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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama arrives in Colombia this weekend for the Summit of the Americas. And he'll be stepping into a vigorous debate about the drug war, a debate that could be awkward for the U.S. Some Latin American leaders, all of them U.S. allies, say the American-sponsored war is failing and they say new options need to be considered.

As NPR's Juan Forero tells us, from the Colombian capital Bogota, those options include legalizing some drugs.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Over four decades, the drug war has become increasingly bloody.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRE)

FORERO: The recent news from Guatemala was grim. Gunmen, in a drug related incident, shooting up a bar and killing eight.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The nightly newscast called it a massacre, the anchor saying it's the kind of insensitivity to human life that takes place every day in Guatemala.

Such senseless violence is now numbingly common across much of Central America and northern Mexico. That's prompting widespread disenchantment with the war on drugs, which is characterized by the criminalization of drug use and military-style tactics against drug gangs.

It started with Richard Nixon, who, in this archival tape found on YouTube, talks about the drug scourge.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States, the problem with dangerous drugs.

FORERO: Since then, that war has been taken to the drug cartels across the Americas with heavy U.S. funding. But now, some presidents - among them, Columbia's Juan Manuel Santos - are asking if there isn't another way.

Santos told NPR he's putting the issue up for debate at the Summit of the Americas in the Columbian coastal city of Cartagena, a summit to be attended by Mr. Obama and 32 other leaders.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: It's been the same approach and the same policies and where are we? This is what we have to ask ourselves. Are we in the ideal place or should we at least contemplate alternatives?

FORERO: Santos is one of Washington's closest allies and a former hawkish defense minister. And he's not the only one proposing a new approach. The most forceful proponent of that line has been Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former military man who has fought traffickers for years.

After taking over the presidency earlier this year, he came to the conclusion that the drug war is failing.

OTTO PEREZ: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: Trafficking's expanded, Perez says, and corruption has tainted institutions, prosecutors, judges. He says, as long as such big demand for cocaine in the U.S. exists, this isn't going to end, this will continue.

American officials would not comment on tape. Privately, they said that U.S. efforts in Columbia over the last decade have reduced cocaine production and that cocaine consumption in the U.S. has fallen.

Vice President Joe Biden has also said publicly that, while the U.S. will debate with the Latin American presidents at the summit, there will be no possibility the administration will shift gears on drug legalization.

Ethan Nadelmann, who directs the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance and has advised some Latin American leaders, says what those leaders want to debate is more nuanced.

ETHAN NADELMANN: They're not saying legalize everything today, like alcohol or tobacco. They know that's not possible. What they are saying is we need to give the same consideration to alternative regulatory and non-prohibitionist and public health policies in the future as we've given to the failed drug war strategies of the last 40 years.

FORERO: Indeed, Latin American leaders, among them, former presidents of Columbia, Mexico and Brazil, talk about decriminalizing drug possession and providing more intensive treatment to wean heavy drug users off drugs. There's also talk about legalizing marijuana. Again, President Santos of Columbia.

SANTOS: If we find that there's a better alternative that will take away the profits from the criminal organizations and that maybe you can address the problem of consumption in a more effective way, then everybody will win. And this is what I want - a discussion without a specific proposal.

FORERO: He says he just wants to see all the proposals on the table. Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota.

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