Guatemala's first president with a military background in 25 years said Tuesday the drug war can't be won with arms alone, and pledged that his administration will focus on fighting hunger, which he called a security problem.
In an interview with The Associated Press one day after he promised to propose legalizing drugs in Guatemala, President Otto Perez Molina said the Central American country isn't following U.S. orders, despite American opposition to legalization.
"We are not doing what the United States says, we are doing what we have to do," said Perez, who was elected on promises of an "iron-fist" approach to rampant crime and surprised observers by proposing drug legalization.
Perez, a retired army general who took office one month ago, said his proposal to legalize drugs does not represent an about face from his campaign, in which he promised to get tough on crime.
He said he has always focused on a more comprehensive approach for addressing one of the highest murder rates in the world.
"Hunger is also violence, and is also a security problem," he said.
The outside world "has only focused on the fact that I am a retired general and participated in the domestic armed conflict," he said, referring to Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
Guatemala needs "to find alternate ways of fighting drug trafficking. In the last 30 years with a traditional combat with arms and deaths, it can't be done, and we have to be open to viable alternatives."
On Monday, Perez said he will try to win regional support for drug legalization at an upcoming summit of Central American leaders next month.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued a statement Sunday saying that legalizing drugs wouldn't stop transnational gangs that traffic not only drugs, but also people and weapons.
Drug cartels have taken over large swathes of Guatemala and other Central American countries, fueling some of the highest murder rates in the world. A May 2011 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service said that 95 percent of all cocaine entering the United States flows through Mexico and its waters, with 60 percent of that cocaine having first transited through Central America.
Authorities say both the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartels from Mexico are running and processing drugs in Guatemala and may be competing for territory, especially in the province of Peten near the border with Mexico.