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Will Americas' Summit Signal Shift In Drug War?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the new TV drama, "Scandal," follows the life of a Washington fixer who helps politicians and celebrities survive scandals. We'll talk to Judy Smith, the real life crisis manager who is the inspiration behind the show.

But first, we turn to Colombia. More than 30 government leaders, including President Obama, are meeting this weekend in the coastal city of Cartagena. It's the sixth Summit of the Americas.

One of the items topping the agenda is the U.S.-led drug war and whether it's a failure. Several Latin American leaders are calling for alternatives to address a problem that has ravaged parts of the region.

Here to give us a preview is Tim Padgett. He's the Miami and Latin America bureau chief for Time magazine. Tim, welcome.

TIM PADGETT: Hi. How are you?

HURTADO: Great. Tim, there has been a lot of talk, as you know, leading up to this summit about the drug war. How big a focus is it going to be at the summit?

PADGETT: I think bigger than the United States would prefer. Back in the fall, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia surprised everyone by making a call to at least discuss the legalization or decriminalization of drugs as a way to sap the titanic finances of drug cartels all over the world, particularly in Latin American countries like Colombia and Central America, and especially Mexico.

This was a surprise because I guess it's sort of a Nixon in China thing. You wouldn't expect the president of Colombia, of all places, to come out to at least discuss the legalization of drugs. But I think the fact that the president of Colombia is calling for this debate shows you how exasperated Latin American countries are with the current state - the current failed state, many would say - of the drug war strategy.

HURTADO: Just in reference to this statement that President Santos made a few months ago, we actually have a clip earlier this year when he said he would consider legalizing drugs.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Through translator) I'm not against this, and I'm saying this as president of the republic. The decision would be acceptable for Colombia if the rest of the world follows.

HURTADO: So, Tim, what do we expect to hear from some of these countries at the summit? Is there going to be a big push for legalization?

PADGETT: I think there will be a big push for at least the legalization of more benign drugs like marijuana. And there are two reasons for that. One, I think they believe that it's more politically accepted around the world. Marijuana, in many expert circles, is considered no more harmful if used moderately than, say, alcohol. So, again, I think there's a more political palatability for that.

Number two, a lot of people don't realize just how much share of drug cartels' finances or revenues come from marijuana. It's believed that the drug cartels in Mexico, for example, make at least half.


PADGETT: At least half of their revenues. And we're talking about anywhere, you know, up to $40 billion a year that the Mexican cartels make that - half of those revenues could come from the trafficking of marijuana. So, if you were to legalize marijuana, the thinking goes, that could put a really significant dent in the finances of the cartels, which they, of course, in turn, then use for the high power artilleries that they wield to kill each other and others.

HURTADO: So just opening up this conversation, you're talking about exorbitant profit margins. This could really be a turning point.

PADGETT: Well, they see it as possibly the same turning point that the United States experienced during prohibition, for example, when we again legalized alcohol and took all the money away from people like Al Capone. I think there is, you know, a legitimate parallel there and that's really the basis of the thinking in this case.

HURTADO: And so, Tim, how likely is it that the U.S. will listen?

PADGETT: They'll listen. And Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama have said that they'll listen. They've even said that - Obama has said that this is a, quote, "legitimate topic." The problem is, especially an election year, they just feel that it's a political black hole for any administration to start talking about the legalization of any drugs.

And the problem is, though, to the rest of the world, they're starting to look a little stubborn on this.

HURTADO: And, Tim, this perceived stubbornness of the United States in the rest of the region - do you think that this would provoke some Latin American countries to go rogue and just stop cooperating with U.S. drug policy?

PADGETT: Yes. And I think we've started to hear that already, for example, in Central America, which is perhaps experiencing the worst spate of drug violence right now. In addition to us being so surprised that President Santos said that this should be discussed, a real law and order type like new Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former military man, has stepped forward and said: Yes, this is something we need to reconsider.

And part of this comes from the fact that they also don't think that the United States is doing its share to cut demand. The United States has the most voracious demand for drug consumption of any country in the world. And there's also a feeling that, well, if the United States isn't doing its part to decrease that demand, well then we have no choice then to look at alternative ideas like legalizing drugs.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Tim Padgett of Time magazine about the Summit of the Americas being held this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia. So, Tim, a lot of talk about drugs but what are some of the other topics we expect to hear about?

PADGETT: Well, the other inter-American elephant in the room that will probably be discussed to an extent that the United States would prefer not to have to deal with is Cuba. Just before the summit, there was a lot of talk in the hemisphere about trying to get Cuba reintegrated into the diplomatic community in this hemisphere. And there was a big push to get Cuba invited to this summit.

In a bow to the United States and in a bow to the democratic charter of the organization of American states, President Santos agreed not to invite Cuba to this summit. But what he did do - again, to the surprise of many people - was a few weeks ago he visited Havana himself, personally, and had a face-to-face with Cuban President Raul Castro and pledged to him that, while they would not invite Cuba to this summit, they would, at this summit, try to find ways to have Cuba invited to the next summit.

HURTADO: You were mentioning the elephant in the room, Cuba. Certainly, the Brazilian president and President Obama had some tension in an earlier visit this month. And then, of course, another elephant in the room that's not invited, China, has a growing influence in Latin America. Does all of this suggest, Tim, that the U.S. is losing influence in the region?

PADGETT: Oh, yes. And I think even the U.S. would admit that. And I think there are many in the U.S. government who would say that's not necessarily a bad thing for Latin America to be sort of cutting this dependence that it's had on the United States for so many decades, if not centuries, is in many ways a healthy thing.

The problem, though, is as you point out, you know, the inroads that China is making, mainly economically, but some worry eventually politically. And it's a double-edged sword for Latin America as well, because while China's voracious appetite for the commodities, the raw materials that Latin America sells has helped fuel the Latin American economic boom of late, it's also revealing that Latin American economies are depending too much on raw materials to bolster their economies and not enough on the development of more high tech manufactured value-added goods that are what really helps developing countries become developed.

HURTADO: And so, it's almost transferring dependence from the U.S. in the previous century to China in this century, perhaps?

PADGETT: That's a good point. That's a fear. And it's a question - we interviewed President Santos earlier this month and that's one of the questions we put to him. And he admitted that this is something that, for example, at this summit that Latin American countries are going to have to start confronting.

HURTADO: Tim Padgett is the Miami and Latin America bureau chief for Time magazine. He joined us from his home in Miami. Thank you, Tim.

PADGETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.