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Guatemala ties drug policy to investment, security – and pragmatism

Guatemala's Foreign Minister went straight from talking about investment in Ottawa on Thursday to a Denver conference where the legalization of drugs is being debated. For Luis Fernando Carrera Castro's country, the two issues are linked.

In Guatemala – a country on the world's most heavily travelled drug route and threatened by powerful cartels – economic development and security go hand in hand.

And now, as New Zealand is legalizing "party pills," Uruguay is opening the regulated sale of marijuana and some U.S. states are decriminalizing pot, countries like Canada and the United States would face an unavoidable debate on changing drug policy, he said. The starting point, Mr. Carrera said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, is that "what we have done so far has strengthened organized crime."

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That debate has exploded across the Americas, with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who came to power promising to crush organized crime, one of many leaders calling for change – legalization or decriminalization of some drugs, though they have not yet specified the details.

But it also stirs potential impact on Canada's foreign policy and its Americas strategy, centred on trade and security, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has touted as a priority.

The Canadian government has put new emphasis on building relations with Mexico, but Mr. Carrera says, is finding that requires new attention to its neighbours, too.

Mr. Carrera's Ottawa visit was aimed at finding investors to team up with emerging Guatemalan companies, and seeking new security co-operation with Canada and the U.S. so those countries can have confidence that people and goods crossing Guatemalan borders meet an acceptable security standard.

Canada has made efforts to expand trade and improve security key to its Americas strategy, including funding for Guatemala's efforts to prosecute criminals. And Mr. Carrera argues that Guatemala – Central America's most populous country and a narrow land-link, on Mexico's southern border, between the Atlantic and Pacific – is crucial to efforts to make it a secure area that will promote economic growth and political stability.

But Central America's crime and the power of drug cartels have made that seem a far-off hope. That's one reason countries like Guatemala have called for a shift in the global approach to drugs.

Mr. Carrera insisted that Guatemala has made progress on crime, noting that its murder rate has dropped for five years and that police have made major inroads against cartels. The biggest cartels once threatened the state of Guatemala itself, he said, but their influence has been reduced.

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"We know how to break large organized-crime groups. What we don't know how to do is how to stop the drug trafficking," he said. "Once we break a large organization, there are 10 or 20 others that come into play, which are smaller. … But drug trafficking continues because there is demand.

"We need to find a solution to the drug problem that involves demand – and supply of course. But it passes through reviewing the idea that all drugs are prohibited, and that they cannot be regulated."

That's an idea that has been adamantly opposed by the U.S. and Canada. But Mr. Carrera said that reluctance is shifting in the U.S. because Americans are calling for change; Canada, he said, is open to the debate "and that's what we're demanding so far."

"The only thing we know so far is that by keeping the prohibition and creating illegal markets and blood markets out of it, what we have done so far is strengthening organized crime," he said.

Despite the federal government's moves to impose tougher drug laws in Canada, Mr. Carrera views Canada as a country that, like European nations, treats drugs more "pragmatically," throwing fewer people in jail. But regulating some drugs rather than outlawing them would cut organized crime, just as ending Prohibition hurt Chicago mobster Al Capone, he said.

"When alcohol was accepted in the U.S., Al Capone lost one of his major sources of income; it's as simple as that. So for us it's weakening the destruction that exists with organized crime."

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