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Latin America's drug-war fatigue brings talk of legalization

Latin America has drug-war fatigue and some of its leaders want to start talk about legalizing drugs. What will Stephen Harper suggest to nations facing a body count of tens of thousands when he heads to the Summit of the Americas this weekend?

Security is, after all, one of the three pillars of the Americas strategy he touts. Even if he's not inclined to legalization, his government has done little to bolster police and judicial systems falling apart in drug wars.

Here's a place where Mr. Harper needs more ambition. The battles with drug cartels threaten to destabilize a region, one where he claims to have a grand, high-priority policy to promote trade and democracy. The worst outcome of drug-war fatigue could be countries giving up, without legalization or enforcement, and allowing the corruption and influence of murderous cartels.

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Mr. Harper's approach to security in the region has echoed the Americas strategy he promised with pomp in 2007. Grand rhetoric hasn't been backed up with big substance. His hemispheric security plan has been to offer $15-million a year, sliced into tiny grants for various projects.

But this is an issue that's threatening the stability of nations. Some 50,000 have died in Mexico's drug wars and the violence, corruption and influence of cartels threaten Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and some Caribbean nations, too. These are countries where Mr. Harper says it is important to increase trade and ties.

It's also an issue that's being pushed northward, including by some leaders who treated legalization as taboo two or three years ago. They've seen high death tolls fighting cartels tooth and nail with no end in sight. Many are Mr. Harper's conservative allies. Even anti-cartel warriors like Mexico's Felipe Calderon will now at least talk about legalization.

"I think the surprise is that there are these centre-right presidents that are now willing to talk about the 'framework' surrounding drug policy," said Jennifer Jeffs, president of the Canadian International Council. They feel the organized crime is a bigger problem than drug use.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez says the war on drugs has failed, and it's time for legalization. Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos told the Washington Post there has to be discussion of another way to confront the challenges. "If we find that there is a better alternative that will take away the profits from the criminal organizations and that maybe you can address the problem of consumption in a more effective way, then everybody will win," he said.

On this issue, Mr. Harper, like U.S. President Barack Obama, represents the consumers. Americans, and Canadians, too, do a big share of the drug buying but they aren't as closely touched by the violence and corruption. The two nations are among the least inclined to legalization.

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, when he was in Mexico and Central America last month, said the Obama administration would never legalize drugs. But he did add: "It's worth discussing."

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In Canada, the Harper government has been against legalization, too. Diane Ablonczy, the junior minister for the Americas, said last June "there are a lot of red flags" about moving toward legalization. After all, they support tougher drug laws.

But the fatigue is wearing. Wars against Colombia's cocaine cartels didn't stop drugs but shifted power to cartels in Central America. Local governments and police have been corrupted. It is, on a grand scale, like Al Capone's Chicago in the 1920s, and increasingly leaders think the way to deal with it is to lift Prohibition.

Of course that would take the United States. It's the big market. Canada wouldn't do it alone, because of the impact on border trade. But Mr. Harper should at least open the door for the debate.

In the meantime, there's nothing good in allowing drug cartels to gain more sway. More ambitious efforts to strengthen police forces and judicial systems in countries in danger of being swamped by organized crime would serve Canadian interests, and regional ones, too. Mr. Harper argues security is a pillar of Canada's Americas strategy and he should be living up to the rhetoric.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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