March 6, 2002
The Center for Latin American Issues
and the
Organization of American States


"Combating Drugs in the Hemisphere:
From Confrontation to Cooperation"


The GW Center for Latin American Issues (CLAI), in conjunction with the Organization of American States, sponsored a panel discussion on the evolution of the hemispheric effort to combat illegal drugs. Featured speakers on the panel were: David Beall, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission of the OAS; Miguel Ruiz-Cabañas, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the OAS; Lionel Hurst, Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda to the OAS; and Bradley L. Hittle, from the Drug-Source Country Support Office of the ONDCP. Magdalena Talamas of the OAS and James Ferrer of CLAI moderated the discussion.
Illegal drug trafficking and use are among the most pervasive criminal and public health issues confronting the Western Hemisphere. The four panelists focused on the OAS Multilateral Evaluation Mechanism (MEM), a landmark document in the collective hemispheric effort to cope effectively with the drug threat. The MEM was proposed by the United States in 1997 and was inaugurated in 1999 by a consensus of the OAS member nations. It represents a “coordinated effort to attack all aspects of the drug problem throughout the hemisphere,” according to Mr. Hittle.
The drug issue is highly complex, and rigid solutions will not be effective. Beall said that governments need to learn to move more quickly to adapt to the increasing sophistication of drug traffickers, and that the MEM is a step in the right direction. The 82-point indicator system of the MEM will allow the OAS to make appropriate recommendations by helping it to identify more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the member nations’ efforts to combat drugs. According to Beall, the mechanism will accelerate the current trend toward increasing integration of court systems, health systems and intelligence in the hemisphere. Ambassador Ruiz-Cabañas sees the MEM as “one of the greatest successes of the OAS” in the past several years.
The MEM is part of the evolution of the ongoing effort to combat drugs. Ambassador Hurst noted that the late 1960s were a turning point for the illegal drug trade, particularly for the Caribbean nations. The demand for cocaine and heroin was growing, and global trade and jet travel were expanding. These factors increased opportunities for drug traffickers. In the 1980s, an epidemic of drug use in the U.S. spurred a dramatic response from the government, including the initiation of the unilateral certification process. Indeed, in the 1990s, much of the support for the MEM stemmed from the hope that it eventually would replace the certification process, says Hittle. Until the past few years, the debate on drugs focused on “producer” and “consumer” nations. The MEM recognizes that the division of responsibility is not so clear; drug production, trafficking, and consumption occur within and among all nations. One of the major benefits of the MEM is that it obliges governments to be more rational, organized, and accountable of their own role in the drug problem. We have moved beyond finger-pointing to produce a “dialogue based on shared responsibility,” noted Ambassador Ruiz-Cabañas.
While the MEM is a remarkable achievement, it cannot be seen as an end in itself. It is part of a gradual shift from confrontation to cooperation among nations. Since it has no enforcement mechanism or sanctions, clear and candid reports are necessary for the MEM to have a positive impact. Beall pointed out that the MEM is viable, and has a good chance to succeed, because all nations involved are equal members, the procedures are transparent, and the output is specific and measurable. For the MEM to remain viable, it must lead to measurable reductions in drug trafficking and consumption. Without concrete results, Hittle noted, support for MEM could fade over the next several years.