Latin America’s Long War: How Drug Laws Are Shaping International Relationships

A Bolivian coca leaf producer packs 50-pound bags of the dried plant to be sold and delivered to traditional market retailers, La Paz, Bolivia, March 28, 2006 (AP photo by Dado Galdieri).
A Bolivian coca leaf producer packs 50-pound bags of the dried plant to be sold and delivered to traditional market retailers, La Paz, Bolivia, March 28, 2006 (AP photo by Dado Galdieri).
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Drug trafficking laws have led to some contentious relationships among North and South American countries. Now the decriminalization of drugs is challenging these relationships in new ways. Find out more—when you subscribe to World Politics Review.

Drug trafficking has become such a part of the landscape in Mexico that those involved in the practice even have their own unofficial patron saint: Jesus Malverde, a mustachioed bandit from the hills of Sinaloa state who, according to legend, stole from the rich and gave to the poor until his death by hanging in 1909. Though primarily an icon for those who run afoul of drug trafficking laws, Malverde’s legend has also seeped into to the broader popular culture.

Sinaloa is a western Mexican state notorious for drug trafficking. In the capital city of Culiacan stands a shrine to Malverde, maintained by donations from narcotics traffickers. On May 3, the supposed anniversary of Malverde’s death, the shrine is the site of a party complete with banda groups playing narcocorridos — songs glorifying narcotics traffickers — and despensas (giveaways) of food, household items and toys. Throughout the year, donations to the shrine reportedly fund charity projects — like paying funeral expenses for those lacking money. According to some of the shrine’s visitors, narco donations underwrite almost everything.

What is the appeal of Malverde? Researcher Arturo Navarro Ramos of the ITESO university in Guadalajara described most of Malverde’s followers as marginalized people. “He makes it possible to live life on the margins,” he said, pointing to those who break drug trafficking laws as prime examples. “Malverde facilitates the view that people can be saved while not giving up their improper activities.”

To learn more about the unofficial saint with the shady reputation, read The Legend of Jesus Malverde, Patron ‘Saint’ of Narco Traffickers, Grows in Mexico for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Uruguay’s Trailblazing Experiment With Legalizing Marijuana

Jesus Malverde’s popularity reflects the failure, after more than 20 years, of prohibition to eradicate drugs and trafficking from Latin America. In 2013, Uruguay’s government tried an alternative approach: legalizing and regulating the production, sale and use of marijuana. In so doing, it sent a clear message that existing drug trafficking laws are no longer adequate to address contemporary drug problems. A groundbreaking report from the time by the Organization of American States (OAS) included a devastating assessment of the drug prohibition regime and the “war on drugs,” legitimizing a regional rethink of the decriminalization of drugs. Officials hoped Uruguay’s new drug laws would push traffickers out of business and prevent increasing violence over turf. Laws to regulate marijuana in Uruguay and elsewhere, however, are likely to create international tensions. There is a consensus across the region that the current situation is no longer sustainable and that change is needed. However, disagreements persist as to what the decriminalization of drugs might look like and who should champion it.

To learn more about the changes in drug trafficking laws, read Uruguay Marijuana Bill Portends New Era in Drug Policy for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Will Mexico Join the Legalization Bandwagon?

The most recent country to seek answers to these questions is Mexico. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, has proposed fully legalizing marijuana production and distribution for commercial purposes, pending a popular referendum sometime during the first three years of his term. His legislative proposal aims to build on the legal trend in Mexico toward establishing an individual right to possess and consume cannabis by legalizing and regulating its production and commercial distribution. It would establish federal rules and standards that lower levels of government will abide by when setting up regulations at the state and local levels. In addition to the proposed legislation, the incoming government of Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is widely known in Mexico, plans to hold a public referendum to help determine whether and how to allow the legal production and distribution of marijuana. It will need to determine what mix of policies is right for Mexico, with regard to such issues as where it can be sold, in what quantities, and with what regulatory specifications.

To learn more, read Why Mexico’s New President Wants to Legalize Marijuana and End the War on Drugs for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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What the Trump Administration Means for Drug Policy in Latin America

Amid this changing landscape of drug policy, a new element of instability and unpredictability has been introduced: the Trump presidency and the administration’s approach to drug trafficking in Latin America. The State Department has so far shown little interest in Latin America, and the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions appeared keen on reviving the futile and dangerous war on drugs, with an alarmist and anachronistic view on drug policy. Adding to these concerns, diplomatic relations with Mexico have been strained by Trump’s policies. Some may argue that Latin America could in fact benefit from a smaller American role. Without American leadership, however, other countries could fill the vacuum. But whether Trump will do anything to improve the situation is another question.

To learn more about drug policy in Latin America in the Trump era, read What Does the Trump Era Mean for Drug Policy in Latin America for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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You can learn all about drug trafficking laws, the far-reaching impact of the decriminalization of drugs, and a wide variety of other global issues in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in July 2018 and is regularly updated.

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