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How Latin America is reinventing the war on drugs

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Otto Perez Molina is hardly a squeamish liberal. The president of Guatemala, who took office in January, is a retired military general who once served in the country's brutish special forces (Kaibiles). The day after his inauguration, the silver-thatched leader fulfilled a campaign promise to bring an "iron fist" to lawlessness by militarizing the drug fight in Guatemala.

So it stunned the region when the Guatemalan president, in March, floated a provocative initiative to deal with the violence spiraling out of control in another way: He called for an entire rethink of the war on drugs, including the option of the state running a legally regulated drug market.

The idea of pursuing more liberalized drug policies rather than harsher punishments is hardly novel in Latin America. But such notions are usually championed by intellectuals and academics on the left. They have rarely been promoted by sitting presidents.

Yet 2009 marked a hinge moment: A Latin American commission on drug policy headed by three former presidents, from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, published a report declaring the war on drugs a failure – one that desperately needed to shift from repression to prevention. Two years later, the group pulled former officials and business leaders from around the world into the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which went further, rallying nations to consider ways to regulate drugs rather than just crack down on their use.

Amid this growing consensus, Mr. Perez Molina, and perhaps even more significant, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, began floating similar ideas. At a talk in London in late 2011, Mr. Santos, a former defense minister, said the war on drugs was stuck on a "stationary bike."

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