Debate on drug legalization hits mainstream press in newspapers throughout the Americas

With Mexico and Central America suffering record levels of violence -- mostly due to escalated drug trafficking -- Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina intends to raise the controversial issue of drug legalization at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14-15. As an analysis by three former presidents from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico noted, 40 years of concentrated drug-fighting efforts have done nothing to reduce ever-increasing drug production and use, making it time for the region to take a new approach, according to an article published in news outlets throughout the region, including The Huffington Post.

Desperate to diminish the drug violence tearing apart the region, Perez Molina, in an editorial published in The Guardian, wrote, "Our proposal, as the Guatemalan government, is to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalization) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls."

Throughout the Americas, newspapers have been saturated with coverage of the proposal, with many journalists -- who often find themselves the target of drug traffickers for reporting on organized crime -- convinced that regulating drugs would go a long way toward stemming violence and protecting freedom of expression. In Mexico alone, as many as 70 reporters have been killed from drug violence in recent years, and 2011 has been called the most tragic year for the Latin American press in two decades. See these Knight Center maps about violence against the press in Mexico and Central America.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, as quoted by Hawaii Daily News.

The news site InSight Crime maps where each country stands on the drug legalization issue, and offers perspectives from various scholars about the topic.

An analysis by Martín Rodríguez Pellecer in the Guatemalan digital newspaper Plaza Pública noted that the Guatemalan president's proposal has prompted Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and others to explore the possibility of regulation, suggesting that Pérez Molina's idea has placed Guatemala "in the center of a global debate that could be just the beginning of the end of the century of the war against drugs."

The United States, while sympathetic to the plight of Latin American countries fed up with violence and social problems brought about by drug consumption, remains adamantly opposed to any form of drug decriminalization, explained The New York Times. El Salvador's president Mauricio Funes also has rejected the idea of legalization, worrying that the region would then become a "paradise" for drug users, according to Prensa Libre. An editorial in the Washington Post questioned whether damaging cartels and reducing costs of enforcement would be worth increased health problems from an increase in consumption if drugs were legalized.

When considering coverage of the theme in Guatemala, the newspaper Prensa Libre, the country's largest -- and mostly conservative -- daily, at first was highly critical of the president's proposal, Rodríguez Pellecer of Plaza Pública told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. ElPeriódico was more balanced, and Plaza Pública more in favor, he said, adding that Prensa Libre is much less critical in recent days. In general, opinion columns show a mix between pros and cons, but as of yet neither the Guatemalan Association of Journalists not the Journalism Chamber has weighed in on the issue, he said.

Still, he added, he believes regulating the drug market would in the end benefit journalists, as it would "do away with much of the violence," he said.

Another Guatemalan journalist, Javier Estrada, told the Knight Center that the topic has demanded broad and extensive press coverage, as "there is a social need to know the developments and news about the President's proposal," especially given the "extraordinary national and international media attention" it is receiving. He also said that he would "expect that journalists, who are often victims of assaults and threats by these criminal groups, would also perceive the change as favorable for their safety in work."

Coverage in Costa Rica hasn't been as intense as that in Guatemala, Alejandro Delgado Faith, president of the Institute for Press and Freedom of Expression (IPLEX in Spanish), told the Knight Center. Legalization alone won't help protect journalists, he said, as reporters will continue to cover other aspects of the drug phenomenon, as "the drug trafficking business is multidimensional and the media will continue reporting consequences related to it," he said.

Jose Rodolfo Ibarra of Colper, the Journalists Union of Costa Rica, said the organization has not taken an official stance, although the country's president has called for debate on drug legalization. "Eliminating the criminalization of drug trafficking will not have the same effect as eliminating prohibition (on alcohol) because of clear effects on individual health and society," Ibarra told the Knight Center. "A lot of journalists have given their lives in vain to uncover the wrongs of drug trafficking...We cannot permit an idea with unclear interests to permeate our laws under absurd excuses."

Perhaps because President Funes -- himself a former journalist -- is opposed to the proposal, coverage in El Salvador has been superficial, according to Ricarco Vaquerano, editor at the digital newspaper El Faro. "Salvadoran journalists have not ventured to investigate the depths of the issue, whether Pérez Molina's proposal makes sense or not," Vaquerano told the Knight Center. "Except for columnists, no one has begun to explore the possible benefits of decriminalizing trafficking and the commercialization of drugs that until now have been illicit." Salvadoran journalists in general have not come out either for or against the proposal, he said.

The heart of the matter, as it relates to journalism, is about press freedom, Vaquerano said. "In El Salvador press freedom doesn't exist because there are multiple factors of pressure or dissuasion that cause journalists to self-censor or media self-censor when covering or reporting on drug trafficking organizations and the distribution of illegal drugs. Definitely, legalization and regulation of drugs opens the potential for the risks and threats for institutions -- including the Legislative Assembly, courts, and the press -- to diminish, but it doesn't eliminate the potential profit of smuggling drugs, even if their sale is legal," he said.

Vaquerano added that it is unfortunate that the president has closed the door on debating the proposal when all other traditional measures for fighting drugs have failed.

Other Related Headlines:
» The Washington Post ( Interview with Guatemala President Otto Perez)