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drug policy

A federal police officer stands behind a police line at a crime scene in the municipality of Guadalupe in Monterrey April 10, 2012. Gunmen on Tuesday shot dead seven taxi drivers on the outskirts of the industrial hub of Monterrey, which has become one of Mexico's most violent cities during a turf war between rival drug cartels. The taxi drivers were killed as they waited at two depots next to their Volkswagen Beatle cars in Guadalupe, six kilometres from Monterrey's center.STRINGER/MEXICO/Reuters

Latin American leaders are pushing to make a Cartagena summit a moment that sparks the world to redefine its approach to drugs. Stephen Harper, like U.S. President Barack Obama, has vowed to stand in the way.

Make no mistake, as presidents from Colombia to Mexico flirt with the idea of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, the notion is a challenge aimed at the nations to the north, the United States and Canada, the big consumer markets for the smuggled drugs. At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Mr. Harper will tell them they've got it all wrong.

"The Prime Minister would be a strong voice in that debate against the decriminalization of drugs," Mr. Harper's communications director, Andrew MacDougall, said Thursday. "The government's strategy is in fact completely in the opposite direction."

This is a Prime Minister who has stiffened drug laws at home, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for the possession of six marijuana plants, for example. In the more powerful United States, Obama administration officials have stressed legalization is not going to happen – though they've allowed that it's worth discussing if only to "demystify" it.

But the legalization talk is just beginning. It has been born of a sense of desperation and, beyond that, a grievance about burden-sharing and onus: Latin Americans have long felt they have paid the price in blood and dysfunction for a war to keep drugs from the rich buyers to the north.

A dialogue among national leaders on the failure of prohibitionist drug policies is a watershed shift in direction. The summit could end up being a historical turning point for drug policy in the Americas, predicts Daniel Pacheco, a columnist with El Espectador newspaper in Colombia.

"The subtext is that the formula – the U.S. provides the money and Latin America provides the dead – is not working any more," he wrote.

The United States has bankrolled Latin America's wars with drug cartels to the tune of $1-billion, but the quasi-military methods it has promoted are now being bluntly called a failure by some of the old warriors, such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez.

Canada has a role in those military efforts, sending frigates to patrol off Central America and in the Caribbean, but it's a support role. Its programs to improve policing and justice – some judged highly effective – are so small in scale they're a drop in a bucket in countries where thousands of murders go unprosecuted.

"The region is growing tired of a U.S. policy that lacks nuance," notes Johanna Mendelson Forman, with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The summit will force Canada and the U.S. to look at how they can help Latin America as new actors in a globalized world."

This was a summit that was supposed to address other topics of trade and hemispheric integration. But a debate that questions the war on drugs, central to daily life in many countries, has sucked up most of the oxygen.

And although Mr. Harper may oppose legalization, he cannot afford to ignore the larger issue: His own police and military officials have expressed increasing concern about transnational crime groups emanating from Latin America, and their increasing reach into Canada.

It is also an issue being floated by the Latin American leaders Mr. Harper considers political allies, centre-right leaders in a hemisphere where he has emphasized calls to develop trade and ties.

Two of the leading figures are staunch U.S. allies: Guatemala's Mr. Perez, a retired general and former head of the military intelligence who came to power last year on a "mano dura," or tough on crime, platform; and Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, a former defence minister whose country has received $8-billion in U.S. aid to fight the war on drugs.

Their frustration stems from the sheer failure to quell demand for illicit drugs in consumer countries such as Canada and the U.S., to stop violence in their own countries, or to address addiction. The dismantling of the Colombian cartels only led to new routes through Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean for drugs destined for North American markets.

"It's been the same approach and the same policies," Mr. Santos said in a recent interview. "And where are we? This is what we have to ask ourselves. Are we in the ideal place? Or should we at least contemplate alternatives?"

Mr. Perez wrote in a recent op-ed in the Observer newspaper: "We have to find new solutions to Latin America's drugs nightmare. Drug consumption is a public-health issue that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal-justice problem."

Guatemala now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world: 60 per cent of its territory is in the control of drug cartels. In Mexico, 50,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon began a military offensive against the organized criminal groups in charge of the drug trade in 2006. Decapitations and dismemberments – known as quarterings – are a common way for cartels to eliminate competitors. Honduras was recently declared the most dangerous country in the world; in cities such as San Pedro Sula, paid hits are common and gangs routinely extort and murder citizens.

What have the norte americanos been doing? The United States has led the charge in the drug wars, with pressure on Latin American governments to pursue it and money to pay for it. Its Mérida Initiative has bankrolled the buildup with more than $1-billion in funds to Mexico and Central American countries to pay for military equipment and training programs for the war on drug cartels.

Canada has played a role, though not a central one, in those military efforts. Canadian frigates have taken on drug-interdiction patrols off Central America and in the Caribbean; Canada has trained 120 Mexican military officers. In March, at a first ever "trilateral" meeting with defence ministers from the United States and Mexico, Canada's Peter MacKay signalled a desire to increase such co-operation, without specifying how.

The key Canadian effort to back anti-drug efforts, a $15-million-a-year fund for building the capacity of police and judges, is seen by many in the region as helpful but minuscule.

B.C.'s Justice Education Society runs programs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador aimed at helping prosecutors who run criminal investigations build up capacity to gather evidence at crime scenes, conduct wiretaps, do criminal-intelligence analysis or use video evidence.

In Guatemala, prosecuting the big drug cartels and their reign of bribery and terror is still mostly out of reach of the country's dysfunctional justice system, said Justice Education's executive director, Rick Craig. But building capacity to prosecute ubiquitous street-gang killings would at least make people feel the justice system can prosecute murderers, he said – putting a dent in crime and gradually building institutions.

The projects can make progress, Mr. Craig said, but they need a bigger scale. The people completely lack protection, he said; countries are in danger of being overwhelmed. "If this isn't addressed, they could become narco-states," Mr. Craig said.

Now, for Mr. Harper, the question is not what side he'll take over a debate on legalization of drugs. It's what he, as a leader from one of the consumer states, will propose as an alternative.