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.