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As Prop 19 to legalize marijuana fails in California, Latin American leaders breathe relief

Current leaders of Mexico and Colombia were relieved that Prop 19 failed, but former leaders feel more free to express their support of relaxing drug laws.

By Nacha CattanCorrespondent / November 3, 2010

A marijuana plant is shown in this Oct. 26 photo. Latin American leaders are relieved that Prop 19 failed in California.

Ed Andrieski/AP

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Mexico City

Mexican government officials locked in a bloody battle against drug traffickers are sighing relief that Proposition 19 in California failed at the ballot box yesterday.

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Mexican President Felipe Calderón had warned that the voter initiative, which would have legalized recreational use of marijuana, could put more cash into the pockets of drug runners and smugglers. He joined others across the region, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who called the referendum contradictory and counterproductive.

But their relief only tells part of the story of sentiments around drug policy in Latin America. Another movement, largely headed by former heads of state, has gained steam, calling for the decriminalization of drug use. As President Calderón, for example, publicly decried Prop 19, arguing that legalization would increase demand and thus boost trafficker earnings, his predecessor Vicente Fox fired off hourly tweets in recent days that expounded its endless benefits.

Latin American under siege

And as Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America, remain under siege from drug-related violence, the two sides are likely to continue to face off – even after the California initiative has failed.“You’ve got a mixed sentiment about this," says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Why are some presidents supporting this and others have been questioning it?”

Part of the answer might be found in the fact that ex-presidents have far fewer political and diplomatic pressures than those in power, which allows them to speak more freely, analysts explain. For example, presidents receiving funding from US sources to fight a drug war must ensure the money keeps flowing, says Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Washington.

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