Last week, the president of Guatemala joined former and current presidents of Colombia and Mexico in expressing interest in considering the regional legalization of the drug trade. The U.S. State Department immediately expressed its disfavor, but the question is out in the open now. The issue of whether to legalize drugs — and thus reject the U.S. model of “war” against drugs — threatens to consume the next Summit of the Americas, an April meeting of Western Hemisphere Heads of State in Colombia.
It is easy to see why. The drug war has been a disaster for the Latin American countries fighting it, especially Mexico, and Central Americans’ suspicion that legalization could be less painful and costly is reasonable. Whether or not legalization would in fact be a good thing for Central America, the situation is desperate enough that they must at least consider their options.
Since Mexico declared its own war against drugs and drug cartels in 2006, over 50,000 civilians, police, journalists, judges, and soldiers have died. Several cartel kingpins have been arrested or killed, but organized crime is as potent as ever, and there’s no indication of a significant drop in the volume of narcotics flowing into the United States. And the Mexican state is suffering mightily for its effort. Despite years of training and hundreds of millions of dollars in police and military modernization and professionalization, there are still episodes like Tuesday’s jail break in Nuevo Laredo, where prison officials appear to have helped Zetas cartel gunmen kill 44 inmates — all members of a rival cartel — and help 30 Zetas escape. It’s depressing.