Latin American drug wars are our fault

Please allow me to put in print what an awful lot of Latin American politicians would like to say to their Canadian colleagues:

You know how the illicit drug trade has plagued the countries of Latin America for decades? You know how it spreads corruption, undermines governance, and distorts economies? You know how it stacks corpses like cordwood?

You know the carnage happening in Mexico right now? More than 26,000 people dead?

You know all that? Good. Because you are responsible.

Yes, you. None of this would be happening if the drug trade hadn’t been banned — that just handed it on a silver tray to thugs, gangsters, terrorists, and guerrillas. And you know who banned it? Your country. Canada.

Sure, it was the Americans who pushed to have drug prohibition entrenched in international law and it was the Americans who twisted arms until everyone signed on. But Canada supported the United States from the beginning. It still does.

In July, some of the world’s leading public health experts collectively condemned international drug prohibition and called on governments to conduct “a transparent review” of current policies. But the Harper government blew them off. And the opposition? Michael Ignatieff said he wouldn’t even consider something as trivial as marijuana legalization because it would annoy the Americans.

So Canadian politicians helped put the status quo in place and Canadian politicians are helping to keep it in place. Remember that the next time you turn on the television and you see more blood-smeared corpses in our countries.

You are responsible.

Now, I must admit no Latin American politician I know of has said anything quite this harsh. In public, at least. But it’s different in private. Plenty are furious that their countries are portrayed as the bad guys in the global drug trade when it is the prohibition regime we insisted on, combined with demand for drugs here, that spawned the narco-traffickers and drug lords and all the misery that goes with them. Most of that misery is inflicted on Latin Americans, please remember.

But Latin American leaders have never felt free to say this in public because prohibition is holy writ in American politics and those who criticize it can expect to suffer the wrath of the U.S. government. And that has always been enough to shut people up. Years ago, in an interview with an aide to the president of Colombia, I interrupted the aide’s unenthusiastic recital of the official talking points about fighting the drug trade and asked him whether basic economics — demand creates supply — means the whole effort is futile. He suddenly got very enthusiastic. But, still, he was careful to express his enthusiasm in the form of questions — “Is this just like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s? Is legalization the best way to reduce organized crime?” — that would allow him to deny having committed heresy.

Some Latin American politicians have broken the taboo in the past. But they have always been retired politicians. Long retired. The sort of politician who knows he’s never going to run for office or hold a major appointment again.

But that was before prohibition brought Afghanistan-scale war to Mexico.

“We should consider legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of drugs,” Vicente Fox wrote recently. Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, is another retired politician. But he is respected at home and abroad, and his career is far from done.

Fox’s bold statement didn’t come from nowhere. Disgusted with the seemingly endless violence, Mexicans are increasingly talking about legalization as a way to undermine the drug gangs. It also helps that Californians will vote Nov. 2 on a referendum to legalize marijuana.

No current leader has endorsed any form of legalization, but the president of Costa Rica recently suggested it should be discussed and debated. So did the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, and the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos — both of whom are law-and-order conservatives.

Of course, it’s impossible to know what they believe in private, but there is reason to think Santos, in particular, wants to do much more than talk about legalization. In 1998, when Santos was the head of a non-governmental organization, he signed an open letter that declared, “We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself,” and called on United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to conduct “a frank and honest evaluation of global drug control efforts.”

Annan did not order that. Instead, the UN convened a summit at which members promised to wipe out illicit drug production within 10 years.

Ten years later, there were more drugs than ever and Mexico was descending into hell. Is it any wonder that growing numbers of Latin Americans are sick of the whole thing?

But, as Calderón noted, Mexico cannot act alone. “If drugs are not legalized in the world, or, if drugs are not legalized in the United States, this is absurd because the price of drugs is not determined in Mexico.” The nations of the world are locked into prohibition. Only together can they be released.

Many European countries would support a frank assessment of the status quo and an exploration of alternatives. It’s increasingly clear that many in Latin America would join them.

Canada? Our politicians prefer to ignore the whole bloody mess and pretend it’s somebody else problem. It’s not. It’s our problem. And our responsibility.