Ahead of today’s closing of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Guatemala, numerous drug policy, human rights and other organizations called on the governments of the Americas [PDF] to consider alternatives to the decades-long U.S.-led “war on drugs.” The open letter appeals from these groups echo those made ahead of the Central American Integration System summit at the beginning of May: “Prohibitionist policies and the war on drugs have intensified violent conflict in the region,” and human rights have suffered. Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco made a similar declaration: “The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug-trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them,” and “Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.” Human Rights Watch recommends decriminalization of personal drug use.
The drug question was the focus of the meeting, which followed the release of an OAS report that considers alternative policies including legalization and treatment, as opposed to criminalization and incarceration. Timed to coincide with the OAS General Assembly, an op-ed in the Guardian of London on Tuesday by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos summarizes four drug policy scenarios described in the OAS report.
The OAS report is just the latest in a tide of policy papers, studies, opinion pieces, rallies and marches all with a similar refrain: it’s time for a change on drug policy. While the U.S. continues to express resistance (Kerry is reported to have remarked at the assembly that “I say to all those who speak about legalization and reform: the challenges go far beyond a single ingredient. Drugs destroy lives, destroy families.”), countries in Latin America are moving ahead. Most notably, Uruguay is poised to become the first country in the region to legalize and regulate marijuana, with the lower house expected to soon approve such reforms that are backed by President José Mujica and his Frente Amplio party.
Santos refers to “the ‘balloon effect’ of criminal activities shifting to places with weaker institutions.” A good example of such a place is Honduras, which has recently become a key transit point for the shipment of drugs (most notably cocaine) from South America en route to the U.S. This is a point that Honduras observers such as U.C.-Santa Cruz scholar Dana Frank have made repeatedly: the post-coup collapse of Honduras' institutions is a big part of this story, as is endemic corruption among the authorities. The coup enshrined a culture of impunity and corruption. None of the major perpetrators of the coup have been punished, and several maintain positions of power. One of the key backers of the coup – Honduras’ “most powerful man,” Miguel Facussé, is believed by the U.S. government to be tied to the drug trade. The Honduran police and military are notoriously corrupt, and as Frank wrote in The Nation last year:
Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving 'major national and political figures' were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.
The U.S., unfortunately, has chosen not to listen to the sage advice even of its close allies such as Santos, or war criminal Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, who likewise has been outspoken in calling for a major overhaul of drug policy. Instead, the U.S. government has doubled down on pursuing its drug war in places like Honduras, despite the weak institutions and corrupt authorities. While Honduras may not yet have reached the catastrophic levels that Mexico has experienced with 70,000 dead as a result over the past six years, with the highest murder rate in the world, Honduras is on its way. Nor are corrupt police and officials the only bad actors in state prosecution of this “war on drugs”; the four innocent villagers killed in a U.S.-led counternarcotics operation in Ahuas are another example of a disastrous policy.
As with other challenges such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, it appears that other countries – notably developing countries – will have to take the lead on drug policy reform, and eventually the U.S. will have to follow.