Latin America's Legalization Push: As Drug Violence Rages, Mexico Takes the Lead on Policy Reform

Article excerpt

A call for drug policy-reform is echoing across Latin America, where a decades-long, U.S.-sponsored battle against drug production and distribution has fostered a climate of fear, insecurity, and death. Throughout the region, former and current political leaders have allied with academics, medical professionals, and community activists to issue an appeal for a multinational dialogue on alternatives to the current drug war, including a possible end to drug prohibition.

In February, the multidisciplinary Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy (co-chaired by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico) called the drug war a "failure" and issued a groundbreaking report urging other governments in the region--including the United States--to rethink prohibition policy. More recently, on a May 2009 trip to Atlanta, where he gave the commencement address at Emory University, former President Vicente Fox of Mexico told an interviewer that the time has come to "discuss and assess the possibility" of legalizing drugs.

Nowhere is the sense of urgency more acute than in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon's ongoing battle against the drug cartels has left parts of the country in a near perpetual state of combat. According to Milenio, a Mexican media association, the campaign has claimed more than 10,000 lives since December 2006, when Calderon deployed the military to help federal police in their fight against the cartels.


The death toll includes countless civilians, and Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says the drug war has led to an exponential surge in reported cases of official abuse. Increasingly, human-rights activists are drawing a direct link between drug prohibition and human-rights violations. "Without a doubt, rethinking the criminalization of drug use would be a very important long-term strategy to improving the serious human-rights situation that Mexico is facing today," says Ana Paula Hernandez, a Mexico City-based human-rights activist and political consultant.

Mexico's opposition parties are hoping to capitalize on the country's mounting impatience with Calderon's struggle against narcotic trafficking and its bloody side effects to regain seats in the legislature from the president's party, the Partido Accion Nacional (PAN). As the Prospect went to press, midterm elections--scheduled for July 5--were gearing up to be, in part, a referendum on the president's drug policies. Up for grabs are all 500 seats in Mexico's lower House--the Chamber of Deputies--as well as governorships in six states and hundreds more positions in state legislatures and city halls. At least one party, the social democrat Partido Social-democrata (PSD) has placed legalization on its official platform, and members of one of the country's two main opposition parties--the center-left Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD)--are floating their own legalization proposals. There are presently two active PRD bills to decriminalize marijuana: one at the federal level and one in Mexico City.

According to journalist Dan Feder, who covered the Mexican legalization movement extensively from 2002 until 2004, representatives of nearly every political party in Mexico have proposed legalizing drugs at one time or another. The country's first legalization bill was introduced in 1998 by PAN Senator Maria del Carmen Bolado del Real. But Feder says it wasn't until the 2000 presidential election--which saw the end of Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) supremacy in Mexican politics and the election of PAN's Vicente Fox--that a dialogue on drug-policy reform entered mainstream political discourse. By the 2003 midterm elections, new parties like Mexico Posible--a forerunner of PSD--and progressive members of PRD were openly advocating the legalization of marijuana.


Today, reform advocates populate every level of Mexican society and have hosted forums on drug legalization for universities, city councils, and, recently, the federal legislature. …


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