* Prohibitionist drug laws losing favour in Latin America
* Liberal Portuguese model seen as successful
* Cocaine routes into Europe move away from Spain
By Fiona Ortiz
CADIZ, Spain, Nov 17 Latin American countries
are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting narcotics abuse
after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent
and costly U.S.-led war on drugs.
Until recently, most Latin American countries had
zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States.
But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring
relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following
examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channelled
resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
Latin America is the top world producer of cocaine and
marijuana, feeding the huge demand in the United States and
Europe. Domestic drug use has risen and drug gang violence has
caused carnage for decades from the Mexican-U.S. border to the
slums of Brazil.
On Thursday, Uruguay's Congress moved a step closer to
putting the state in charge of distributing legal marijuana. On
the same day a leftist lawmaker in Mexico presented a bill to
legalise production, sale and use of marijuana.
While the Mexican bill is unlikely to pass, it reflects
growing debate over how to fight drug use in a country where
60,000 people have died since 2006 in turf battles between drug
traffickers and clashes between cartels and security forces.
Even top world cocaine producer Colombia, a stalwart U.S.
partner in drug crop eradication campaigns and with one of the
toughest anti-drug laws in Latin America, is hinting at change.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday it
was worth exploring the Portuguese model, one of the most
liberal drug policies in the world.
"The experience that you have had with drug consumption
policies is very interesting to us. The entire world is looking
for new ways to deal with the problem. I hope to learn more and
more about the experience you have had," he said on a visit to
Santos stopped in Portugal on his way to the Ibero-American
summit in the Spanish city of Cadiz. Leaders there on Saturday
called for analysing a shift toward regulating drug use rather
than criminalising it.
Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001 to combat a
serious heroin problem that had caused an outbreak of HIV/Aids
among drug users. The shift has been hailed as a success story
as consumption levels dropped below the European average.
"The positive evaluation of Portugal's model has taken away
the fear in Latin America over reforms," said Martin Jelsma of
the Transnational Institute, which advocates the liberalisation
of drug laws in Latin America.
Spain - where drug consumption soared in the 1980s after
the end of the Franco dictatorship - has tried to fight high
cocaine use by emphasizing treatment programmes for addicts and
declining to prosecute possession of small amounts of drugs for
Jelsma said cannabis initiatives such as Uruguay's have
built on the experience in Catalonia and the Basque Country, in
northern Spain, where the courts tolerate marijuana cultivation
for personal use by members of social clubs.
FRUSTRATION OVER FOUR COSTLY DECADES
U.S. elections on Nov. 6, when Colorado and the state of
Washington legalized cannabis in defiance of federal laws,
sharpened frustration among Latin American leaders.
"While in our countries a peasant is persecuted and jailed
for growing half a hectare...in those two U.S. states now you
can simply grow industrial amounts of marijuana and sell them
with complete liberty. We cannot turn a blind eye to this huge
imbalance," Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the
Ibero-American summit on Saturday.
Calderon, whose military crackdown on drug cartels set off
an orgy of violence in Mexico, expressed fatigue with calling on
the United States and Europe to curtail drug use, saying U.S.
drug consumers alone fuelled Mexico's drug war to the tune of
$20 billion a year.
He said the legalisation of pot in Colorado and Washington
marked a paradigm shift.
"We have to ask what alternatives there are. Perhaps less
money and less appetite would be generated if there was another
way to regulate drugs," he said.
Ibero-American Secretary-General Enrique Iglesias said there
was consensus in Latin America that the so-called war on drugs
was not working, and called for new approaches to the problem.
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia produce the bulk of the world's
cocaine. Mexico and Paraguay are the two biggest marijuana
producers in the world, with the latter largely supplying its
neighbours Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
The shift in Latin America thinking on drugs dates to a 2009
report by the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico
who said that billions of dollars poured into four decades of
U.S.-led crop eradication efforts had merely pushed drug growing
from one region to another.
Calderon's speech in Cadiz was just the latest in a growing
chorus of challenges to U.S. drug policies.
At a summit of American leaders in April, U.S. President
Barack Obama faced vocal doubts from his southern counterparts
over anti-drug policies.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez has openly proposed
decriminalising certain drugs. Guatemala, Mexico's neighbour to
the south, has been torn apart by drug violence and corruption
by narcos has deeply penetrated government institutions.
Ten years ago the United States might have reacted with
alarm to the shift in Latin America. But Obama's administration
has refrained from openly criticising changes in drug laws,
partly because U.S. attitudes are also in flux.
NEW ROADS TO EUROPE
Spain was long a gateway for South American cocaine into
Europe, although experts suggest cocaine trafficking is now
moving through southeastern and eastern Europe, along Balkan
routes and into harbours in Latvia and Lithuania.
The European drug monitoring agency EMCDDA said in its
annual report cocaine seizures in Europe peaked at 120 tonnes in
2006 and had declined since to 61 tonnes in 2010.
Spain remains the country that reports the highest number of
cocaine seizures but they have also fallen there as authorities
stepped up policing of the southern coast.
Still, Spain is concerned over the potential for Latin
American traffickers to set up European operations on its
In August, Spanish police arrested four members of Mexico's
Sinaloa Cartel, one of world's biggest criminal organisations.
One of them is a cousin of Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, the head of
the cartel and Mexico's most wanted man.