Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Voice in Drug-War Debate: Businessmen Who Are Feeling the Pinch

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Voice in Drug-War Debate: Businessmen Who Are Feeling the Pinch

Article excerpt

The drug trade has had a negative impact on the business climate in Central America, and the private sector is starting to speak out in favor of new approaches to the war on drugs.

Legalizing drugs in an effort to combat organized crime, narcotrafficking and gang violence in Latin America has gained traction in recent months. Presidents from Guatemala and Colombia have raised the possibility of legalization in their countries and the region, with politicians from Costa Rica, Mexico and El Salvador joining the debate.

Though decriminalization doesn't guarantee an end to violent organized crime in the Americas, it could free up government resources and potentially divert profits away from traffickers, supporters say. And it's not only Latin American governments that are seriously contemplating the idea: regional business leaders are starting to speak out in favor of the controversial policy change as well.

The issues of drug trafficking and citizen security are no longer just state problems, says Cesar Zamora, Nicaraguan businessman and vice president of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA). They're also problems for Latin American businesses and economies.

"The drug war is weakening state institutions, infiltrating judicial systems and undermining rule of law," all of which is bad for business, Zamora says.

The AACCLA and other business leaders' entree into the drug debate represents a dramatic shift in priorities for commercial lobbying organizations that have spent the better part of two decades focusing almost exclusively on promoting free-trade agreements between Latin America and the United States. It reflects the evolving challenges to doing business in a globalized economy, and in a region plagued by violence.

The renewed debate over the legalization of drugs in the Americas is largely a result of Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina. He met with Salvadorian president Mauricio Funes on Monday, and proposed decriminalizing the drug war in Central America as a way to undercut the viciously violent cartels and gangs that are moving narcotics through the region and leaving high body counts in their wake.

Mr. Funes initially backed Perez's initiative in Guatemala City, but by the time he returned home that evening he was backpedaling.

"I am not in agreement with decriminalization of production, trafficking or consumption of drugs," he said in an attempt to "avoid erroneous interpretations."

Funes's response is not entirely surprising. The region is still largely dependent on the US, an opponent of legalization, for training and investment in the region's war on drugs, efforts to strengthen government institutions, and fight impunity.

Mr. Perez is one of few sitting presidents in Latin America to explicitly call for the decriminalization of drugs. …

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