Monday, March 17, 2014

Latin America Chafes at UN Drug Policy Framework

While a high-level review of the international drug control regime at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) ended with a rather bland joint statement by member nations, remarks by Latin American delegations point to cracks in the global consensus on drug policy, as well as to the region’s status as a hub for alternative approaches to the war on drugs.

On Friday, the High-Level Segment of the CND in Vienna came to a close with the adoption of a “joint ministerial statement” (available here), in which the signatories expressed renewed commitment to existing UN drug conventions. The document itself is relatively uncontroversial, and does not set the stage for a radical shift in drug policy at the upcoming 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs as some reform advocates would have liked. In a press release cited by Reuters, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) criticized the statement, saying it “does not acknowledge the serious shortcomings of the dominant approach to drug control, despite the numerous and unprecedented calls for reform made by European and Latin American countries.”

This is not mere empty rhetoric. Statements by officials at the CND last week prove that the movement of Latin American governments calling for a wider drug policy debate, which kicked off at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, is alive and well.

Uruguay, which is just weeks away from beginning to implement its ambitious marijuana regulation law (the specific regulations will be unveiled on April 10), was unsurprisingly the focus of much of the press coverage of the CND review. As the AFP notes, Uruguayan presidential Chief of Staff Diego Canepa was critical of the UN drug treaty framework in his remarks to the commission, saying that it did nothing to prevent “an endless spiral of violence.” At the same time, however, Canepa insisted that his country is following its own path in response to local conditions, not aiming to lay out a model for other nations.

Uruguay was joined in its calls for a more heterodox approach by representatives from the two giants of drug policy in the hemisphere: Colombia and Mexico.

In his address on Friday, Colombian Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez called for the adoption of a "comprehensive approach" to the drug problem, based on respect for human rights and a review of past approaches. He also criticized the "utopian" emphasis on the total elimination of naturally occurring drug crops, while noting that demand for new synthetic drugs is on the rise. Ultimately, in Gomez’s words: “Drug policy cannot travel at the speed of the telegraph, while the reality of the problem moves at the speed of broadband Internet.”

As El Universal and La Jornada report, the Mexican delegation also expressed interest in changing the parameters of the drug policy debate. Mexico’s deputy attorney general on international issues, Mariana Benitez Tiburcio, said that the CND should discuss “the new dynamics and emphases that have arisen in recent years.” Benitez also expressed that Mexico is determined to seek a holistic approach which seeks “the prioritization of treatment over criminalization.”

Guatemala, which recently launched a civil society advisory commission tasked with reviewing its drug policy, also joined in. Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales Moscoso stressed his country’s commitment to deepening the drug reform debate in the hemisphere, according to Siglo21.

The strongest statement against the status quo, however, came from Ecuador. The country’s national drug council director, Rodrigo Velez, flat out asserted that the dominant approach to drugs in the hemisphere has failed. From his speech:
The objectives have not been met in more than fifty years of implementation, while the number of users has significantly increased in a context of highly punitive laws imposed by outside interests that have filled prisons with small-scale dealers and consumers. A vast network of corruption has spread, which by its nature significantly affects states and their social order. The judicial system and the role of the police have been distorted, prioritizing guilt and generating an imbalance in the proportionality of sentences.
While Velez rejected a “monolithic,” one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, he laid out a proposal to revise the UN drug conventions to include an emphasis on demilitarization of public security, alternative development and prioritizing treatment over criminalization. The statement is in line with Ecuador’s reputation for a relatively progressive approach towards drugs. The country decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit substances last year, and made headlines for cracking down on inhumane treatment facilities in November.

The CND will continue until March 21, but with the end of the High-Level Segment, the prospect of a meaningful policy shift in the debate appears to have ended. Fortunately, Latin America watchers will not have to wait long for another high-profile assessment of the drug war in the region. As mentioned in Friday’s brief, on March 25 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is set to hold a hearing to analyze the impact that the dominant approach to drugs has had on human rights and democratic norms in the hemisphere.

