By Tom Ramstack

Bogota, Colombia

The president of Colombia and Mexico's former foreign minister suggested that legalizing some recreational drugs might be the only way to stop the violence and smuggling associated with drug cartels.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said legalizing cocaine and marijuana would "take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it."

Colombia remains one of the world's biggest exporters of cocaine despite a tough government crackdown that started 20 years ago with U.S. assistance.

More recently, more than 41,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon ordered troops to help police fight drug cartels, beginning in December 2006.

Recent polls show Mexicans are becoming increasingly frustrated by the war as it continues with no end in sight.

Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said legalizing recreational drugs would destroy the source of power for drug cartels.

"If we legalize marijuana at least in Mexico and something similar happens in the United States, the amount of money that they would have available to buy weapons, hire hit men, corrupt officials would be less, would be reduced," Castaneda said.

He spoke during a panel discussion on international drug trafficking at the conservative Cato Institute public policy foundation in Washington, D.C.

Mexico also could benefit economically by turning marijuana into a revenue source, Castaneda said.

"I think the Mexican marijuana production could be highly competitive if it were legal," he said.

Both Castaneda and Santos agreed the American demand for illegal drugs is a driving force behind the drug cartel violence.

Mexican political leaders have described the United States as the world's biggest illegal drug market.

Among the politicians who have supported drug legalization is former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

In a posting on his personal blog last year, he wrote that "the first responsibility of a government is to provide security for the people and their possessions."

However, "today, we find that, unfortunately, the Mexican government is not complying with that responsibility" because of the drug war, Fox wrote.

Santos said any solutions to drug trafficking must come from an international effort.

"I would never legalize very hard drugs like morphine or heroin because they are suicidal drugs," Santos said in interviews with the British media. "I might consider legalizing cocaine if there is a world consensus, because it has affected us most here in Colombia. I don't know what is more harmful, cocaine or marijuana. That's a health discussion. But again, only if there is a consensus."

He doubted any drug legalization by the Colombian government alone would be effective in stopping drug producers and smugglers.

"What I won't do is become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified," he said. "But I would gladly participate in those discussions because we are the country that's still suffering most and have suffered most historically with the high consumption of the UK, the U.S. and Europe in general."

The latest challenge for Colombia's struggle with cocaine trafficking came this week, when the dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced they had chosen a new leader, Rodrigo Londono-Echeverry. FARC allegedly uses money raised from cocaine production and exports to fund their Marxist revolutionary activities.

Echeverry replaced Alfonso Cano, who was killed in a shootout with Colombian security forces this month. Echeverry is a suspect in hundreds of murders.

The U.S. State Department's web site said Echeverry "set the FARC's cocaine policies" and controlled the "production, manufacture and distribution of hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States and the world."


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