Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Colombia’s President Open to Legalizing Cocaine

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos told the UK’s Observer that he would “welcome” drug legalization, if a global consensus was reached on the matter. The newspaper says that “the president, elected last year, has emerged as the leading voice on the international political stage calling for a major rethink on the war on drugs.”

He told the newspaper that a new approach was needed to cut the profitability of the global drug trade; “If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it."

It has become increasingly acceptable for public figures to speak in favor of legalizing cannabis, but Santos takes the more unusual step of explicitly stating his openness to the idea of depenalizing cocaine -- a brave political step given the notoriety of the drug. 
I would never legalise very hard drugs like morphine or heroin because in fact they are suicidal drugs. I might consider legalising cocaine if there is a world consensus because this drug has affected us most here in Colombia.
Santos has expressed his support for drug legalization many times over the years. In1998 he was a signatory to an open letter to the UN secretary general, calling for a rethink of the war on drugs. Last year he backed Mexican President Felipe Calderon’scalls for “debate” on the subject.

The Colombian president is well-placed to speak out in favor of legalization, having established his credentials both domestically and abroad as a hard-liner against drug trafficking groups like the FARC guerrillas, most recently with the high-profile slaying of rebel leader “Alfonso Cano.” This allows him to back legalization efforts without being seen as “soft” on drugs.

As he said to the Observer;
I've told President Calderon, 'You and I have a lot more authority to talk about this because our countries have spilled a lot of blood fighting drug traffickers and we should promote this discussion."
The liberal newspaper, sister to the Guardian, has praise for Santos, who it says is an “an increasingly influential figure in Latin American politics.” It calls him a “keen internationalist,” and lauds his “determined attempt” to cut poverty.

When the president came to office he was widely expected to follow closely in the footsteps of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe -- a controversial figure who was credited with turning around the security situation in Colombia, but whose presidency was dogged by reports of abuse by the military and the intelligence service. Uribe’s passionate and sometimes overbearing style as a politician included a blanket opposition to illegal drug use, and he fought to overturn a law that depenalized the possession of “personal use” quantities of narcotics, arguing that tighter laws would help win the war on drugs. As he told a conference of U.S. mayors in 2009;
It is kind of difficult, dear Mayors, to win this battle. We are winning, but we have not won yet. It is pretty hard to win this battle if we do not increase control over consumption.
Santos, as Uribe’s defense minister, was closely involved with his policies. However, since taking the presidency, he has shown a markedly different approach, often appearing to choose pragmatism over ideology, and has clashed repeatedly with the still-influential former leader. As well as his liberal approach to drug laws, Santos has recognized the existence of an “armed conflict” in Colombia, and, as the Observer notes, he has worked to pass legislation returning land to displaced people, and to pay compensation to victims of the country’s conflict since the 1980s.

Santos could, then, be an influential voice in favor of the liberalization of drug laws. But as he points out;
This is a very sensitive political subject and there's a lot of hypocrisy there ... Many leaders, in private, they will say something and they tell me something and in public they say, "But I can't do this probably because my people will really crucify me."

News Briefs
  • In a powerful editorial, the New York Times looks at the impact of Alabama’s new immigration legislation -- the “nation’s most oppressive immigration law,” it says, “whose express aim is misery and panic.” It argues that the law is based on bigotry, and that “states are expanding their power to hasten racial exclusion and family disintegration, to make a particular ethnic group of poor people disappear.” The NYT compares the response of migrant groups to the fight for civil rights on the part of African-Americans, reporting that community organizers are going from house to house to sign up volunteers for networks to protect the community, backed by the NAACP -- one of the leading voices in the black civil rights movement.
  • Meanwhile the LA Times reports on the sharp decline of migration from Mexico into the U.S. Although the newspaper does note that harsh laws, like those in Alabama, are a deterrent for some, it points to the economic situation in the U.S. as the major cause of this decline, along with the danger of criminal gangs near the border, and tighter security on the U.S. side. It reports that net migration from Mexico to the U.S. is now close to zero, with many migrants now choosing to return to their home country, according to Mexican officials. 
  • In an illustration of the challenges faced by those left behind when relatives try to make it to the U.S., the Miami Herald reports on a Honduran woman who was reunited with her migrant son following eight years without contact, after he left for Mexico. She found him in a prison in southern Mexico, after traveling to search for him, helped by a migrant non-profit organization.
  • The Wall Street Journal has a long piece on the booming middle class in Latin America, a region where there has traditionally been little middle ground betweent the few rich and the many poor. It says that in the last 10 years 69 million people have climbed into the group that earns $5,000 to $8,100 a year. One memorable statistic it cites is that eight million Brazilians took their first plane ride in the past 12 months -- truly a sign of an upwardly mobile population.
  • The Miami Herald criticizes President Michel Martelly’s plans to revive Haiti’s army, arguing that the country has far more pressing needs, amid a cholera epidemic, hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps, and a lack of basic services like electricity and education. It accuses Martelly, who came to power in May, of pursuing the measure in order to reward former army men who backed his presidential campaign, and warns that there is a danger of a return to the abuses under the dictatorships of recent decades. The newspaper suggests that, if Martelly is concerned about security, he should focus on building up the police force.
  • In the wake of the death of Mexico’s interior minister in a helicopter crash, which gave rise to speculation that it could be the work of drug cartels, InSight Crime counts down the top 10 “narco-conspiracy” theories emanating from that country, from the suspicious death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias the "Lord of the Skies," to the idea that the U.S.’s DEA is in fact the world’s biggest drug cartel.
  • A strange update on the story of the deadly crash comes from the LA Times blog, which says that Mexican authorities have detained a man over a Tweet he sent the day before the incident, which refers to the death almost three years ago of another government minister in similar circumstances; "I haven't left work so early since the fall of Mouriño's plane," it said. "Be careful, flying officials." While this sentiment seems fairly innocuous and unlikely to be linked to any murder plot, a more sinister Twitter message, also sent before the crash was reported on by the Huffington Post; "Tomorrow on 11/11/11, you'll have a Secretary falling from the sky ... avoid reform."
  • The Washington Post has a photo essay on members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, titled “Faces of MS-13.” The loose-knit collection of gangs grew out of Los Angeles and has spread to many countries in Central America, particularly El Salvador and Honduras. Members are often heavily tattooed to signal their allegiance to the group.
  • The Associated Press reports on the win of the long-ruling PRI party in the Mexican state of Michoacan, which held local elections Sunday, in a victory which suggests that party could be set to win back power in next year’s presidential elections.
  • Just four months into his presidency, Peru’s Ollanta Humala has lost one of his vice presidents, who was forced to step down after a scandal over abuse of influence that has been brewing for some weeks.
  • In Colombia, a former hostage of the FARC rebel group has spoken out against a film being made about her son, who was conceived and born while she was in captivity. Clara Rojas, held prisoner for six years alongside former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, has refused to reveal the identity of the father of her son, who was taken from her by the rebels while he was a baby and given to a farming family. The incident caused great outrage in Colombia, and the FARC later released the child, who was reunited with Rojas when she was freed. Rojas says the proposed film is “abusive” towards her family.

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