Should Central America Legalize Drugs?

Some regional leaders say it could bring peace and much-needed tax revenue, but both they and supporters of the drug war are missing the real problem.

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Girls walk past a soldier on patrol in Guatemala / AP

Last week, the president of Guatemala joined former and current presidents of Colombia and Mexico in expressing interest in considering the regional legalization of the drug trade. The U.S. State Department immediately expressed its disfavor, but the question is out in the open now. The issue of whether to legalize drugs -- and thus reject the U.S. model of "war" against drugs -- threatens to consume the next Summit of the Americas, an April meeting of Western Hemisphere Heads of State in Colombia.

It is easy to see why. The drug war has been a disaster for the Latin American countries fighting it, especially Mexico, and Central Americans' suspicion that legalization could be less painful and costly is reasonable. Whether or not legalization would in fact be a good thing for Central America, the situation is desperate enough that they must at least consider their options.

Since Mexico declared its own war against drugs and drug cartels in 2006, over 50,000 civilians, police, journalists, judges, and soldiers have died. Several cartel kingpins have been arrested or killed, but organized crime is as potent as ever, and there's no indication of a significant drop in the volume of narcotics flowing into the United States. And the Mexican state is suffering mightily for its effort. Despite years of training and hundreds of millions of dollars in police and military modernization and professionalization, there are still episodes like Tuesday's jail break in Nuevo Laredo, where prison officials appear to have helped Zetas cartel gunmen kill 44 inmates -- all members of a rival cartel -- and help 30 Zetas escape. It's depressing.

In Guatemala, the drug war looks even worse. The Guatemalan national budget for public security is $420 million and its military budget is $160 million. The value of the narcotics smuggled through Guatemala each year is in the range of $40 to 50 billion -- about equal to the national GDP -- and that does not include the money made from smuggling weapons, people, and other contraband. In just three years, it appears that the Sinaloa and the Zetas Mexican cartels have come to control as much as 40 percent of the country's territory. They grow poppy, process cocaine and methamphetamines, and run training camps for their new recruits, who include members of Guatemala's elite special forces unit.

Guatemala and other Central American states are understandable worried their drug wars will come to resemble Mexico's, but with far fewer national resources to support the fight, much weaker police and military forces, and far less help from the United States. In 2011, the U.S. gave $180 million to Mexico for military and police assistance, but only $16 million to Guatemala and around $6 million each to Honduras and El Salvador.

So, naturally, the option of legalizing the drug trade, and thus avoiding a further drug war, sounds appealing. Though the Guatemalan government hasn't presented any specific idea or plan, the conventional interpretation would be to legalize personal drug consumption as well as small batch sales and to tax them; to focus on drug use prevention and treatment, instead of criminalizing addicts; and then to focus security efforts against organized crime and violence, instead of constantly watching for, chasing, and interdicting drug shipments.

Supporters of drug legalization argue that it would do three things for Central America. First, it would create new tax revenues for countries that badly need them. Taxes on drugs could go to these countries' under-resourced police forces and their prosecutorial, judicial, and penal systems. The U.S. State Department argues that legalizing drugs would do nothing to reduce organized criminal activity in money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, counterfeit goods, etc., but this overlooks the key issue of resources. Drug legalization would, if done right, mean more resources for the state to put toward anti-organized crime operations.

The second benefit, according to advocates, would be to reduce the value of drugs and therefore the resources of organized criminal groups, making them easier to fight. The third would be to reduce the violence associated with gangs and cartels fighting over the routes where they  operate. Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras today suffer from the world's highest homicide rates. The reduction of violent crime should be these governments' top immediate objective.

Unfortunately, in Central America, legalization alone is not likely to achieve any of these things.

A drugs tax would be a good idea if Central American governments were actually equipped to collect them, which they're not. Tax collection authorities and institutions are so weak that states already take in far less than they're owed. Tax evasion, especially by bribing or threatening tax collectors, is already rampant and would likely be even more common if collectors try to approach the same cartels that are accustomed to murdering police. Also, proper drug legalization would require expensive new programs for addiction treatment and prevention campaigns. Legalizing drugs would require regional governments to take a strong role in policing the newly legal industry, collecting taxes, and caring for addicts. But regional governments can't handle the tasks they already have in front of them.

Also, cartels make a lot of their money outside of drugs, through extortion, human trafficking, kidnapping, prostitution, and other criminal activities, many of which are violent. Just because the drugs component of their business might become legal doesn't mean they would drop everything else.

In any case, the correlation between drug trafficking and violence is not as straightforward as most people think. Murder rates in Central America are highest in urban areas, where street crime and gangs pray on local residents and businesses, not along the trafficking routes, which are often controlled by a single cartel or its local partner. Even before the recent drug trafficking surge, homicide rates in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were several times higher than in the rest of Latin America. In these communities, violence is about much more than just drugs. It's about a lack of the rule of law, ubiquitous weapons and private security forces, lack of jobs or opportunities for much of the poor, and a legacy of brutal civil wars in the 1980s. Legalizing drugs alone would probably not do much to change the violence that has plagued these communities for decades.

Drugs are a major problem in Central America, but they are worsened by a much bigger problem, one that can't be solved by legalizing marijuana, cocaine, or opium: the lack of public security. From the out-gunned police on the streets to the weak judges in the courts to the corrupt politicians, communities and countries struggle to maintain basic control over their own security. Ultimately, drug legalization -- like the drug war it's meant to solve -- would succeed only if public security is fixed and would fail if it isn't. That means better-trained and -equipped police, new campaign finance rules, faster and more independent courts, and even improved prisons. It means addressing not just the problems in the police and courts but the widespread poverty, malnourished children, and poor education systems. It means creating transparency in the public sector, curbing corruption, and breaking the long-standing links between organized crime and politics. Without these enormously difficult steps, neither drug legalization nor any drug war are likely to solve Central America's problems.