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Latin America breaks ranks in US war on drugs

Many countries in the region – most recently Mexico – have decriminalized small amounts of drugs for personal use. The moves have followed decisions by left-leaning governments to limit cooperation with the US in recent years.

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Four decades ago, President Richard Nixon turned a phrase that would become an unquestioned keystone of US policy: the "war on drugs."

Since then, Latin America has agreed, usually in exchange for US aid, to the rules of the game: an aggressive stance toward coca eradication and against narcotics trafficking.

Now, it seems, countries are beginning to back down from the punitive status quo and embracing the decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal use.

To be sure, Washington still finds many on its side. Many of Latin America's politicians, nonprofits, and citizens are questioning the merits of decriminalization, and all countries still strictly forbid the legalized production, transport, and sale of illicit drugs.

But many in the region are now defying the long-established American mindset, even in countries that staunchly align with its security goals. That includes Mexico, where small amounts of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana for personal use were decriminalized just last month.

"I think there is a real fatigue with the US-style drug war ... a sense that the criminal penalties that the US has seen fit for itself, and also pushed for other people, aren't viable," says John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Some countries in Latin America have long had far more lenient policies than the US. According to The Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, which culls data on national drug legislation, Uruguay, for decades, has left it to judges to determine whether intention is for personal use (which is legal) or sale (which is not), while as far back as 1998, Paraguay passed a law exempting punishment for those caught with 2 grams or less of cocaine or heroin and 10 grams or less of marijuana for personal consumption.

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