Legalize Marijuana to Dethrone Paraguay’s Narco-Politics


EspañolIf taken out of context, last week’s comments by the President of Paraguay’s Congress, Blas Llano, could lead one to believe they herald an imminent overhaul of the country’s drug-war policies, following in Uruguay’s footsteps.

But in reality, neither Senator Llano’s opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) nor the ruling conservative Republican National Association (ANR) actually intend to liberalize the drug market. On March 6, President Horacio Cartes opened a congress on drug addiction organized by a foundation carrying his father’s name, where panels on the consequences of prohibition are conspicuously absent.

Paraguay’s history as a drug-transit zone stretches back decades. A cadre of top generals monopolized the trafficking businesses during ANR’s ruthless 1954-1989 dictatorship, with general Alfredo Stroessner at the helm. Paraguay’s first democratic president post-Stroessner, General Andrés Rodríguez, was similarly investigated by US authorities for narco links. Wikileaks has revealed that the DEA investigated Cartes for money laundering and drug trafficking before he was elected.

The murder of reporter Pablo Medina near the Brazilian border in October 2014 brought an open secret into the light of day: the infiltration of drug mafias in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches didn’t stop during democracy. The alleged masterminds of Medina’s crime are local and national politicians from the ANR party. Due to immense pressure from the press, the Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating several legislators and councilmen from both dominant parties for backing and covering up for drug cartels in the countryside.

It’s plain to see that senior figures in both parties are deeply invested in the prohibition business. So Llano’s statements backing decriminalization of marijuana should rather be interpreted in the context of the upcoming municipal elections in November. It is no coincidence that the PLRA launched in February with great fanfare a campaign “against narco-politics,” which sought to present the problem as only afflicting the ruling ANR.

We can safely say this is nothing more than a PR stunt, since other minority leaders from the very same party already proposed drug-policy reforms in the past and found no support among the PLRA leadership. In 2011, Congressman Elvis Balbuena introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana, but it never left the many commissions in Congress controlled by the main opposition party itself.

Llano was also silent in the wake of revelations about pervasive narco-politics last October, when another lone PLRA legislator announced the drafting of a bill to allow for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal consumption and the cultivation of up to 30 cannabis plants.

But even if the PLRA leadership does piggyback onto the latest initiative, it would change little to nothing within Paraguayan narco-politics. Paraguay is the second-largest producer of marijuana in Latin America after Mexico. The lucrative business therefore lies in exporting crops to the huge Brazilian and Argentinean markets — not the local one. Decriminalizing just personal consumption, albeit a step towards ending repressive policies, would leave the mafias undermining Paraguay’s rule of law untouched.

It’s time to seriously address a problem that kills thousands every year in South America. Amambay, Paraguay’s eastern region bordering Brazil and a principal location for cross-border smuggling, already has one of the world’s highest murder rates. Prohibition wreaks further havoc among families torn by imprisonment, in the country’s institutions crucial for economic progress, and even in the environment.

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, urged Paraguayans to end the taboo during a 2013 visit to the country: “We’re never going to have a drug-free society. There never was one and there never will be.”

Paraguay must step up and face the enormous challenge by devising a definitive joint solution with Argentina and Brazil: the full legalization of cannabis production, distribution, and consumption. Nothing short of that will come close to undermining the cartels and alleviating the crippling violence that plagues the Southern Cone.

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