Will legalizing pot affect violence in Latin America?

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The debate of whether or not to legalize marijuana in the U.S. is not just a national one, Latin American leaders are weighing in on it too.

That’s because U.S. marijuana consumption drives drug violence in their countries.  Armed Honduran military police escort us to the most dangerous neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, a city dubbed the “murder capital of the world.”

The gang comes in and charges every resident a war tax they call it, it’s simply extortion.  Painful choices for residents: Pay the phony tax, leave or face the wrath of the gangs.

Similar fears haunt communities in other Latin American countries also plagued by violent criminal gangs, whose power is connected to the drug trade.

In El Salvador, the lawless MS13, in Mexico the ruthless cartels.  At the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Latin American leaders will discuss the drug war. A potential new concern comes from an unlikely source: The United States where pot is increasingly becoming legal, recreational marijuana is already legal in four states.

All eyes are on 2016, when voters could see marijuana ballot initiatives in five more, including two along the U.S./Mexico border, the frontier of the U.S. war on drugs.

As much as 67 percent of the pot consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, putting about 1.5 billion dollars in the hands of drug traffickers.

Some experts say that as states legalize marijuana and require it be grown in-state, the cartels could find themselves fighting for the shrinking illegal marijuana market or just move on to other illicit business dealings.

“They’re not just involved in smuggling drugs into the U.S., there’s also kidnappings, human smuggling, extortion,” said co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center Beau Kilmer.

All contributing to the deadly Mexican drug war, which has claimed more than 60,000 lives from 2006 to 2012, “Personally, I’m not in favor of legalizing drugs,” said Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

While Mexico’s president could be caught between two pot friendly countries, Guatemala’s president pushing for the legalization of marijuana as well, “There is a group of drugs that don’t create addiction or damage to health, those kinds of drugs we can regulate, we can liberalize, we can legalize,” said President Otto Perez Molina

Caught “literally” in the middle of the drug war is Honduras whose president has passionately spoken out against the war on drugs, blaming U.S. consumers of illicit drugs, all drugs including pot, for the violence in his country.

“My country is the battleground of a war that’s not ours. A drug war, whose policies are decided outside of Honduras, involve the countries who consume drugs to the north and those who produce drugs to the south,” said Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

As for Chamelecon, military police took over security and some families eventually returned.  A small battle won at home in Honduras. But the war is far from over, and many here say the U.S. is partly to blame.

Copyright CNN 2015

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