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Biden in Honduras: US drug policy under scrutiny

Even staunch US allies in the Americas are urging a debate on drug policy – including legalization – amid spiraling violence in their countries.

By Staff writer / March 6, 2012

Soldiers stand guard on a pedestrian bridge in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Monday. US Vice President Joe Biden will visit Honduras to meet with Central American leaders on Tuesday.

Esteban Felix/AP

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Mexico City

As US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Honduras to meet with Central American leaders today, the long accepted playbook on a top issue – the war on drugs – is coming under sharp scrutiny.

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In the past five years, drug-trafficking violence has led to spiraling death tolls, overflowing prisons, and overwhelmed justice systems across Mexico and Central America. Now, led by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, leaders are starting to question a policy review is needed, including a debate on legalizing narcotics.

It is not the first time players in the region have questioned hardline tactics. But now the message is coming from sitting presidents in staunch US allies, from Costa Rica to Colombia. So far the US has dug in its heels, but the pressure is mounting.

“This is a sign of what is to come.... Increasingly, countries are less afraid to explore other alternatives,” says Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, the president of CUPIHD, a civil society organization in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies. “It makes it harder for the US to continue justifying the status quo.”

Mr. Biden was in Mexico Monday, where he showed no sign of shifting US policy on the matter.

“It's worth discussing, but there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on legalization,” he said after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and the three presidential candidates for the upcoming July race.

He will likely have to again defend that stance in Central America today. President Perez Molina has gone the furthest in the debate about legalization and has promised to rally the isthmus to question whether a focus on drugs is diverting resources from going after crime. Costa Rica has stood behind him in that call, while both leaders in Mexico (where some 50,000 people have been killed in drug violence in six years) and Colombia have also said they are open to discussions about legalization. Already Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and Colombia have experimented with decriminalizing small amounts of drug use.

The question could arise at the Sixth Summit of the Americas to be held in Colombia in April.

US aid not enough

Latin America has long produced the drugs that are consumed in the US, and the US has spent billions trying to eradicate their source and punish the peddlers with policies like Plan Colombia, and more recently the billion-dollar aid package known as the Merida Initiative for Mexico and Central America.

Presidents on the receiving end have largely welcomed that aid, and criticized the US for being slow to deliver. But lately they are pushing for a new approach as a way to undercut profits for ever-powerful drug gangs, find a new source of tax revenue, and end the battles between illegal organizations that have contributed to historically gruesome violence.

After decades as the willing partner, Latin America started to demand solutions in 2009, in a commission headed by three former Latin American presidents –  from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia – that concluded that the "war on drugs" had failed.

"A paradigm shift is required away from repression of drug users and towards treatment and prevention," wrote former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in an editorial after the commission report was released.

That was followed by a report, with business leaders and former officials from across the globe, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy last year that urged experimentation with legalization and regulation as a way to reduce violence.

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