Guatemalan Foreign Minister Calls for ‘Historic Dialogue’ on Alternative Strategies in War on Drugs

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In an interview with El Espectador, Foreign Minister Luis Fernando Carrera explained Guatemala’s plan to facilitate a “historic dialogue” for new strategies in the fight against drug trafficking at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States this July.

Guatemala, a country suffering high homicide rates as a result of drug trafficking, wants to further the discussion on alternative strategies in the war on drugs that was initially raised in Cartagena, during the Summit of the Americas, under the auspices of President Juan Manuel Santos. In July Guatemala will host the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), attended by chancellors from all over the continent, and there are hopes to achieve a “historic dialogue” that will give a new twist to the approaches used to combat drugs. Chancellor Luis Fernando Carrera, an Oxford academic, was in Washington to present before the OAS a specific agenda to discuss, one that will bring about a conversation on thorny issues for countries like the United States, such as the legalization of some crops and the decriminalization of consumption. Carrera spoke to El Espectador about his proposal, and about what he hopes to achieve at the OAS summit.

What was it that you came to present to the OAS?

We are going to host the General Assembly of the OAS from June 6-8 in Antigua, Guatemala, and as is customary the host presents the main theme [for the assembly] to the Permanent Council, which then decides whether it is in agreement or not. Since the CELAC summit we had already raised the idea to the secretary general that we were interested in discussing as the principal theme “alternative strategies to fight drugs,” and that we would present that theme with various subtopics in order to better specify what we were talking about. And so that is what we did in the session of the permanent council and they very graciously considered them.

What are the subtopics?

Strengthening the public health system for prevention and addiction. Reducing homicides and crimes connected to drug trafficking…Promotion of local economic development and legalization of crops. Reduction of arms trafficking and of money laundering. And a fifth subtopic, decriminalization of consumption or of certain aspects of consumption, to reduce the incarcerated population.

It stands out that reducing trafficking isn’t specifically addressed.

Well one supposes that with this focus we can reduce consumption and channel part of the production towards the legal economy, and through that, achieve less trafficking. And the important matter is reducing the damage that trafficking does in terms of violence. 

It’s a matter of how to combine the strategies. Traditionally it has been said that what must be done is “law enforcement,” application of the law, and that is what was called the war on drugs. Which is a punitive focus on trafficking, on production, and in general a violent response by the state towards the cartels. This, what has been done in Latin America, has increased the violence, and because of that we are a continent with so much violence, with so many homicides. What we’re trying to find is a different focus, more humane, more preventive, more oriented towards trying to reduce violence, and through this way we will succeed in reducing consumption and production. But above all reducing the human cost that drug trafficking is producing, which has resulted in enormous violence.

An effective policy against drugs such as you all imagine, could mean that trafficking remains the same but that violence falls.

Yes, the violence and the damage to human health that drugs provoke. Having a greater focus on public health and prevention of violence, rather than on the promotion of violence to reduce trafficking. At this moment the existing strategies are very centered around combating direct trafficking by using the security forces and criminal prosecutions. That doesn’t mean abandoning the fight against criminal networks. Because the state should fight to have control of our territory. That is an inalienable duty for every state. But we want to do that in a context in which there are fewer deaths and more prevention for addicts.

All of this is laid out in the framework of a discussion. A number of countries, such as Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, have taken the initiative and have raised the idea that the [existing] strategy is a failure. But the United States maintains that it is success…How do we move beyond the discussion?

In the United States there also exist various narratives, even within the government. Last year Gil Kerlikowske, White House Anti-Drug Czar, was in Guatemala. He has a very similar perspective to what I just mentioned to you. In fact when we presented these proposals to the US Ambassador in Tegucigalpa, he said that he would have to give more visibility to Kerlikowske, so similar was his perspective.

