Latam push for drug war alternatives

Drug policy and the need to substantially change the way countries tackle the problem took center stage at a ma...

Drug policy and the need to substantially change the way countries tackle the problem took center stage at a major regional meeting of the Americas that started Tuesday.

Several countries from Latin America were expected to pressure the United States to find alternatives to what is seen as an approach to fighting drugs that leans heavily on law enforcement _ a strategy that has cost tens of thousands of mostly Latin American lives.

The meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, is the annual general assembly of the Organization of American States, the region's leading political body, which 2 1/2 weeks ago issued a groundbreaking report that urged governments to consider decriminalizing drug use.

The report is part of a growing movement to find new approaches to drug strategies. Advocates include former presidents, human rights organizations, citizens and even the current president of this meeting's host nation, former army Gen. Otto Perez Molina.

"This is an important step," Perez Molina said on the eve of the meeting.

But as the summit got underway, there were hints of disagreement among the 34 member delegations amid behind-the-scenes efforts to draft a statement embodying the group's will.

"The U.S. does not claim a monopoly on best practices" for dealing with the drug fight, the American ambassador to the OAS, Carmen Lomellin, told assembled members. "We cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.... At the same time, we cannot see legalization as a solution."

The May 16 OAS report made no specific recommendations but suggested that decriminalization could be one of many "transitional methods" in a new public health strategy. It was significant because it helps consolidate what many Latin Americans see as the need to alter policies as their countries have been torn apart by violent drug wars _ chief among them Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

In a string of speeches on the eve of the meeting, a parade of community activists and small-town officials complained about the way drug traffickers have terrorized their areas.

And a consortium of 50 activist groups from North, Central and South America signed an open letter to the general assembly, urging members to "place human rights at the center" of the drug policy debate.

"This week's summit represents an unprecedented opportunity for governments to rethink failed drug policies," Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Foundations' global drug policy program, said in a separate statement.

And the New York-based Human Rights Watch added its voice to the clamor Tuesday, calling at a news conference in Antigua for "non-penal regulatory and public health policies" to confront the drug problem. As waged, it said, the drug war has led to carnage by trafficking gangs and egregious abuses by government security forces in many parts of Latin America.

Yet the U.S. is likely to remain odd man out in the search for alternatives. President Obama has said he welcomes discussion but does not consider legalization to be a solution. In Antigua, the U.S. will be represented by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in addition to Lomellin and others.

"Our goal going into Antigua is to ensure that we can convey as clearly as possible what this administration's position on drugs has been both at home and abroad," Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in Washington. "We want to make sure that administration strategy is understood. We want to have a conversation about what is working."

Kerry "needs to respond constructively to the Latin American presidents who are demanding a new dialogue about alternatives to failed U.S. prohibitionist policies," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports liberalizing drug laws, said in a statement Monday.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera said that discussions would focus on issues such as money laundering, gun smuggling and related security matters as ways to diminish violence, but that the member states would not be debating legalization of marijuana.

And some experts note that decriminalizing drugs might not solve the violence problem because so many cartels have diversified into numerous illegal activities, including kidnapping and human trafficking.

In one of several sessions leading up to Tuesday evening's formal inauguration, OAS members examined what they called the growing role of women in drug trafficking. Forced by poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity, a growing number of women and children are involved in drug-related crimes, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said.

More women end up in jail for drug crimes, he said: In Mexico, 80% of imprisoned women are accused or convicted of drug crimes (compared with 57% of men); in Argentina, it's 80% to 87% of jailed women and 80% in Quito, Ecuador.

Overall in Latin America, 48% of jailed women are in for drug-trafficking charges, compared with only 15% of men, Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti said.

Los Angeles Times | By Tracy Wilkinson

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