Latin American presidents Wall Street Journal, Fernando Henrique Cardoso drugs
Ricardo Moraes/AP
Colombia's former president Cesar

Former Latin American Presidents Call for Drug War Reform

February 24, 2009 12:29 PM
by Josh Katz
Three former leaders criticized the war on drugs in The Wall Street Journal Monday, as the region, especially Mexico, continues to suffer from drug violence.

Latin American Leaders Argue For Change in Drug Policy

Three former presidents of Latin American countries wrote an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal Monday calling for a change in international policy toward the illegal drug trade. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, ex-Colombian president Cesar Gaviria and former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo argued that a more humane approach to the drug trade was necessary.

“The war on drugs has failed,” the leaders stated in the op-ed. The former presidents also made their case in a Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy report earlier in the month. They argue that the “prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked.” Linking “drugs with crime” serves only to isolate addicts more, furthering the vicious cycle of drugs and crime, the leaders claim.

They say that the best solution is to cut the demand for drugs in consumer nations, and “To move in this direction, it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people’s health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric.” They argue that drug users should be cared for as patients and educated about the consequences of drug use instead of being treated as criminals.

Furthermore, they suggest the possible legalization of marijuana. It is the “most widely used drug in Latin America,” and it is not worse for health than alcohol or tobacco, they say.

According to Bloomberg, “Latin America is still the world’s leading producer of cocaine and cannabis, with opium and heroin now being added to the mix.”

Earlier in February, former Brazilian president Cardoso echoed these concerns by stressing the need for the United States to lead reform efforts. “It will be almost impossible to solve Mexico’s problems and other countries’ problems without a more ample, comprehensive set of policies from the U.S. government,” he said, according to Reuters.

Similarly, ex-Colombian president Gaviria said that the United States was distancing itself from Latin America and Europe in its “repressive” approach toward the drug issue.

It is still unclear how U.S. President Barack Obama will respond to drug trafficking, however; his election campaign did not devote much time to the topic. Reuters writes, “there are few indications that he will embark on a major overhaul.”

Background: The Mexican battleground

The drug war is particularly acute in Mexico, where at least 5,500 people died last year from the violence, roughly doubling the total from the year before. Much of the violence is concentrated along Mexico’s 2,000-mile northern border with the United States, where there is, “a wave of beheadings, grenade attacks and shootouts as drug cartels battle each other for supremacy and lash out against Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s drive to destroy their smuggling operations,” according to USA Today.

Mexican drug gang activities have extended to the United States as well. A recent Justice Department report indicated that Mexican drug gangs have infiltrated “at least 230 cities from Texas to Alaska,” USA Today reports.

The four major Mexican drug cartels—the Sinaloa cartel, the Gulf cartel, the Tijuana cartel, and the Juarez cartel—command the drug trade from South America to the United States, a business valued at approximately $13 billion a year, the BBC writes.

The Mexican government has deployed 40,000 troops in its war on drugs, according to the BBC. There are corrupt police across the country, bribed by the drug gangs, and President Calderon believes the army is more trustworthy. Mexico says its efforts are working, and the spurt of violence is simply a desperate reaction to the crackdown.

The United States has inadvertently boosted the power of the drug cartels in Mexico, because of “increased US anti-narcotic operations in the Caribbean and Florida, which has pushed more of the flow of drugs through Mexico,” the BBC writes.

Last year Congress authorized $1.6 billion for the war on drugs in Mexico and Central America. According to the BBC, “So far, $197m … has been released for military and law enforcement training and equipment in Mexico.”

The escalating drug violence in Mexico and a fear that it could spill over into the United States led the U.S. government to announce a comprehensive plan in January to greatly increase its military presence along America's southern border.

Although the Department of Homeland Security kept the exact details of the plan under wraps, the Associated Press reported that it would likely include “federal homeland security agents helping local authorities and maybe even military assistance from the Department of Defense, possibly including aircraft, armored vehicles and special teams to go to areas overwhelmed with violence.”

Related Topic: Drug disputes contribute to U.S.-Ecuador tension

Ecuador ordered the expulsion of U.S. Embassy First Secretary Mark Sullivan on Feb. 18, making him the second American diplomat recently to be ousted from the country. On Feb. 7, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced the expulsion of Armando Astorga, a U.S. Embassy customs and immigration official based in Quito.

Some of the tension between the two countries stems from last year. In July 2008, Ecuador decided not “to renew a 10-year lease on a U.S. air base in the Ecuadorean port city of Manta used to conduct anti-drug surveillance in the region,” according to Bloomberg.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines