‘It’s not a war we asked to be a part of, and we only suffer from it.’ These words from the Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla underline the position that the government of President Otto Pérez Molina has adopted since he came to power in January 2012, taking the lead in bringing to an end what many in Latin America see as a war that cannot be won.
Speaking at a recent event at the London School of Economics (LSE) to mark the publication if its report Ending the Drug Wars (available to download both in English and in Spanish), López Bonilla stressed the difficult position Guatemala and other Central American countries find themselves in.
‘We are transit countries. We are not producers or consumers, but we have to take part in attempts to prohibit the flow of drugs, when we don’t feel it’s really our struggle,’ he told a packed audience.
According to recent estimates, as much as 400 tonnes of cocaine transit through Guatemala each year, up from seven tonnes in 2008, as US-led interdiction operations in the Caribbean and the Pacific have prompted the cartels to seek alternative trafficking routes to those via Mexico or Colombia.
‘The funds we have to spend on this war are taken out of government budgets for education and health, which to us are much more of a priority. We have to balance public health with public security,’ López Bonilla said.
‘The violence associated with this war against criminals also badly affects foreign investment in countries such as ours, which is another serious economic cost,’ he said.
Worse still in his view was the threat from the United States and other developed countries to impose sanctions on Guatemala and other poor countries in Central America if they do not comply with the demands of this ‘war on drugs’.
Speaking on a video link, President Pérez Molina of Guatemala stressed that there had to be a change in the orientation of policies on illicit drug trafficking.
He called for recognition internationally that countries such as Guatemala are suffering from the ‘outsourcing’ of a problem that largely affects the populations in the United States and Europe.
He pointed to the debate initiated by President Santos of Colombia, and the recent legalisation of cannabis in Uruguay as attempts to rethink the question. He praised the LSE report for doing exactly that, and called for a new UN review of the drug control system ‘to produce a global response that can link in with national initiatives.’
The report Ending the Drug Wars emphasizes that there are no quick and simple ways to resolve what is an extremely complex issue. It states plainly that a ‘war on drugs’ is not the best way to confront the problem and that total prohibition is an unachievable goal.
Instead, as Professor Danny Quah of the LSE outlined, there should be a concerted effort to minimise the impact on ‘transit countries’ such as Guatemala, and a recognition that consumer countries were pushing the problem away, with often grave consequences for human rights and violence, as has been seen most strikingly in Mexico in recent years.
Individual countries, he said, should be encouraged to move away from the idea of enforcing prohibition on the use of illegal drugs to developing access to treatment of people consuming them.
This should be combined, in Professor Quah’s view, with a well-regulated effort to try new approaches.
The LSE report calls for greatly increased international co-operation to confront the problem, which it sees as being of equal importance to debates on climate change.
The authors hope to encourage serious debate on the issue in the run-up to the UN General Assembly debate in 2016, where President Pérez Molina is scheduled to present the report: ‘The UN, in particular, must recognise that its role is to assist states as they pursue best practice policies based on science and evidence, not work to counteract them,’ they conclude.
Their hope is that: ‘If this occurs, a new and effective international regime based on the acceptance of policy pluralism can emerge. If not, states are more likely to move ahead unilaterally and the international coordinating opportunities that the UN affords will be lost.’