News Briefs
  • While polls have put Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the head of the presidential race in spite of the lack of enthusiasm for any candidate, a new Datexco survey suggests that ex-Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is bucking this trend. El Tiempo reports that the poll results indicate that the current president would win a first round vote with some 25 percent support, but would lose to Peñalosa in a second round match-up (40.4 percent to 37.1 percent). As EFE notes, this is the first time ahead of the May election that polls have suggested that Santos could face a serious threat to his re-election.
  • Sunday’s New York Times featured a profile of the ongoing conflict between beleaguered Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro and Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, and the former’s struggle to stay in office despite Ordoñez’s order to remove and ban him from office over his handling of a garbage collection dispute. The paper notes that even if Petro manages to further extend his legal fight, he will still face an April 6 recall election, which he hopes to win and use as proof of his claim to office.
  • Yesterday, Venezuelan security forces retook control of the central Plaza Altamira in Caracas, which has been a bastion of recent student protests, following a speech by President Nicolas Maduro in which he ordered the “liberation” of spaces occupied by opposition demonstrators. Reuters notes that soldiers have begun dismantling barricades in the plaza, and El Universal reports that bus routes have been restored through the area.
  • On Saturday, the NYT published a highly critical take on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s public efforts to support dialogue with opposition sectors in the country, alleging that the president has misleadingly “has projected an image of openness and inclusion, while simultaneously cracking down.” Mark Weisbrot has a response to the article over at the CEPR’s Americas blog, in which he points to violence committed by demonstrating students and argues that more have died at the hands of civilian protestors than security forces. It’s worth noting, however, that Weisbrot relies heavily on official statistics and categorically rejects allegations of government complicity with armed Chavista groups.
  • Meanwhile, in an excellent analysis for Al-Jazeera English, the Carter Center’s Jennifer McCoy writes an extremely clear-headed overview of the unrest, its historical context and the challenges it poses to both the opposition and government officials. Ultimately, she argues that both sides need to create space for moderate voices to find common ground if the current level of polarization is to be overcome.
  • One week after the election, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) finally declared FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren the official president-elect in the country. The announcement was made on Sunday after the TSE rejected a petition by the conservative ARENA party to annul the election over increasingly hysterical allegations of widespread voter fraud. As El Faro notes, this included the release of a video on Friday in which a masked individual claiming to be a prison guard asserts that inmates were released from bars and taken to polling stations to vote for the FMLN candidate.
  • Newly-inaugurated Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is already breaking customs, despite being in office less than a week. Upon taking office on Wednesday, Bachelet’s appointed governor to Araucania, Francisco Huenchumilla, began his tenure by apologizing to the Mapuche people for over a century of mistreatment and abuse, La Nacion reports. On Sunday, local press also reported that the duties traditionally carried out by Chile’s first lady would be assumed by Bachelet’s son, Sebastian Davalos.
  • The head of Mexico’s National Security Commission, who also oversaw the creation of a controversial gendarmerie unit, is stepping down unexpectedly this week. Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong confirmed reports of Manuel Mondragon’s resignation on Sunday, but told reporters that he would continue to advise police on strategy. While there has been no reason given for his resignation, El Universal claims that official sources say -- rather vaguely -- that it is due to a mix of personal professional factors. Animal Politico, by contrast, links it to uproar from civil society over the Security Commission’s alleged censorship of a website that documents police abuses.
  • The Associated Press reports that members of Mexico’s so-called “self-defense” groups in the state of Michoacan met over the weekend to denounce recent actions by law enforcement to target their leadership. The news comes in the wake of last week’s arrest of militia leader Hipolito Mora, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of members of a rival vigilante group. On Saturday, newspaper Reforma reported that Jose Manuel Mireles and other high-profile vigilante leaders in Michoacan have faced criminal charges linked to drug trafficking in the past, in the U.S. as well as Mexico.
  • The AP offers a reminder that Mexico’s cartels do not get their income solely from selling illegal drugs. In the case of Michoacan’s Knights Templar, officials say the lion’s share of the group’s profits come from extorting iron ore mining in the state.
  • The Miami Herald reports on rumors in Cuba that officials in Havana are making “energy or military preparations” for an impending break in the island’s close relationship with Venezuela, though the paper cautions that experts remain skeptical of these reports.