Will private sector propose legalization of drugs?

AACCLA’s growing debate over regional drug-war policy represents a dramatic shift in priorities for a hemispheric commerce group that has spent nearly two decades focusing on free-trade agreements.

With a bluish-gray predawn haze casting long shadows over the choppy Caribbean waters, a Nicaraguan Navy patrol boat gave full-throttle chase to a 400-horsepower drug boat racing up the coastline past Bilwi, the drug-infested capital of Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

Bullets spit from the fleeing speedboat, prompting the navy patrolmen to return fire, killing all four narco-traffickers onboard. When the navy patrol came up alongside the lifeless vessel, they found a total of 1.7 tons of cocaine, assault rifles and nine barrels of gasoline.

Nicaraguan Navy patrol returns to shore after making drug bust on high seas off the coast of Bilwi (courtesy of navy)

Two of the slain drug runners were local men from Bilwi, while the other two men are unknown foreigners presumed to be Colombians.

While the Nov. 11 bust is being hailed as another success in Nicaragua’s drug-war efforts, which are considered exemplary in the region, it’s also an indication of escalating violence in a hemispheric crusade with no exit plan for any of the countries involved.

And when killings and captures are the main metrics of success, the policy as a whole is flawed, critics argue.

“Who is supplying the dead and where does the money go?” demands Nicaraguan businessman César Zamora, vice president of  the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA), a hemispheric association of business chambers that do commerce with the United States.

Zamora, who last month was reelected vice president of AACCLA for another two-year period, says the issues of drug-trafficking and citizen security are no longer just state problems, they’re also problems for Latin American businesses and economies.

As a result, he says, rethinking the drug war—including the possibility of legalizing narcotics—has become a hot debate and emerging priority in the upper echelons of the hemisphere’s private sector.

What’s clear, he said, is that the current model is not working. The drug war has become too narrow, violent and reactionary to work well as a sustainable policy. And it’s only worsening the business climate by increasing violence and security costs, while raising new doubts about judicial security and rule of law.

While many doubts and questions remain about what a legalization policy would mean and how it would work, it’s one of the options that AACCLA is putting on the table for consideration.

“We have to look for solutions in an integral way, and be open to discussing the issue and asking new questions,” Zamora told The Nicaragua Dispatch.

The drug war is not working: Nicaraguan businessman César Zamora, vice president of AACCLA (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Zamora said politicians have been dealing with the drug-war issue for nearly 30 years, but it’s only led to more violence and insecurity while failing to stem the global flow of drug-trafficking and money laundering. Perhaps, he says, it’s time to look at the problem from a new angle, and start asking different questions.

“For politicians, it is hard to talk about certain issues related to drug-trafficking. But for the business class, we have visions that are more pragmatic,” Zamora said.

Business leaders, he says, “Are not as worried about the moral issues involved in talking about the legalization of drugs.”

“For a politician in the United States or Central America, it is very difficult to talk about that because it doesn’t win votes—and politicians live on votes,” he said. “But I think there are studies by serious people and organizations that have already put the issue on the table so we can we talk about it seriously.”

Though Zamora doubts any serious drug-policy proposal—or even consensus— will come out of AACCLA within the next year, he expects the issue to top the business group’s agenda at its next two meetings in January and May.

Changing priorities

AACCLA’s drug debate represents a dramatic shift in priorities for a commercial lobbying organization that has spend the better part of two decades focusing almost exclusively on promoting free-trade agreements between Latin America and the United States. And it reflects the evolving challenges to doing business in a globalized economy.

Curiously enough, it’s the private sector’s understanding of the hemispheric chain of supply and demand that has got them interested in studying the drug problem on a regional level.

“There is no way to stop the trafficking; it’s a problem of supply and demand,” Zamora said. “And Latin America can’t continue to keep supplying the dead to reduce the consumption of drugs in the United States.”

It’s also not a problem that can be fixed just by asking the United States to throw more money into the drug war, he said.

“We have to redefine the whole strategy. What is the global strategy?  What is the sub-regional strategy, and how can each country play a role in this?” he said.

Unless the problem is looked at globally, the drug war will continue to be a zero-sum situation in which one country’s gain translates directly into a neighboring country’s loss. For example, Zamora said, Colombia’s rather successful efforts to bust drug cartels has only pushed the problem into Central America and Mexico, where 50,000 people have died in drug-war violence in the past six years.

The solution, therefore, is to think outside the box and consider new ways of dealing with the problem, rather than just squeezing the balloon in one spot and watching it bulge somewhere else.

The drug war is also weakening state institutions by privatizing security, infiltrating judicial systems and undermining rule of law—all of which is bad for business and productivity, Zamora said.

 The solution, he said, needs to be one in which state institutions are strengthened, not privatized.

“We have privatized security in Central America,” Zamora said, noting there are now more private security forces in Central America than there are soldiers and police combined. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just have more efficient police and armies, and pay more taxes into a system with mechanisms that work?”

While AACCLA isn’t expected to start lobbying for an overhaul of drug-war policy in the coming months, it’s an issue that’s quickly becoming a private-sector priority for improving the business climate in the hemisphere.

And right now, the hemisphere’s AMCHAMs are willing to consider all options.

“That’s what this is all about,” Zamora said. “Because what we are doing now is not solving the problem.”