But the emphasis in practice, in Latin America, has been the war against drug trafficking and production…

In practice that has been the emphasis. But that hasn’t been the whole narrative. And it’s important to highlight that, because there are sectors in the Obama administration which say that we need a discussion about a revision of strategies. Not to abandon the head-on fight, which is something we can endorse, we’re not interested in the criminals being the owners of countries. But yes emphasizing things that haven’t been emphasized. What’s necessary is a different combination of strategies…

But in the real application of policies, given that there are limited resources, when one puts more emphasis on one side, that takes away from the other. You propose to get rid of the emphasis on interdiction and production, and move towards an emphasis on violence. That is to say, take police and military off the task of interdiction and have them looking for murderers.

That’s an example. But let me put forward another example to you. The fiscal effort to keep drugs from reaching the United States takes resources away from the state for addressing the grave problem of infant malnutrition. It takes away resources from the education of Guatemalans. It takes away resources from programs for production incentives. From the public health system. 

The issue is that the strategy of keeping drugs from reaching the United States takes resources away from you. Today a North American official asked me if we need more assistance for drug interdiction. And I said it would be very welcome because frankly it hurts us to take resources away from other parts of the state. And frankly we don’t have a reason to be taking resources we could be using to reduce malnutrition in Guatemala and using them so that at last no shipment of drugs will reach the USA. A shipment which gets there because of consumption and demand, not because we’re stimulating trafficking and production.

That is to say you would like to let drugs get through and deal with other matters?

It’s more than letting drugs pass through. Yes, we’re going to control the flow of drugs. Rather it’s that there would be fewer drugs, because there would be less consumption, and, on the other side, that the drug control we are doing would have more resources. Because [currently] we are spending resources on a problem that is not in Guatemala. It’s to solve a problem that is multilateral, because we are geographically located in the middle of countries that are massive producers and countries that are massive consumers. And with regards to the idea that we are all producers and consumers, please, that doesn’t stand up to any statistic. There are countries that produce more and countries that consumer more, and we aren’t one or the other.

You say that the dialogue at the OAS General Assembly meeting in Antigua will be historic. Why?

Because we will be able to discuss these types of strategies at the government level. These matters have been discussed at the NGO level. At the government level, no. We’re going to lay out the foundations for a new dialogue and new alternatives for the fight against drugs. We’re not going to abandon the fight against drugs, but rather understand how to better combat them. These five topics have never been discussed, not even in Cartagena. For the first time the USA is sitting down to discuss alternatives, with the understanding that there are new alternatives.

At the end of the meeting, the idea is to give the OAS a mandate so that the Secretary General can lead a high-level dialogue to reform the fight against drugs and achieve a different balance. If we do that and we do it well, it will be historic. If in the western hemisphere we find a different way to fight drugs, then we will provide a lesson for the world.

After meeting with the State Department and the White House, what is your feeling on how the USA sees this discussion?

What concerns them the most is the possibility of Antigua turning into a circus of anti-American complaints. And we are in agreement that a lot of anti-Americanism doesn’t bring us any solutions. We are in agreement, and we have promised that the political climate will be high level. And we will play a role as head of the assembly to achieve that.

Did you all touch on the matter of marijuana legalization in the US?

No, we didn’t discuss it. We still understand that it’s an internal matter for them. The discussion on drugs is being laid out as a multilateral matter. In our bilateral relationship we have said that we will fulfill all our agreements. From the beginning, the debate is a debate for all the countries in the hemisphere.

Is there concern in Guatemala about becoming a producing country?

The concern is there, such as with synthetic drug labs and poppy cultivation. But if you’re just growing in Northern Guatemala, that isn’t going to be enough to provide drugs to massive markets.

If [the current strategy] stays on track, if alternatives aren’t accepted, if this discussion doesn’t go anywhere, what will Guatemala do?

If there’s not much progress in the international dialogue, we have the responsibility to our population to reduce the violence, strengthen the emphasis on prevention and public health, and use resources to focus on our priorities. And we aren’t going to focus all our resources, but we are going to accept them in the context of our fiscal possibilities. Ultimately you hit on a fiscal matter, and I understand it as a fiscal problem. We would have to return to a position of unilateralism, which is a focus on violence, on prevention.

*Pacheco is a columnist at El Espectador. Another version of this interview appeared in El Espectador March 5, 2013.

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