Biden’s Trip to Latin America: Drug War Negotiations?
by Amanda Fox-Rouch | Hunter College
This week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will be touring Latin America to meet with several regional leaders to discuss the idea of decriminalizing drugs in order to combat the dangerous and lucrative business of drug trafficking.
Though the principle of reducing penalties for drug use and production in order to hinder associated crime may seem antithetical to some, it is an idea that has garnered significant amounts of support over the past several years. The presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and other Latin American countries have recently expressed the desire to hold a multilateral discussion on prospective alternatives to the “war on drugs.”
The so-called battle with illicit substances began when Nixon coined the term in 1971, and the U.S. government has hardly let up since, having spent over one trillion dollars on efforts to impede attempts to buy, sell, and transport drugs within its borders and throughout Central and South America.
Despite the persistent effort that has been devoted to the assault on drug sales during the past 40 years, however, the U.S. continues to be a top consumer of Latin American-produced drugs, leading many to question the effectiveness of current strategies used to undermine the trade.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said in a recent interview that he would support the legalization of drugs in Central America in order to combat drug crime. He claimed that the U.S. government’s failure to significantly cut drug consumption within its country—which houses a black market drawing around $25 billion in profits each year—has left Guatemala with no other option than to consider the legalization of drug transportation in order to undercut the lucrative nature of the drug trade.
Pérez Molina is one of many leaders to have come out in support of the legalization of certain drugs, especially cannabis. Other leaders that have endorsed this seemingly radical idea include former presidents of various Latin American countries and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The public announcement of their collective stance on drug policy came last summer after a comprehensive report published by the team of former world leaders deemed the 40 year-old war on drugs a failure due to its perceived high costs and low efficiency.
Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico—one of the epicenters of drug trafficking mainly due to its proximity to the U.S.—has also claimed that the United States’ drug consumption is partly to blame for the estimated 47,500 people his country has lost to drug-related gang violence since 2006. The United States’ heavy consumption of Mexican-imported drugs works concurrently with its prohibitive drug policy to increase the profitability of drug sales due to a low supply and high demand. This fuels relentless violence in various areas of Mexico, as drug cartels battle to make gains in the lucrative black market for illicit drugs.
In addition to the devastating effects that the war on drugs has had on Latin American communities, critics of the United States’ policy have also pointed out the deleterious effects it has brought about within the country itself.
One of the purported shortcomings of the war on drugs is its saturation of the incarceration system; many argue that the fact that the United States has the largest prison population in the world is not wholly insignificant when examining the country’s drug policy. About one-fourth of all inmates are currently serving time for non-violent drug offenses.
This vast number of people incarcerated each year for non-violent crime is another effect of the United States’ war on drugs that is often targeted by critics; the majority of those punished for drug offenses have no history of violence. Some argue that punishing addicts for simple possession rather than focusing on rehabilitation cannot bring about the changes needed to cure addiction, and that repeated punishment merely creates a cycle of drug abuse and (pricey) incarceration.
The United States’ incarceration rate has increased by an estimated 240 percent since 1980, the year before Reagan assumed office and made staunch support for the war on drugs a trademark of his domestic policy. Strict penalties for drug-related offenses have been blamed for the burgeoning prison population, the costs of which are ultimately shouldered by taxpayers.
There have also been objections to the DEA’s tactic of laundering drug proceeds from various Mexican cartels in order to track the movement of the money and thus understand the way crime organizations operate.
Despite the various criticisms of U.S. drug policy, however, many American politicians maintain the stance that the assault on every aspect of the drug trade must be continued in order to significantly decrease the demand for illicit substances.
This is the line of reasoning that the Obama administration seems to follow, as the president has continued support of the drug war; throughout his term, the funding of punishment for drug possession has increased, while the funding of treatment efforts has been cut. For these reasons, it looks as if Biden’s trip to Latin America will bring about no significant change to U.S. drug policy. Nevertheless, the visit has the potential to raise awareness of an important and contentious issue, and brings up questions of efficiency with regards to the United States’ continued assault on drugs.Amanda Fox-Rouch is currently a student pursuing an undergraduate Political Science degree at Hunter College in New York City. She is interested in the stories of those who are typically silenced by the selectivity of the mainstream media. Find her on Twitter @afoxrouch.