Central American drug summit inconclusive


A conclave of Central American presidents meeting in Guatemala to discuss a major overhaul of their drug laws — including legalization or decriminalization — failed to arrive at a consensus Saturday and agreed to meet again soon in Honduras.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina had invited five counterparts to discuss what he described as growing frustration with Washington’s anti-drug policy, which many in the region say is exacting too high a price in crime and corruption.

Some sort of policy declaration was expected after the meeting, yet at day’s end there was no reason given for its absence.

But a disappointing turnout may have been a factor: Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla attended; the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua stayed home.

Central America has experienced a surge in violent crime in recent years as it has become a favored transit route for cocaine and heroin processed in South America and moved north to consumers in the United States. Weak economies, democratic institutions and judicial systems have made the area fertile ground for drug gangs.

In an unprecedented move that reflects many leaders’ desire for a new approach to fighting drugs, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently put legalization and decriminalization of drugs on the agenda for discussion at next month’s Summit of the Americas. Thirty-four heads of state, including President Obama, are schedule to attend.

It apparently was Santos’ bold action that spurred Perez to attempt to forge a unified front with regional leaders in advance of the April summit.

The U.S. remains firmly opposed to liberalizing drug laws. Vice President Joe Biden said on a visit to Mexico this month that there was “no possibility” that the U.S. would support a move toward legalizing drugs.

In an interview with The Times last week, a U.S. counter-narcotics official said: “We looked at decriminalizing and legalizing, and it just doesn’t work for us.”

But Central American leaders increasingly protest that they are ill-equipped to contain powerful drug traffickers. While coca cultivation, cocaine trafficking and related violence have declined in Colombia, for which the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia anti-drug program is partly credited, crime is on the upswing in Central America.

Honduras has been especially hard hit, with the city of San Pedro Sula taking the place of Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez as the most violent metropolis in the hemisphere when it comes to homicides per capita. Jungle regions of eastern Honduras are striped with dozens of illegal air strips used by traffickers.

The relatively new Texis cartel in El Salvador has numerous police officials and politicians on its payroll, intelligence sources have told The Times, and the infamous Mexican Zetas gang has turned part of the Peten jungle in northeastern Guatemala into its strategic stronghold. Just to the north, tens of thousands of people in Mexico have died in drug-related violence since 2006.

Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank that favors the liberalization of drug laws, said drug use should be treated as a “health problem, not a criminal problem.”

She noted a 2009 study signed by three former Latin American presidents — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — declared that the war on drugs was a failure and called for alternative policies, including the decriminalization of marijuana.

Youngers said that although the Central American leaders are not unanimous on legalization, “the important thing is that they are having this kind of discussion, and the best we can hope for is they continue meeting and develop a framework for doing so.”

Special correspondent Kraul reported from Bogota and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador.