Why military hawks are leading drug legalization debate in Latin America

Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala want to decriminalize drugs, but with a military approach. This means going after criminals and gangs with military and police force before they can regroup.

Alejandro Acosta/Reuters
A state police officer stands in the distance amidst marijuana plants in Guachinango, Mexico, last week. Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala want to decriminalize drugs, but with a military approach.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

If you were to place Felipe Calderon, Juan Manuel Santos, and Otto Perez Molina on the hemisphere's outdated left-right ideological spectrum, all three are well on the right side of the center line. All three are pro-military and all three have deployed their military forces to combat drug traffickers and criminal organizations. All three are strong allies of the United States. And in the past few months, all three have raised the real possibility of decriminalization of drugs in their countries and the region.

Yesterday on Twitter I compared the stances of the three leaders to a "Nixon goes to China" event. These are the three leaders in the hemisphere who have the political capital to pull off such a dramatic stance on the "war on drugs." While several respected former presidents have made similar calls, they carried less influence being that they are already out of office and they lacked the hawkish security credentials. The recent statements by Calderon, Santos, and Perez carry more weight.

The hypothetical militarized decriminalization of drugs does not look how some liberals and libertarians have imagined in their policy papers over previous decades. These are three leaders committed to a fight against crime and violence in their countries, and they are well aware that violent and organized crime will continue even after decriminalization. They are hoping that decriminalization frees up resources and diverts some profits away from traffickers. With varying details, the policy analysts backing these plans hope to decriminalize, tax the businesses involved, and use the money to invest in military and police so they can hit criminals even harder. There are members of various business communities behind these proposals prepared to take full advantage economically if they come to pass.

The proponents of this approach intend to fully shift from a war on drugs to a war on crime, and make no mistake, for them it's a war. This is a hawkish and militarized approach to ending the drug war by taking away criminal finances and then hitting the criminals and gangs hard with the full strength of military, police units, and private security firms before the bad guys can regroup. Even done correctly, it will be controversial, bloody, and see numerous human rights violations.

Whether this debate moves forward is not a forgone conclusion and it is not going to happen overnight. Local congresses are going to need to be convinced and write up new legal frameworks. The hawks will need to convince their neighbors, many on the center and left, who are less enthusiastic about such a major change. All three of the leaders leading this debate have also said they prefer to work in coordination with the United States, and the US doesn't appear open to such a radical change any time soon.

However, even if you disagree with the idea of using legalization as a weapon of war, these leaders have made an impact in that they are opening up a whole new front on the rethinking of drug policy. They are bringing new members to the coalition that want to undo some of the damages of prohibition. Welcome to the new legalization debate, led by the military hawks. This is not the vision that most people in favor of ending the drug war imagined, but this very well may be where the debate moves next.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.