Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hemispheric Debates on Drug Legalization Ahead of Cartagena Summit

Since Guatemalan President Otto Perez declared earlier this year that he planned to raise the issue of drug legalization at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, this weekend, there has been debate over the issue in countries across the hemisphere.

InSight Crime has a special on drug legalization, which it says will be the “gorilla in the room” at the forthcoming summit -- though it is not officially on the agenda, the topic is on everyone’s minds. It provides a map of the positions of countries across the hemisphere on drug policy, with both their laws on drug possession and their views on Perez’s calls for dialogue. It also looks at academics’ views on the drug prohibition, andwhere Perez really stands on the question. Guatemalan Minister Fernando Carrera explained to the site that Perez’s motivation for raising this issue as soon as he took the presidency this year was simple: he did not want to be forced to take an ever-tougher stance on drugs, and so had to march straight in with the idea of legalization, even if the response was mixed.

The US has rejected the idea, although perhaps not as forcefully as might have been expected. A White House official told Foreign Policy blog this week that while the US considered the debate to be legitimate, “because it helps demystify [decriminalization] as an option,” the US was not going change its position. At the summit, President Barack Obama will be willing to discuss reducing crime and violence, but not a wholesale reform of drug laws, the official said.

An opinion piece in the Washington Post makes the case against legalizing drugs in the US, noting that it could drive consumption:
If cocaine were legalized, a $2,000 kilogram could be FedExed from Colombia for less than $50 and sold profitably here for a small markup from its price in Colombia, and a $5 rock of crack might cost 25 cents.
The price of that kilo is currently around $20,000 -- following the WP’s argument, this could mean the street price of cocaine in the US could drop to around a tenth of its current level, to around $10 a gram.

The piece does note the costs of prohibition, however, saying that imprisoning large numbers of low-level dealers is creating an “army” of people whose “blighted employment prospects” mean their only option is dealing drugs, citing a sharp drop in the hourly income of Washington DC street dealers in the last few years.

As the summit gets closer, influential voices across the region have spoken out in favor of drug reform. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria y Ernesto Zedillo, ex-presidents of Brazil, Colombia and México, respectively, released a joint statementbacking Perez’s advocation of “regulation, not legalization” of drugs. They praise the courage of the Guatemalan president as well as Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, and said that in the past four months, the discussion has advanced more than 40 years, as El Pais reports. In Chile, Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber and Eduardo Vargas, director of NGO Asuntos del Sur, wrote a letter to President Sebastian Piñera asking him to support drug reform at the summit.

News Briefs
  • Also ahead of the Summit of the Americas, the Associated Press looks at how the host president, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, has emerged as a regional leader. It notes his defusing of tension over whether Cuba should be invited, with a visit to Raul Castro to discuss the matter, which enhanced his reputation as a “deft diplomat and budding powerbroker who gets along with just about everybody.” Despite being a center-right politician, and former close ally of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, Santos has mended relations with more left-leaning neighbors such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. The AP comments that Santos’ statement that he would like to help persuade the US not to block Cuba from attending future Summits of the Americas suggests he could be trying to broker an end to the US embargo on the island. This could help him in his talks with leftist rebels within Colombia, it says. The article notes the Colombia is now safe enough for Obama to pass three days there -- none of his three predecessors as president spent a night in the country. 
  • The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer offers an alternative perspective on the Colombian president’s argument that Cuba should be included in future summits despite the rule that only democracies can attend. He says Santos’ argument that Washington and Latin American countries should redefine their concepts of democracy, elections, and freedom of the press is troubling for civil rights advocates. Oppenheimer argues that if Cuba is included, it could set a “dangerous precedent for the collective acceptance of dictatorships throughout the region.”
  • In more news from Colombia, the Guardian has a report on Medellin, where it says a new war between drug gangs could be about to blow apart the city’s apparent peace. The Urabeños, who developed out of the AUC paramilitary group, are threatening to fight the local mafia, known as the Oficina de Envigado, for power in the city. The “looming battle between the Office and the Urabeños is for control of Medellin's underworld, the vast local market and for positioning to be able to negotiate with the Mexican mafias that ship cocaine to the US.”Colombia Reports has a critical take on the report, quoting analysts and local politicians who say that the city’s murder rate was almost 50 percent lower in the first three months of 2012 than last year, and that “There are no indications of an imminent war between the two groups.”
    Meanwhile another piece in the Guardian this week illustrates the divide in perceptions of the city, talking about Medellin’s “incredible transformation,” helped along by innovative architectural projects. Former Mayor Sergio Fajardo “was obsessed with the idea of public space, especially in poor neighbourhoods -- he attributed the fall in crime during his term in part to the increase in the amount of public space per citizen.”
  • In Peru, the story of nine miners who were trapped underground for almost a week has ended happily, with their rescue. The men were stuck some 200 meters underground after a rockfall at an illicit copper mine last Thursday, and were supplied with food and oxygen through a tube. President Ollanta Humala said the accident underscored the danger of illegal mining, reports LA Times blog. His government is trying to push through reforms to license these kinds of illicit mining ventures and bring them within the legal sector. Further east, in Peru’s remote VRAE region, the search continues for 40 gas workers who were kidnapped Monday by the Shining Path rebel group, reports the AP. The kidnapping show the confidence of the group, with rebels spending some three hours in the town where they abducted the workers, “buying groceries and summoning about 20 residents to an assembly where they condemned the government and the natural gas industry.” The Shining Path have made some unrealistic-seeming ransom demands, as noted in yesterday’s post, including supplies of dynamite and a payment of $10 million.
  • In El Salvador, there were reports that Carlos Dada, editor of website El Faro, had fled the country amid threats from “mara” gangs, quickly denied by Dada. Reporters Without Borders says that the organization has been receiving threats from gangs following their report in March that the government had made a deal with gang leaders to cut violence, in exchange for giving the leaders better prison conditions. Dada said that El Faro staff had not been offered protection by the government. He told Contrapunto that he was leaving the country, but only to attend a journalism conference in Panama.
  • Central American Politics blog questions reports, which emerged over the weekend, that the Mexican Zetas drug gang have formed an alliance with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Guatemala. The original AP article quoted an Interior Ministry official called Velasco. But on Tuesday “Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said that Velasco does not work for the Interior Ministry. It's not clear from the article that he knows who he is.” The minister also pointed out that the gang does not have a unified leadership structure, and is involved only in drug distribution and not in large-scale trafficking.
  • The New York Times reports on the rise of women to leading positions in Brazil’s oil industry, which it says is a top priority for President Dilma Rousseff.
  • Guatemala’s Otto Perez has said he will push through some 350 adoptions by US citizens that were underway before a freeze on foreign adoptions was imposed in 2007 amid reports of abductions and trafficking of children, reports the AP.
  • President Hugo Chavez said he was doing well after his latest round of radiotherapy, on his return from Cuba to Venezeula on Wednesday
  • Mexico’s Pacific coast was hit by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake of the Baja peninsula, hours after a separate 6.4 quake hit west Mexico, felt in Mexico City. No injuries or major damage were reported.
  • The Washington Post reports on Mexico City’s scheme to close major roads in the city center to cars on Sunday mornings, to let cyclists and joggers take over, put in place five years ago by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. Similar programs have been implemented in Bogota and in Medellin, Colombia.

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