QUITO (Reuters) - From Argentina to Nicaragua, Latin Americans have elected leftist leaders over the last decade who are challenging Washington's aggressive war on drugs in the world's top cocaine-producing region.
These governments are shaking off U.S. influence in the region and building defense and trade alliances that exclude the United States. Some now say they can better fight drugs without U.S. help and are rejecting policies they do not like.
The strongest resistance to U.S. drug policies is in Ecuador and Bolivia, two coca-growing countries of the Andes, and in Venezuela.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, the son of a drug smuggler, has ordered parliament to pardon about 2,000 small-time couriers, one of a number of measures seen at odds with U.S. policy.
"I lived through this and these people are not criminals," the president said when an opposition lawmaker raised questions about his father's past. "They are single mothers or unemployed people who are desperate to feed their families."
Among those likely to walk free in a mass pardon expected later this year is Nury Vivas, 33, who was caught with 150 grams of cocaine in her stomach as she stood in line to catch a flight to the United States.
She is now serving six years in a run-down prison in Quito that is packed with couriers picked up for smuggling cocaine to the United States and Europe.
Vivas, who was earning $10 a day making candy in a gritty border town near Colombia, said she did it get out of debt. "We didn't know what to do with so much debt," she said. "We needed the money."
For Correa and other leaders, the plight of people like Vivas, coupled with stubbornly high smuggling rates, is proof of the failure of a drugs war focused on prison sentences and eradication of the coca crop, the raw material for making cocaine.
They resent prescriptions handed down from Washington that they say cram courts and prisons with the poor without slowing demand for cocaine in U.S. cities.
Washington seems to accept that Correa takes the fight against drugs seriously, noting recent billion-dollar drug hauls in Ecuador. But U.S. officials say Venezuela gives drug traffickers safe haven and they also have questions about Bolivian plans to increase legal production of coca.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, has said crop eradication policies harm indigenous Andean people, who have legitimate reason to chew coca leaves for the mild stimulant effect that helps ward off hunger.
"We are not a cocaine culture. Coca leaf is one thing, cocaine is another," Morales told Venezuelan television. "As long as they don't stop the drug addicts and the market for cocaine, this problem will always exist."
Latin America pays a heavy cost for the drugs war. Cartels and cocaine-funded guerrillas kill thousands of people each year in battles with security forces to keep coveted trafficking routes or profitable coca plantations.
Morales describes as "domination" yearly U.S rulings that assess countries as helpful or not in the drugs fight.
"What authority does the United States have to certify or decertify?" he said. "Many governments were terrified of decertification. Not now. We don't need this any more."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Correa and Morales, has accused U.S. drug officials of spying and ended cooperation with anti-narcotics agents. He once chewed coca leaves in public to show his support for the Andean tradition.
In Ecuador, Correa rejects criticism that releasing thousands of convicts will create a crime wave and encourage drug gangs to use more mules. He says a softer approach will produce valuable intelligence to catch bigger drug traffickers.
The U.S. State Department's annual report on narcotics control this year said Correa had given "a clear indication that anti-narcotics would be a high priority for his administration."
The report also notes that Correa has increased military operations along its border with Colombia and strengthened controls over money laundering.
Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, contrasts those successes with Colombia, where output of coca leaf has risen each year since 2003 despite crop spraying paid for with billions of dollars in U.S. military aid. Colombia, the world's leading cocaine producer, and Peru, the No. 2 producer, are among Washington's main partners in Latin America.
Other steps that Correa plans to take include ejecting hundreds of U.S. military personnel from Manta, an airbase used to coordinate anti-drug flights across the region, complaining that it compromises Ecuador's sovereignty.
"We are not going to continue sacrificing our foreign policy for U.S. politics," Security Minister Gustavo Larrea told Reuters, referring to the base.
Such shifts concern U.S. officials, who say half of all South American drug seizures are due to missions flown from Manta.
Some analysts fear that without U.S. help, a small and ill-equipped military like Ecuador's will lose its grip on shipments from Colombia and Peru.
"The net impact of Correa's policies will be negative," said Carlos Espinosa, a Quito-based drugs policy expert.
But it is not just leftists who are calling for change. Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, one of Latin Ameria's most respected elder statesmen, has said it is time for a new approach.
"It's not successful. They are spending more and more and more and the results are deceiving," Cardoso, 76, said in an interview with Reuters in April.
While academics and government officials debate policies and cocaine continues to flood U.S. streets, Vivas sits in her dingy cell and weaves cloth dolls to sell to visitors.
"I really hope I can get out with a pardon," she said. "I need to go back to my kids."
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Eddie Evans