Monday, May 4, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 4, 2015

Perspectives on drug policy reform

In the lead up to the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) studies and opinions are piling up.

The Brooking Institution compares perspectives from around the world in The emerging global "dissensus" in drug policy: Geopolitics and UNGASS 2016. Latin America headlines among countries that are pushing for reform include Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico, while Brazil is included in those that are ambivalent. China and Russia are the new narcotics policemen.

The Economist made the same point in a piece on increasingly polarized attitudes towards drugs around the world. (See Friday's post.) El País has an opinion piece that also notes the geopolitical divergence with respect to drug enforcement policies. The differing reactions have a lot to do with how the costs of the drug war are distributed, according to the authors. While Latin America faces record homicide rates, largely related to drug trafficking, Asia's rate of drug consumption is high but has led to little violence. 

Geoff Ramsey and John Walsh report for the Brookings Institution on Uruguay's ground-changing legislation, the first country in the world to legalize and regulate every level of the cannabis market. They note that compared to similar cannabis laws in Washington and Colorado, the Uruguayan measure is more state-centered, with less emphasis on commercialization and greater restrictions on use. They recommend that authorities remain flexible regarding variables such as price and potency of strains made available to consumers; continue to adjust the law based on monitoring and evaluation; create an inspection and enforcement strategy for officials, and educate consumers and the public about drug prevention and the aims of the law.

Also in the Brookings Institution's report, Daniel Mejía recommends Colombian authorities switch to manual eradication of coca fields -- taking a stance in a hot button issue. While the Health Ministry has recommended eliminating glyphosate aerial sprayings of illegal coca fields, following a WHO finding that the substance is "probably" carcinogenic, the Defense Ministry says they will continue for now. (See Tuesday and Wednesday's posts.) Mejía admits that the spraying campaigns have been successful in battling the drug trade -- coca cultivation was reduced from 160,000 hectares to 48,000 hectares between 2000 and 2013 -- but he says manual eradication is more cost effective and has fewer health and environmental side effects. In addition, he recommends centering eradication policies on alternative livelihood programs and anti-drug strategies on areas where the most value is added to the product, such as large cocaine production facilities and large cocaine shipments.

El Espectador notes that while the government is sending mixed messages regarding the war on drugs' direction, the Colombia-coordinated Technical Report on Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Related Offenses presented last week at OAS's Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) session points in a reform-minded direction.

Brazil's new drug legislation failed in its goal to distinguish between drug users and dealers, says Paula Miraglia for the Brookings Institution. A discriminatory culture in the justice system and discretion in how authorities can classify offenses such as trafficking resulted imprisonment of addicts. Brazil has the world's fourth largest imprisoned population. She looks at challenges faced by innovative programs such as Braços Abertos in São Paulo and the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora in Rio de Janeiro.

News Briefs

  • A rare fatal attack on a military helicopter in Mexico on Friday killed three soldiers and wounded 12. The helicopter was attacked by an armed group in a rural area of the Jalisco state and was forced to make an emergency landing. The New York Times reports that "an outbreak of violence in the region that left banks and gas stations ablaze and residents hunkering indoors." A total of 7 people were reported dead and 19 wounded in four separate firefights, reports the Wall Street Journal. An increasingly strong cartel, the Jalisco New Generation, led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias "El Mencho,", caused the violence, according to an AP piece. Friday0s fighting was the result of government authorities' attempt to capture the cartels' leaders, after an ambush last month killed 15 state police officers and wounded five more, reports the Wall Street Journal. In a separate piece, the Wall Street Journal's sources point to a new front in the drug war in Guadalajara and Jalisco. The Mexican government's success in fighting drug cartels in other areas of the country might have allowed the Jalisco cartel to grow unchecked, according to the piece. But the organization's willingness to confront the national army and authorities mean it will quickly become a government priority. Smaller, but well-armed groups are a new element in the ongoing drug wars in Mexico.
  • Brazilian federal prosecutors opened an influence-peddling inquiry into former president Lula da Silva's business activities. The New York Times reports that the investigation supposedly centers around his business dealings with Odebrecht, one of Brazil's largest construction companies. Specifically, prosecutors are examining whether da Silva used his influence to obtain loans for the company from Brazil's national development bank.
  • Central American and Caribbean countries are investing heavily in renewable sources of energy, following U.S. recommendations for the region and diversifying from subsidized Venezuelan oil, reports the Wall Street Journal. The piece focuses on Nicaragua, expects to meet 80 percent of its power needs with renewable energy by 2020. Venezuela's government has sent over $70 billion in subsidized oil to countries around the Caribbean, but its faltering economy is forcing it to cut shipments. At the same time the U.S. is funding energy projects in the region as part of a move to improve ties.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a 30 percent increase in the minimum wage on Friday. Though he had hinted at major economic reform last week, according to the Wall Street Journal, the hike was the focus of his Worker's Day speech. Venezuela will probably have triple digit inflation this year, leading opposition politicians to question the utility of the move.
  • Alan Gross, the U.S. AID contractor who spent five years in Cuban jail and whose liberation was central in the diplomatic thaw between the two countries, is raising money to support elected officials and candidates on the island who would promote freer trade, reports the New York Times. He will be speaking at a Miami New Cuba PAC fundraiser today, in a discussion on modernizing the relation between the U.S. and Cuba.
  • The New York Times Magazine has a piece in which Gabriel González, creator of a satirical site in Ecuador, says he is being threatened because of political jokes he made. After creating a meme that showed President Rafael Correa in a mall in Amsterdam with two Ecuadorean immigrants who asked him to take a picture with them -- the president was pictured with a shopping bag in front of a Chanel store -- González says he was mentioned twice by Correa in televised speeches. He has since received threats and says freedom of expression is "increasingly controlled" in Ecuador.
  • Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti is at the center of a political storm unleashed by an investigation into a political corruption scheme that led to 20 arrests last month, allegedly led by her private secretary Juan Carlos Monzón, explains Contra Poder. President Otto Perez Molina's government faces strong pressure from Washington to jettison Baldetti and the recent decision to extend the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is an attempt at appeasement in that sense, according to the piece. The CICIG's investigation uncovered the corruption scheme. 
  • Social media is driving Guatemalan protests of anger against the government, in the wake of the corruption scheme's disclosure, reports PRI. The hashtag for the movement, which is planning a big protest on May 16 is #RenunciaYaFase2, or “Resign already, phase 2.”
  • Fulton Armstrong explains the recent Honduran Supreme Court decision to permit presidential reelection and questions the U.S. stance regarding the change in the American University'sAULA blog. Armstrong gives background on the decision and makes the case that Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández is a U.S. policy darling, despite his alleged role in the 2009 military-civilian coup that ousted the sitting Honduran president. He contrasts the U.S. government's silence on the reelection change in this case, while a similar move in Nicaragua a few years ago elicited State Department concern.
  • Puerto Rico's governor signed an executive order to authorize use of medical marijuana in the U.S. territory. Authorities have three months to detail how the order will be implemented. The unexpected move comes after a lengthy public debate according to the AP.

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