Cracks in the Central American drug war front


It's been a big news week in Honduras. Joe Biden was in town.
And what everybody wanted to talk about was the war on drugs. Some wanted to talk about giving up on it.
The U.S. vice-president flew into Tegucigalpa for meetings with Honduran President Porfiro Lobo and the heads of Central American countries. (Well, not actually into Tegucigalpa. The U.S. Air Force has a big base without about 500 troops in Comayagua - the city where the prison burned - and Biden landed there. I don't blame him. The Tegucigalpa airport, with hills around, offers one the the world's scarier landings, including a sharp turn 45 seconds before touchdown. It's not a bad metaphor for arriving in Honduras.)
The war on drugs looks a total botch-up from North America, as I've argued in the past. Wasted money, increased gang activity and petty crime, higher prison costs and zero success. Only a fool keeps doing something when, decade after decade, it's not just ineffective but destructive.
That's nothing compared to the view from the countries that are on the front lines of the war on drugs.
For them, it's a real war, not a catchy political slogan. The drug war in Mexico - fought largely at the behest of the U.S. - has claimed about 50,000 lives in six years - civilians, police, justice officials, traffickers, tourists. The U.S. lost one-tenth that many troops in the Iraq war and people were unhappy
Honduras, largely due to fights over the drug transport business, had the highest murder rate in the world last year, at almost per nine per 10,000 people. About 60 per cent of murders - 4,400 last year - were linked to the drug trade.
The U.S. has been chipping in some cash - about $361 million to Central America since 2008, La Prensa reports.
But every year in that period, more people died, more drugs moved and crime and corruption increased.
None of that should be surprising. A UN study estimated the North American cocaine market at $38 billion in 2008. The U.S. says 79 per cent of South American cocaine lands in Honduras on its way to North American consumers.
Honduras total GDP is about $15 billion. The chance to make money handling and shipping a high-value product is hugely attractive. The need to fight anyone who gets in the way - other drug shippers, or police - is part of business.
It is, La Prensa, noted in an editorial before Biden arrived, simply a principle of capitalism - that where there is demand, in this case North America, there will be supply. The money, in a poor country, is irresistible even if the risks are great, for the drug shipment kingpins and the people who can earn a few hundred dollars carrying loads from Copan over the hills and into Guatemala. That much, surely, has been established over the years.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina came to the summit promoting an end to the war drugs. Legalize drugs, says the former army general, including the transhipment. Tax and regulate and arrest those who who operate outside the rules. Let the U.S. work harder at reducing demand with treatment, education and innovative approaches. (That's one of the criticisms here, that the U.S. is asking other countries to tackle supply, at great cost, while doing nothing to reduce demand. Hard to argue given the record and, for example, the lack of available treatment options, in Canada.)
Reaction was mixed, but the leaders of Costa Rica and Honduras said the proposals should be discussed.
The alternatives all look grim. Escalating the war on drugs, as in Mexico, means more deaths, more violence and, likely, more corruption. The Honduras Weekly reported that the head of the Honduras' National Council Against Drug Trafficking warned drug trafficking groups are funding candidates to consolidate their power in next year's national elections. A Liberal party presidential hopeful said there are already "narco-congressman and narco-mayors."
In Washington this week, Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. southern military command, said the U.S. expects "the military in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will continue to play an important role in domestic security in coming years." That too makes many people nervous in countries were democracy is a fragile thing.
Biden flew home after photo ops and meetings pledging that the U.S. would not waver in its war on drugs, despite its utter failure. (OK, he didn't say that last part.) Central American leaders seemed onside, for now.
And it's hard, given the state of U.S. politics, to imagine any intelligent, evidence-based discussion of drug policies.
But Guatemala's position on legalization, the willingness of some other countries to consider a new approach and the horrific toll being taken may signal that change is coming. Painfully slowly, but coming.

Note: Cartoon from La Prensa.


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