Of the United States's several wars on nouns, the war on drugs has probably been the least successful. It has failed by every metric: more drugs are being trafficked, more Americans are using those drugs, and in the process many more people across the Americas are dying.
The new president of Guatemala is tired of watching drug violence devour his streets. Current policies, he says, are failing. So over the weekend he proposed a brave new solution: legalise drugs.
Traffickers' way station
The Obama administration has chosen not to use the decades-old term "war on drugs", but the war is as real as ever. And it's still not being won. More than 530 metric tonnes of cocaine are smuggled from South America to the US every year via Mexico alone. In countries such as Colombia and Mexico where the fight against producers and traffickers rages fiercest, the human cost is staggering. Since 2006 an estimated 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence.
Most of the drugs produced in South America make their way into the US via Central America, the cartels' principal way station. While Mexico, with its 3,169km border with the US, gets most of the press, smaller states are facing similar levels of violence.
Guatemala, which has hardly recovered from more than 30 years of civil war, is one of the increasingly brutal fronts of this battle. The feared Mexican trafficking syndicate known as the Zetas are thought to be consolidating their grip on the country's drug trade. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world: 41 people out of 100,000, more than twice that of Mexico.
New president, new approach
Last month, Guatemala inaugurated a new president: Otto Pérez Molina. He is a retired general (a former head of military intelligence) and founder of the rightwing Patriotic Party. He's hardly a softie on crime. After taking office he vowed to meet cartels, like the Zetas, with an "iron fist".
But over the weekend he offered a jaw-dropping and eminently sensible plan: to legalise drugs. And not just their use, but transporting them as well. “I want to bring this discussion to the table,” Pérez Molina said. “It wouldn’t be a crime to transport, to move drugs. It would all have to be regulated.”
Pérez Molina seems to understand that legalising drugs doesn't cede victory to the cartels, it's simply a different way of fulfilling his election pledge to fight them.
It took the US less than a day to criticise the president's bold proposal. The embassy in Guatemala City released a statement on Sunday opposing the plan and avoiding discussion of its merits, saying only: “the evidence shows our shared drug problem is a threat to public health and safety.”
Pérez Molina has promised to bring the drug legalisation idea to a meeting today with El Salvador's president Mauricio Funes and to an upcoming summit with regional leaders.
But the governments in Mexico, Colombia and the US seem stuck on the tried and failed model. The US agencies in charge of fighting it have asked for a $26bn budget for the 2012 fiscal year, half of which will go to domestic and international enforcement. And Mexico's embattled president, Felipe Calderón, who stands for re-election in July, has no choice but to run on his signature policy: intensifying the country's disastrous drug war. Change will have to come from elsewhere.
In the face of US and Mexican bullheadedness, Pérez Molina deserves serious credit. He's made it clear that the drug war, as it is being fought, is not working. The world must support his effort to find a new way forward.
Take action: The war on drugs desperately needs an overhaul. Pérez Molina's proposal is a good starting point. Support him by signing this Avaaz petition.