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How Latin America is reinventing the war on drugs

Frustrated with US dictates, countries across the region are floating new ideas to curb drug trafficking, from 'soft' enforcement to legalization. 

(Page 4 of 7)

Yet many drug policy experts in the region question whether a state-run exchange could work. Santos in Colombia criticized Mr. Mujica's plan, saying "unilateral" action is not the way forward. Others say corruption – in Guatemala, for instance – would only empower drug traffickers if there were a legal market. Still others note that talk of legalization, which focuses on marijuana, misses the point since cocaine is the big concern and no one is suggesting legalizing it.

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  • Bolivia

    Graphic Bolivia
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

But the debate, which has evolved from one led by activists to former presidents to current heads of state in Latin America, suggests that some kind of fundamental change is inevitable. "

For former presidents, it is easy to say 'let's have a debate' on a topic that they cannot do anything about," says Daniel Mejia, who runs a drug policy research center at the University of los Andes in Bogotá. "But having sitting presidents [say that] is a completely new thing that we've seen during the past five years."

* * *

While legalization is the buzz word that always draws media attention – and virulent US protests – Latin America is leading the way today in considering a whole range of alternative policy options. It is beginning to focus on drug use as a public health issue, and not a crime, through judicial rulings and legislation, following in the footsteps of Western Europe in the past two decades. Several countries have already introduced decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs, mainly marijuana, and are proposing lighter sentences for minor trafficking offenses.

In Argentina, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that it is unconstitutional to punish someone for possessing drugs for personal consumption. Mexico decriminalized personal use that same year, although only for minute quantities. Colombia's Constitutional Court in June upheld an earlier law that decriminalized personal consumption of marijuana and cocaine, while lawmakers in Brazil are debating whether to make possessing small quantities a noncriminal offense as well.

The moves mark a swing back from harsher sentences and an escalation of the war on drugs that have been a hallmark of US influence in the region since the 1980s, according to Martin Jelsma, a drug policy expert at the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands.

* * *

Bolivia's changes have been dramatic in their own way. On a recent morning, the Chapare, a New Hampshire-size province in the middle of the country, lies under a heavy mist. Wooden houses propped up on stilts sit among plots of banana trees.

Women in bright velvet skirts and brimmed hats, characteristic of the area's Quechua Indians, shop at local markets. Chickens scour dirt yards and dogs wander the roads. It's a peaceful tableau.

Yet the quietude has only come here recently, residents say. Rosa Montaño, who migrated to the Chapare as a young woman, still farms her legally allotted coca field, called a cato, which helps her maintain her home, a small unpainted wooden room. She lives there with her daughter, Irma Cornejo, who grew up in the height of the coca grower conflict, and her grandchildren. Both say dramatic changes have occurred since Bolivian rural police units, backed by the US, stopped coming in and forcing the eradication of coca.


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