Latin American Leaders Question War On Drugs In U.N. Speeches

Our War On Drugs is having a disastrous impact on our neighbors to the south, and they're starting to notice.

The leaders of three Latin American nations that have been on the forefront of the violence created by drug gangs used their speeches before the Unite Nations General Assembly to question current drug policy:

(Reuters) – The presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala all called for a vigorous global debate of anti-narcotics laws at the United Nations on Wednesday, raising new questions about the wisdom of the four-decade-old, U.S.-led “war on drugs.”

Although none of the leaders explicitly called for narcotics to be legalized, they suggested at the U.N. General Assembly that they would welcome wholesale changes to policies that have shown scant evidence of limiting drug flows while contributing to massive violence throughout Latin America.

“It is our duty to determine – on an objective scientific basis – if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office on December 1 after spending much of his presidency locked in a bloody battle with drug-smuggling gangs, called on the United Nations to lead a global debate over a less “prohibitionist” approach to drugs.

Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina echoed Calderon’s call and went even further, saying that “the basic premise of our war against drugs has proved to have serious shortcomings.”

The speeches, which were a few hours apart, constituted some of the most public challenges to date of anti-drug policies that have been mostly unchanged since the 1970s.


Calderon and Santos have suggested on other occasions that they might be open to legalization of narcotics if that helped reduce violence.

Colombia remains one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine despite a decade of U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts, while Mexico has seen unprecedented violence as a transit point for drugs into the United States, the world’s biggest consumer of narcotics.

An influential group of former Latin American leaders including Brazilian ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has openly advocated decriminalization of some drugs as a way to reduce violence.

The small, relatively prosperous South American nation of Uruguay has gone the furthest, sending a bill to Congress last month that would allow the state to grow and sell marijuana.

In his comments on Wednesday, Santos described the debate over drug policy as “a discussion that the world has avoided for many years, and one we hope will produce concrete results.”

Well, at the very least, it makes sense to recognize the fact that the War On (Some) Drugs has been a vast and monumental failure for the vast majority of the 40-odd years that we’ve been fighting it. Here in the United States, it’s led to massive increases in crime and strengthened the position of various criminal gangs in the same manner that Prohibition strengthened the power of the Mafia in the 1920s. It’s led to massive increases in our prison population and ruined the lives of countless numbers of mostly young black men  thrown into prison for little more than mere possession. It has led to further erosion of civil liberties in the name of “fighting crime” as well as a dangerous militarization of the police as they adopt tactics more appropriate to a military squad then a police force. Politically, it has led to a rise in public corruption just as Prohibition resulted in countless police and government officials being “in the pocket” of the bootleggers and willing to look the other way on smuggling for a share of the profits of the criminal enterprise. Through it all, drug us has not decreased one bit. Indeed, it has demonstrably increased nearly every year since President Nixon took the nation down this path.

The price has been far more severe in Latin American, however. Mexico has been locked in a war for control between drug gangs that has led to the deaths of thousands of people. Colombia has spent decades trying to deal with its drug gangs and the insurgency that drug profits have helped fund. They and other nations have paid the price in blood and in the instability of their political institutions, and perhaps that’s why their leaders are speaking up now and telling the United States and the rest of the world that the strategy we’re using now not only isn’t working, but it’s also causing real harm for the people of Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American nations.

These pleas from Latin American leader aren’t anything new. These same three men made similar please during the Summit Of The Americas earlier this year and, the were generally rebuffed by their intended audience, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Indeed, while he entered office signalling that he was interested in making changes to federal drug law enforcement policies, especially as they applied to states that have legalized medical marijuana, President Obama has essentially continued the failed policies of his predecessors.

It’s likely that President Obama is motivated by politics in this regard because Republicans would likely exploit any sign of so-called “weakness” in the drug war, but I have to think that there’s plenty of opportunity out there for a politician who wants to talk about changing our drug laws. In a Rasmussen poll released back  in May, 56% of Americans said that they favor complete legalization of marijuana. Another poll conducted that same month by Mason-Dixon [PDF] showed that an overwhelming 74% support legalization of marijuana for medical use. With numbers like this, a politician talking about relaxing our laws, at least as they relate to marijuana, is likely to be very well received by voters. We just need someone with the courage to take up the battle.

Our drug laws aren’t working. They’re hurting us, and they’re hurting our neighbors. One hopes that the words of Presidents Santos, Calderon, and Molina will be headed, but I’m not very optimistic about it.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PJ says:

    It’s likely that President Obama is motivated by politics in this regard because Republicans would likely exploit any sign of so-called “weakness” in the drug war, but I have to think that there’s plenty of opportunity out there for a politician who wants to talk about changing our drug laws. In a Rasmussen poll released back in May, 56% of Americans said that they favor complete legalization of marijuana.

    Second term.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    The War on Drugs is not a failure for the people making money on it. It’s just like nearly every other war.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    Maybe the pressure to keep drugs illegal is less moral than economic.There’s a huge amount of money being made. Growers, police and the drug protection rackets, distribution systems, gun manufacturers, prisons, and money launderers all depend on this money to survive. Look at how hard the oil companies fight the idea of climate change.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Look at all the law enforcement agencies that are addicted to the money and power they get from the War on Drugs. The abuse of asset forfeiture laws against innocent civilians are legion. Our civil rights are being eroded by the need to fight this useless war.

  5. Vast Variety says:

    Legalize, regulate, and tax is my suggestion. Start with marijuana then move from there.

  6. PogueMahone says:

    Sometimes, it takes an outsider to come into your house and tell you that your house smells like sh!t.

    Because if you’re around sh!t (read: drug war) for so long, you get used to the smell.


  7. Franklin says:

    @Vast Variety: I’m fine with marijuana, but I’d have a problem legalizing things like bath salts. The percentage of humans who are wise enough to weigh the risk of permanent damage to their brain isn’t particularly high. I’d prefer just taking all of that ‘drug war’ funding and changing it to ‘drug rehabilitation’ funding. Try it for a couple years and compare the results.

  8. Al says:


    I’d prefer just taking all of that ‘drug war’ funding and changing it to ‘drug rehabilitation’ funding.

    Portugal came as close about as close to that as anyone could. They found that drug rehab was better than the drug war by just about any metric you could think of.

  9. bill says:

    @Vast Variety: im all about legalizing but if it’s taxed then it’ll be they’ll just crack down on anyone growing their own weed and its back to prohibition era bs. i say if you can grow it in your yard it should be legal- just not for sale maybe?!

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Look, in all truth? I could not give a shit about the war on drugs. For years I went to Mexico and endured drug check points. For years I went to Mexico and endured false drug check points… You know the difference? the bribes were slightly cheaper on some checkpoints.

    And for the record, I was never sure which was which.

    2 years ago, I ran into a gal who knew Valles… we talked about the city…. she said, “Well… They come thru every other week or two…. Shoot up the town. And leave.”

    Folks? We don’t have a clue. I have friends and acquaintances who no longer live there. I…. no longer go there. And I miss it.

  11. Coinspinner says:

    Re-legalize freedom.

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