UNITED NATIONS -- Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is advocating the international legalization of drugs even as he is moving to fight narcotics cartels with the biggest military buildup in the Central American country since its long and bloody civil war.
There's no contradiction, the president said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day before he plans to address the U.N. General Assembly.
"We can't take unilateral action, it will be gradual," Perez said, referring to his push for legalization. "Meanwhile, while we're taking these steps, we're not going to let Guatemala become an open corridor for trafficking and consuming drugs."
Perez Molina said he may be the first head of state to propose legalizing drugs before the General Assembly, but the Organization of American States already is studying the idea, with a report due in a year.
"With cocaine and heroin, for example, they're substances that are damaging and addictive," he said. "We would have to regulate the procedures for selling them: a prescription or series of things that would come out of the discussion."
The legalization proposal came just a month after the retired general took office in January with promises of an "iron fist" against crime, and it provoked strong criticism from the United States, as well as intense discussion within Guatemala.
The president said the traditional war on drugs had failed over the past half century, and that the United States' inability to deal with its drug consumption problem left Central America with no option but to promote legalizing drugs in some way.
Meanwhile, to battle Mexican drug cartels that have overrun parts of Guatemala, Perez said he needed military equipment, and put a top priority on ending a longstanding U.S. ban on military aid that was imposed over concerns about human rights abuses during the Central American country's 36-year civil war.
Perez Molina has approved the creation of two new military bases and the upgrading of a third to add as many as 2,500 soldiers. He also signed a treaty allowing a team of 200 U.S. Marines to patrol Guatemala's western coast to catch drug shipments.
He says the measures don't exceed limits imposed on Guatemala's military under the 1996 Peace Accords, which he helped negotiate.
Since the war's end, the military force has fallen by 60 percent, Perez Molina said, and the growth of the civilian police force has not been sufficient to fight the security threat.
"What you saw was an imbalance and parts of the country that were out of control of the state," he said. "Organized crime took advantage of those areas, as well as drug traffickers and criminals and now we're trying to take back that territory."
Mexican drug cartels or their local allies have taken over large swathes of Guatemala and other Central American countries, fueling some of the highest murder rates in the world.
A May 2011 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service said that 95 percent of all cocaine entering the United States flows through Mexico and its waters, with 60 percent of that cocaine first coming through Central America.
The new Marine operation is the largest in Guatemala since President Jimmy Carter sharply cut U.S. military aid to the country due to concerns over atrocities committed during the country's civil war.
U.S. law says that Guatemala can regain military aid once Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies Guatemala's military is "respecting internationally recognized human rights" and cooperating with judicial investigations of former military personnel.
Since Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996, the U.S. has spent $85 million fighting drug traffickers in Guatemala. The level of spending was relatively low, less than $3 million a year, until 2007, when it shot up to $14 million. Last year spending peaked at $16 million, and is budgeted to decline to about $9 million in 2013.
The new operations fall under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a multinational U.S. effort to fight crime in the region, so officials do not categorize them as direct aid to the Guatemalan military.
"We continue to uphold the military aid ban as well as the Leahy Act which prevents the US from training people suspected of having committed human rights violations," said William Ostick, a spokesman for the State Department's Western Hemispheric Affairs Office.
But he added that "narcotics trafficking is of great concern in the region ... it is clear that interdiction has demonstrable and measurable effects."
Perez said he plans to increase the national police by 10,000, allowing the military to focus on securing the borders and fighting drug trafficking.
Romina Ruiz-Goiriena reported from Guatemala City. Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza contributed from Santa Cruz, California.
