REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Guatemala's new president, Otto Perez Molina, has turned heads by suggesting he'd consider decriminalizing drugs as an answer to the violence besieging his Central American nation.
Perez Molina on Monday said he planned to raise the issue for debate after earlier proposing legal consumption and transportation of drugs across Central America. He said he wanted consensus among regional leaders first.
The Guatemalan leader met with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, who was quoted as saying he also favored legalizing drugs.
"We're bringing the issue up for debate. Today's meeting is intended to strengthen our methods of fighting organized crime. But if drug consumption isn't reduced, the problem will continue," Perez Molina said, according to the Associated Press.
It's unclear whether Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate, is playing the legalization card in order to draw more U.S. attention to the violence plaguing his nation. Guatemala has increasingly become a base for Mexican traffickers moving drugs north to the United States.
Perez Molina, who took office last month, made no calls for decriminalizing drugs during last year's presidential campaign, in which he urged a "firm hand" against drug traffickers and other criminals.
The U.S. government is sure to use its heavy sway in the region to head off the idea. The embassy in Guatemala City issued a statement Sunday, saying that sprawling criminal groups wouldn't cease their operations if drugs were made legal overnight.
"If the trafficking and use of illegal drugs were decriminalized tomorrow in Central America, transnational criminal organizations and gangs would continue to engage in illicit activity, including trafficking in persons and illegal arms, extortion and kidnapping, bank robbery, theft of intellectual property, and money laundering," the embassy said.
The presence of the violent Zetas gang from Mexico has injected a volatile new element into Guatemala's long-established drug underworld. Zetas hit men were suspected in the massacre of 27 workers at a ranch in northern Guatemala last May.
The growing presence of Mexican traffickers has stoked worry throughout Central America that the gangs could overwhelm the region's relatively weak law-enforcement systems.
Photo: Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina speaks Monday at a news conference in Guatemala City after meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on regional security issues and the fight against organized crime. Credit: Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press