New York – While touting himself as one of the most popular leaders in Latin America, the newly elected President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, defended the legalization of drugs as part of his new "iron fist" approach toward fighting drug violence during a one-on-one interview with Fox News Latino.
"It’s the first time that a president in power dares to say that other routes have to be found for the war on drugs," Perez Molina said in Spanish. "And that’s part of what we always said: the iron fist is character, it’s firmness, it’s determination and it’s the political will to want to do things."
Perez Molina and other Latin American leaders harped on the war on drugs and the need for a candid conversation about new ideas for the war on drugs in their speeches to the United Nations General Assembly.
"Something about what we are doing is not working," said Perez Molina of the last 20 years, "I find that drug trafficking has increased; that crime has increased; that violence has increased."
Perez Molina said he is looking for drug regulation; a middle ground between full "liberalization," where drugs are sold on every corner store and the current prohibitionist stance. He suggested regulations be put in place based on how addictive or how dangerous drugs are.
"In the case of marijuana, there are scientific studies that state that it creates less addictiveness and it’s less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco," he said. "There are, then, tiers that can be established, that can be regulated, and I believe there’s space there for dialogue with a foundation."
The president who at one point served as the nation's intelligence chief and was a general during the country's civil war also denied accusations of human rights abuses. Perez Molina has been accused of involvement in scorched earth campaigns during the early 1980s in the country's Ixil Traingle - a region of Quiché that saw 2744 people killed between January 1982 and late December 1983.
"Any accusation that has been leveled against me is not credible because it’s not true," he said. "So not only are there no accusations, much less trials for human rights violations, on the contrary: [my administration has] the recognition of Guatemalans for having been a negotiator and a person who signed the Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace."
He also brushed off accusations that people are wary of his presidency, because of of his past.
"I found out about a survey that Mitofsky conducts... results place me as one of the three most popular presidents in their own country out of all Latin American presidents," Perez Molina said. "So this is recognition that Guatemalans approve of the good work that we’re doing."
While much of the media attention has concentrated on President Felipe Calderón's aggressive war against drug cartels, much less has been said of the affects the war has had on its Central American neighbors - especially Guatemala.
According to UN statistics, Guatemala's murder rate was 38.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011, more than seven times higher than in the U.S. and more deadly than Mexico, but significantly lower than neighboring Honduras, which logged one of the highest murder rates in the world at 91.6 per 100,000. Criminal groups exploit the porous border Mexico and Guatemala share, which counts only 11 formal ports of entry along its 600 miles.
A UN official estimated in 2011 that traffickers controlled up to 60 percent of Guatemalan territory. An estimated 14,000 people, mostly young men, belong to gangs in Guatemala.
Since the end of Guatemala's civil war ended in 1996, the US has spent $85 million fighting drug traffickers in Guatemala. Last year spending was $16 million and is budgeted to decline to 9 million in 2013. Meanwhile the U.S. dramatically stepped up counter narcotics funding to Mexico under a five-year program called the Merida initiative that will send a total of $2 billion to Mexico from 2008 to 2013.
The president credits his administration and iron fist approach for 13 percent less murders, 25 percent less kidnappings and for bringing down murders of women by 20 percent.
Perez Molina acknowledged, however, that the relationship between the US and Guatemala could improve.
"If I had to grade what we’ve been working on with the United States, well, I would give it, on a scale of 1 to 10 I could say a 6; we could be working together and we could reach a 10 level," he said.
Perez Molina even offered his own specific proposal in improving the relationship with the U.S. against the international drug trade.
“Look, for each kilo of drugs seized in Guatemala or in any Central American country, I think that the United States should provide some financial assistance so we can continue carrying out this war because currently, resources that we could be dedicating to education, to health, to hunger or poverty in our country we have to channel to this effort."
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FULL TRANSCRIPT of Interview Below
Fox News Latino: Mr. President, thank you you so much for being here today.
President Otto Perez Molina: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Fox News Latino: You know, you are in New York City to address the United Nations for the very first time as President of Guatemala. What message are you hoping to send to the world?
President Perez Molina: Well, the message I bring with me and which I believe is important is, first, to invite all Chiefs of State and all Member Countries of the United Nations General Assembly, to invite them to review the outcome of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which was in 1961 and which was later modified in 1971, meaning 40 years ago. And the invitation I come with for them now is -- and that’s the core of the message -- is to tell them, an invitation for us to review what we’ve done well, what other things can be done. Many things have changed in 40 years, and now let’s find other paths and other routes so we can pursue a more efficient, more efficient war on drugs.
Fox News Latino: Security has been a major issue in your country. Uh, we’re talking about violence that has especially escalated in the last few years, particularly because of the drug, drug cartel, Los Zetas, from Mexico. When—you know, how has Mexico’s drug war affected Guatemala?
President Perez Molina: Well yes, the war in Mexico has affected Guatemala, obviously, and not only Guatemala, I would say all of Central America. 40% of all acts of violence in our countries have some tie to drug trafficking and, of course, with the displacement of drug cartels from Mexico to our country. So this has brought about an increase in acts of violence. However in the almost 8 months since we’ve been in power we’ve not only managed to stop the escalation of violence, but we also started to bring the levels down. In 8 months we’ve registered 13% less murders than the number we had last year. We have 25% less kidnappings and we’ve managed to bring down the number of extorsions. So, murders of women we’ve also managed to bring down by 20%. I believe these are very important facts, that in a mere 8 months we began to provide results for Guatemalans. But there’s something else: it’s a struggle which, because it’s associated with transnational crime and particularly with drug trafficking, we have to carry it out on a regional level and that’s something contained in the proposal that we’re setting forth.
Fox News Latino: You won the presidency this past year with a campaign message that said that you were going to govern with an iron fist. What exactly does that mean?
President Perez Molina: Well, what it means is commitment. Commitment, political will, and compliance with the law. What we’re saying is we’re not going to do things that are outside the law because then we’d stoop to doing the same things as those people who commit illicit acts. We’re going to enforce the law, we’re going to have the commitment and the will to continue doing the things we must do to fight the drug traffickers, and as far as this goes you have to remember that in this fight we’re partners with the United States. We’re putting forth a proposal and a discussion based on analysis, but in the meantime, while we reach a consensus, we’re going to continue this effort on a joint basis with the United States, with Mexico, with Central America, with Colombia, with the entire region, which is necessary: coordination, the exchange of information, of intelligence, and joint action.
Fox News Latino: Before we can be f—move forward with you, uh, in your presidency, you were a General in, in the Armed Forces for a long time in Guatemala. There have been accusations leveled against you, Mr. President, about human rights abuses under your tenure, uh, during the civil war, even suggestions – suggestions – that you were involved in a massacre in your country. How do you respond to those accusations, Mr. President?
President Perez Molina: No, I would tell you no. They don’t cast a pall over my credibility. And, and they don’t cast a pall over it because once you say something, you have to support it for it to be credible. Any accusation that has been leveled against me is not credible because it’s not true. Now in Guatemala there are people who have been judged for the abuses that took place, there are trials. I don’t figure in any of them. They’ve wanted to level these accusations which come more from certain people who want to inflict harm but which have no grounds, which have no argument, and so there’s no credibility in that. But on the other hand what we can remind you of, and I’ve said it, is that wherever I went, I always defended the population’s rights and I always concerned myself with watching over their human rights. And on the other hand you have to remember that I’m one of the signatories of the Peace Accord, that I was the army’s representative not only at the negotiations, but I also signed the Peace Accords in representation of the army on the Negotiating Commission that represented the government. So not only are there no accusations, much less trials for human rights violations, on the contrary: we have the recognition of Guatemalans for having been a negotiator and a person who signed the Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace.
Fox News Latino: Are you prepared to work with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and the UN to actively ensure that human rights are being protected as you fight this war on drugs?
President Perez Molina: Yes, we’re prepared, and not only prepared, we’re already working with the Attorney General Claudia Paz. We’ve been working for 8 and a half months already. There’s been excellent work done. The Executive branch has shown the ability to respect the financial and operational independence of the Public Ministry, but to achieve coordination. That 13% I’m talking to you about in terms of the reduction in murders, the 20% reduction in the murder of women, the reduction in kidnappings, that’s been achieved through efficient, coordinated work with Attorney General Claudia Paz and her staff and, elsewhere, with law enforcement respecting human rights. We hope to continue working that way, which we’ve done very well, very well coordinated and efficiently.
Fox News Latino: Your message to those who are still hesitant of having you in power, what is it?
President Perez Molina: Well, uh, the message for those who doubt, I think the best thing is to look at the results of what we’ve been doing, the three major Pacts we’re working on. The Anti-Hunger Pact, where we’ve managed to involve the private sector, where we’ve managed to involve Guatemalan society and of course, the government’s responsibility; the Pact for Security, Justice and Peace, which we’re working on; and of course the Pact for Economic Development. But for those who still doubt and question Otto Perez’s presence, just today I found out about a survey that Mitofsky conducts, and it’s not out of any glory that I want to claim for myself, but the results place me as one of the 3 most popular presidents in their own country out of all Latin American presidents. So this is recognition that Guatemalans provide to the good work that we’re doing, that we have to continue doing, and we still have a long ways to go.
Fox News Latino: Since taking office, Mr. President, you have been the leading voice in the decriminalization of drugs internationally. Can you explain that? Why?
Well, I would tell you why that makes sense. 15 or 20 years ago I was in the army. I was the Intelligence Chief. I had to work with United States agencies to fight drug trafficking, and now, 20 years later when I come in as President, I find that drug trafficking has increased; that crime has increased; that violence has increased. So I myself reflect and say “Something about what we’re doing is not working.” 40 years since the last review of the United Nations Convention, which is the one that gives life to this whole war that’s been going on, and that’s why today I come to issue a call for us to review it, to see what other things we can do. And I’m not necessarily talking about decriminalization. You can talk about regulation but you can also talk about us finding other paths, other routes that are more effective in this war on drug trafficking, and that what we have to do for that is be open to dialogue, be willing to do it, and this is something important I mention again: we’re not against the policy the United States is carrying out because we’ve worked side by side with this policy. We’re, we feel like partners of the United States in this war, too, and with the shared responsibility that each party should have. We as transit nations, the United States as a consumer nation, Colombia as a producer nation. Each one with its responsibility, both shared and differentiated. But what I am going to tell you all is that here too, in the United States, we extend an invitation for all of us to carry out that reflection, that candid, open, sincere dialogue with statistics and with numbers so we can find more efficient routes to take in the war on drug trafficking.
Fox News Latino: Yes, but many were also surprised that, you know, about you making this decision because you also ran on an iron fist approach, and now all of a sudden you’re talking about a decriminalization of drugs.
Well, I want to tell you that this is part of the iron fist. In other words, daring to say it publicly, daring— it’s the first time that a President in power dares to say that other routes have to be found for the war on drugs. And that’s part of what we always said: the iron fist is character, it’s firmness, it’s determination and it’s the political will to want to do things. So for us to search and to say it and to raise our voice, for us to have taken it to the Summit of the Americas and now to bring it here to the United Nations General Assembly is also part of that firmness and character that we talked about in our campaign.
Fox News Latino: You have mentioned the relationship with the United States. What can the U.S. do better in helping you fight the war on drugs in your country, and can you give us a grade?
President Perez Molina: Look, many things can be done better. I believe that above all what I mentioned previously the responsibility, or shared responsibility, which we have to share but which must be differentiated between those who produce, countries like Guatemala and Central America are transit countries, and the countries that consume it. I think that’s— we share the responsibility but we have to differentiate it. And I would say that many things can be done here. We’ve brought other proposals here, for example, in saying “Look, for each kilo of drugs seized in Guatemala or in any Central American country, I think that the United States should provide some financial assistance so we can continue carrying out this war because currently, resources that we could be dedicating to education, to health, to hunger or poverty in our country we have to channel to this effort, which we’re willing to continue carrying out but we would like to see more of that effort, of the shared, differentiated responsibility among countries, so we could take joint action. So I would say to you, if I had to grade what we’ve been working on with the United States, well, I would give it, on a scale of 1 to 10 I could say a 6; we could be working together and we could reach a 10 level, which would be our desire as Guatemalans and which I’m sure is also the desire of United States authorities.
Fox News Latino: Finally, you know, the U.S., you’ve talked about the fact that the U.S. is a consumer of drugs. How much are consumers in this country to blame for the drug war?
President Perez Molina: I do know that the United States is against—the thing is, you also have to manage—concepts are important. Liberalization is one thing, and liberalization means that here, on a corner or in any store, I can come in and buy drugs. We don’t share that belief. And at the other extreme, you have what we have today, which is prohibitionism. Everything is prohibited. I believe in the middle ground, and that’s where spaces exist for discussion and analysis and proposals which can lead to the route of regulation. Meaning, which drugs are more dangerous, which are most addictive. For example, the case of marijuana. In the case of marijuana, there are scientific studies that state that it’s less, it creates less addictiveness and it’s less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. There are, then, tiers that can be established, that can be regulated, and I believe there’s space there for dialogue with a foundation, with analysis, with statistics, scientific investigations that can orient us as to what other routes we could take.
Fox News Latino: Mr. President, we really appreciate your time. Thank you for being with us here today.
President Perez Molina: Thank you very much to you, I thank you for this opportunity and I hope to be able to share the results we get from this dialogue.
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL).
Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.