Transform, February 9 2012

A remarkable and almost unreported event took place at the beginning of December last year at the somewhat obscure, 13th summit of the Tuxtla Mechanism for Dialogue. (See here For more on the Mechanism).

It was reported in El Universal on 6 Dec 'Frenar consumo de droga o regularlo, exigen paises a EU' and in the Washington Post on 19 Dec 'Latin American leaders assail US drug 'market'', but has had no international pick up beyond.

A dozen Latin American countries issued a joint statement on organised crime and drug trafficking (here is the original Spanish text on the Mexican Government website).  Point 7 is translated here: 

“What would be desirable, would be a significant reduction in the demand for illegal drugs. Nevertheless, if that is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the authorities of the consuming countries ought then to explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end. Thus, the transit of substances that continue provoking high levels of crime and violence in Latin American and Caribbean nations will be avoided.”

What is remarkable is that the call to reduce demand (that no one would take issue with in principle) comes with the caveat that there is little evidence that this is possible, thereby leaving the call to explore alternatives - including 'regulatory or market oriented options'. This is in effect, an unambiguous call to legalise and regulate drugs. This is a fairly standard construction of the issue (similar to that adopted by Calderon recently) to avoid using the loaded term of 'legalisation' (something Colombian President Santos has been less hesitant about).

The statement is a clear acknowledgement of the often unspoken understanding that the war on drugs is fuelling much of the violence and chaos in Latin America. This then is a very clear call on consumer countries to take the lead in ending the war and replacing it with a legal system of regulation and control. 

The summit was attended by the Presidents of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom; Honduras, Porfirio Lobo; Mexico, Felipe Calderon; Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega; Panama, Ricardo Martinelli; the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez; and the First Vice President of Costa Rica, Alfio Piva Messer. Also present were the Foreign Ministers of Belize, Wilfred Elrington; Colombia, Maria Angela Holguin; and El Salvador, Hugo Martinez. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera was also present as a special guest.

Following President Santos’s lead, twelve countries have now effectively called for an end to the war on drugs. The significance of this is great, but the silence following it has been deafening. Perhaps because there was no pro-active media promotion of the statement, it has not been reported anywhere nearly as widely as last years ground breaking Global Commission report. That report - supported by a global media campaign - was however, made up almost entirely of former presidents. The Tuxtla group are all incumbents. 

This is a game changer. It is difficult to see how for example, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs can go through its standard motions with this Declaration on the table - it a direct challenge to the restrictions placed on signatory states experimenting with alternatives to prohibition. The same is likely to be the case for any other transnational events based on entrenched prohibitionist orthodoxy. The issue ought now to be high on the agenda of any and all summits involving Latin American countries – G20, Summit of the Americas and so on.

Whilst this is a step change in the level of challenge to the prohibitionist orthodoxy, there are problems with it too. It is a construction of the issue fully intended to take the heat off producer and transit countries and place the blame for their problems squarely at the door of the US and other major consumer countries. This is entirely understandable given the historical and geopolitical context of contemporary prohibition. However, it raises two important issues: 

Firstly, Are the Latin Americans seriously going to wait until the US leads them to a brave new world of peace? And secondly, the fact is that ALL countries (including the Latin Americans) are signatories to the Conventions upon which the drug war is founded. Whilst the geopolitical pressure for non-super powers to sign up and adhere to the Conventions is huge, it is nonetheless a fact that they are complicit in maintaining the legal infrastructure of the war on drugs and pursue the war with a ferocity unseen in other parts of the world. Their position would be more credible if they were to make moves nationally, regionally, and at the UN, to de-securitise drugs and develop and implement policies that adhere to human rights and public health norms.

That said, this is still a watershed moment in calling time on the war on drugs and those countries that are taking the lead deserve great credit for going on the record publicly (albeit quietly). We would encourage readers of this blog to contact their elected representatives to inform them of this development and to take the time to praise those leaders who were there, for making this statement.

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