During the 1980s and 1990s, as the United States battled the scourge of cocaine throughout the hemisphere, Washington did most of the talking. Latin American governments were forced to listen and fall in line. The American government had the most money to throw at the problem, the toughest justice system and the biggest bully pulpit.
In recent years, that top-bottom approach has been upended as countries in the region have begun to develop new strategies to fight drug trafficking and discourage the use of narcotics. The initiatives that are being discussed and applied represent a welcome break with the largely failed traditional approach, which has emphasized prohibition and punishment. A special United Nations General Assembly meeting next April on drug policy has provided an added incentive to develop fresh approaches to the problem, including sentencing reforms and legalization.
“There is near unanimity that the focus needs to be on health and public health,” John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America said in an interview. “That is very significant, considering most of the policy remains focused on enforcement and interdiction.”
While a broadly accepted regional approach remains a distant goal in a politically diverse hemisphere with many strained relationships, the present conversations offer considerable hope. Washington has started doing more listening than lecturing, in large part as a result of the domestic debate about the legalization of marijuana andsentencing reform for drug crimes.
Colombia, which has been among Washington’s most willing and pliant partners in the fight against drugs, is among those charting their own course in notable ways. Defying the United States, the Colombian governmentrecently banned aerial spraying of coca crops, citing health concerns. Earlier this month, Yesid Reyes, the Colombian justice minister, delivered a speech at the United Nationsoutlining proposals that include decriminalizing consumption and finding alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offenses.
“We declared a war that has not been won,” Mr. Reyes said in the speech. “For that reason it’s imperative to conceive and agree on, at the international level, policies and approaches that allow us to respond to this enormous challenge in the most humane, smart and effective way.”
Uruguay and Bolivia have also been leaning forward. Uruguay legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2013. Bolivia kicked out the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009 and currently allows farmers to grow modest crops of coca, which is widely chewed as a stimulant and used for medicinal purposes there. There are outliers, though; chiefly Peru, which continues to fight the drug trade with strict and punitive policies.
The United States has a strained relationship with several governments that have a major stake in the drug trade, including Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In the years ahead, Washington may be able to strengthen regional cooperation if it places greater emphasis on the tools and expertise it has to offer, rather than punishing those that are deemed to be taking insufficient steps to curb the drug trade.
“You have to be able to make the case that having American drug enforcement agents involved with your local partners is good for the bottom line of those countries,” said Julissa Reynoso, a former senior State Department official who worked on Latin America policy until last year. “Most countries have an interest in having less crime, and I think that’s a case that can be made, even to countries that are not as friendly.”