Waiting for their man: US leadership on Drug War evades Central Americans

Patrick Knapp Freelance Writer
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The Obama administration’s foreign policy is often criticized for its perceived post-American internationalism, but U.S. drug policy suggests that the all-American realism of days past lives on. Consider the perspective, for example, of special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan. Last week he cleared up any confusion about the international community’s efforts to orally persuade Syria’s dictatorship to stop being a dictatorship, explaining, “The evidence shows that we have not succeeded.” Yet meanwhile, over a year after Annan called on the U.S. to consider drug legalization in a Global Commission on Drug Policy report, evidence such as lectures by the U.S. drug czar to Central American leaders shows that when it comes to the War on Drugs, the international community has been no more successful in changing the mind of the leader of the international community itself.

“Making drugs more available,” U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said last year, “will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe.” This Panglossian optimism must puzzle people in Central America, where there are fewer and fewer communities to “keep” safe. Indeed, the homicide rates per 100,000 people have risen over the last decade in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to 41, 66, and 82 (the world’s highest) respectively, with the U.S. “healthy” indeed with just 5 homicides per 100,000 people. The discovery of 49 bodies on a Mexican highway last May is only one of the more recent reminders of the viciousness of this best-of-all-possible drug wars, most of those bodies going unidentified because of “the lack of heads, hands, and feet.” Just last weekend exasperated protesters marched against the drug-fueled insecurity and impunity in Guatemala, “a good place to commit murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it,” as one U.N. official has described this drug-corridor state.

D.E.A. Administrator Michele Leonhart put it more bluntly last month in congressional testimony when she called the “antidrug mission” an “essential element to the national health and security of the U.S. and interests abroad.” Certainly it is an essential element to the D.E.A.’s budgetary health, but the interests of our Latin American allies seem not to have made the cut. For their part, a generation of pro-legalization leaders has finally found their voice: The presidents of both Colombia and Costa Rica have floated legalization in recent months, and Guatemala’s newly elected President Otto Perez Molina openly supports legalization, even at the cost of significant political capital. Yet when he spoke out boldly against the Drug War at Latin America’s World Economic Forum last April, he found his once like-minded counterparts from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua had jumped ship, a consequence (Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo speculates) of U.S. pressure. With Mexico’s newly elected president on the fence, this is one time when U.S. leadership from behind would be preferable.

History, however, has taught Central Americans to be cautious of U.S. leadership. Guatemalans remember that in 1954, our regional “interests” meant installing a dictatorship, setting the stage for decades of atrocities which a 1999 international commission would walk back to U.S. meddling. Yet ironically, the violence of this era, during which the U.S. illegally blocked regional weapons shipments, is a fraction of today’s violence, to which the U.S. actually injects weapons with its either corrupt or embarrassingly incompetent A.T.F. programs.

Rather than seize the opportunity to reset this history, the U.S. has doubled down, and not just on drugs: not content with lecturing Arizona on how to handle Drug War insecurity, the U.S. is threatening commercial penalties against Guatemala unless it rewrites its very constitution to expand worker protections. This would seem to contradict the premise behind U.S.D.A. programs, such as McGovern-Dole, which provide monthly food rations for Guatemalan families (often those which cannot afford the compliance costs of joining the co-ops that serve Americans’ fine taste for the organic) who send their working children to school: Guatemala does not face a values crisis, goes the thinking, but an economic one. Yet the prevailing premise of U.S. policy in the region is summed up by Kerlikowske’s axiom: “Criminals won’t disappear if we legalize drugs.”

One wonders if a nation $15.8 trillion in debt has the luxury to be funding strategically contradictory programs. Does U.S.D.A. sync with D.E.A.? Maybe not, but D.E.A. certainly talks with S.O.D. and C.N.T.O.C., and sometimes cross-checks with A.T.F., and fuses with O.C.D.D.E.T.F., which syncs with S.I.C.A. Though even then, as Fast and Furious has shown, Mexico gets left in the dark, and every border killing leaves U.S. agents terrified of a bureaucratic miscommunication a la George Tenet after 9/11: “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

For an administration so wary of blowback when it comes to standing by Iranian protesters or merely green-lighting a Turkish humanitarian corridor in Syria, it might think twice about the consequences of a perceived imperial drug policy. When the masses begin chanting “Fuera D.E.A.,” the inescapable irony will be that self-interested realism was never in U.S. interest at all. Political interests are another story, which makes New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s risky statement in support of reforming drug policy earlier this week particularly welcome. Perhaps this is a road best paved by the politically buffered, such as former presidents. But Central America’s leaders are ready now, and we ought not keep them waiting.

Patrick Knapp is a freelance writer. He recently returned from Guatemala, where he was volunteering for Common Hope, a privately funded NGO that provides assistance to working families in need.