- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Vice President Joe Biden was in Central America this week attempting to staunch the hemorrhaging of regional support for the U.S.-led War on Drugs.
His trip follows one last week by Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who similarly decamped to the region to buoy a faltering U.S. flag as drug cartel-fueled violence continues wreaking havoc on Central American societies.
What’s caused this flurry of high-level administration attention to the region is a number of recent public statements by sitting Latin American presidents openly questioning the effectiveness of current counter-narcotics policies and calling for multilateral discussions on legalizing or decriminalizing the use of illicit drugs.
Those speaking include the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, but they also have received the sympathetic ears of President Santos of Colombia and President Calderón in Mexico. Their unprecedented statements can be seen as a measure of their collective frustrations at the ravaging of their countries by drug gangs just to feed the drug habits of recreational users in the United States.
But they also are indicative of the failure of the Obama administration to provide strong leadership and support as the drug cartels have reacted to strong government policies against them in Colombia and Mexico by relocating their operations to much more vulnerable countries in Central America.
Doubts about the administration’s commitment to the drug fight were also fueled by the president’s 2013 budget request, which includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America — including a 60 percent drop in aid to Guatemala. That is hardly the way to win friends and influence people who are risking their lives against brutal and uncompromising enemies wealthier and better armed than they are.
It may be that these leaders don’t really have any intention of decriminalizing or legalizing the use of drugs at home (profoundly risky, to say the least) and instead are desperately trying to get Washington’s attention to the crises, but that is hardly comforting. Four decades of cooperation between Latin American governments and the United States on enforcement and eradication of illicit narcotics shouldn’t come to this; instead of pushing forward to confront new challenges, we’re are left trying to recoup lost ground.
To be sure, combating drug cartels is not a pretty business. One does not have to be a member of a peace brigade to be concerned about the impact of drug violence on Latin American communities, but excessive sentimentalism is rarely a sound basis for public policy. Especially when trying to confront drug gangs that have killed tens of thousands, fueled corruption by buying off public officials and undermining democratic institutions, and terrorized local populations.
Nor is lethal assistance the sole answer. These countries need across the board assistance to build up their judicial and penal systems and more economic opportunities for their people to depress the lure of the drug trade. But nothing is possible without re-establishing peace and security and that means employing superior force against those who prefer it the other way.
Unless the administration’s approach to the increasing drug violence in Central America becomes more of a priority, they will continue to be confronted by counterproductive distractions like the current statements out of the region. For example, next month President Obama will travel to Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. There are many issues to discuss with responsible governments looking to better the lives of their peoples. Drug legalization should not be one of them.
Even though Vice President Biden said all the right things during his trip this week — "…there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization" — the problem is he had to say it at all.