Will OAS summit broach drug decrim?

As the  Organization of American States (OAS) summit opens under tight security in the historic Guatemalan city of Antigua—some 2,000 army and National Police troops deployed—fighting narco-trafficking is certain to top the agenda. Secretary of State John Kerry will be in attendance, with US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske—prepared to oppose initiatives to reconsider the “war on drugs,” including from Guatemala’s otherwise arch-conservative President Otto PĂ©rez Molina. But it remains to be seen if the summit will take up the iconoclastic recommendations of a draft report on drug policy released by the OAS last month. When the ground-breaking report was issued, OAS Secretary-General JosĂ© Miguel Insulza asserted, “this is not a conclusion but only the beginning of a long-awaited discussion.” As the Guatemala summit opened June 3, he reiterated that the report will not be officially adopted by the international body, but that “it will be only a platform for discussion.” This equivocation will doubtless be welcome in Washington, given the report’s open dissidence from generations of “drug war” dogma.

The report, officially released May 17, was prepared by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the OAS, commissioned at last year’s Cartagena Summit. Entitled “The Drug Problem in the Americas” (PDF), the report reflects growing disillusionment with traditional prohibitionist policies. The preamble states:

The past two years have seen a much more active and intense hemispheric discussion of drug policies. There appears to be greater openness now to a dialogue on current policies and, in some sectors, a willingness to explore nontraditional approaches to the subject.

The intensity of the violence associated with drug trafficking—especially in countries affected by the production, transit, and trafficking of illegal drugs—has been the principal factor in driving the concern of senior level officials in becoming more actively engaged in this debate. Other factors include shifts in drug consumption patterns in the Hemisphere, increased prevalence of drug use, violence affecting the most vulnerable segments of society, and growing demand for health care services to treat addictions.

Reflecting their concerns over the impact of drug-related violence and the continuous flow of drugs in the region, hemispheric leaders, former Heads of State, academics, and representatives of civil society have supported the adoption of policies geared to downplaying the role of the criminal justice system in drug control. Reports by high-level groups…emphasize the need to reduce the harms done to the health, security, and well-being of individuals and society, and favor an approach in which drug use is treated as a public health issue and consumption reduced through evidence-based prevention campaigns. Among other recommendations, they also encourage experimenting with legal regulation models for certain drugs.

The preamble does go on to note that “other voices suggest it is premature to assume that current approaches to the subject have failed.” But the report loans unprecedented legitimacy to the dissidents. The “Scenarios” section of the report (PDF) outlines four possible policy alternatives, dubbed “Together,” “Pathways,” “Resilience” and “Disruption,” each representing a way of understanding the problem.

“Together” sees the roots of the crisis in “weak state institutions,” and calls for strengthening the judicial and security apparatus. “Pathways” seeks to reduce the harm caused by prohibitionist policies, and calls for experimenting with “alternative legal and regulatory regimes, starting with cannabis.” “Resilience” emphasizes the “underlying social and economic dysfunctions” of the drug crisis, and calls for “bottom-up programs” to address these root causes. “Disruption,” perhaps the most radical proposal, calls for “abandoning the fight in some countries” or “reaching an accommodation” with illegal drug economies to reduce violence.

Adam Kahane of the group Reos Partners, who participated in the drafting of the Scenarios section, defended these unorthodox findings, saying the report responds to the mandate formulated at Cartagena to explore “new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective.” (Prensa Latina, June 3; CSIS, May 30; Al Jazeera, May 26; OAS press release, May 21; Ecuador Cabannico, May 18; Open Society Foundations, May 17)

US-led militarization escalates
US officialdom is clearly feeling the heat of the mounting dissent. During his trip last week to Mexico and Costa Rica last month, President Barack Obama sought to downplay the US security agenda in the region.  In a May 3 joint press conference with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, Obama stated that it is necessary “to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don’t see a brighter future ahead.”  Asked by a journalist about the potential use of US warships in counter-narctotics efforts, Obama said “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking.”

But on the eve of Obama’s trip April 30, over 145 human rights and civil society groups (PDF) from the US, Mexico and Central America issued an open letter addressed to him and regional leaders, urging them to reconsider policies that “promote militarization to address organized crime,” saying they have only resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.”  It notes the growing toll of narco-violence in Mexico (placing the body count over the past six years at 80,000, higher than the usually cited 50-70 thousand, with another 25,000 “disappeared”), and especially Central America. In Guatemala, violence is “reaching levels only seen during the internal armed conflict” and “controversial ‘security’ policies have placed the military back onto the streets.” In Honduras, “the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared, with “a resurgence of death squad tactics” targeting activists, journalists and lawyers who stand up for basic rights. “Both military and police are allegedly involved in abuses and killings but are almost never brought to justice.”

Despite Obama’s claims to eschew militarization, his administration is in fact actively pursuing it. As the Just the Facts database of US military spending in the Western Hemisphere shows, military assistance to the Central American nations has significantly increased under Obama, from $51.8 million in 2009, to $76.5 million in 2013, and an anticipated $90 million in 2014. (CEPR, May 7)