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Latin America breaks ranks in US war on drugs

Many countries in the region – most recently Mexico – have decriminalized small amounts of drugs for personal use. The moves have followed decisions by left-leaning governments to limit cooperation with the US in recent years.

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A week after Mexico's decriminalization law went into effect, Argentina's Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the arrest of five youths found with a small amount of marijuana, a ruling that opens the door to drug law reforms in Argentina.

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"Conceptually, the most important thing about [Mexico's new law] is that it distinguishes between consumers and criminals," says Jorge Hernández Tinajero, the president of Cupihd, a civil group in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies.

A reformed drug law in Ecuador, which approved a new Constitution in a referendum last year that states that drug users should not be penalized, is expected this year. The draft is also expected to reduce sentence levels for small-scale traffickers, known as mules. And this year in Brazil, where environmental minister Carlos Minc has spoken often and openly against drug prohibition, the Ministry of Justice is preparing a law that is expected to fully decriminalize drugs for personal use. This comes after legislation in the past few years led prison sentences to be replaced by educational measures, the Transnational Institute reports.

Cooperation in US drug war wanes

The moves to decriminalize drug use come as left-leaning countries in the region are making it much harder for the US to carry out its drug war, which they see as wrongheaded.

Last year, Bolivia suspended US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) activities in the country, where coca growers say US-mandated eradication robs them of their livelihoods.

Venezuela has been singled out by the US for not cooperating fully in its anti-drug efforts, while Ecuador decided to close the Manta air base to US operations after a decade of use.

That move caused the US to go forward with a controversial plan to use seven bases in Colombia for antinarcotics operations in the country, but it has drawn fierce criticism from nations around the region that worry that the mission could expand beyond Colombia's borders.

For some, moves in Latin America could set a dangerous precedent.

"I think that it is a very slippery slope when you loosen up on drug enforcement," says Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. "The proof will be whether [governments] lose control of security and well-being in their own countries. Will they lose traction vis-à-vis criminal networks that will be able to have space to operate within a legal economy?"


Part II: Legalization of drugs spreads in Latin America. Will the US follow? Click here to read the story.