Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear Friends,

It is with great pleasure that I accepted Duncan’s kind invitation to speak this evening. I have been thinking about the hemisphere and the destiny we are forging together as a region for quite some time and I appreciate that I can share my ideas with such a distinguished audience.

Full exercise of human rights is, essentially, the basis of the modern State and the purpose of any democratic society. If the State loses the respect of its citizens, it loses everything. That is clear. What is less clear is how to achieve that.

The societies of our Nations are complex. This can attributed to the ethnic diversity of our societies, to the vast extension of some our territories, to our colonial history, among other factors. And our Nations are rich, for the exact same reason. We tend to highlight the biodiversity of our soils and seas and the generous natural resources that feed us, but our greatest wealth comes from our people.

And it is people we have in mind when, as men and women in government, we do our best to respond to the challenges of our time.  Economic development is one of our main contemporary challenges, and the worldwide crises of the recent years have taught us that we cannot be overly confident. Macroeconomic stability is a precondition. Preconditions are not everything but everything can become nothing without them. Public security is the other precondition.

At times it seems we have explored all the avenues of public security. We get together and share learnt lessons, but we don’t seem to achieve the desired results.

I am, we are -everybody is- unhappy and frustrated with the current status. “It is not working” is often said.  Drug trafficking and consumption continue and become, obsessively, the focus of our attention.

But I think we need to stop and reflect on whether the drug issue is, in reality, our problem. Were we to magically solve the problem, where would we be? Not far from where we are now.

The truth is that the debate about legalizing drugs or not is sterile if it is not framed in a larger discussion about social context and institutional strength and ability. In any case, any combination of policies around drugs will have trade offs and unwanted consequences. There will be no definitive answers or policy approaches. They will have to be assessed, reshaped and adjusted conceptually and in their implementation.

Our real problem, ladies and gentlemen, is institutional weakness. In justice and security, we lack the strength and presence that our governments have in other areas. Our problem is that organized crime is able to challenge the State in its basic powers. It challenges the monopoly of the use of force, the monopoly to enact general rules and legislation and the monopoly to collect taxes. This challenge to the States’s basic powers goes to the extent that there has been loss of territorial control of relevant geographies.

And so our efforts should be oriented to a single, very predictable goal: building the basis for the rule of law.

But let me get back to my essential premise. Drug trafficking is not the real problem as it is only a component of international organized crime, although it makes things much worse. These criminal structures, which have used drugs as their platform, often privilege extortion, kidnapping, human and weapons trafficking, cyber crime and so on as ways to make a larger profit.

There is therefore no magic solution and no silver bullet. The problem is complex in nature and cannot be addressed with a single strategy. It needs a holistic approach: prevention, social cohesion policies, anti-money laundering and asset forfeiture strategies, health care, efficient government, rule of law, an effective and transparent justice system, strong and respected institutions, low levels of violence, a flourishing and stable economy, education, jobs and business opportunities, all these focused on the main goal of human rights - to respect the dignity and to allow for the development of each person’s full potential.

As I said, I think we need to address the single most important challenge we face with regard to security in our hemisphere: we need to strengthen our institutions. We need to deploy and maintain the State presence in every corner of our territories. We need to disrupt the ability of criminal organizations to reproduce their model in time and geography.

Justice reforms are key and the adoption of an oral, adversarial, accusatorial system has proved very effective in some cases. For example, justice reform in Chile and Colombia have been rightly conceived and implemented. Other States have had a harder time with these reforms, and others have yet to conclude the transition. But this is not the silver bullet either. If any security strategy is to achieve good results, it will be because the prosecution of crime is effective and respectful of human rights. Impunity has a big role to play in the continued perpetration of crime. Less impunity, more justice, will do much more against organized crime than extending the length of punishment or making it crueler.

We also need to address prevention. Prevention includes creating opportunities for young people and a safety net for older people. Prevention includes taking decided steps in education and the economy to address inequality and creating a society where people don’t find incentives to make, take or sell drugs or to engage in any criminal activity for that matter.

A quote from Daniel Kahneman comes to mind when thinking about these issues. He says: “there seems to be a puzzling limitation to our minds –namely- our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. In other words, we are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world”.

We can be passionate about our ideas, but we have to recognize that usually, with public policy, we rarely face a choice between good and bad. More frequently, the choices are between bad and worse.

We must double efforts to take a critical, yet sensible stance on the matter, one that is grounded on scientific evidence and not on ideologies, beliefs, sentiments or emotions. Maybe that’s what happened when the so-called “war on drugs” started in the U. S. The expression is misleading and it conceals more than it reveals; but a pull in the opposite direction is not promising either.

From a national perspective, the objective should not be to end drug trafficking, but to give ordinary citizens the right to live in peace, with their families, in their communities. But the national strategies have to be coordinated and understood from a regional point of view. Otherwise, we are just pushing the problems towards our neighbors.

In sum, Ladies and Gentlemen, the issue of drugs requires strengthening institutions and conceiving and implementing policies with a holistic approach. I hope these ideas are useful for the larger discussion that is very much needed in our hemisphere.

*                    *                    *