Latin American countries are rightfully fed up with fighting Washington's war on drugs. In the four decades since President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, its battles have been fought predominantly in Latin American nations, leaving behind a trail of death and corruption while failing to achieve any of its goals.
After a bloody, decades-long war in Colombia, the epicenter of drug trafficking simply moved north, to Mexico. Upon taking office five years ago, Mexican President Felipe Calderón fully embraced the war on drugs, and the country quickly entered a downward spiral of violence that has left tens of thousands dead, even as the cartels remain as strong as ever.
At the same time, Central America has become a hub for drug smugglers. American-style street gangs operate as the armed muscle of the drug cartels, bringing the violence in Central America to levels that rival those of the civil wars of the 1980s. The bloodshed has even spread to countries that until recently enjoyed some of the lowest crime rates in the world, such as Costa Rica and Belize.
In addition, the perception in the region is that the United States makes tough demands on other governments to combat drug cartels while doing too little to reduce demand at home. America remains the largest drug consumer market in the world. Furthermore, its lax gun laws have made it the main source of weapons for drug cartels, and its financial institutions enjoy much of the profit of the drug business.
Some former Latin American leaders and U.S. officials have long advocated decriminalization of drugs to address the failure of the existing approach. But it's only been recently that current leaders of Latin American countries have joined the calls for that approach.
First, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, a conservative whose nation is the United States' staunchest ally in the war on drugs, declared the drug war a failure and came out in support of decriminalization. Then, a few weeks ago, President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, a conservative former general, said he would consider legalizing the possession and transportation of drugs, and he called for a meeting of all of Central America's presidents to debate the issue.
This sounded an alarm in Washington. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Vice President Biden were sent to the region to deliver the message that the United States is not interested in debating alternatives to its failed strategy.
The arm-twisting was somewhat successful, as the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua withdrew from the planned summit. But the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama did not back down. In late March, they gathered in Antigua, Guatemala, to discuss alternatives to the war on drugs.
We desperately need alternatives. Forty years of the war on drugs have caused death and destruction, and increased the power of criminal organizations, without a significant reduction in drug use.
The United States must acknowledge this failure and join the nations of Latin America in embracing alternatives to the war on drugs, including legalization or at least decriminalization of drug use. Otherwise, the United States may soon find itself fighting this unwinnable war alone.
Juan Blanco Prada writes for Progressive Media Project.