By Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO, April 30 (Reuters) - Latin America needs to look beyond failing U.S. anti-drug policies and find a new approach to fighting the narcotics trade, which is a growing threat to democracy in the region, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said on Wednesday.
Cardoso told Reuters in an interview that rising drug consumption in Brazil and other countries was another reason for better regional cooperation and policies focused on solutions beyond repression and punishment.
"It’s not successful. They are spending more and more and more and the results are deceiving," the 76-year-old Cardoso said of U.S. anti-drug policies, which have largely focused on jail terms and extradition for drug traffickers and trying to stamp out cocaine production in Andean countries.
"I’m not saying it’s necessary to stop repression. We need to control but that’s not enough," said Cardoso, one of Latin America’s most respected figures and credited with stabilizing Brazil’s economy when he was president from 1995 to 2003.
"It’s not just a question of drug addiction it’s also a political problem because it’s threatening the belief in institutions," he said.
Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid to help Latin American countries fight drug cartels, the campaign has done little to stem the flow of cocaine and other narcotics to the United States.
From gang wars in Mexico over routes into the United States to the drug-funded FARC guerrilla group in Colombia and the daily shoot-outs between gangs and police in Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns, experts say the drug trade threatens national security.
Transnational drug networks are also expanding in the region — with Mexican gangs for example having bridgeheads in Peru and Bolivia — partly to meet growing domestic demand in countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
"It is time to develop a proper Latin American response that is detached from the ideology that has been common in the past decade from the U.S. side," said Martin Jelsma, a drug expert at the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands.
"It is potentially a good time to try because politically there is more distance now in a growing part of Latin America to U.S. policies and U.S. domination in general."
Cardoso said Latin America could learn from the approach of some European countries in emphasizing public health and treatment of addiction.
"They have a different set of alternatives," he said.
He also said that public attitudes needed to change in a region where drug addicts and those connected to the drug trade are often demonized by the police and the media.
This month, a police commander in Rio said the police were the "best social insecticide" after a raid on a slum in which 9 suspected drug traffickers were killed. The comment was barely reported in Brazilian media.
"The media has a very important role, not just in stressing violence ... but in presenting alternatives, motivating people to behave more in solidarity with those drug addicts," Cardoso said.
He spoke during the inaugural meeting in Rio de Janeiro of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, also attended by former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria and, by video link, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
The aim is to stake out a Latin American position on the drug trade before a United Nations meeting next year that will review the effect of global policies in the past decade.
"The question for us is if there is a Latin American different perspective, not to replace (the U.S. one), but to be added to the discussion in the United Nations," said Cardoso. (Editing by Kieran Murray)