Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, Feb. 25, 2015

Drug reform across Latin America

Drug laws and international regulation are a topic of hot debate in Latin America, and U.S. led "War on Drugs" policies are being challenged across the region.

"Drugs: New paradigms and old inertias" is the cover of the most recent issue of Nueva Sociedad, with several articles that explore the situation across the region in-depth. The "War on Drugs" dates back to Nixon, writes Magnus Linton, but often had little to do with actual anti-drug policies. After the fall of the Berlin wall, drugs replaced communism as a political bogeyman, he says in a piece that focuses especially on how the U.S. impacted Colombian policies.

But across the region change is apparent write Coletta A. Youngers and Adam Schaffer in a piece for NACLA. Uruguay is the first country in the world to create a legal cannabis market. Bolivia successfully obtained an exception for domestic coca leaf cultivation for licit uses under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. And Ecuador has reformed its penal code, allowing over a thousand low-level offenders to be released from prison,  The also note that Brazil, Chile and Colombia and CARICOM are all analyzing medical marijuana policies.
Yesterday the Jamaican legislative lower chamber passed a law yesterday that decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana and creates an agency to regulate medical marijuana.
Sebastián Valdomir analyzes the Uruguayan initiative in NUSO, wondering whether it has the potential to be an alternative regional model to repression of drug trafficking, as outgoing President José Mujica has presented it. 

It's the kind of policy that could really be a "blow to organized crime," according to Ilonha Szabó, executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and a founder of the Igarapé Institute in Brazil. In an interview with O Globo she makes the case that drug trafficking enforcement must focus on violent crime, not cannabis growers as has been occurring recently in Brazil. 

If Uruguay is the new model, Brazil's policy is the anti-model, according to Luciana Boiteux also writing for NUSO. Current policies ignore social and economic drivers of the drug trade, she writes. Unsatisfactory results include the increase of drug consumption and an ample market of illicit substances, albeit with increasingly poor quality (crack), and the criminalization of poor, Black and mulatto populations.

The current paradigm is done, argues Aram Barra: repressive policies have not succeeded in stemming production or consumption of illicit drugs. Yet obstacles in changing decades of policy remain, he says. Legalization is too broad a category, instead lawmakers in Latin America are exploring a variety of options on the spectrum between total prohibition of drugs and their sale on a completely free market. World-wide most initiatives aim to control the sale of psychoactive substances through several measures: medical prescription or supervised spaces of consumption; sale in pharmacies; authorized sales points; establishments with licenses to sell and consume; and sales by non-authorized providers in some exceptional cases. 
The NACLA piece focuses on the disconnect between U.S. domestic policy -- increasingly focused on health and human rights -- and international policy, which tends towards militarization of a fight to stem drug flow towards the U.S.

But new approaches to drug policy must learn from the successes of drug traffickers, argues Eduardo Vergara in NUSO. Crime organizations have shown themselves to be dynamic and adaptable, unlike insufficient and static government efforts to shut them down. "In scenarios that are in constant flux and dependent on highly dynamic consumption realities, centralized responses have been shown to be insufficient and even regressive," he writes.

News Briefs
  • A Venezuelan police officer killed a 14-year-old boy in protests yesterday in San Cristóbal. Officials say the officer in question has been arrested, and that he fired with plastic pellets, reports the New York Times. President Nicolás Maduro said the killing had occurred as masked demonstrators confronted a group of police officers. “The police said that they were surrounded, beaten and attacked with rocks, and one of the police officers fired his shotgun and killed this boy,” Mr. Maduro said. “I condemn this murder.” The Wall Street Journalnotes the killing comes a month after a controversial defense ministry resolution allowing soldiers to use deadly force on demonstrators if the soldiers feel their lives are at risk.
  • The protests come as the government is moving to strip an opposition lawmaker from the National Assembly, which would strip him of legislative immunity and permit him to be charged with conspiracy against the government, allegations Julio Borges denies. The Wall Street Journal notes that dissent is being increasingly cracked down on by the government. The piece cites a Caracas non-profit that says  177 people have been arrested at protests so far this year, while the Venezuelan Mayors Association says 33 of the 77 opposition mayors elected in 2013 are being investigated by the central government.
  • The Venezuelan opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática party (MUD) will be holding primaries in May to select candidates for the National Assembly elections later this year. Rodrigo Linares writes on the Caracas Chronicles on the rift this announcement caused between moderates and radicals in the party, in the context of Ledezma's arrest. "We need primaries, because we need a cohesive, legitimate, nation-wide opposition leadership to guide us through whatever craziness may lie ahead in the coming months. If anything, Ledezma’s imprisonment should make that even clearer."
  • Democrat Senators surprisingly challenged an Obama administration plan to send over $1 billion in aide to Central America, an attempt to stem the flow of migrants -- especially unaccompanied minors -- coming from the region. The LA Times reports that administration officials expect the funds would help improve law enforcement, reduce corruption, strengthen government services and bolster weak economies in the region. However, Democrat and Republican senators questioned this logic in two budget hearings yesterday. "We've spent billions of dollars there over two decades," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, told Secretary of State John F. Kerry. "And we've seen conditions get worse in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador."
  • The AP has an piece on Colombian oil town Puerto Gaitan, as an example of how plunging oil prices are affecting Latin America. Oil prices fueled an economic bonanza in the past decade, the story reports, and were accompanied by social spending by left-wing governments across the region. Now budgets may have to be slashed and social tensions are rising.
  • Argentina's government accused former spymaster and Nisman collaborator Jaime Stiuso of importing contraband into the country, reports the Wall Street Journal. In latest twist in the Nisman suicide-murder mystery, Argentina's current head of the Intelligence Secretariat found that 94 tons of goods were brought into the country using a law that permits the intelligence agency to bypass customs inspections and taxation, reports Argentina's Página 12. Though the exact nature of the goods is unknown, shipping records indicate medical equipment and electronic video game consoles, among others.
  • The Brazilian judge in charge of businessman Eike Batista's criminal trial is under investigation for allegedly driving a Porsche he ordered seized earlier this month. Local newspapers published pictures of a man identified as Federal Judge Flávio Roberto de Souza driving the luxury car on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, according to the Wall Street Journal. The car was seized along with other assets to guarantee repayment to investors if Batista is found guilty of insider trading related to the meltdown of his oil company.
  • InSight Crime reprints a piece from Agencia Publica exploring Brazil's pretrial detention policy. Human rights organizations have condemned the abuse of preventive detention in Brazil, notes the piece. Human Rights Watch has "highlighted the bottleneck in Brazilian prisons as well as reports of torture, cruel treatment, and poor infrastructure in the country's facilities." 
  • Mexico's president proposed a new law yesterday that would allow foreign customs and migration agents to carry guns in previously established zones. An AP piece notes that such a move would be a significant change in a country that has historically refused to allow this saying it would represent an infringement on national sovereignty. Some analysts think the law, if passed, could open the door to eventually allowing other U.S. security agencies, such as the DEA to send armed agents into Mexico.
  • Mexico's foreign direct investment dropped drastically last year, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last year the country received $22.6 billion, down from $42.1 billion in 2013.
  • The Pope apologized to Mexico yesterday, reports the AP. The Vatican said Wednesday it had sent a note to Mexico's ambassador insisting that Francis "absolutely did not intend to hurt the feelings of the Mexican people" by referring to the "Mexicanization" of his native Argentina from drug trafficking.

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