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Report Blasts War On Drugs

JACKI LYDEN, Host:

NPR's Jason Beaubien has covered drug policy issues in Latin America, and the brutal violence between drug cartels. He joins us from Mexico City. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

LYDEN: So the commission encourages countries not to think about this as a war on drugs - a term that dates all the way back to the Nixon administration - and says it's really not just about crime. This is a departure.

BEAUBIEN: It is very much a departure. This report really is attacking these - sort of main thinking, at least here in Mexico, you know, in a place where President Felipe Calderon has directly confronted the cartels, both with the military and the police, and attempted to just beat them down. This report is basically saying that that policy doesn't work, particularly on a global level.

LYDEN: And not just Mexico but other parts of Central America as well, right?

BEAUBIEN: That's right. I mean, in other parts of Central America, there's also been attempts to directly confront the cartels with the military, with the police. Guatemala has basically lost parts of its northern territory to these cartels. And this report is basically saying that that's going to happen somewhere else. Even if Guatemala managed to defeat them, that they would just move to Honduras, or they'd move to El Salvador.

LYDEN: Speaking of El Salvador, that's another place that's tried the criminal tactic, hasn't it?

BEAUBIEN: In El Salvador in particular, there's been a lot more drug trafficking going through there. And in the past, it used to be that these drugs just moved all the way through. But as the cartels are hiring more local people, it's led to other problems. This is a bit of tape from a very high-ranking police commissioner in El Salvador.

M: The Mexican cartels are not paying with money, no. They're paying with drugs.

BEAUBIEN: That's Howard Augusto Cotto. He's the deputy director for investigation with the Salvador National Police. And basically he's saying, so what's happening is that more drugs are flowing onto the streets of El Salvador and causing all of the additional problems that go along with that - more crack addicts, more social problems, more health problems - and that this is one of the effects of the drug trade that normally is just moving drugs from Colombia all the way up to the United States, where the primary market is.

LYDEN: Jason, one of the things this panel says is that governments should decriminalize the use of some drugs - like cannabis, or marijuana, for example. What about that?

BEAUBIEN: So the problems associated with these drugs remain here whether it's marijuana, or whether it's something much harder like cocaine or heroin.

LYDEN: That's interesting because you have on this commission some really luminary names, but also former presidents and public intellectuals in places associated with the drug problem - like Colombia, like Mexico; Brazil, for example. Why do you think the focus is as it is now?

BEAUBIEN: So all of the objectives of the drug war - of reducing the flow of drugs, that's not happening; clearly, reducing the amount of violence, that's clearly not happening. So I think there's a growing sense that a new approach needs to be taken.

LYDEN: Has the Calderon government, or any other, responded to this report so far?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. Calderon's top security official, Alejandro Poire, came out within hours and denounced this report, and said that Mexico is not going to change its course, that Mexico is not going to back off from attacking these cartels. And basically, his argument was that if they're not trafficking drugs, they're going to be trafficking people, they're going to be in extortion rackets, they're going to be in kidnapping, and that we just have to go after these criminal groups.

LYDEN: Jason, one thing interesting about this commission is when you run down the list - and we've got names like George Schultz and Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker - there's no real law enforcement represented on this commission. I thought that was interesting.

BEAUBIEN: It's absolutely true that there wasn't some law-enforcement presence on this report. It was even critical of how law-enforcement officials have been sort of involved in the debate. They're saying that narcotics is not about just law enforcement - it's about safety; it's about health - and that there needs to be a much broader look at how to attack this problem.

LYDEN: Jason Beaubien is NPR's Mexico City correspondent, and he joined me on the line from Mexico City. Jason, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: It was good to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.