers from coffee farms, the inhuman work rates in maquila plants, the ideology of superiority to justify the growing inequality between those who benefit most from the system and those who receive nothing…
It has been more than proved by the first big crisis of globalized capital, with millions of people expelled from their jobs and homes in so many countries due to financial products with absolutely no state regulation; and by the intense struggle by neoliberal savage capitalism to reduce and even eliminate taxes on the richest, which has been the standard of the Republican party since the Reagan era.
The best example of capitalism working completely free of regulation, with no laws and no compassion is the globalized and armed drugs business. Confronting it with arms, with a military strategy, is madness, as Mexico has demonstrated. Each leader of the Sinaloa or Gulf cartel, the Michoacan Family or the Zetas, or any other cartel or mini-cartel who is captured or killed is immediately replaced by another. They’ve learned the lesson of the Medellin cartel, which was totally unprepared for the loss of Pablo Escobar.
Otto Pérez Molina knows this perfectly well. He knows the war is now against a globalized capitalist multinational. And that knowledge may well have been behind his proposal to discuss decriminalizing and even legalizing drugs.
The frustration overWhen US Vice President Biden recognized the frustration of Central Americans over the large number of victims of the fight against drug trafficking with no visible results, he was reflecting another reason why decriminalizing and legalizing drugs needs to be considered.
Iraq and Afghanistan
That reason is Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where the United States has invested enormous amounts militarily, bleeding both the US youth enlisted in those wars and, to an even greater extent, the youth of those two countries, without managing to deactivate radical Islam, even after having extrajudicially executed Osama Bin Laden.
The military adventures of the United States, up to now the most economically powerful country in the world, have imposed such an enormous financial burden on it that it is close to yielding that first place to the Peoples’ Republic of China. Forty years ago the Vietnam War ended with similar consequences. At that time the United States lost over 58,000 lives as well as a war that killed 4-6 million Vietnamese and did enormous ecological and human damage due to the mass application of “agent orange.” The “Vietnam syndrome” weighed on the United States for a generation.
To generate greater His nature and his military experience mean that Pérez Molina knows, or should know, that Central America’s small countries (they total 40 million people, equivalent to less than a seventh of the US population and a third of Mexico’s population) are militarily impotent against drug trafficking and its penetration into the region’s public and private institutions.
economic and financial aid?
They don’t have a prayer of extinguishing or reducing the threat, but they have great potential to accumulate victims. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that, even without being fully convinced of the justness of the debate he’s proposing, Pérez Molina is sending out the following message to the United States: you have to involve yourself with greater economic and financial aid, both your own and that of the multilateral financial institutions, to develop projects that improve the quality of life for the region’s population and generate jobs to stop so many people being tempted to link up with drug trafficking as a way of life, work and economic progress.
Comprehensive aid of this type is the only thing that could dissuade the Central American population, particularly Guatemalans, from emigrating to the United States through Mexico. That in turn would weaken the drug trade’s armed groups, such as the Zetas, that are dedicated to kidnapping, blackmailing or threatening migrants to join their ranks and turning them into cannon fodder or murdering them if they refuse, as happened with 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in 2011.
Could Pérez Molina also have taken into account that by decriminalizing drugs, the armed fighting among the drug trafficking groups would disappear through mutual extermination? Or that the astronomical prices that drugs currently fetch as a clandestine, illegal and penalized product, which are accumulated by the drug lords, would dry up, leaving the same drug traffickers to earn significant income in safety and to enjoy their profits in peace?
The USA and El Salvador:After launching his proposal, which had everyone talking, Pérez Molina invited the Central American Presidents to meet in Antigua on March 24 to debate the idea together. Presidents Martinelli of Panama and Chinchilla of Costa Rica both attended, but the other three did not. Pérez Molina declared that the US government had used the Salvadoran President to boycott the meeting.
