As Canada unveils a new strategy for the Americas, it should focus not only on economic opportunities, but also face up to the most urgent challenge threatening the stability of the hemisphere: the drug trade.
A case in point, on the eve of the sixth Summit of the Americas, when 34 leaders from the region, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, will gather, the government of El Salvador has entered into a bizarre arrangement with the street gangs that terrorize the country, and battle one another for control of drug corridors.
The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have agreed to stop murdering people – at least for now – in exchange for the transfer of 30 of their leaders from maximum- to minimum-security prisons. The rationale is that gang leaders will be able to communicate more easily with their underlings on the outside.
That the government of President Mauricio Funes would be forced to agree to such a truce underscores the destabilizing impact the drug trade has had on this Central American country of six million, and on Mexico, which has waged a bloody six-year war on transnational cartels that has left 50,000 people dead.
El Salvador now has the highest homicide rate, along with Guatemala and Honduras, in the world. On average, 13 people are killed every day – a significantly higher death toll than during the country’s 12-year civil war.
Since North American demand drives the trade, Canada has a fundamental role to play in providing solutions. Much of the cocaine and heroin trafficked through Central America and Mexico is destined for the U.S. and Canadian markets.
The Presidents of Guatemala and Colombia have raised the idea of decriminalizing drug possession and legalizing marijuana, which would weaken the power of the cartels. Both Ottawa and Washington have stated their firm opposition to drug legalization. However, Canada could still lead a dialogue about how drug-consuming nations can shoulder more responsibility, and invest in anti-gang initiatives and penal and judicial reform in the region. This would give credibility to the Harper government’s much-maligned and under-funded “Americas strategy.”
While the official theme of this weekend’s Summit of the Americas is “Connecting the Americas: Partners in Prosperity,” there can be no prosperity without security. This won’t happen if gang leaders are running the show.