Thursday, April 3, 2014

Guatemala's Perez Molina Stays Coy on Drug Policy Reform

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has floated the possibility that his administration’s newly-created drug policy commission could recommend major reforms, but so far his own commitment to the issue remains heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.

Speaking on the sidelines of an economic forum in Panama yesterday, Perez Molina told reporters that there was a chance that a significant drug policy reform initiative would go before Guatemala’s Congress later this year. According to an official press release, the president hinted that the recommendations of a drug policy advisory panel he launched last year -- chaired by his foreign minister and made up of academics and civil society leaders -- “might lead to” a bill legalizing marijuana and poppy cultivation.

“For forty years the issue has been treated in the same way and the results are obvious. The ‘narco’ generates increasing violence and insecurity. The least we can do is look for other routes,” said Perez Molina, echoing talking points he has repeated since 2012.

But when asked for specifics, the president was vague. He told journalists that such an initiative could include legalizing marijuana cultivation, as well as authorizing poppy production along the Mexican border to be “controlled and sold for medicinal purposes.”

Reuters reports that the president claimed any such bill would be presented following the October publication of the advisory commission’s final report. This is appropriate timing considering that the Organization of American States (OAS) just motioned to hold a summit on drug policy in Guatemala in September.

Ambiguity on the issue is characteristic of the Guatemalan president. Even though he has become known as a crusader for widening the drug policy debate in the hemisphere, Perez Molina has made no major push to enact reforms in his own country.

Some of this is no doubt explained by the considerable support for counternarcotics operations his country receives from the main backer of the war on drugs, the United States. And the fact that polls indicate that between 50 and 75 percent of the population is against decriminalizing drugs probably doesn’t help.

Still, international pressure and unfavorable public opinion did not stop Uruguay from passing a historic marijuana law in December, nor did similar conditions prevent Mexican lawmakers from presenting bold marijuana initiatives at the municipal and federal levels earlier this year.  If Perez Molina hopes to follow these examples, he will have to go beyond rhetorical support for a “different approach” and embrace a concrete policy proposal. The publication of the commission’s report in October will provide the perfect opening for this, but whether he will have the political courage to act remains to be seen.

News Briefs
  • The Associated Press has published an in-depth investigation into a USAID-built social media platform introduced in Cuba allegedly meant to trigger a "Cuban Spring." While the SMS-based program peaked in 2011 and ended by the following year, it achieved a sizeable base of subscribers before being shut down.
  • Following Tuesday night’s earthquake in Chile, the north of the country has continued to register seismic activity. Last night the area was struck by a major aftershock registering 7.6 on the Richter scale, La Tercera reports. The New York Times has more on the Chilean government’s swift response to the earthquake, especially compared to the aftermath of the 2010 quake that killed 525. Analyst James Bosworth notes that President Michelle Bachelet’s response to the disaster is being carefully watched by her opponents, and that any slipup could ultimately jeopardize ability to fulfill her promises of passing a series of reforms in her first 100 days in office.
  • Yesterday, the Conference of Venezuelan Bishops released a statement issuing a heated critique of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. As El Pais reports, while the document ends with a call for both the government and the opposition to “build new relationships based on mutual recognition,” it also places most of the blame on the government. The Chavistas, according to the bishops, are “promoting a totalitarian government, which calls into question their democratic profile.” The AP suggests that the statement could complicate the Vatican’s offer to facilitate talks between the two sides.
  • Venezuelan opposition figure Maria Corina Machado continues to take advantage of her recently heightened profile to speak out against Maduro to an international audience. Yesterday, she spoke to Brazil’s Foreign Relations Committee in Brasilia, where she compared the Maduro administration to the neighboring country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. While Machado was received predictably well by the Brazilian opposition, O Globo reports that her speech was interrupted by a group of left-wing activists, and one senator allied with President Dilma Rousseff questioned Machado about refusing to participate in government-sponsored dialogue. EFE notes that Machado insisted that any dialogue should be conditioned on Maduro’s release of “all political prisoners” in the country.
  • Wednesday saw the end of the fourth and final segment in a series of trials of Brazilian police officers accused of participating in the 1992 massacre of prisoners following a riot in São Paulo’s Carandiru prison. The 15 accused were convicted and sentenced to 48 years in prison, though the AP points out that Brazilian law sets a maximum of 30 years in prison. According to O Globo, a total of 73 military police have been convicted of taking part in the killings, but all of them remain at large because the sentence has not been finalized.
  • Following up on an October report on the rise of aerial drug trafficking routes between Bolivia and Peru, IDL-Reporteros has another investigation into the trend, documenting the “balloon effect” in action. According to the news site, Peruvian traffickers in the remote VRAE region are increasingly sending coca paste south to Bolivia to be processed into cocaine, due to the lower operating costs and less strict controls on precursor chemicals. To support his claim, author Gustavo Gorriti provides aerial photo of hidden landing strips, as well as detailed accounts of the history of various captured planes used in drug smuggling operations.
  • Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe has announced a major cabinet reshuffle, the third in two years, a move which Reuters notes is designed to build support amid negotiations with the opposition to pass an electoral law and hold long-overdue congressional and municipal elections.
  • BBC Mundo correspondent Juan Carlos Perez Salazar profiles Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s notable success in taking down top drug cartel figures, noting that three of the country’s top criminal organizations have been “beheaded” in the last eight months alone. Security experts consulted by Perez suggest that the president has built on the policies of his predecessor Felipe Calderon, expanding target lists to include a far broader range of cartel figures. But analysts also question whether this strategy will bring about security in the long term, especially considering a lack of progress on crime prevention and strengthening institutions.
  • Adam Isaacson of Just the Facts highlights growing support in Colombia for abandoning the country’s controversial aerial fumigation program. While government officials have begun signaling to their Washington counterparts that they preferred aid money meant for fumigation be allocated to other programs, the national police and the military have made it clear that they oppose any reduction in aerial spraying.