THE BLOG
10/10/2013 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Latin America Builds Momentum Against U.S.-Backed Drug War

One after another, Latin American leaders rose to the podium at the last UN General Assembly to take a stand against the United States' signature security policy in the hemisphere -- the war on drugs.

"Right here, in this same headquarters, 52 years ago, the convention that gave birth to the war on drugs was approved. Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.

He noted that his country, which received more than $3.5 billion in counternarcotics aid between 2002 and 2011 and is frequently cited as a model by the Obama administration, "has suffered more deaths, more bloodshed and more sacrifices in this war" than almost any other.

Santos, as he has done before, called for changing course. He stated that he led the effort in the Organization of American States to study "different scenarios" (alternatives to the drug war) and commissioned studies that will be made available to the public and evaluated in a UN Special Session in 2016.

He concluded with a jab at the U.S.-led drug war. "If we act together with a comprehensive and modern vision -- free of ideological and political biases -- imagine how much harm and how much violence we could avoid."

Central American nations repeated the need for a new model. Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla cited a regional agreement including Mexico and Guatemala "to reevaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction."

Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, a military man who has somewhat ironically assumed the mantle of drug reform champion, told the UN nations, "Since the start of my government, we have clearly affirmed that the war on drugs has not yielded the desired results and that we cannot continue doing the same thing and expecting different results."

He called on nations to "assess internationally agreed policies in search of more effective results" and urged approaches based on public health, violence reduction, respect for human rights, and cooperation to reduce the flow of arms and illegal funds.

Perez Molina openly praised the "visionary decision" of the citizens of the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, and heralded "the example set by [Uruguayan] president Jose Mujica in proposing legislation that regulates the cannabis market instead of following the failed route of prohibition."

Bolivia's Evo Morales noted that according to UN data, his country has made more progress on fighting drug trafficking "after liberating ourselves from the DEA," referring to his decision to expel the U.S. agency from Bolivia in 2008.

He reported that coca cultivation has decreased since booting the DEA, according to UN data. UN data shows a 12 percent decrease between 2010 and 2011 and another 7 percent between 2011 and 2012. He repeated his claim that the U.S. drug war is a vehicle for intervention and that his country has proven that fighting drug trafficking regionally is more effective than the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) and Narcotics Affairs Section, both banned in Bolivia.

"Another instrument of domination is the war on drug trafficking. I want to tell you that through the efforts of the Bolivian people and the national government..., after liberating ourselves from the DEA through a national policy, and thanks to cooperation with neighboring countries of Argentina, Brazil and Chile (I need to recognize that it is a joint effort), we're are doing better in the fight against drug trafficking than with the DEA and the imposition of the government of the United States."

The Bolivian model includes a legal market for coca leaf and an emphasis on dialogue with farmers to reduce cultivation. "The United Nations has recognized the efforts of the Bolivian government in fighting drug trafficking, but the U.S. decertified us. Who are you going to believe -- the United States or the United Nations?" the indigenous leader asked rhetorically.

Mexico's foreign minister José Antonio Meade used the same terms as the Central American presidents, quoting regional agreements and the OAS Declaration of Antigua, and placing a priority on prevention, arms control, and opening debate. "With Chile, Colombia and others, Mexico believes we must evaluate international polices, seeking more effective responses with a health focus, a framework of human rights and a perspective of harm reduction."

He added that the "new global strategy" should come out of an open debate that leads up to the extraordinary session of the General Assembly in 2016.

This onslaught of drug war opposition is not welcome in Washington. The Obama administration has been actively trying to divert or mute Latin American calls to reduce militarized counternarcotics operations in favor of other approaches.

As U.S.-backed military forces are used to suppress indigenous defense of natural resources and displace populations in areas coveted by transnational investors, it becomes increasingly obvious that the war on drugs is concerned more with maintaining and expanding U.S. military influence in the region than eliminating drug trafficking, which a recent report again shows has not diminished.

With even drug war ally Mexico challenging the drug war, the gauntlet is thrown. The first to pick it up will have to be the U.S. government, but that seems unlikely to happen. The drug war is a critical piece in the Pentagon's global deployment plans and it feeds hugely powerful defense-intelligence industries. Obama has been a staunch supporter of the drug war at home and abroad, with far fewer modifications in the model than many expected.

The second challenge is to the United Nations itself. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) is locked into the criminalization paradigm and is determined to defend it, regardless of facts, arguments or popular opinion to the contrary. Experience has shown that moving that monolith will not be easy, especially with the U.S. behind it.

But Bolivia has already proven that if it can't be moved, at least it can be chipped away at. After Bolivia's failed attempt to get the organization to reclassify coca leaf, the country seceded from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. When it later requested re-accession with an exception for coca leaf chewing, only 15 of the necessary 61 nations needed to block its return opposed it and the pluriethnic nation was allowed to return with a precedent-setting exception.

One way or another, the current global prohibitionist regime is bound to fall apart eventually. An increasing number of decriminalization, legalization and regulation laws are showing that almost anything works better than prohibition to deal with the health and crime problems caused by drug use. Populations are no longer buying the moralistic arguments of "good vs. evil" in the doomed fight against drug use and are asking for the right to make their own choices.

Separating the illegal drug industry from the war industry by regulating and treating drug use rather than pitching battles makes sense. We should thank Latin American nations for having the guts to say so.