Drug War Politics: Doing Biden’s Bidding

Vice President Joe Biden landed in Mexico City Sunday night for a two-day trip to that country and Honduras. He’s left little doubt about his mission: to lock in the regional drug war. Biden’s visit comes amid mounting calls to end prohibitionist laws and move away from the military-based drug war.

In Mexico City all day Monday, the vice president met with President Felipe Calderón and the three major presidential candidates. In Tegucigalpa, he’ll meet with President Porfirio Lobo — in need of support from his patron as his government is enmeshed in a major human rights crisis — and have a “working lunch” with Central American presidents.

On a March 1 call with the press, a reporter asked whether the drug war would be on the agenda at the meeting with Central American presidents. Dan Restrepo, Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, replied:

The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs. At the same time, we’ve also been very open — the president has said it on numerous occasions, in meetings with leaders and publicly — of our willingness, our interest, in engaging in a robust dialogue with our partners to determine how we can be most effective in confronting the transnational criminal organizations, and, in this case in Central America, the gangs that are adversely affecting people’s daily lives and daily routines.

Biden repeated the line in an interview with the Mexican newspaper Reforma, where he supported the Merida Initiative and said that the Obama administration opposes legalization but welcomes discussion. His own reason for opposing legalization is one that has been circulating recently in Washington to counter the popular (and patently logical) argument that legalization will remove a huge source of revenue for cartels: “I have serious doubts that decriminalization would have a major impact on the earnings of violent criminal organizations, given that these organizations have diversified into criminal activities beyond drug trafficking” (translation from Spanish).

In sum, the message is that the government that presides over the nation with the largest illegal drug market in the world and actively funds a global war to enforce ineffective prohibition policies will not consider any form of legalization. But it supports “dialogue.”

Can that position really qualify as dialogue? A dialogue on how to “be most effective in confronting transnational criminal organizations” must start from the recognition that the current U.S. strategy has increased violence, done nothing to reduce crime or illicit drug flows, and had a devastating impact on “people’s daily lives and daily routines” in Mexico and Central America.

A real discussion on effective strategies has to include the option of legalization. The Obama administration seems determined to block that option, despite a growing number of calls for discussion on legalization that include former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia and current presidents Santos of Colombia and Pérez Molina of Guatemala.

Biden is just the latest envoy in U.S. diplomatic offensive to bolster the drug war. On Feb. 27, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in Guatemala with the same message. “The United States does not view decriminalization as a viable way to deal with the narcotics problem,” she told Pérez Molina.

Pérez Molina recently called for decriminalization in the region, and he reiterated his position at the meeting with Napolitano: “We are calling for a discussion, a debate. And we continue to insist… We want to open a debate to find a more effective way to fight drug trafficking.”

The Guatemalan government has begun to lobby other Central American countries on the issue in anticipation of the meeting today. Biden appears to have been charged on this trip with deterring any move toward legalization in the region and aligning nations in the war on drugs.

He has a tough road ahead of him. Latin American citizens and government leaders are openly protesting a model where their nations pay in blood and lives to fill U.S. defense contractors’ pockets and spread the Pentagon’s global reach — with few, if any, positive results. In Mexico, thousands gathered in the Central Plaza to draw silhouettes of the 60,000 dead in the drug war on the large esplanade in front of the National Palace, and the citizen Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is planning a summer caravan through the United States to protest U.S. aid for the drug war through the Merida Initiative.

The Mexican daily La Jornada published an editorial Feb. 24 calling for debate on decriminalization and commenting on a statement by Patricia Espinosa, Secretary of Foreign Relations, that the Mexican government is against decriminalization but would consider debate:

Perhaps if the debate on the decriminalization of drugs had been begun before adopting the present course regarding public security, the country would have saved countless lives, widespread social suffering, grave processes of institutional breakdown, and astronomical monetary resources. In whatever form, it is urgent and impossible to postpone the analysis of alternatives to the failure of a drug policy that is one only of the police, the military, and the judiciary. In that sense anyone who takes this position — though it may be late and contradictory — is welcome

Central American countries that stand to receive millions in U.S. drug war aid under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) are expressing misgivings. Despite the praise that has been and will be lavished on Calderón for his drug war, for other countries, Mexico has become the example of why not to pursue a drug war strategy.

When I asked President Pérez Molina and President Lobo how they felt about winding up like Mexico, both sought to distance themselves from the Mexican experience. I had the opportunity to speak with them as part of a fact-finding mission on violence against women led by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS that showed a huge increase in violence against women as militarization under the drug war has increased.

Pérez Molina answered that his country was in a different position: “Drug trafficking in Guatemala is different from in Mexico. We don’t see a war situation. The cartels have to maintain control of territory in Mexico, but here it’s traffic; there isn’t occupation or control of territory. Here I don’t see the army in a war against the narco…” In other interviews he has also been reticent about allowing the level of U.S. intervention that the Mexican government has permitted.

Lobo recognized the risks and failures of the model but dodged the question of alternatives:

I don’t have the answer; people are dying, [drug trafficking] pollutes us, and there is violence. There’s an increase in drug trafficking. The problem is, what’s the solution? Colombia put up a major fight, and drugs keep flowing out. They have arms from the U.S., and the money keeps flowing. In this we have to find a solution so this won’t end up being a war without end.

Instead of sitting down with its neighbors to find a peaceful solution and truly assess whether the current strategy is working for anybody, the White House is sending a strong message to hold the line on the drug war. And Biden brings much more than his personal power of persuasion to the mostly closed-door conversations.

It’s disturbing to see that the Obama administration has taken such a hard line against opening up debate on alternatives to the drug war. From here in Mexico, we see the costs so painfully close that the expected endorsements from Biden and company, far from being support, are a stubborn denial of reality. We can’t know what will happen in the private meetings, but statements before Biden’s trip emphasize support for the Calderón drug war and the commitment to continue the present model of security cooperation until the last day of his administration.

One wonders what will be said at the separate meetings with the presidential candidates. If the stated purpose is to repeat the U.S. commitment to respecting the electoral process and results, why not simply announce that publicly to all? Will Biden pressure the candidates to do the U.S.’s bidding on security policy, bringing to bear U.S. political and economic clout to assure continuance of the drug war? So far, all we know is that the candidate who has been most critical of the drug war, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced that he planned to deliver a letter to Biden stating, “We do not want to continue to favor military cooperation in the relationship with the United States, but instead place cooperation for development at the center.”

The U.S. has tremendous influence over Mexico and Central America, historically through aid and military presence, and even more now that free-trade agreements have created even higher levels of economic dependence. To use that influence to suppress debate on innovative and very possibly effective alternatives to the bloody drug war is bad politics and the opposite of the kind of “equal partnership and mutual respect” the Obama administration promised at the Trinidad and Tobago Summit in 2009. Part of the purpose of Biden’s trip is to prepare for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April. At that summit, the hemisphere’s nations will be able to judge whether Obama’s presidency has changed relations as promised three years ago. If Biden’s trip focuses on locking in policies of drug war militarization and discouraging independent regional initiatives, the Obama administration will arrive in Cartagena having broken those promises and dashed hopes of a more just realignment of relations in the hemisphere.