Guatemala considers legalizing drugs in the face of organized crime

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GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala’s president said Monday that the U.S. inability to deal with its drug consumption problem is leaving Central America with no option but to consider legalizing drugs.

President Otto Perez Molina said he wants a consensus before going forward with the idea for the region, which has become a major transit points for U.S.-bound drugs from South America and has been overrun by organized crime and Mexican drug cartels.

“We’re bringing the issue up for debate. Today’s meeting is intended to strengthen our methods of fighting organized crime. But if drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem will continue,” Perez Molina said after a security meeting with El Salvador President Mauricio Funes.

Funes said he too is willing to consider legalization.

Perez, an ex-general, took office last month promising a crackdown on organized crime said earlier that his proposal would include legalized consumption and transportation of drugs in Central America.

Washington strongly opposes the idea.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued a statement Sunday saying that legalizing drugs wouldn’t stop transnational gangs that not only traffic drugs but also people and weapons. “The evidence shows our shared drug problem is a threat to public health and safety,” it said.

Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert and professor of political science at Haverford College, said that the sudden turnaround in Perez’s stance on drugs, could be “political gamesmanship” aimed at pushing the U.S. to move quicker on sending military help.

“This is kind of like a shot across the bow, saying if you don’t help us, this is what we can do,” she said from Guatemala.

Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president and leader of Perez’s transition team, denied that was the case, saying Guatemala was overwhelmed by drug crime and saw itself as left with only one option.

“It’s evident what the situation is in these countries with small economies, we can’t fight the drug traffickers and cartels with superior resources,” Stein said. “The issue of drug trafficking and consumption is not on the North American political agenda. The issue of drugs in the U.S. is very marginalized while for Guatemala and the rest of Central America it’s very central.”

Perez took office last month and said one of his top priorities of ending a long-standing U.S. ban on military aid imposed over concerns about abuses during the Central American country’s 36-year civil war.

Close advisers say he supports meeting the conditions set by various U.S. congressional appropriations acts for restoring aid that was first eliminated in 1978 halfway through the civil war, including reforming a weak justice system.

Perez has already come out in support of a U.S.- and United Nations-backed international anti-corruption team whose prosecution effort has been criticized by Guatemala’s political elite.