Faced with violence that has left 50,000 people dead in Mexico and created war zones in Central America, regional leaders have for months been openly discussing what they view as the shortcomings of the U.S. approach. But the summit marks the first opportunity for many of them to directly share their grievances with Obama.
Those leaders who have most forcefully offered new proposals, or developed carefully argued critiques of American policy, are among Washington’s closest allies. They include Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who marshaled U.S. aid to weaken drug syndicates; Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former military man who has long battled drug gangs; and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose nation has been engaged in an all-out war with cartels.
“There’s probably been no person who has fought the drug cartels and drug trafficking as I have,” Santos said in an interview last week with The Washington Post. “But at the same time, we must be very frank: After 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right and you are almost in the same position.
“And so you have to ask yourself: Are we doing the correct thing?”
Perez, whose small country has been engulfed by violence that his security forces can barely contain, has been the most forceful and surprising proponent of far-reaching policy changes. The military and police under his command have continued to battle traffickers, he said in an interview from Guatemala City. But he said they have little to show for their effort.
“The strategy that we have followed these 30 or 40 years has practically failed, and we have to recognize it,” he said.
In Washington, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which oversees anti-drug policies for the Obama administration, declined to comment on the debate. But during a two-day visit to Central America and Mexico last month, Vice President Biden laid out the U.S. position, saying, “There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization.”
“It’s worth discussing,” he told reporters, “but there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”
U.S. statistics signal some progress, such as a 40 percent drop in cocaine use in the United States since 2006 and a 68 percent plunge over the same period in the number of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.