Partners for development
Why did Presidents Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, Porfirio Lobo of Honduras and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua torpedo the Antigua summit by not attending, thus making it improbable that this issue would find its way onto the common agenda at the Cartagena Summit? At the beginning President Funes supported Pérez Molina’s proposal, but immediately did a u-turn when the US government turned thumbs down. Funes now says he doesn’t see decriminalizing drugs as a way to tackle the problem and insists that his decision is an autonomous one.
The sources I’ve consulted, however, agree that he’s responding in his capacity as a “Partner for Development,” a commitment that involves a firm alliance with the United States and does not allow him to adopt political positions that conflict with those of his partner.
We shouldn’t forget that Obama received Funes immediately after his term in office started and chose El Salvador for his first visit to Central America. In addition, the US government regularly renews without major problems the 18-month temporary protected status (TPS) for Salvadoran emigrants who entered the United States illegally before February 13, 2001.
A “Colombian” strategy Denying that his absence in Antigua had anything to do with yielding to the anti-drugs strategy of the giant to the North, Funes claims the problem was that Pérez Molina altered the agreed-to agenda, by which they would only debate anti-drug trafficking strategy alternatives with contributions from experts, but would not produce a Central American proposal to present at the Cartagena Summit.
for El Salvador?
It’s not improbable that President Funes is thinking about the possibility of an alternative strategy in El Salvador similar
to the one that worked in Colombia by besieging and annihilating the Medellin cartel while the government entered into a kind of pact with the Cali cartel.
Pablo Escobar was eliminated in Colombia, but the government made a pact with Cali’s Rodríguez Orejuelas cartel, letting them work in restricted areas in exchange for their commitment to be less bloody. In the end, the government of Ernesto Samper, who was accused of taking campaign money from the Cali cartel, also decapitated the Cali cartel, extraditing the Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela brothers to the United States, although with agreements in place guaranteeing them reduced sentences.
Why no support from The struggle for leadership in the Central American region was probably an added reason behind President Funes’ choice not to go to Antigua. It could also explain why President Lobo of Honduras was equally quick to say no. Lobo currently occupies the revolving presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA), and as such should be the one responsible for inviting the other Presidents. He couldn’t afford to let the President of Guatemala usurp his powers.
Lobo and Ortega?
Not only did President Ortega of Nicaragua not go to Antigua, he also made the most categorical statements against Pérez Molina’s proposal: “It would amount to legalizing the crime, it would say we’re beaten…. With Sandino’s slogan, ‘I’ll neither sell out nor surrender,’ we’ll neither sell out nor surrender to drug trafficking and organized crime!” This has been interpreted in Nicaragua as a sign that Ortega doesn’t want to “upset” the United States, given his fragile position with respect to both Republican and Democrat congress people who want Obama to punish him for the alleged electoral fraud last year.
According to retired Nicaraguan General Hugo Torres, “Ortega’s panorama internally and internationally has become cloudy. Given the uncertainty about whether the United States will continue to approve the economic waivers it grants to Nicaragua every year, he doesn’t want to make any waves; he doesn’t want to lose the funding possibilities represented by the approval of those waivers.” Thanks to a US law pushed through by Senator Jesse Helms, the US government is prohibited from providing bilateral aid to any country whose government has confiscated properties belonging to US citizens. Washington gets around that in Nicaragua’s case by granting an annual property waiver every July. Its cancelation would not only end bilateral aid but would also send a strong message to the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank not to approve further social infrastructure loans, which are potentially more crucial than ever given the insecurity about Venezuela’s continuing support of such projects.
Days after the Antigua meeting, Funes, Lobo and Ortega met in El Salvador to analyze development plans for the Gulf of Fonseca, shared by their three countries. Will their agreements take into account that the Gulf is one of the drug traffickers’ routes for transporting drugs to the United States?
And the US responsibility?The million-dollar question is why the US government isn’t investing greater police and military force to tackle drug trafficking domestically, given that its population is the world’s biggest drug client.
