GUATEMALA CITY — Watching how the drug cartels are penetrating the highest levels of some Central American governments, I can't help wondering whether the nearly 40-year-old U.S. war on drugs has only helped push the drug barons from Colombia to Mexico and now from Mexico to Central America.
Are Washington's drug interdiction programs really helping reduce the supply of drugs? Or are they just chasing the drug lords out of one country only to see them reemerge in another?
During a 48-hour visit here for a business conference, I turned on the television on my first night in town and learned that President Alvaro Colom had fired his top law enforcement official, Interior Minister Raúl Velásquez, in connection with an anti-corruption investigation.
Velásquez was the fourth interior minister who was fired since Colom took office in January 2008. Two of Valásquez's predecessors had been sacked on charges of working for the drug cartels.
But that wasn't all. Hours later, I learned that Colom had just fired the country's police chief, Baltazar Gómez, and the head of his anti-drug unit in connection with the theft of 700 kilos of cocaine seized from drug traffickers last year.
Gómez's predecessor, Porfirio Perez, was fired in September on charges of stealing $300,000 from drug traffickers. One of Perez's most recent predecessors, Adán Castillo, was fired after being secretly taped accepting $25,000 from a DEA informant in 2005.
Drug trafficking is not new in Guatemala nor in most of its Central American neighbors.
But as the State Department conceded in its 2010 International Narcotics Strategy Report, released last week, it has boomed since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched his U.S.-backed war on drugs three years ago.
"As Mexico achieves further progress against the criminal organizations operating on its territory . . . there is growing evidence that Mexico's drug trafficking organizations are already establishing a presence in these [neighboring] regions, particularly in some Central American states," the report says.
Intrigued, I requested an interview with Colom and asked him whether he sees any correlation between Mexico's crackdown on drug lords and the rise of drug cartel-related corruption in his country.
"Whenever President Calderón has a success, I have a problem," Colom responded, only half-jokingly.
"We either fight drug traffickers regionally or we will lose the battle."
According to Colom, who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here Friday to discuss joint anti-drug efforts, it's not just Mexico's war on the cartels that is driving the cartels to his country.
The virtual dismantling of the Guatemalan army after the 1996 peace accords that ended the civil war brought the armed forces down from 54,000 to 12,000 troops in 2004 and left the northern part of the country unprotected, he said.
Does it make sense for Washington to spend billions of dollars to fighting drug cartels in Latin America, I asked him.
"Yes," he said. "Last year, we seized more cocaine and synthetic drugs than over the previous four years. Just think of the number of lives we saved by doing that."
My opinion: I agree that you can't throw in the towel and allow the drug cartels to continue expanding.
But it's also clear that after spending more than $14 billion from U.S. taxpayers over the past four decades in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and other countries in the region, Latin America continues to be the largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana to the United States.
Granted, in recent years Washington's focus has shifted toward spending a larger share of U.S. anti-drug funds toward prevention and education, and U.S. drug consumption has diminished as a percentage of the U.S. population.
But more will be needed. Washington may have to consider decriminalizing personal marijuana consumption -- as former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia proposed last year -- to free massive resources that could be used to fight more dangerous drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, on a hemisphere-wide basis.
As it is now, the U.S. war on drugs in Latin America is not working. All we are doing is chasing the drug cartels from one country to another without making much of a dent on drug trafficking.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.