Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is bucking the neighborhood hegemon:
"We are not doing what the United States says, we are doing what we have to do," said Perez, who was elected on promises of an "iron-fist" approach to rampant crime and surprised observers by proposing drug legalization.
Perez, a retired army general who took office one month ago, said his proposal to legalize drugs does not represent an about face from his campaign, in which he promised to get tough on crime.
He said he has always focused on a more comprehensive approach for addressing one of the highest murder rates in the world.
"Hunger is also violence, and is also a security problem," he said.
The outside world "has only focused on the fact that I am a retired general and participated in the domestic armed conflict," he said, referring to Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
Guatemala needs "to find alternate ways of fighting drug trafficking. In the last 30 years with a traditional combat with arms and deaths, it can't be done, and we have to be open to viable alternatives."
On Monday, Perez said he will try to win regional support for drug legalization at an upcoming summit of Central American leaders next month.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued a statement Sunday saying that legalizing drugs wouldn't stop transnational gangs that traffic not only drugs, but also people and weapons.
The U.S. embassy's response is deeply deceptive, considering that the rise in kidnapping and weapon trafficking are drug-war externalities, as Sylvia Longmire wrote last year:
Legalization would deliver a significant short-term hit to the cartels — if drug trafficking were the only activity they were engaged in. But cartels derive a growing slice of their income from other illegal activities. Some experts on organized crime in Latin America, like Edgardo Buscaglia, say that cartels earn just half their income from drugs.
Indeed, in recent years cartels have used an extensive portfolio of rackets and scams to diversify their income. For example, they used to kidnap rivals, informants and incompetent subordinates to punish, exact revenge or send a message. Now that they have seen that people are willing to pay heavy ransoms, kidnapping has become their second-most-lucrative venture, with the targets ranging from businessmen to migrants.
Longmire isn't a legalization advocate as far as I know, but her research suggests that ending prohibition is an increasingly good idea; not just because it would deprive transnational criminal organizations of revenue, but because it would allow law enforcement agencies in Central America to prosecute activities that should actually be crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion.