Janet Napolitano visits El Salvador; President Funes assures US that he does not support drug legalization

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Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, visited El Salvador on Tuesday during a short tour of Mexico and Central America to defend the US’ “War on Drugs” strategy in the face of calls for decriminalization from a growing number of Latin American leaders. Earlier in February, newly-elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez-Molina announced that he would propose decriminalization of drugs in Central America at a regional summit.  Pointing to the resounding failures of the US’ militarized approach in Latin America, he said, “With all the technology, resources and millions of dollars that the US has given, the problem has not diminished. They talk about the success of Plan Colombia but the only thing the big cartels did was neutralize it.” (AP) The US was quick to oppose to Pérez-Molina’s proposal. A statement from the US Embassy in Guatemala warned that “if illegal drugs were decriminalized tomorrow in Central America, transnational criminal organizations and gangs would continue engaging in illegal activities.” While in El Salvador, Napolitano spoke at a press conference with President Funes, where it seems his highest priority was to assuage US concerns that their plans to extend Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative through Central America would not be challenged by any regional consensus around legalization or alternatives. He stated, “I want to use this opportunity to clarify that we do not agree with decriminalizing the trafficking or consumption of drugs as a means to confront narco-trafficking.” As part of Napolitano’s visit to El Salvador, she also met with the newly-appointed Minister of Public Security, retired General David Munguía Payés, a graduate of the School of the Americas, and Minister of Foreign Relations, Hugo Martínez, to discuss migration and security issues and signed an agreement to exchange information about airline passengers flying between the US and El Salvador, supposedly to combat transnational crime. Napolitano also reaffirmed US support for the 2011 Partnership for Growth Agreement, an economic “aid” plan that quickly became a security plan, and expressed respect for President Funes’ decision to name former military officers to the high-ranking positions of Minister of Public Security and Director of the National Civilian Police despite public outcry from human rights defenders and social movement organizations. In November, government officials reported to El Faro that the removal of FMLN leader, Manuel Melgar as Minister of Public Security had been a condition of signing the Partnership for Growth. The behind-the-scenes efforts by the United States government to ensure that the leadership of El Salvador’ security cabinet will follow along with US plans, backed by $300 million in US funding for the Central America Regional Security Strategy, illustrates how critical El Salvador remains to US influence in the region. However, the US’ seemingly desperate need to shore up support in the region also reveals that their adherence to the “War on Drugs” has put them at odds with many in the region, including with some conservative allies. In Mexico, Secretary Napolitano had to defend the War on Drugs, claiming, “[it] is not a failure,” making no acknowledgement of the Mexican Attorney General’s January report that there have been 47,515 drug-related killings since President Calderón brought the Mexican military into the drug war in 2006.

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