Vice President Joseph Biden said Monday that "there is no possibility" that Washington would heed a growing call by some Latin American presidents to move toward drug legalization.
Biden, on a two-day swing to Mexico and Central America,
said a sour mood over violence from powerful narcotics mafias has led to a
desire in some corners of Latin America to debate legalization.
"It warrants a discussion. It's totally legitimate
for this to be raised," Biden said, adding that he'd spent "thousands
of hours" at Senate hearings over the issue.
But Biden said that even if drug legalization might have
benefits like reducing prison populations, it also would engender health
problems, expand drug usage and even create bureaucracies for drug
"It impacts on a country's productivity. It impacts
on the health costs of that country. It impacts on mortality rates. It's worth
discussing," Biden told a group of journalists. "But there is no
possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on
On Tuesday, Biden travels to Honduras, where his aides
promise a "robust" working lunch discussion with Central American
presidents - several of whom support alternative policies, including drug
legalization, to deflate powerful drug gangs that have turned the isthmus into
the most murderous region on the planet.
The calls for debate on legalization amount to a cry for
help from countries battling the menace of Mexican and Colombian drug gangs
moving into Central America.
Leading the charge is a surprising paladin: right-wing
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who surprised Washington after his
inauguration two months ago with diplomatic efforts to rally support for a
His posture has garnered support, including from Costa
Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who said the issue should no longer be taboo.
"Central America has the right to debate and the
right to discuss this as long as it is done with rigor and seriousness, and
that is the intention," Chinchilla said last Wednesday after meeting with
Perez Molina's envoy, Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
Perez Molina and Chinchilla will be at Tuesday's lunch
with Biden, along with presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and
Some political analysts suspect that Perez Molina, a
former military intelligence chief, pushes an issue that remains largely
anathema in U.S. politics to capture Washington's attention, ignoring the
practical implications of such a policy swing at home.
"Can you imagine? Eighty percent of Guatemalans are
not in favor of decriminalizing drugs. How would a government push such an
unpopular measure?" asked Raquel Zelaya, an economist at the Asies think
tank in Guatemala City.
Yet some regional leaders - Mexican President Felipe
Calderon prominent among them - voice deepening frustration at high U.S. drug
demand, flows of drug profits and weapons southward, and the seeming
contradiction between American pressure for harsh suppression measures in Latin
America while, in the United States, a growing number of states permit medical
On Monday, Biden met Calderon for two hours and later
interviewed the three leading candidates vying to replace him in elections
scheduled for July 1.
Last week, speaking to attorneys general and defense
ministers from around the hemisphere, Calderon said that Mexico has captured 22
of its 37 most-wanted criminals, seized 562 aircraft, and done its share in
battling drug cartels.
But unless the United States urgently slashes the flow of
profits for drug gangs, or cuts back on domestic drug use, it should implement
"alternative public policies" on narcotics, Calderon said. The
reference to legalization was oblique, as Calderon is wary of endangering U.S.
counter-drug support under Plan Merida, an umbrella aid plan for $1.6 billion.
Despite Biden's emphatic rejection of moves toward
legalization, analysts of counter-drug policy say policymakers in Washington
may no longer be able to halt demand for broader discussions.
"What's clear is that for the U.S. to continue to
say, 'There is no debate and discussion to be had. It's a settled matter' -
that won't fly anymore," said John Walsh, drug policy program coordinator
at the Washington Office on Latin America, a social justice and human rights
Demands to address failures in U.S.-designed counter-drug
policies have been stimulated, ironically, by the posture of Washington's
closest ally in the region - President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, who said
last fall that he would welcome discussion about legalization but would be
"crucified" if he led the charge.
Santos, head of a South American coca-growing country
that has paid a heavy toll for battling drug cartels over three decades, will
host the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, and has
indicated counter-drug strategies should be debated then.
President Barack Obama is expected to attend the summit.
In Mexico and throughout Central America, people are
growing weary of the death tolls from organized crime.
Mexico has tallied more than 50,000 murders since late
2006, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in October that
murder rates in Honduras and El Salvador are the highest in the world, putting
Central America at "a crisis point."