Twenty years ago, I became head of intelligence services in the Guatemalan army. In this capacity, I had to co-ordinate operations with several United States and Latin American agencies dealing with the fight against drug trafficking. In those years, this was already a challenging and complex task. However, Guatemala‘s security forces had the capacity to deal with the problem, intercepting drug convoys and arresting drug lords. Probably the most important victory on this front was our sophisticated and discreet intelligence operation that led to the arrest of a prominent Mexican drug lord, who was subsequently sent to Mexico for trial.
None the less, the drug lord stayed in jail only eight years, managing to escape from a high-security prison, something that in itself shows the corrupting tentacles of drug trafficking. Today, this capo is listed among the 10 richest men in Mexico, and one of the richest and most influential men on Earth according to Forbes magazine. Some analysts even consider him the most prominent drug trafficker in the world. His name is Joaquín, but he is better known for his nickname: “Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel.
Three months ago, I became president of Guatemala. And contrary to the good fortunes enjoyed by Guzman, I found that the justice and security systems were not what they had been 20 years earlier. Which led me to ask myself these questions: isn’t it true that we have been fighting the war on drugs these past two decades? Then, how on earth is drug consumption higher and production greater and why is trafficking so widespread?
In spite of this quite confusing scenario, I am not frustrated by what we Guatemalans have done in our fight against global criminal networks. In fact, I am proud that during the last two years our justice and security forces have been able to arrest at least 10 very important drug traffickers in our territory. Just last week, we announced the capture of Walther Overdick, the main contact of the Zetas cartel in Guatemala. Our institutions may be weak financially and sometimes even technically, but there are still many Guatemalans of honour who cannot be bought by drug money. Thanks to them, we are far from being a failed state. We are just a small territory that happens to find itself geographically between the largest drug consumption markets and the largest drug producers.
So, decades of big arrests and the seizure of tons of drugs and yet consumption and production of damaging substances are booming. The fall in the consumption of one drug is rapidly undermined by the rise in demand for another. In the same vein, the destruction of drug production in one territory is quickly replaced by the increase of drug production in another. The causes for drug consumption seem to multiply over time, as do the incentives for drug production. This is not a frustrating fact. It is just a fact.
And facts are what we need to concentrate on when considering drug policy options. When we analyse drug markets through realistic lenses (not ideological ones as is pretty much customary in most government circles these days), we realise that drug consumption is a public health issue that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal justice problem.
We all agree that drugs are bad for our health and that therefore we have to concentrate on impeding their consumption, just as we combat alcoholism and tobacco addiction. However, nobody in the world has ever suggested eradicating sugar-cane plantations, or potatoes and barley production, in spite of these being raw materials in the production of the likes of rum, beer and vodka. And we all know that alcoholism and tobacco addiction cause thousands of deaths every year all over the world.
So, knowing that drugs are bad for human beings is not a compelling reason for advocating their prohibition. Actually, the prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated. We would not believe such a statement if it were applied to alcoholism or tobacco addiction, but somehow we assume it’s right in the case of drugs. Why?
Moving beyond prohibition can lead us into tricky territory. To suggest liberalisation – allowing consumption, production and trafficking of drugs without any restriction whatsoever – would be, in my opinion, profoundly irresponsible. Even more, it is an absurd proposition. If we accept regulations for alcohol and tobacco, why should we allow drugs to be consumed and produced without any restrictions?
Our proposal, as the Guatemalan government, is to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalised but within certain limits and conditions. And legalisation therefore does not mean liberalisation without controls.
A dialogue on drug markets regulation should address some of the following questions: how can we diminish the violence generated by drug abuse? How can we strengthen public health and social protection systems in order to prevent substance abuse and provide support to drug addicts and their relatives? How can we provide economic and social opportunities to families and communities that benefit economically from drug production and trafficking? Which regulations should be put in place to prevent substance abuse (prohibition of sales to minors, prohibition of advertising in mass media, high selective consumption taxes for drugs etc)?
Next weekend, leaders from the Americas will meet in Cartagena. This is an opportunity to start a realistic and responsible intergovernmental dialogue on drug policy. The presidents of Colombia and Costa Rica, Juan Manuel Santos and Laura Chinchilla, have both already expressed their interest in fostering a dialogue on drug policy. It is not by coincidence that both presidents have served as ministers of security or defence. Those of us who have experience on security matters know what we are talking about.
Guatemala will not fail to honour any of its international commitments to fighting drug trafficking. But nor are we willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit. We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with alcohol and tobacco markets. Drug abuse, alcoholism and tobacco should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues. Our children and grandchildren demand from us a more effective drug policy, not a more ideological response.
Otto Perez Molina is president of Guatemala. The Sixth Summit of the Americas is in Cartagena, Colombia, 14-15 AprilGoogle+