Latin American Countries Resist U.S. Anti-Drug Efforts

By Victoria Kim 06/09/15

One by one, Latin American countries have been abandoning American-style drug policies.

Spraying drug crops
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The United States has historically led the fight against drugs in Latin America, but countries like Colombia—which announced the end of aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate last month—are rebelling against the “War on Drugs” mentality so deeply ingrained by years of propaganda.

The New York Times notes that the decision to stop aerial spraying to eradicate coca plants was “highly symbolic,” since Colombia is one of the U.S.’s closest allies in Latin America, and aerial spraying was a central part of U.S. anti-drug efforts there. The program ended last month after the World Health Organization classified the herbicide, glyphosate, as a carcinogen, and a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, released a report that said the herbicide is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the past, the U.S. has been more dogged about the need for cooperation with their anti-drug efforts, but William R. Brownfield, the American assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, told the New York Times that the dialogue on drug policy in Latin America is a positive development.

Now, after the U.S. has spent $20 billion in the past decade “fighting” the drug war, several countries have abandoned the traditional American-style anti-drug approach and pioneered their own reforms.

“For the first time in 40 years, there is significant pushback from Latin American countries, which endured much of the drug war’s suffering,” Paul Gootenberg, a historian on Latin America, told the Times.

In 2009, president of Bolivia Evo Morales kicked out U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents from the country and has refused to invite them back. Morales also got the United Nations to recognize Bolivia’s right to cultivate the coca plant, which has for centuries been used for medicinal and religious purposes.

In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana, despite global criticism. And in April, the first crop was harvested from Latin America’s first medical marijuana farm in Santiago, Chile.

There’s yet more prominent Latin American leaders who, if they’re not enacting actual reforms, are speaking out in favor of reforms. In a 2011 interview, former Mexican president Vicente Fox criticized then-president Felipe Calderon’s approach to the drug problem in Mexico. Instead, Fox suggested “withdrawing the army out of the barrio, and ... legalizing the production, distribution, and consumption of drugs. All together and for all drugs. All the way.”

Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has said that he is open to debate on alternative approaches like legalization. In Guatemala, President Otto Pérez Molina has called for new strategies, as well. In 2012, he suggested decriminalizing the transport and consumption of drugs, among other alternatives to drug prohibition, at a meeting of Central American leaders.

Last month, Yesid Reyes, the justice minister in Colombia and one of the government officials to suspend aerial spraying, gave a speech at the UN in New York, where he called for new approaches to the drug problem and advocated the decriminalization of drug use. “If you use the same tools for 50 years and the problem isn’t solved, something is not working right,” said Reyes.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr