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Mexico's Drug War Version 2.0 [FEATURE]

Dismayed and horrified by the wave of prohibition-related violence unleashed on Mexico with President Calderon's deployment of the military to fight the country's wealthy and powerful drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- Mexican voters on Sunday appear to have rejected Calderon's party, the PAN, instead harkening back to the past, choosing as president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the PRI, the party that dominated Mexico for most of the 20th Century.

Mexico's likely next president, Enrique Peña Nieto (wikimedia.org)
While Peña Nieto is virtually certain to be Mexico's next president, it's not quite official yet. Mexico election officials are recounting half the ballot boxes because of inconsistencies in the tallies and expect to release final results Sunday. But with Peña Nieto holding a five-point lead over second place finisher Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recount is unlikely to change the outcome.

The election came amidst relentless and terrifying violence. At least 55,000 people have been killed in the internecine conflicts among the rival cartels and in the multisided fighting between the cartels, the police, and the military, with thousands more gone missing. Election week saw a new video of Gulf Cartel operatives beheading four Zetas, as well as the killing of three federal police officers at the Mexico City airport by other federal police officers being targeted in a drug trafficking investigation.

That is nothing unusual for Mexico these days, six years after Calderon sent 50,000 troops and federal police out to stop the cartels. The question is whether Peña Nieto is going to do anything substantially different once he takes power in December, and right now, the answer is unclear.

During the run-up to Sunday's election, the charismatic former governor of the state of Mexico attempted to create some distance between himself and Calderon's approach, but his policy prescriptions appear to be more in the nature of adjustments than a radical rethinking. He has made two direct proposals for retooling Mexico's drug war and one key appointment.

Peña Nieto has called for the creation of a paramilitary force of 40,000 ex-soldiers to take the burden of fighting the heavily-armed cartels from the military, which has seen an increasing number of human rights complaints filed against it. But that will take time to pull together, and he has said nothing about sending the military back to its barracks before then.

He is also calling for something like a single unified national police force, or what he calls the mando unico, the unified command. Calls for reforming Mexico's police, with its thousands of different municipal, state, and federal department, have been a constant for at least the last quarter-century, as those forces repeatedly expose themselves as hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. But reorganizations have been done before, only to create a new cadre of cops to be corrupted.

The US-Mexican border
In another sign of the direction he intends to take the country, Peña Nieto this week appointed as an internal security advisor the former chief of the Colombian national police, Oscar Naranjo. Working closely with the US, Naranjo vastly expanded the intelligence apparatus of the national police and is credited with helping to bring down the Medellin and Cali cartels. But Naranjo also ran the national police under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, a period marked by shady dealings with rightist paramilitaries linked to the drug trade.

On Tuesday, Peña Nieto told PBS he would continue to use the military indefinitely.[Editor's Note: In that same interview, he had some words to say about discussing drug legalization; see our news brief on that here.]

"I will maintain the presence of a Mexican Army, and the Navy and police in the states of the Mexican Republic, where the problem of crime has increased," he said. "We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency, and to go back to the rule of law and enforce laws strictly in our country."

Raising eyebrows in Washington, Peña Nieto has previously hinted that he may refocus Mexico's anti-crime efforts, placing lesser emphasis on nailing cartel kingpins and eradicating illicit crops and placing more emphasis on reducing the violence.

"Violence is the most sensitive issue for Mexicans," he told the Financial Times in his first interview with an international newspaper. "Mexico cannot put up with this scenario of death and kidnapping."

Such comments have led many observers in both Mexico and the US to suggest that Peña Nieto may revert to the PRI's old ways. It is commonly believed -- although difficult to prove -- that during the latter part of its 70-year rule, that the PRI did not so much attempt to suppress the drug trade but to manage it, allowing itself to be bought off by the cartels. In return for non-interference from the state, the drug traffickers would keep a relatively low profile as they went about their business. What is certain is that the levels of violence around the drug trade and its repression have soared during the 12 years the PAN held power and moved aggressively against the cartels.

[Ed: Whether or not the government or individual officials made explicit deals with the cartels, it is generally understood among scholars that government's mostly manage illegal drug trades rather than seriously trying to undo them -- doing so enables them to keep crime within "normal" levels, as opposed to the kinds of bloodbaths seen in Mexico recently or Colombia during the time of Pablo Escobar.]

Sensitive to such charges, Peña Nieto took pains to say he was not going to make deals with the cartels. "There will be no pact or truce with organized crime," he said.

"What's really going on is that he's being very careful to assure the US that it will be business as usual, that they will continue fighting the drug war," said Nathan Jones, a fellow in drug policy at the Baker Institute in Houston. "There could be ways you could shift from counter-narcotics to counter-violence and have it be in line with US policies. With a counter-violence strategy, you would be consciously and publicly targeting the most violent cartels, but they're already doing that."

What drug prohibition brings Mexico (PGR Mexico)
"Much is up in the air in terms of what differences there will actually be once he comes to power in December," said Elise Dunn, a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "On the one hand, he has promised not to negotiate with the drug cartels, and on the other hand, he comes to power at a difficult time, but I don't think the strategy will change dramatically. No president is going to lose the appearance of taking a hard stand against the cartels, but there are many accusations that he will deal with them, and those accusations are based on the past behavior of the PRI."

Still, Dunn said, the PRI has traditionally had a close relationship with the US, and Peña Nieto will seek to keep it that way.

"I would anticipate that in public relations with the US, he will say they'll go after the capos, but that's very much up in the air," she said. "He has also suggested that putting the military back in its barracks is an option, but I consider that very unlikely given the pressures the US would exert."

It is also unlikely, at least in the near term, because there is no effective force in place to replace the military.

"This idea of the paramilitary force composed of former soldiers seems to be popular in Mexico because the military is the second most respected institution in the country behind the Catholic Church," said Jones, "but 40,000 men is a very large force and that will take time to build, so they continue to have to use the military at least for the short term."

"The one reform Mexico really needs is a complete overhaul of its police force," said Dunn. "Peña Nieto has suggested the shift, and his paramilitary plan could be the core of a national police force. We need a complete overhaul of the more than 2,000 different police forces that have been rife with corruption and lack of transparency, but what that overhaul will look like is up in the air."

Reforming law enforcement, though, is an old and so far failed game in Mexico. As each corrupted unit or department is disbanded and replaced, the new ones consistently fall prey to the same temptations.

"One problem is that Mexico has been readjusting its federal police forces since the 1980s, they've had an alphabet soup of federal drug enforcement agencies, so I'm a bit skeptical about a new one," she added.

One obstacle to reforming the Mexican police will be political. While Peña Nieto triumphed on Sunday, the PRI failed to achieve a majority in the congress. That means he will need the support of other parties to move forward on the idea, and that's by no means a given.

Peña Nieto has five months before he takes office in December. There is no sign of any let-up in the prohibition-related violence, nor any sign all the captures or killings of cartel higher-ups are having any impact on the violence or the drug trade. And there appears to be little sign that the new president will do anything radically different about it -- at least not out in the open.

Mexico

US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City
Mexico

Mexico Presidential Candidate Vows to End Drug War

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the candidate-in-waiting of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), said last week that he would end the US-backed war on drugs in Mexico if he is elected president. He said his government would instead concentrate on creating jobs and fighting corruption.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (wikimedia.org)
His comments come as the region is awash in criticism of US-style drug wars and calls for a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and legalization. Regional heads of state will meet to discuss the issue later this month, and it looks likely to be on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia next month.

AMLO was also the PRD candidate in the 2006 elections, barely losing to National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon in a hotly contested election. At least in part to strengthen his stature amid accusations of election fraud, Calderon called out the military to fight Mexican drug trafficking organization shortly after taking office. Since then, more than 50,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, shaking the country's confidence in its institutions.

Lopez is currently trailing the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) candidate Enrique Pena Nieto and PAN nominee Josefina Vazquez Mota in national polls. In one poll early this month, Pena Nieto had 36%, Vazquez Mota had 29%, and AMLO had 17%. In another, the figures were Pena Nieto at 49%, Vazquez Mota at 28%, and AMLO at 19%.

"We're going to stop the war (against organized crime) and justice will be procured," if he is elected, AMLO said in remarks reported by the Mexico City daily La Jornada. "We are not going to use this strategy because it has not produced results. There will be jobs, we'll fight corruption and calm down the country. We know how to do it, I'm sure," he said.

He also vowed to end impunity and criticized the government's use of high-profile arrests and heavily-covered presentations of captured capos to the media as evidence it was actually achieving anything in its battle with the drug cartels.

"Politicians who want to resolve everything through the use of the media are responsible for the lack of security and violence, because they have not established justice, employment and wellbeing. They look the other way and, continue a policy that produces poverty, resentment, hate, hostility, insecurity and violence; they want to resolve it with wars, threats of a crackdown and PR stunts," he said.

"How are those who have no moral authority, who are dishonest and corrupt, going to guarantee justice?" AMLO asked. "With what moral authority can they ask others to do right if they don't do it themselves? And furthermore they let established interest groups make decisions just like in the past in this country."

Bernardo Batiz, whom Lopez Obrador has named as his attorney general-in-waiting if he wins, added that they want to bring social peace and respect for the human rights of victims, witnesses, and criminals alike.

"We propose to move from a war where there are enemies to a justice system with humane criteria," he said. He also vowed there would not be harsher laws, more prisons, more soldiers in the streets, or "complicity with anybody," a clear reference to the widespread suspicion in Mexico that the Calderon government is cozy with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel.

While AMLO and company were campaigning against the drug war, PAN candidate Vazquez Mota was doing some drug-related politicking herself. On Saturday, as she filed documents needed to make her the official PAN candidate, Vazquez Mota also handed in a drug test and a lie detector test she said showed she has no ties to organized crime.

The election is July 1.

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A state trooper transporting marijuana, a pair of cops ripping off drug cash, a constable smuggling across the Mexican border, and a cop with a bad pain pill habit make this week's hall of shame. Let's get to it:

In Chicago, a police sergeant and a patrol officer were charged Monday with stealing $5,000 in undercover government money in an FBI sting operation. Sgt. Ronald Watts, 48, and Officer Kallatt Mohammed, 47, allegedly took the money from a cooperating FBI witness who was under surveillance by federal agents. That same witness testified that Watts had previously asked to be informed of impending drug-cash transactions. Watts and Mohammed have each been charged with one count of theft of government funds. The pair have been released on unsecured $10,000 bonds. They are looking at up to 10 years in prison.

In Brownsville, Texas, a former reserve officer for the Nueces County constable's office was found guilty last Friday of smuggling cocaine and heroin across the Gateway International Bridge from Mexico. Mercedes Perez, 54, went down after a drug-sniffing dog alerted on his vehicle and Customs officers found five pounds of heroin and 15 pounds of cocaine concealed inside his car. Perez testified at trial that he didn't know the drugs were in his car. He was convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine and possession with the intent to distribute heroin and cocaine. He faces a mandatory minimum 10 years and could get up to life in federal prison.

In Charleston, West Virginia, a former state trooper pleaded guilty Monday to being involved in a major marijuana grow operation. Kurt Steffen, 30, was hired as a state trooper in May 2007 and shortly afterward joined with others in an indoor grow op that generated untold thousands of dollars before it was busted in January 2010. When it was busted, authorities found thousands of dollars worth of grow equipment and more than 300 plants. In pleading guilty, Steffen also admitted using his state patrol car to transport the weed. He copped to one federal count each of manufacturing and conspiring to distribute more than 100 pot plants. He's looking at a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, and up to 40 years.

In Denville, New Jersey, a former Denville police officer was sentenced last Friday to three years in prison for ripping off oxycodone and heroin from the department's evidence room. Eugene Blood, 38, a nine-year veteran of the department, had pleaded guilty in December to stealing the drugs in 2010 and 2011, when he was the evidence officer. Before sentencing, Blood apologized for the thefts and said he had developed an addiction to painkillers. Blood's thefts compromised numerous narcotics cases, prosecutors said.

Mexican Army Seizes 15 Tons of Methamphetamine

Mexican army troops seized an astounding 15 tons of pure methamphetamine in the western state of Jalisco, the Mexican military announced last Wednesdayt. That's an amount equal to half of all the meth seized worldwide in 2009 and would have supplied some 13 million individual doses worth over $4 billion on the street in the US.

clandestine Mexican meth lab in Jalisco (SEDENA)
The army said it had received several anonymous tips, leading it to the enormous stash on a small ranch in the municipality of Tlojomulco de Zuniga, near Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. Soldiers found no one on the ranch and made no arrests, although it appeared 12 to 15 people had been working there. 

The army called the seizure "historic," and it appears to be the largest meth bust in Mexican history by far. The previous record bust by the army came in June 2010, when soldiers seized 3.4 tons of pure meth in the central state of Queretaro. During that bust, soldiers also seized hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals.

Meth manufacture is a big business for Mexico's drug cartels. The US National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that 80% of the meth in the US comes from Mexico. After a downward blip five years ago, the supply of meth has been on the increase, and so have seizures. On the US-Mexico border, meth seizures jumped 87% between 2007 and 2009, according to the 2011 UN World Drug Report.

Experts interviewed by the Associated Press reeled at the size of the seizure.

"Seizures of this size... could mean one of two things," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional representative of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. "On one hand, it may be a product that hasn't been able to be sold, and like any business, when the market is depressed, stockpiles build up," he said. "Or such large-scale production could suggest an expansion, an attempt by some Mexican groups, the most business-oriented I would say, to move into Latin American and Asian markets."

"I have never seen quantity in that range," said Steve Preisler, an industrial chemist who adopted the nom de plume Uncle Fester to author the book "Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture," and who is seen by some as the father of modern meth-making. But, he added: "The amounts of precursors they were importing would produce multi-tons of product."

Guadalajara is Sinaloa cartel territory, and an unnamed "senior US law enforcement official in Mexico" told the AP this week's bust was "probably Sinaloa."

The Mexican army in the area might want to watch its back for the next few days because the cartels are known to seek reprisals. Earlier this week, in fact, cartel gunmen in Coahuila attacked an army patrol hours after soldiers seized eight tons of marijuana, leaving two or three dead.

Mexico

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 50,000 people, including more than 15,000 in 2010 and another 15,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrests or killings of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Thursday, January 26

In Ciudad Juarez, a man was shot and killed inside a restaurant in front of dozens of customers. Several people who were with the victim ran from the scene.

Friday, January 27

In Nuevo Laredo, four gunmen and a soldier were killed during a fire fight. The incident began when gunmen traveling in six vehicles opened fire on an army patrol. Five soldiers were wounded and taken to a local hospital.

In Ciudad Juarez, at least ten people were murdered in several incidents. Ten more would be killed on Saturday.

Saturday, January 28

In Torreon, five people were gunned down by a group of men wielding assault rifles. Four other individuals were wounded in the incident.

In Monterrey, three bodies were found dead along with a message from a criminal organization.

Monday, January 30

In Sinaloa, the commander of army forces in the state said that marijuana and poppy growers have been severely hampered by drought and that his forces are detecting fewer grow sites than in previous years. Another army spokesman said that the drought did not mean a drop-off in overall cartel production.

In Nuevo Leon, police announced the capture of a suspected Zeta who allegedly confessed to killing 75 people, at least 36 of whom were taken from passenger buses. Enrique Elizondo Flores, "El Arabe," was arrested on January 20 but authorities say they delayed the announcement to give them time to verify his claims. Over 90 people were killed in three bus attacks thought to have been carried out by the Zetas in January and March 2011.

In Ciudad Juarez, at least seven people were killed.  In one incident, three gunmen were killed in a fire fight after attacking the police. At least eight municipal police officers have been killed in January in attacks that have been blamed on the New Juarez Cartel. In other incidents, a couple was murdered in an industrial park, a man was shot dead on a bus, and a body was found in a car after having been kidnapped on Sunday.

In Guasave, Sinaloa, three soldiers were killed during a fire fight with armed men. According to reports, an army patrol was chasing several vehicles with armed men who resisted. Several gunmen were also reported killed but the bodies were taken away. A pickup truck and several weapons were left abandoned at the scene. After the shooting, a tense standoff took place between soldiers and municipal police forces, who had ignored distress calls from the soldiers involved in the shooting.

In Monterrey, seven suspected Zetas were arrested on kidnapping and other charges. Two victims were rescued from their safe house.

Tuesday, January 31

In Mexico City, a top official confirmed that an army general and 29 of his troops are on trial for crimes they committed while operating in the Ojinaga, Chihuahua border area in 2008 and 2009. General Manuel Moreno and his underlings are accused of committing at least 10 killings and reselling seized narcotics, as well as stealing property during raids. They were originally charged in August 2009.

Off the coast of California, a motorboat laden with over a ton of marijuana was intercepted by authorities. Three Mexican nationals were arrested.

In Mexico City, Mexican prosecutors announced that three former Tamaulipas governors are being investigated. Authorities have declined to say why exactly the men are being investigated, however.

[Editor's Note: We are no longer going to keep a running tally of the death toll; the figures are too unreliable. The latest figures below were released by the Mexican government in January.]

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600
 
Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Partial Body Count for 2011 (official): 12,093*

Total Body Count (official): 47,705*

* Official figures through September 30, 2011. Unofficial estimates put the entire year's death toll at around 16,000, meaning more than 50,000 people had been killed by the end of 2011.

Mexico

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 45,000 people, including more than 15,000 in 2010 and approximately 12,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrests or killings of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Thursday, January 12

In Nuevo Leon, military personnel captured a high-ranking Zeta boss. Jesus Sarabia Luis Ramos, "El Pepito," was considered by authorities to be the fourth most important leader in the organization. He was known to operate in Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

Sunday, January 15

In Culiacan, a Canadian national was gunned down. Salih Adabulazizz Sahbaz, 35, was apparently of Iranian or Iraqi origin and was carrying a large amount of cash on his person when he was murdered. The motive remains unknown. He is the third Canadian known to have been killed in Mexico so far this year.

Monday, January 16

In Cuernavaca, seven gunmen were killed in a fire fight with federal police. One officer was wounded in the clash. The gunmen were traveling in three stolen vehicles when police intercepted them.

In Zacapetec, Morelos, the local police chief was shot and killed by three men on motorcycles while he was at a gas station. He survived the initial shooting but later died in a local hospital.

Tuesday, January 17

In Little Rock, Arkansas, authorities indicted 22 individuals on trafficking charges for being part in a meth operation with links to Mexican cartels. Seventeen of those are now in custody. Police also seized 13.3 pounds of "ice" meth and seven vehicles, five weapons and $163,590.

In Ciudad Juarez, gunmen stormed a home and killed four individuals inside. Three of the dead were found in a bathroom where they had attempted to hide. Local media reported that at least some of the men had been released from prison six months ago.

In Nayarit, police arrested a local cartel boss. Benigno Ibarra Valle, 30, "El Guero Pelocho," was the head of the "Pelochos," a local branch of the Sinaloa Cartel. He is suspected in the deaths of at least five police officers in recent weeks. Nine other individuals were also taken into custody.

In Lazaro Cardenas, authorities seized 194 tons of meth precursor chemicals on a ship from China. The containers were all headed for Guatemala or Nicaragua.

[Editor's Note: We are no longer going to keep a running tally of the death toll; the figures are too unreliable. The latest figures below were released by the Mexican government in January.]

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600
 
Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Partial Body Count for 2011 (official): 12,093*

Total Body Count (official): 47,705*

* Official figures through September 30, 2011. Unofficial estimates put the entire year's death toll at around 16,000, meaning more than 50,000 people have been killed.

Mexico

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 45,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year and approximately 12,000 this year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest or killing of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Thursday, December 22

In Veracruz, suspected Zetas attacked three passenger buses with gunfire and a grenade in an apparent robbery spree, killing eleven people. Three of the dead were later confirmed to be US citizens who were visiting relatives in Mexico for the holidays. The army later announced that it killed the five gunmen after they were shot at attempting to arrest them.

Friday, December 23

In Culiacan, army commandos captured the head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel. Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, "The Engineer," is thought to have run cartel operations in Durango and in part of Chihuahua. No shots were fired during the arrest operation. Over the course of 2011, Cabrera was involved in a bloody dispute with another Sinaloa Cartel faction in the state of Durango.

In the port of Manzanillo, authorities seized 21 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to produce crystal meth on a ship headed towards Guatemala.

In Tampico Alto, Veracruz, ten bodies were discovered. The bodies all bore signs of having been tortured and several were decapitated.

In Los Mochis, Sinaloa, three decapitated bodies were discovered at a location where the body of a municipal police officer was found on December 18th.

Saturday, December 24

In Michoacan, the body of a teenage American citizen was found in the trunk of a burned car along with two others. The teenager, Alex Uriel Marron, 18, was reportedly from the Chicago area and visiting family in the village of Quiringuicharo.

In Saltillo, Coahuila, three gunmen were killed in a fire fight with police. A fourth person was wounded. Several assault rifles were confiscated from a car in which the gunmen were traveling.

Sunday, December 25

In Tamaulipas, authorities discoved 13 bodies in an abandoned truck just across the state border from Veracruz. A banner left with the bodies indicated that the killings were due to an ongoing cartel battle for control of the Veracruz region.

Tuesday, December 27

In Mexico City, the leader of a small cartel was arrested at the airport. Luis Rodriguez Olivera, "Whitey," is thought to have been head of the "Blondies" Organization which has been allied to several larger cartels. US authorities were offering a $5 million reward for his capture, and accuse him and a brother of smuggling cocaine and meth to the US and to Europe.

In Nuevo Leon, police discovered seven bodies buried in a shallow pit or in a well. The bodies, which were found in Linares and Montemorelos, were discovered using information provided by a group of captured kidnappers alleged to be Zetas.

In Sinaloa, a former high-ranking federal police official was sentenced to 10 years for helping the Sinaloa Cartel. Javier Herrera Valles was arrested in 2008, although the arrest was controversial because he had recently accused some of his commanding officers of corruption or incompetence.

Wednesday, December 28

In Michoacan, six gunmen were killed in two separate clashes with the army. In the first, which took place Wednesday night, three men were killed after encountering an army patrol in the Buenavista Tomatlan area. Later, early Thursday morning, another three were killed in a nearby village. All the dead men are thought to be members of the Knights Templar Organization, which is active in the area. In 2011, troops in 21st military district in Michoacan shot dead a total of 91 gunmen from several organizations.

In Ciudad Juarez, a leading cartel enforcer was arrested by police. Arturo Bautista, 31, "El Mil Amores," is thought to be a high-ranking member of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juarez Cartel. It is unclear, however, if that is his real name. He has been identified as a resident of El Paso, Texas. Bautista was arrested along with three other men after the murder of a woman whom police say was thought to have been passing intelligence to a rival criminal group.

Friday, December 30

In Veracruz, the Zetas hung up a banner stating they were not responsible for the December 22 bus attacks which killed at least seven people, including three US citizens. The banners claim that corrupt police officers were responsible for the attacks.

In Coahuila, seven suspected Zetas were captured by the army on the Saltillo-Torreon highway. One of the men was identified as a high-ranking member, but the army has so far not identified him.

Saturday, December 31

In Ciudad Juarez, at least four people were murdered in several incidents. According to researcher Molly Molloy, this brings the city’s 2011 homicide numbers to 1,980 for the year. This is nearly 40% lower than the 3,622 murders that took place in 2010, but still considerably higher than the 2008 total of 1,623. In total, since 2007, 10,299 homicides have taken place in Ciudad Juarez. February was the bloodiest month in 2011, with 231 murders having taken place.

Sunday, January 1

In Mexico City, the National Human Rights Commission said that they concluded that five men held in connection with a July 2010 car bombing in Ciudad Juarez had been tortured to obtain confessions. They recommended that six federal police officers and a doctor be questioned in relation with the incident. The men were also accused of the killings of two federal agents. Although cleared in those incidents, the men remain incarcerated on narcotics and weapons charges.

Tuesday, January 3

In Sonora, at least five people were murdered. In one incident, the bodies of three young men were found on the side of a highway. In another part of the state, two men were found dead in a bullet-riddled truck. Several weapons, including an AK-47 were found in the truck.

Drug-related violence was confirmed in at least six other states, with nine people confirmed dead.

[Editor's Note: Our 2011 estimated death toll is 12,150, pending the release of official figures.Our new 2012 death toll is also an estimate.]

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600

Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Total Body Count for 2011 (approx.): 12,150

Total Body Count for 2012: (approx.) 15

TOTAL: > 46,000

Mexico

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

The new year is upon us and 2011 is now a year for the history books. But we can't let it go without recognizing the biggest global drug policy stories of the year. From the horrors of the Mexican drug wars to the growing clamor over the failures of prohibition, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle to the coca fields of the Andes, from European parliaments to Iranian gallows, drug prohibition and its consequences were big news this year.

Of course, we can't cover it all. We have no room to note the the emergence of West Africa as a transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for Europe's booming user markets, nor the unavailability of opioid pain medications in much of the world; we've given short shrift to the horrors of "drug treatment" in Southeast Asia; and we've barely mentioned the rising popularity of synthetic stimulants in European club scenes, among other drug policy-related issues. We'll be keeping an eye on all of those, but in the meantime, here are our choices for this year's most important global drug policy stories:

The Mexican Drug Wars

militarized US-Mexico border
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war on his country's drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- and five years in, his policy can only be described as a bloody disaster. The death toll stands at somewhere around 45,000 since Calderon sent in the army and the federal police, but that figure doesn't begin to describe the horror of the drug wars, with their gruesome brutality and exemplary violence.

Mexico's drug wars pit the army and the state and federal police against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and different factions of state, local, and federal police, and even different military commands, aligned with various cartels fighting each other in a multi-sided dance of death. All the violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexicans' perceptions of personal and public safety and security, as well as on its political system.

It has also tarnished the reputation of the Mexican military. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

And, as the cartels battle each other, the military, and the various police, the violence that was once limited to a handful of border cities has spread to cities across the country. Once relatively peaceful Acapulco has been wracked by cartel violence, and this year, both Veracruz and Monterrey, cities once unaffected by the drug wars, have seen murderous acts of spectacular violence.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual, with drugs flowing north across the US border and voluminous amounts of cash and guns flowing south. Calderon's drug war, which has racked up a $43 billion bill so far (and an additional nearly one billion in US Plan Merida aid), has managed to kill or capture dozens of cartel capos, but has had no discernable impact on the provision of drugs across the border to feed America's voracious appetite. Worse, the attempted crackdown on the cartels has led them to expand their operations to neighboring Central American countries where the state is even weaker than in Mexico. Both Guatemala and Honduras have seen significant acts of violence attributed to the cartels this year, while El Salvador and Nicaragua also complain of the increasing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

There are, however, a couple of positives to report. First, the carnage may have peaked, or at least reached a plateau. It now appears that the 2011 death toll this year, while tremendously high at around 12,000, didl not exceed last year's 15,000. That would mark the first downturn in the killing since Calderon called out the troops.

Second, the bloody failure of Calderon's drug war is energizing domestic Mexican as well as international calls to end drug prohibition. A strong civil society movement against the drug war and violence has emerged in Mexico and, sadly, the sorrow of Mexico is now Exhibit #1 for critics of drug prohibition around the world.

Afghanistan: Still the World's Drug Crop Capital

anti-opium abuse posters at a drug treatment center in Kabul (photo by the author)
A decade after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on, even as it begins to wind down. And Afghanistan's status as the world's number one opium poppy producer remains unchallenged. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies.

The Afghan poppy crop was down in 2010, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. In 2011, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the area under poppy cultivation increased 7%, but that the expected harvest increased 61% because of better yields and would produce about 5,800 metric tons of opium.

The 2010 blight-related poppy shortage led to price increases, which encouraged farmers to plant more poppy and more than doubled the farm-gate value of the crop from $605 million to more than $1.4 billion. Additional hundreds of millions go to traders and traffickers, some linked to the Taliban, others linked to government officials. Last year, US and NATO forces embarked on counter-drug operations aimed at traders and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban.

And it's not just opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2011, Afghanistan is also "among the significant cannabis resin producing countries," producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 metric tons of hash in 2010, with no reason to think it has changed dramatically in 2011. That brings in somewhere between $85 million and $265 million at the farm gate.

A decade after the US invasion, Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer by far and possibly the world's largest cannabis producer. Given the crucial role these drug crops play in the Afghan economy, there is little reason to think anything is going to change anytime soon.

The Return of the Golden Triangle

In 2010's roundup of major international drug stories, we mentioned the reemergence of opium production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. In 2011, production has accelerated. According to the UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011, opium production has been increasing since 2006, but jumped 16% last year.

The region produced an estimated 638 metric tons this year, of which 91% came from Myanmar, with Laos and Thailand producing the rest. The region is now responsible for about 12% of annual global opium production.

The amount of land under poppy cultivation is still only one-third of what it was at its 1998 peak, but has more than doubled from its low point of 20,000 hectares in 2006. More importantly, estimated total production has rebounded and is now nearly half of what it was in 1998. The UNODC points a finger at chronic food insecurity, weak national governments, and the involvement of government actors, especially in Myanmar.

If Afghanistan does not produce enough opium to satisfy global illicit demand, the countries on the Golden Triangle are standing in the wings, ready to make up the difference.

The Rising Clamor for Legalization

former Mexican president Vicente Fox speaking at the Cato Institute
2011 saw calls for ending drug prohibition growing ever louder and coming from ever more corners of the world. Throughout the year, Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, have called repeatedly for drug legalization, or at least a serious discussion of it. Although the specifics of their remarks shift over time -- sometimes it's a call for drug legalization, sometimes for marijuana legalization, sometimes for decriminalization -- leaders like Fox and Santos are issuing a clarion call for fundamental change in global drug policies.

That such calls should come from leaders in Colombia and Mexico is no surprise -- those are two of the countries most ravaged by drug prohibition and the violence it fuels. By the fall, even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who unleashed Mexico's drug war five years ago, was starting to join the chorus. In an October interview with Time magazine, Calderon said he could never win in Mexico if Americans don't reduce demand or "reduce at least the profits coming from the black market for drugs." While he was unwilling to take the final step and embrace ending prohibition, he added that "I want to see a serious analysis of the alternatives, and one alternative is to explore the different legal regimes about drugs."

But the biggest news in the international battle to end drug prohibition came at mid-year, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a star-studded panel of former presidents and prime ministers, public intellectuals, and business magnates, called the global war on drugs "a failure" and urged governments worldwide to should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, in a report that drew press attention from around the world.

The commission, heavily salted with Latin American luminaries, grew out of the previous year's Latin American Initiative on Drug Policy and includes some of the same members, including former Brazilian President Henry Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. It is paired with the UK-based Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which launched in November and is eyeing changes in the legal backbone of international drug prohibition, the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor treaties. The global commission also picked up strong support from an organization of Latin American judicial figures, Latin Judges on Drugs and Human Rights, which echoed the commission's call with its own Rome Declaration.

European Reforms

wall paintings near the entrance to Christiania, Copenhagen (wikipedia.org)
Drug reform continued its achingly slow progress in Europe in 2011, with a handful of real advances, as well as a number of parties in various countries taking strong drug reform stands. But while Europe has largely embraced harm reduction and seen the positive results of Portugal's decade-long experiment with drug decriminalization, getting to the take level -- ending drug prohibition -- remains elusive.

In March, Scotland's Liberal Democrats voted to making campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

In September, their more powerful brethren, the British Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners with the Conservatives in the governing coalition, did them one better by adopting a resolution supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales. That is going to lead to debate in parliament on the issue next year.

In August, the Greek government proposed drug decriminalization in a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou. Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed. But given the other pressing matters before the Greek government, the bill has yet to move.

Probably the most significant actual drug reform achievement in Europe in 2011 was Poland's passage of a law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison. That law went into effect in December. The new law lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem. Still, there is an appetite for more reform; a political party that wants legalize soft drugs won 10% of the vote in the October presidential elections.

There has been some movement on marijuana and hints of more to come, as well in 2011. In an otherwise dismal year for weed in the Netherlands (see below), the Dutch high court ruled in April that anyone can grow up to five pot plants without facing criminal charges, no matter how big the harvest. The ruling came after prosecutors went after two different people who produced large multi-pound yields from a handful of plants, arguing that such harvests violated the Dutch five-gram rule. The court disagreed, but said that the pot would have to be turned over to police if they came to the door.

In June, Italy's top court ruled that balcony pot grows are okay, finding that the amounts of pot produced in such grows "could cause no harm." It's a small advance on earlier court rulings, and a step in the right direction.

And then there are moves that are pushing the envelope. Last month, the Copenhagen city council voted to explore how best to legalize and regulate pot sales. The move has the support of the mayor, but has to be approved by the Danish parliament, which has balked at such measures before. Maybe this time will be different. And raising the ante, the Basque parliament is set to approve a new drug law that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption. The move is being propelled by the health ministry in the autonomous region of Spain, and would be a direct challenge to the UN conventions' ban on legalization.

Medical Marijuana's Slowly Growing Global Acceptance

It comes by dribs and drabs, but it comes.

In Israel, the Cabinet approved guidelines in August that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses. The move came on the heels of a Health Ministry decision the week before  to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit will begin operating in January 2012. Currently, medical marijuana is supplied by private Israeli growers, but with the number of medical marijuana patients expected to rise from the current 6,000 to 40,000 by 2016, the state is stepping in to help out with supply.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health said in September it plans to remove marijuana from its list of proscribed substances and allow it to be prescribed by doctors. The ministry said it would move to amend Czech drug laws by the end of the year to allow for the prescription of marijuana by doctors, although we haven't seen that actually happen yet. The ministry must also determine what sort of distribution system to set up. The Israeli model, where the state is licensing medical marijuana farms, is one oft-cited system.

In New Zealand, medical marijuana was on the agenda of the New Zealand Law Commission when it issued a report in May reviewing the country's drug laws. In addition to other drug reform measures, the commission called for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this." The government there does not appear to be eager to follow those recommendations, but the commission report is laying the groundwork for progress.

In Canada, which has an existing medical marijuana program, the news is more mixed. Health Canada is in the process of adopting a "more traditional regulatory role" for the medical marijuana "marketplace, and envisions privatized medical marijuana provision by licensed and strictly regulated grower. That doesn't sit well with a lot of patients and activists because it means Health Canada wants to eliminate patients' ability to grow their own. Nor were patients particularly impressed with Health Canada's earlier attempt to provide privately produced and licensed medical marijuana. Without outright legalization of marijuana being more popular than the Conservative government, Canada may eventually get around to solving its medical marijuana problem by just legalizing it all.

Iran's Drug War Execution Frenzy

drug burn marking International Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
Iran has garnered itself a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, but 2011 saw an absolute explosion of death sentences and executions -- the vast majority of them for drug offenses. At the end of January, we reported that Iran had already executed 56 drug offenders for offenses involving more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. As if that weren't enough, in February, the Islamic Republic made trafficking in synthetic drugs, including meth, a capital offense. More than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of meth could bring the death penalty, but only on a second offense.

At the end of May, by which time the execution toll for drug offenses had risen to 126, Iran announced it had 300 drug offenders on death row and lashed out at Western critics, saying if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference that month. "There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

In a December report, Amnesty International condemned Iran's drug executions, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions." The London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Amnesty also accused Iran of executing people without trial, extracting confessions by torture, failing to notify families -- or sometimes, even inmates -- of impending executions, and mainly executing the poor, members of minority groups, or foreigners, including large numbers of Afghans.

Amnesty noted tartly that Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran may be the most egregious offender when it comes to killing drug offenders, but it is by no means the only one. Other countries that not only have the death penalty for drug offenses but actually apply it include China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Human rights activists argue that the death penalty for drug offenses violates the UN Charter. For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

In a bit of good news on the death penalty front, in June, India's Bombay High Court struck down a mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses.The regional high court is the equivalent of a US district court of appeals.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said Indian Harm Reduction Network head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

Weekly updates on executions worldwide including for drug offenses are available from the Rome-based group Hands Off Cain.

The Netherlands Will Bar Foreigners from its Cannabis Cafes... and More

a coffee shop in Amsterdam (wikimedia.org)
The Netherlands' conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued and deepened its effort to undo Holland's reputation as a marijuana haven and drug tourism destination last year. Plans to ban foreigners from Dutch cannabis cafes reached fruition in 2011, with the Dutch Justice Ministry saying in November that foreigners would be barred from southern border coffee shops effective January 1. A month later, the government announced that plan would be delayed until May, and would go into effect nationwide beginning in 2013. Goodbye, tourist dollars.

But it's not just clamping down on foreigners. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, with local governments putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.). Now, the national government will be limiting their client base to 2,000 card carrying Dutch nationals each.

The national government also rather bizarrely declared in October that it wanted to declare high-potency marijuana a dangerous drug like cocaine or heroin and ban its possession or sale. That hasn't happened yet, but unless the Dutch get around to electing a more progressive government, the Christian Democrats and their allies will continue to work to undo the country's progressive pot policy reputation, not to mention its tourism industry..

North America's Only Supervised Injection Site Gets a Reprieve

Ending a years' long effort by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper to close Insite, the Vancouver supervised injection site for hard drug users, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in September that it should be allowed to stay open.

The Harper government, a foe of harm reduction practices in general and safe inection sites in particular, had argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.

"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Insite has been the only supervised injection site on the North American continent, but in the wake of that ruling, that may not be the case for long. In the wake of the September ruling, Montreal announced plans for four safe injection sites in December. It's not a done deal -- it will require financing from provincial health agencies -- but plans are moving forward. And there are distant rumblings of plans for an effort to get a supervised injection site running in San Francisco, which would be a first for the US, but don't hold your breath on that one.

If the Harper government has been defeated in its effort to kill supervised injection sites, it is moving forward with plans to pass an omnibus crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing as few as six pot plants. With an absolute majority in a parliamentary system, there seems to be no way to block the bill's passage, which will mean a real step backward for our northern neighbor as it emulates some of our worst penal practices.

Bolivia Challenges the Global Coca Ban

coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province (photo by the author)
At the end of June, the Bolivian government of former coca-grower union leader Evo Morales announced it was resigning from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because that treaty bans the cultivation of coca. The resignation is effective January 1. The move came after a failed effort last year by Bolivia to amend the treaty to allow for coca cultivation, a traditional activity in the Andes, where the plant has been used as a mild stimulant and hunger suppresser for millennia.

"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian at the time.

Bolivia will rejoin the convention sometime during the new year, but with the reservation that it does not accept the language proscribing the coca plant.

That move has aroused the concern of the International Narcotics Control Board, which issued a statement saying the international community should reject moves by any country to quit the treaty and return with reservations doing so "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system."

Of course, there are many people aside from Evo Morales who believe the global drug control system lacks any integrity whatsoever. For those people, the actions of Bolivia represent the first serious effort to begin to undo the legal backbone of the global prohibition system.

Morales himself said last month
that he believes Bolivia will succeed next year. "I am convinced that next year we will win this international 'fight' for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes," he  said in an interview with the Bolivian radio station Patria Nueva.

In ending...

Global drug prohibition is under sustained, systemic, and well-deserved attack. It is being attacked (finally) in its core treaties and institutions, it is under ever broader political attack from around the planet; its central precepts are increasingly tattered. Ever year the clamor grows louder in the face of prohibition's screaming failure to accomplish its given ends and the terrible costs it generates. The process of chipping away at drug prohibition is under way. The prohibitionist consensus is crumbling; now comes the struggle to finally kill the beast and replace it with a more sensible, compassionate, and smarter approach to mind-altering substances.

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