After decades of being caught in the crossfire, both figuratively and literally, the nations of Latin America are starting to rebel against the precepts of the war on drugs. In defiance of the United States, whose allegiance to military-style tactics in the struggle to cut off the flow of illegal drugs has been unbending, countries in Central and South America are asserting their independence and pushing hard for a change in course.
In just the past couple of years, several developments in Latin American nations have signaled the arrival of a new era:
- In Mexico, where homicidal drug gangs have been running wild and terrorizing the populace, President Enrique Peña Nieto has spoken out in favor of drug legalization, which he believes may be necessary in order to bring the drug trade under control.
- In Guatemala, President Otto Fernando Pérez Molina has also called for the regulated legalization of at least some drugs. Like President Peña Nieto in Mexico, Pérez Molina is concerned about lawlessness and violence perpetrated by drug-dealing gangs, and he has been outspoken in his belief that the drug war has failed and that new approaches to the problem must be found.
- In notoriously conservative Chile, the government has legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Its first licensed medical marijuana farm harvested its initial crop in April 2015 (estimated value: $2 million U.S.), and those supplies have now been sent to manufacturers for processing.
- In Bolivia, President Evo Morales ordered every American DEA agent in the country to leave, finally tiring of futile drug war strategies that brought unending violence and bloodshed but no real progress against the drug trade or the scourge of addiction. Morales also campaigned for, and received, an exception to United Nations anti-drug statutes, preserving the rights of Bolivia’s citizens to grow the coca plant for traditional uses.
- In 2013, Uruguay became the first nation on the planet to legalize marijuana for personal use on a nationwide basis. For now, limited supplies of the drug can be grown for personal consumption, but eventually the drug is expected to be available for sale through pharmacies.
- In Brazil, a law was passed that added discretionary language to existing anti-drug statutes in order to give judges leeway to hand out alternative sentences to recreational drug users that do not include jail time, but rather community service, participation in educational programs, drug treatment and rehab.
- In the latest development on the Latin American drug policy front, in May 2015 the Colombian government announced it was suspending aerial herbicide spraying operations designed to eradicate the coca fields of cocaine producers. Government officials cited the cancer risk to humans as their primary justification for this change of policy.
This recent move by the Colombian government is seen as especially significant, given the fact that Colombia is the United States’ closest ally in the region and U.S. policymakers have always emphasized the importance of aerial spraying in the grand scheme of the anti-drug fight.
And this one act of rebellion in Colombia is not the end of the story. In addition to halting the use of herbicides to kill coca crops, the Colombian government appears to be having second thoughts about the use of military strategies as an exclusive means to fight the drug trade. In an April 2015 speech at the United Nations, the country’s Justice Minister, Yesid Reyes, called for the adoption of new approaches in the battle to control the drug trade, and he identified decriminalization as one alternative worth considering.
In Latin America, Democracy and the War on Drugs Are Incompatible
Many of the Latin American governments that once gave the United States unconditional support in the drug war were not exactly paragons of democracy or transparency. Military tactics against drugs appealed to iron-fisted rulers of the Pinochet stripe, who ruled by fear, violence and intimidation—and were often dealing drugs in secret themselves even as they cooperated with the United States in the elimination of their rivals.
But as democracy has swept across the landscape, Latin American leaders have become far less willing to look the other way when confronted with evidence of the social, cultural and economic devastation the drug war has wrought within their borders. The new movement to revisit old assumptions and rethink discredited approaches was inevitable once politicians in Central and South America were required to answer to the people.
So far, legislative attempts to legalize or partially legalize drugs for recreational use in Latin America have failed everywhere except Uruguay, and some of the candidates running to replace the current president there are promising to overturn these rules if they are elected. This is not surprising given public opinion polls that show great resistance to the legalization of drugs for non-medicinal uses. Decriminalization may be another matter, however, representing as it does an intermediate step that could ease prison overcrowding and perhaps help to moderate some of the violence associated with traditional black market trading operations.
But regardless of what the future holds, it is crystal clear that the war on drugs has been a failure. Latin American nations and their citizens have paid a high price for that failure, and thankfully it appears they are no longer willing to deny the truth or suffer in silence.