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April 28, 2001

Narco News 2001

Legalization Seen as Key to Winning Drug War

Consensus Growing

From The News of Mexico City

The News Staff Reporter

The U.S.-led war on narcotics has long made talk of drug legalization strictly off-limits for Mexican politicians. But a rising tide of voices calling for the decriminalization of drug use may augur a sea change in the way drug policy is formulated in the United States and throughout Latin America.

In the past two months, the Chihuahua state governor and a high-ranking federal police official have remarked on the failure of anti-narcotics enforcement and the possible benefits of legalization. Moreover, in March, President Vicente Fox, despite his January pledge to wage "a war without mercy" on drugs, told a Mexico City daily he agreed that legalizing narcotics was the only way to win such a battle.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday told a House of Representatives subcommittee that drug-fueled conflict in Andean nations is caused "by what is happening on the streets of New York, on the streets of all our big cities."

While not raising the issue of legalization, Powell blamed U.S. demand for his nation's drug problems.

Colombian Leads Call For Change

"There are encouraging signs, not only in countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, but also with increasing frequency in the U.S.," said Colegio de Mexico Professor and former Colombian Ambassador to Mexico Gustavo de Greiff, a leading advocate of legalizing drugs. "Voices are calling for a change in policy, not only for the failures this policy has had, but for the tragedies it has caused."

Appointed as Colombia's attorney general in 1993, De Greiff cracked down on drug lords in his South American nation, eventually leading the effort to hunt down and kill kingpin Pablo Escobar. Such efforts won him U.S. media attention and glowing tributes from Washington policymakers.

Shortly thereafter, De Greiff began speaking out in favor of legalizing drugs in the United States as the only means of ending the violence and corruption wracking his country. Within months, he was accused by U.S. authorities of writing a letter defending a Medellin cartel drug smuggler, and his visa was revoked, quickly ending his tenure as the top Colombian prosecutor. De Greiff maintains the charges were fabricated to discredit his pro-legalization stance. The U.S. Embassy on Friday declined to comment on his visa status.

"I was the only public servant that dared to speak out about legalization and the U.S. government thought this was dangerous," he said. "It was the most immoral form of politics you can imagine."

But political winds may be changing. Attending Fox's December inauguration, Uruguyan President Jorge Batlle became the first head of state in the Americas to proclaim his support of drug legalization in an interview with the Spanish-government news agency EFE. Although his comments were given sparse attention by the international media, they since have been echoed by prominent Mexican politicians.

Most recently, in an interview with a Mexico City newspaper, Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez, who in January was shot in the head by an ex-policewoman suspected of being linked to organized crime, urged serious consideration of Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's pro-legalization proposals. Johnson has pushed legislation to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

Two weeks before Martinez's remarks, Miguel de la Torre, director of support for Mexico's Federal Preventative Police (PFP), told government news agency Notimex that legalization was the only solution to the drug problem. Responding to De la Torre's comments, Fox was quoted as saying "humanity someday will see that (legalizing drugs) is best."

While such statements do not reflect his administration's official stand, they resonate with ideas expressed in the past by Public Security Secretary Alejandro Gertz Manero and by Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda, who have criticized the drug war and argued the merits of legalization.

Latin American Hoping For U.S. Support

Propelled by the box office success of last year's Oscar-winning film "Traffic," there has been a growing recognition among some Washington politicians of failures in the supply-oriented drug war and the need to direct greater resources to treating drug consumers in the United States.

"Fox can play a role in helping to catalyze a change in emphasis from supply to demand," said David Borden, executive director of the D.C.-based Drug Reform Coordination Network. "But I'm not that optimistic our current administration will do that much. And without substantial change in the United States, it becomes very hard for other countries, particularly our neighbors, to change."

While battling demand is being given more weight in the United States, the Bush administration and the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress have shown no signs they are willing to countenance a debate on legalization, analysts have said. And without such willingness by Washington policymakers, they say, Mexico and other Latin American countries have little leverage to take the initiative on legalizing drugs.

"The possibility of a debate about legalization is beginning to come alive," said De Greiff. "But we're dealing with a multilateral problem with many nations and the most powerful in the world, the U.S., will use all of its force to prevent one country from making a unilateral decision."

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