ANTIGUA, Guatemala (AP) — Latin American countries frustrated by the United States’ refusal to change its drug war strategy are pushing the U.S. government to look at alternatives to a fight that has killed tens of thousands in a region beset by drug cartels.
Guatemalan Foreign Relations Secretary Fernando Carrera said the subject of drugs will top the agenda at the Organization of American States’ General Assembly, which began its three-day session in Antigua on Tuesday evening.
“We have already reached a consensus and agreed that our final declaration will include changes to the current anti-drug model,” Carrera said. “We already have some ideas on how to change drug-fighting policies.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William R. Brownfield were attending the meeting, which comes two weeks after the OAS released a report calling for a serious discussion on legalizing marijuana.
The OAS study doesn’t make specific proposals and found there is “no significant support” among the OAS’s 35 member states for legalizing cocaine, the illegal drug with the greatest impact on Latin America, or other harsher drugs.
The study was commissioned after some Latin American leaders called on President Barack Obama to rethink the war on drugs at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
It urges “assessing existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana. Sooner or later decisions in this area will need to be taken.”
The Obama administration, however, believes it has already adopted a comprehensive counter-narcotics approach that melds cutting demand for drugs and treatment with law enforcement and interdiction of supply.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said the OAS would endorse that multi-pronged strategy and pointed out that there is no consensus either within the hemisphere or in individual countries on legalization.
This is true even in the United States, where several states have legalized marijuana, said the official, who was not authorized to preview Kerry’s discussions publicly. The U.S is open to discussing ideas, but will not as a federal government support decriminalization.
Human Rights Watch urged the OAS countries to explore legal regulation as a way to help stem the violence of organized crime and drug traffickers inflicted on many Latin American countries. The international human rights group said that criminalizing personal drug use “undermine” basic human rights.
“The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them,” the group’s Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said in a statement. “Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes, while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.”
Dozens of human rights organizations from Canada to Argentina signed a letter Monday asking for leaders “to discuss and rethink the existing initiatives with a view to place human rights in the center of the debate.”
Among those countries pushing for a dialogue on drugs in the Western Hemisphere are many who have been close allies of the United States’ fight against drugs, including Colombia and Guatemala.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was among those urging a discussion of legalization. He said that while his country extradites hundreds of alleged drug traffickers for trial in the U.S., criminals turn to other countries where law enforcement is weaker. Central America and Mexico in particular have been hit hard as traffickers shifted operations there.
President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, a hard-hit cocaine transit country along with neighboring Honduras, made headlines shortly after taking office last year when he proposed legalizing drugs.
“The message has been sent that the hemisphere wants to look at alternative approaches and wants the United States to be part of that discussion,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Arnson said Latin American leaders will use the meeting to spur a discussion that can be sustained as countries try to go forward with a new strategy.
“Latin American countries will mostly be looking for ways to diminish the violence and the negative effects on their societies and their economies posed by organized crime and they may increasingly diverge with the United States over what policies to adapt,” she said.
While the OAS meeting promises to serve as a forum to begin discussing the legalization of marijuana, talking about harder drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines may be harder to bring to the table, Arnson said.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Let’s break the ice on talking about these issues,’ and it’s another thing to come forward with concrete proposals for dealing with harder drugs that many countries can sign on to, including the United States,” she said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.