Any attempt to answer this question has to take into account the combined federal and state government system in the United States. The complexity of that system includes the determination of which crimes can be pursued federally—in other words across state borders—and which ones can only be pursued within a given state by its own various levels of police forces.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), however, shares responsibility with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the federal prosecution of users and traffickers of illegal narcotics and is the only US government agency responsible for pursuing traffickers outside the US. It is strongly rumored that the drug trafficking world has corrupted a number of its more than 5,000 special agents—the other half of its employees are bureaucrats or administrative workers. One particular rumor is that they had a pact with Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama until it ended up negatively affecting US interests, at which point they abandoned him and provided crucial data for the bombing and invasion of that country in December 1989.
It’s not an improbable accusation given the potential for bribery that the enormous capital accumulated by the drug trade provides. But it’s obviously very hard, if not impossible, to prove such corruption, since it is just as likely that the suspected cases are actually successful infiltration, long-term sting operations or even more insidious strategies. Let’s not forget that in the 19th century the British Empire and other Western powers fabricated the “Opium Wars” to sell drugs in China, using drugs to weaken that country’s population and thus making the Celestial Empire an easier prey to dominate.
Drug use is a status symbolSome experts have suggested to me that, in the light of the above, the main reason for the US government’s weak fight against the drug empire in its own territory is that the use of narcotics among an important and powerful segment of its population is such a deeply rooted cultural habit that it would be extremely hard to eradicate or significantly reduce it. Certain drugs have become what alcohol was during prohibition, or what good tobacco (Havana cigars, carved pipes, expensive cigarettes) has always been: a status symbol, even if they were first appropriated by the sub-culture of hippies, musicians and film stars.
The deep-rootedness of this culture would explain the DEA’s limited annual budget. According to Wikipedia, it amounts to a little over US$2.4 billion a year, less than half the Guatemalan State’s annual budget. As both heroine (based on poppies) and cocaine (based on coca leaves) are grown and fabricated far from the United States—in the golden triangle (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar); Afghanistan; and in the Andean countries (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and, above all, Colombia)—with the United States apparently only producing the least damaging drug, marihuana, it’s easy to project onto other countries the responsibility and also the guilt for the damages drug consumption causes to the health of US citizens, particularly the youth.
The weapons for drug trade It’s also easy to demand a greater fight from the producer countries or the countries of transit (Central America, Mexico), leaving the US government to publicize the triumphant trials against extradited drug traffickers or the DEA’s successful operations abroad, blurring the scandal of selling military weapons to drug traffickers on the border with Mexico as a decoy, with the excuse that it’s a way to trace them back to their hideouts.
on the Mexican border
Mexico’s government has repeatedly complained about the minimal surveillance the US exercises over the arms business in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The rights recognized in the second and ninth amendments of the US Constitution can’t be used to impede control of the arms trade. The ninth amendment states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” including the right to have and to bear arms for self-defense. And the second amendment states that “a well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Obviously neither of these amendments authorizes the sale of arms to people it is suspected are going to use them outside of the United States to defend or impose the drugs trade or to ensure the drug trafficking routes to the United States.
Legalize or decriminalize what, exactly?In this debate, it’s important to define the concepts. Legalizing drugs means making their production, possession, consumption, storage, wholesale and retail trading and import and export across borders totally legal, with the State applying domestic sales taxes and tariffs, as well as duty on their import and export.
If only partial legalization were granted, it would make controlled supply as well as possession and use of the drug in question legal in certain places or in private homes, although its commercial production and trade would remain illegal.
Decriminalizing drugs means that, while they would remain completely or partially illegal, the punishment incurred by engaging in illegal and therefore prohibited operations would shift from the criminal field to the administrative field corresponding to the offense (expropriation, confiscation or fines, for example). This might also involve producing other legal measures, including civil responsibilities such as some kind of social service imposed on the offender; limitations imposed on exportation and importation; limits on commercialization; special conditions for distribution, such as prohibiting sales to people under a set age, as applies to alcohol in many countries; obligations imposed on consumers, etc.
