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World News

U.S. 'war on drugs' in Latin America needs overhaul amid COVID-19 challenges, report says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. anti-drug policy in Latin America needs to change if Washington is to effectively combat a problem worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, a U.S. congressional commission will say in a bipartisan report coming out this week.

The 117-page report urges “smarter” interagency policies led by the U.S. State Department to reduce the supply of dangerous drugs. It also calls on authorities to combat money laundering by blocking the flow of illicit funds using cryptocurrencies and complex cross-border financial transactions.

It is the result of 18 months of research into the “war on drugs” that has cost billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars without ending high rates of violence and corruption in much of the western hemisphere.

“An increasingly complex threat requires a more agile, adaptive long-term strategy,” the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission said in the report, seen by Reuters ahead of its release.

The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday with testimony from leaders of the commission.

Representative Eliot Engel, the committee’s chairman, said he hoped the report would serve as a blueprint for the new administration and Congress “as they work to set our counternarcotics policies on a far better path.”

It comes as the coronavirus outbreak increases the challenges of eradicating drug trafficking.

“The pandemic has exacerbated conditions that are worsening our ongoing opioid crisis, such as lack of adequate treatment, economic distress, and social isolation,” said the report issued by a panel of former Democratic and Republican government officials and members of the House of Representatives.

The report praises some policies, including programs in Colombia to provide alternatives to growing coca - the source of cocaine - and support for criminal justice reforms in Mexico. It cites uneven progress from police reform schemes in the troubled nations of the “Northern Triangle” - El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The report also found that counternarcotics policies have caused considerable harm. For example, some efforts to eradicate production of coca have moved production, and associated violence, to new communities.

And law enforcement efforts targeting drug-gang leaders, or kingpins, have at times fractured drug cartels, leading to more violence as gang members fight for control.

The administration of President-elect Joe Biden is expected to shift the U.S. approach to the region, with more emphasis on aid, diplomacy and human rights than President Donald Trump’s focus on sanctioning Venezuela and Cuba and stopping immigrants at the U.S. border.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Chizu Nomiyama

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