May 13, 2012
Suspected drug gang hitmen dumped 49 mutilated bodies, stuffed in bags, on a highway outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey. <em>Caption: Federal police stand guard on a vehicle behind a forensic truck containing bodies found on the highway connecting the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey to the U.S. border, along the Reynosa-Cadereyta road, in the town of San Juan near the city of Monterrey, Mexico, Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)</em>
May 4, 2012
The bodies of nine people were found hanging from a bridge and 14 others found dismembered in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the U.S. border from Laredo, in Texas. <em>Caption: Four of nine corpses are seen hanging from a bridge in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, early morning on May 4, 2012. (RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Feb 19, 2012
A fight between rival gangs at a prison just outside Monterrey in northern Mexico leaves 44 dead. <em>Caption: Araceli Guevara Ontiveros, the sister of Francisco Guevara Ontiveros --one of the 44 dead in a riot at The Apodaca prison-- is comforted while crying on his coffin during his wake in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on February 21, 2012. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nov 24, 2011
More than 20 bodies are found in cars in Mexico's second city, Guadalajara, a day after the burned bodies of 16 people are found in the home state of the country's powerful drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. <em>Caption: A member of the forensic service carries one of the 26 corpses found this morning in three vehicles abandoned in Mexico's second most populous city of Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 24, 2011. (HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Oct 6, 2011
Mexican security forces find 32 bodies at several locations around Veracruz, just two days after the government unveiled a plan to bolster security in Veracruz state. <em>Caption: Mexican army soldiers walk towards their vehicle after seven bodies were found inside a vehicle in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, Mexico, late Friday Oct. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)</em>
Sept 20, 2011
Thirty-five bodies are found abandoned in two trucks on an underpass in the eastern Gulf city of Veracruz, which had been largely untouched by the violence. <em>Caption: Mexican marines stand guard in streets of Veracruz State, Mexico on 24 January 2012. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2011
Masked gunmen torch a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 people, most of them women. The attack takes less than three minutes. <em>Caption: Relatives of victims cry in front of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, Mexico, on August 27, 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 20, 2011
Five headless bodies were found in Acapulco, taking the number of people killed in the popular Pacific resort to at least 25 in that one week. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel move the corpse of a person murdered in a hotel at the La Guinea neighbordhood in the town of Acapulco, Guerrero state, Mexico on August 24, 2011. (Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Officials unearthed the first of what turned out to be more than 450 bodies buried in mass graves in the northern states of Durango and Tamaulipas. <em>Caption: Forensic personnel unload at the morgue bodies of people killed execution-style in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico, on April, 11, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Aug 25, 2010
Marines found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women at a ranch near the Gulf of Mexico in Tamaulipas state, 90 miles from the Texas border, after a firefight with drug hitmen in which three gunmen and a marine died. <em>Caption: A worker wearing protective suit and boots walks between two refrigerated trucks parked outside a funeral home where the bodies of 72 men and women that were allegedly killed by the Zetas drug gang, are kept in San Fernando, just 100 miles from the the Mexican border with the U.S. near the city of Matamoros, Thursday Aug. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
July 24, 2010
Police unearthed 51 bodies in a grave outside Mexico's business capital, Monterrey, in northern Mexico over several days. Some corpses were burned beyond recognition. <em>Caption: View of the remains of two burnt bodies found in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on October 20, 2010. The bodies were found under burnt wooden pallets. (Dario Leon/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
July 18, 2010
Gunmen burst into a birthday party in the northern city of Torreon, using automatic weapons to kill 17 party-goers and wound 18 others. Mexican authorities said later those responsible were incarcerated cartel hitmen let out of jail by corrupt officials. The killers allegedly borrowed weapons and vehicles from prison guards and later returned to their cells. <em>Caption: Police officers patrol a street in Torreon, in the Mexican northern state of Coahuila, Monday, July 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Ramon Sotomayor)</em>
June 28, 2010
Suspected cartel gunmen shot and killed a popular gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas in the worst cartel attack on a politician to date. Rodolfo Torre, 46, and four aides from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were ambushed on their way to a campaign event for the July 4 state election. <em>Caption: A billboard with the portrait of the candidate for Governor of Tamaulipas state for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Rodolfo Torre, and reading 'A leader forever' is seen during his funeral at the Polyforum in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on June 29, 2010. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
March 13, 2010
Hitmen killed three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in March, provoking "outrage" from U.S. President Barack Obama. <em>Caption:The U.S. national flag flutters at half-mast at the entrance of the consulate of the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on March 15, 2010. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Jan 31, 2010
Suspected cartel assailants killed 13 high school students and two adults at a party in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas. <em>Caption: Students enter a high school in Ciudad Juarez, a city ridden by homicidal violence along Mexico's border with Texas. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)</em>
Sept 15, 2008
Suspected members of the Zetas drug gang tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in the western city of Morelia, killing eight people and wounding more than 100. <em>Caption: From left to right: Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, and Alfredo Rosas Elicea, are members of a group of hitmen called the 'Zetas' shown to the press at the General Attorney's office in Mexico City, on September 26, 2008. The three gangsters confessed that they are the authors of a grenade attack that killed eight people during the celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, western Mexico. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>