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Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 7, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Diane Ablonczy, the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 7, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Canada pledges $5-million to fight drug crime in the Americas Add to ...

The Canadian government is stepping up aid packages to help fight destabilizing crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, but is warning that radical suggestions like legalizing drugs are no easy solutions.

At the annual general meeting of the Organization of American States in El Salvador, nations have once again focused official talks on combating organized crime that is destabilizing governments in Central America and leaving large regions of Mexico hostage to a bloody drug war.

But this year's meeting comes amid calls for a dramatic change in approach to the war on drugs. In Mexico, there have been major protests against President Felipe Calderon's war on drug cartels, as some blame the crackdown for a rise in violence. And last week, an international blue-ribbon panel, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, judged the war on drugs "a failure," and called for countries to consider legalization.

Canada's Minister of State for the Americas, Diane Ablonczy, said there will have to be a broad international strategy for combating crime in the hemisphere that goes beyond interdiction to strengthening government institutions and reducing drug demand - but warned against a rush to radical steps like legalization.

"We need to focus on all aspects. We need to look at interdiction, we need to look at strong justice institutions that can hold criminals to account. We need to look at new developments in the criminal organizations. We need to look at stopping demand," Ms. Ablonczy said in a telephone interview from the OAS meeting.

"With respect to legalization of marijuana or any drug, there's a vigorous debate, but there's a lot of red flags about moving in that direction. I think we have to be aware and sensitive to the fact that many in law enforcement, many crime fighters, have serious reservations about going that route."

Ms. Ablonczy went to the meeting with a pledge to put $5-million into programs to fight drug crime in the Americas, with much of it focused on the Caribbean. And she said the government plans to roll out further anti-crime packages in the hemisphere for areas like Central America.

The $5-million package announced Tuesday will contribute to nine programs, including funding a Caribbean anti-drug intelligence centre, training for police investigators to fight internet drug sales, and centres to collect information on crime. A $500,000 sum will be earmarked to developing a plan to fight trans-national crime in Central America, using El Salvador as a "pilot" case.

But although Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed the Americas a Canadian foreign-policy priority in 2007, with improving security a key goal, Canadian anti-crime programs for the region have been criticized as too slow in coming, and too small. In 2009, Mr. Harper announced a $15-million fund to help countries fight crime.

Carlo Dade, executive director of FOCAL, an Ottawa-based think tank focused on the Americas, said the Canadian government has been slow to work out what part it can play to help anti-crime efforts. "The good news is we're starting to turn the ship to deal with it," he said.

Ms. Ablonczy argued that the amount Canada spends on anti-crime programs has to be seen as part of broader development assistance efforts, including programs to bolster democracy and the rule of law, and support for multi-lateral organizations in the region like the OAS.

She noted that tough-on-crime policies are a big part of the Conservative government's domestic political agenda, so aid for anti-crime efforts in the hemisphere are a "logical extension."

In large swaths of Mexico and Central America, drug cartels have established a reign of terror that has challenged the authority of local governments, which are often undermined by deep corruption. In Mexico, 40,000 troops have been dispatched to fight drug cartels, in part because corrupt police forces cannot be trusted. The country is essentially trying to rebuild its federal police.

An estimated 40,000 people have died in Mexico's drug wars since 2006, and Mr. Calderon now faces widespread protests calling on him to end the offensive against the cartels. The gangs have spread terror across the border to nations like Guatemala, already destabilized by rampant crime.

And while the United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into equipping security forces in Mexico and neighbouring countries through its Merida Initiative, some in the region have argued it is a war that can't be won if the big-money demand for illegal drugs from markets like the U.S. isn't reduced. There are, however, sharp differences over whether legalization of drugs would reduce drug smuggling or fuel it.

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