The institutionality StatesAn extremely important side to this matter must be pondered when proposing decriminalization or even legalization of drugs. Assuming that the measure would cover a multinational region—such as the corridor running from Bolivia all the way up to Canada—experts who once held government posts related to security or justice in certain Central American countries warn that the States adopting these measures must have sufficiently developed institutionality to stop them being counterproductive to the safety and health of the whole population.
and societies would require
The fundamental problem in considering these changes is determining the strength of the State’s institutionality, bearing in mind that by dealing with drugs, the State isn’t dealing just with trafficking but with the whole range of organized crime. Both the top leaders and the employees of the drug traffickers and dealers aren’t a normal group of capitalist businesspeople; they comprise one more of the multinational companies in which organized crime specializes globally, in which they don’t recognize regulations or laws and use both arms and banks as management tools. No few drug traders maintain alliances with illegal child adoption chains, and traffickers in arms, people, human organs, lumber, nuclear and other waste prejudicial to the environment, luxury items, etc.
Tackling the decriminalization or legalization of drugs while at the same time being able to prosecute other lethal forms of trafficking that must be prohibited requires having first established trained and honest prosecuting ministries; quality and honest courts that are immune to bribery; reformed police forces; private security companies not contaminated by crime; political parties that are basically honest; government branches that are free from corruption and have a well-developed civil service; and—in the exceptional cases in which armies are employed to guarantee citizens’ security—that they respect both the Constitution and human rights. There’s also a need for civil society to provide honest and courageous civic surveillance, take up its social audit role and denounce crimes and their accomplices.
There’s corruption in all institutions and all countries, not just Central America. There’s also social decomposition in all the world’s societies. Few countries can match Norway’s standards, yet it was the country where a fanatical madman machine-gunned scores of young people in 2011, shattering their and their families’ lives. It would obviously be utopian in the worst sense of the word to hope to achieve absolute incorruptibility as a prerequisite to legalizing or decriminalizing drugs. It would be unrealistic, impossible. Expecting to have a utopian State and social institutionality to then use less repressive and less military strategies to take on drug trafficking and the drugs trade could paralyze any such novel alternative.
The most dangerous drugsWhen reflecting or deciding on the legalization of drugs, one has to consider which are the most dangerous. According to a research study published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, which ranked the harm different substances pose to both users and others on a scale of 1-100, alcohol came in first (72) followed by heroine (55), crack (54), crystal meth (33), cocaine (27), tobacco (26), amphetamine (23) and cannabis, from which marihuana and hashish are derived (20). Other drugs commonly used today, such as ecstasy, or in the past, such as LSD, rank much lower in the damage they cause (9 and 7, respectively), which is not to say they haven’t been lethal in specific cases. The drugs used most abundantly in Central America are rotgut liquor and beer, crack, marihuana and, of course, cigarettes, given that the virtually nonexistent disposable income of most of the population doesn’t allow the use of more sophisticated and more costly, but less harmful drugs.
In any case, it’s important to take note of these results, even if they can’t be automatically superimposed onto Central America’s situation. Scientific research aside, it’s public knowledge that few other drugs shatter public security—through drunk driving, for example—or home life in Central American households as much as alcohol. It affects all social classes and abounds in both urban and rural environments. Yet, despite this, it has a politically and socially unrestricted status and its commercialization and consumption are legal, except, at least formally speaking, for minors.
For a “decent life”It is unarguably novel for an ex-military Central American President to have put this needed debate on the public agenda and for Presidents from two of the region’s other countries (Panama and Costa Rica) to have supported him. And while decriminalizing drugs without any reflection or debate would certainly open a Pandora’s Box, an in-depth debate buttressed with appropriate information about this issue could open the way to the kind of peace currently lacking in the region.
What more could we want, to quote Boaventura de Sousa Santos, than to be debating and practicing “prudent knowledge for a decent life” in Central America? This distinguished Portuguese sociologist and legal scholar used this expression to get across the idea that the scientific paradigm (which is based on prudent knowledge) isn’t enough in today’s society, revolutionized by science. We also require the contribution of a social paradigm (that of a decent life).
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.