IN LATE FEBRUARY, Guatemala’s foreign minister, megachurch-pastor-turned-politician Harold Caballeros, announced that he had formally raised the topic of drug legalization with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That same month, Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti started a Central American whirlwind tour to raise the issue of legalization with heads of state from El Salvador to Panama.
Panamanian President Martinelli, the leftist administration of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador, Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla, and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo have agreed to meet to discuss the topic, though Baldetti cautioned that results “will not come overnight.” Also joining the dialogue is Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, the formerly Marxist president whose political resurrection coincided with a conversion to socially conservative Christian faith. Ortega professed to “fully share the concern” of the Guatemalan government. Caballeros’ conversation with Secretary Clinton went nowhere, of course; the Obama administration is not about to act on such a hot-button issue, especially in the midst of an election year.
But the move was gutsy for a Guatemalan administration that was only in its second month of power. So far, most Latin American presidents have broached the topic of legalization only after leaving office. Former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Vicente Fox of Mexico, both pro-business allies of the U.S. while in power, have been outspoken proponents of legalization in recent years and were members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose 2011 report urged “experimentation ... with models of legal regulation of drugs.” The emergence of such key proponents has likely opened up new political space to discuss what had been largely off-limits in formal U.S.-Latin America diplomacy talks.
And it should come as little surprise. The voracious demand for illegal drugs in the United States, and the resulting lucrative opportunities in the drug trade, have helped create vast ungovernable spaces in Latin America. One example: In the northern coastal region of Atlántida in Honduras, there were an astronomical 131 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. A report released in February by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars stated the problem succinctly: “In many ways, Central American countries are fighting against simple economics.” The region’s governments are trying to win a battle in which they are constantly outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent by local traffickers called transportistas and by Mexican drug cartels, such as the Sinaloa and the Zetas.
It says much about just how far the movement to decriminalize production and transport has come that a former megachurch minister such as Guatemala’s Caballeros—a man who made his career as a moral entrepreneur, founding a quasi-evangelical political party called “Vision and Values”—is formally bringing up legalization with his country’s colossal neighbor and customer to the north.
Many argue that it is high time that North American people of faith join Caballeros and the members of the Global Commission in admitting the obvious—that the “war on drugs” is “an abject failure.” Even though the Obama administration has quietly retired the slogan, the tactics remain the same. U.S. foreign policy continues to be shaped by huge investments in weaponry and intelligence-gathering designed to “disrupt” the drug traffic, costing U.S. taxpayers $260 million from 2008 to 2010 in Central America alone. Retiring the drug war won’t be an easy sell with American voters, but evidence exists to suggest that there is growing openness to discussing it.
Legalization will not address all of the sources of northern Central America’s soaring crime rate. Tax reform, increased spending on public education, and campaign finance reform would also help the situation by reducing inequality, expanding opportunity among the poor, and lowering the incentives for political corruption.
But advocates say that we must start somewhere—and that, at a minimum, people in the U.S. owe it to the people of Central America to own up to the role U.S. recreational habits play in eroding democracy and piling up homicide victims in nations to the south. Central American voices are offering a compelling argument that the U.S. can and must kick the drug war habit.
Robert Brenneman is assistant professor of sociology at Saint Michael’s College, Vermont, and author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America .