Is Latin America Forfeiting the War on Drugs?

By Juan Andres Misle

On May 14th, 2015, Colombia, the country considered to be the United States’ most important ally in the Americas, brought Glyphosate, the chemical used to kill coca crops in aerial spraying campaigns, to an abrupt end. The move came after concerns from the World Health Organization that the chemical used was hazardous to the environment and public health. The spraying program had been in place in the South American nation since 1994, and has received more than $2 Billion in funding from the U.S. to eradicate coca production. However, despite the incredible military logistics supplied by the U.S., the amount of land used to grow coca in Colombia grew by 39 percent in the past year.

Coming from a country that for decades has closely coordinated drug enforcement with the U.S., policy circles and analysts began to wonder: Has the U.S. lost the ability to dictate policy to even its closest allies in the War on Drugs? Others have asked themselves whether the U.S. is in a moral position to be dictating a war with a staggering human and financial cost, now that the legalization of marijuana has reached its own borders in four states and the nation’s capital. As legalization becomes increasingly imminent across the country, the rest of the hemisphere is taking note.

This forms a larger trend seen throughout the Western hemisphere. Country after country, the Americas are giving powerful signals on the need for alternative strategies to battling drug trafficking in the region.

Last year, Chile saw its first medical marijuana farm. A year later, it saw its lower house of Congress take a huge step by voting to decriminalize personal consumption. In February of this year, Jamaica became part of the international trend by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis. And back in Colombia, its Congress has agreed to debate legalizing medical marijuana, prompting President Juan Manuel Santos to tell a group of attendees at the International Conference on Drugs that new strategies must be employed in this fight. He even proposed legalization and prevention measures as potential solutions. Costa Rica is also considering similar approaches.

But the most well-known case in recent years came from the small South American nation of Uruguay. A country of only a little over 3 million inhabitants, in late 2013 became the first in the planet to fully legalize the plant. The move plays well into the country’s vanguardist tradition: it was one of the first nations in the region to legalize divorce (1912), give women the right to vote (1917), decriminalize prostitution, and it recently also liberalized abortion and gay marriage.

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But before tourists begin flooding Montevideo and its surroundings, the country’s leaders want people to know that Uruguay is very serious about taking on the black market: with a government-imposed price control of just $1 per gram, Uruguay’s government is not exactly creating markets. Instead, the government is taking over the market and setting the price and the supply in order to outcompete criminal gangs. Think of it as a partial nationalization of the marijuana industry.

“It is all fiction, what they’re doing in Colorado” says former president Jose Mujica. He argues that the way that legalization was approved under his tenure as president, is far more restrictive and less permissive than efforts in Colorado and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Latin America is divided on this issue. The region remains generally conservative on social issues. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the most influential and popular politician in his country’s history is a strong opponent of drug liberalization. Even influential figures in Venezuela’s political elite have voiced their opposition to legalizing cannabis. In some cases it has more to do with a lack of trust in public institutions: a recent survey showed that 70 percent of Peruvians thought their country was at risk of becoming a narco-state.

Widespread corruption, impunity, and institutional complicity are hindering the possibility of reforming drug policies in the Americas. This comes as no surprise, as the drug trade has flourished in cocaine producing countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. The drugs later  reach the ports of neighboring Venezuela, where they are shipped to the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. The most notorious case came in 2013, when 1.3 tons of cocaine totaling $270 million were seized in an Air France flight in Paris that had departed from the increasingly militarized Maiquetia airport, Venezuela’s most important.

The trend however remains very clear. Latin America is changing rapidly in the same way it has historically: in unison. Reformist tendencies are as imminent as they are in various U.S. states, while support for the War on Drugs has reached levels of fatigue and frustration with its lack of results. Will Latin America forfeit the War on Drugs? The answer to that question will forever change the relationship that the United States currently holds with its Latin counterparts.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Latino Giant.