Guatemalan leader: the only way to beat gangs is to legalise drugs

The US's failure to cut demand for narcotics leaves Central America no choice, says President

The President of Guatemala has floated the prospect of legalising drugs in a bid to stop criminal gangs bringing even more bloodshed to Central America, and will attempt to win regional support for an idea which is likely to face fierce opposition in Washington.

Otto Perez Molina used a meeting with Mauricio Funes, his counterpart from neighbouring El Salvador, to discuss the concept earlier this week. He described it as the only way to respond to America's failure to cut the demand for illicit drugs from consumers. Mr Molina intends to seek support for legalising drugs from other Central American leaders at a summit next month. "We're bringing the issue up for debate," he announced to reporters in Guatemala City. "If drug consumption isn't reduced, the problem will continue."

The decision to explore legalisation comes amid soaring crime rates in the country, which is regarded as prime real estate by Mexican drug cartels competing to shift cocaine from South America, where it is grown, to the US, where most of it is consumed.

Since current policies don't appear to be stemming that flow, Guatemala needs "to find alternate ways of fighting drug trafficking," Mr Molina says. "In the last 30 years with a traditional combat with arms and deaths, it can't be done and we have to be open to viable alternatives." The President remains vague on exactly how legalisation will work in practice. His best stab at outlining the nuts and bolts of the policy came in a radio interview, in which he said: "It wouldn't be a crime to transport, to move drugs. It would all have to be regulated."

Advocates of the policy argue that current laws place a highly lucrative industry in the hands of criminals. A kilogram of cocaine, which retails for about $3,000 (£1,900) in Colombia, is worth about $70,000 on the streets of America and the business of smuggling it is worth an estimated $38bn a year.

Those profit margins have led to institutionalised corruption and endemic violence. Guatemala has one of the world's highest murder rates outside of a war zone, with 52 deaths per 100,000 citizens each year. About 98 per cent of murders go unsolved.

Mr Molina's endorsement of legalisation still comes as a surprise. A right-leaning former army general, he was elected in November after promising to robustly fight crime.

After taking office, Mr Molina apparently experienced a change of heart. In an interview this week, he said that reducing crime requires a comprehensive raft of policies that address poverty and other social issues.

"Hunger is also violence and is also a security problem," he said, admitting that this way of thinking is at odds with Washington's policy of supporting police and military crackdowns. "We are not doing what the United States says. We are doing what we have to do."

Otto Perez Molina: A 'firm hand'

Former army general Otto Perez Molina won the 2011 presidential election on the slogan "mano dura" or "firm hand", a stance he vowed to take against Guatemala's deteriorating security situation.

The right-leaning Mr Molina, of the Patriotic Party, attracted support from non-elites tired of spiralling crime during his campaign. He is not without skeletons, having served in military intelligence during Guatemala's brutal civil war.

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