Biden Says Drug Legalization Debate Is ’Totally Legitimate’

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that while drug legalization debates are “totally” legitimate, the administration of President Barack Obama will be inflexible in its narcotics policy.

The U.S. and Mexico can be doing more to crack down on drug cartels’ money laundering operations, Biden told reporters in Mexico City at the start of his visit today to Mexico and Honduras. The trip came amid growing calls by regional leaders to debate legalizing the consumption of drugs as frustration with an American-led crackdown grows.

“It is a totally legitimate debate,” Biden said, adding “There’s no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

Countries that have experimented with decriminalization have found consumption expand, Biden said.

Five Central American presidents have said in the past week they were willing to engage in regional discussions over a change in policies, including the decriminalization of the use of drugs, to reduce drug-trafficking that is fueling a rise in violence and homicides in their region.

“If we keep doing what we have been when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we’ll never get anywhere,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said in a Feb. 29 interview. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon, who has seen murders surpass 47,000 since he declared war on the nation’s drug gangs in 2006, has also shown a willingness to debate new tactics.

’Urgent Need’

During the meeting, Calderon “reiterated the urgent need to strengthen actions against weapons trafficking into our country and money laundering,” according to an e-mailed statement from the president’s office.

The U.S. in 2008 pledged $1.6 billion to fight drug gangs in Mexico and Central America through the Merida Initiative.

Together with the half-century embargo against communist Cuba, the U.S. anti-narcotics crackdown has long irritated Latin America, the source for most of the cocaine and heroin consumed in the U.S. The U.S. has delivered $13.1 billion in anti-drug aid to Latin America and the Caribbean from 1990 to 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Obama Visit

That strategy may become a target of criticism by regional leaders when President Barack Obama travels next month to Colombia, the epicenter of the U.S. drug war abroad, for the sixth Summit of Americas, according to Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Biden today met with Calderon to discuss economic, immigration and security issues. About 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are sent to the U.S. and growth in Latin America’s second-biggest economy is closely-linked to its neighbor’s recovery from the global financial crisis.

Mexico’s central bank Governor Agustin Carstens said on Feb. 15 said the economy would grow 3 percent to 4 percent this year and next. The peso has strengthened 8.6 percent against the U.S. dollar this year, the biggest gain after Colombia’s peso among major Latin American currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

Post-Coup Visit

Biden also met with the candidates from Mexico’s three major parties competing in a July 1 presidential election before heading to Honduras tomorrow. He told reporters he did not see differences among the candidates in their willingness to cooperate with the U.S.

In the Central American country he’ll meet with President Porfirio Lobo as well as the leader of Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama to discuss security and the region’s relations with the U.S.

Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Honduras since the 2009 military coup in which then-President Manuel Zelaya was expelled from the country. Zelaya was ousted by soldiers after the Supreme Court ruled that his push to rewrite the constitution was illegal.

The U.S. broke with many countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, in recognizing Lobo’s post-coup government. Since then tensions between those countries and the U.S. has eased after Lobo allowed Zelaya to return to Honduras and established a truth commission to probe the causes of the coup.

Rising Violence

Violence in Central America has risen even after the U.S. started the Merida Initiative to support law enforcement in the region, a major transit zone for the cocaine that arrives from Colombia by boat and then works its way north by land into Mexico and over the border into the U.S. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with 82 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Corruption among security forces is blamed for much of the violence. In January, Honduras’s Congress approved a law to create a commission to “cleanse” the national police and judicial officials. A specially-designated committee of national and international officials will interrogate and administer lie detector tests to security and judicial personnel beginning this year, according to text of the law.

Lobo said last week that an “infinite number of human lives” have been lost to drug violence and that as many as 22 people are murdered daily in his country.

Central American drug legalization talks were sparked last month by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who shortly after taking office said his government would “bring the debate to the table.” The former army general said that “while drug consumption is not being reduced, the problem will continue.”

Guatemala’s Vice President Roxana Baldetti met with the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras last week to discuss methods to combat regional drug traffic, including possible legalization.

Economic Toll

The added value of cocaine passing through Central America may equal about 5 percent of the countries’ gross domestic product, according to the 2011 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent body that monitors the implementation of UN drug conventions.

The murder rate in Mexico increased 65 percent from 2005 to 2010, including more than 20,500 homicides in 2010, according to the UN. The Mexican government estimates that violence shaves 1.2 percentage points off economic output annually.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who helped carry out the U.S.-led anti-narcotics strategy as his nation’s defense chief until 2009, called for a legalization debate last year and likened the war on drugs to a stationary bike. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has also supported debate of the subject.

“We did such a good job in shutting down the Caribbean with Plan Colombia, it was like squeezing a water balloon. It came up through Central America and up through Mexico,” Biden said.

(Updates with comments from Vice President Joe Biden in first paragraph.)
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