March 6, 2002
The Center for Latin American Issues
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
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.