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Human Rights Watch on Coerced Guilty Pleas in US Drug Cases
A report from Human Rights Watch released this morning demonstrates the corruption of justice that mandatory minimum sentencing has brought about. According to "An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Defendants to Plead Guilty," prosecutors commonly force drug defendants to plead to lengthy mandatory sentences in order to avoid losing their entire lives. Jamie Fellner of HRW writes:

"Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial," said Jamie Fellner, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse. This is coercion pure and simple."

In one case cited, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, declined to plea to 10 years for possession of 50 grams of crack with intent to deliver. Prior convictions she had for simple drug possession triggered a sentencing enhancement, at the prosecutor's behest, and Avery was sentenced to life without parole.

I think that very clearly constitutes a human rights violation, and we need to take this kind of power away from the officials who perpetrate such violations. One way to do that is by repealing mandatory minimum sentencing. There is a real chance of doing that, for the first time in a very long time, as a recent article we published shows. More on this coming soon.

Chronicle AM -- November 13, 2013

Uruguay appears poised to legalize marijuana Friday, the Afghan opium crop is at an all-time high, and the ACLU issues a report on people doing life without parole for nonviolent offenses. And there's more. Let's get to it:

Dicky Lee Jackson sold meth to pay for medical treatment for his son. He may never come home. (
Marijuana Policy

Denver Marijuana-Smoking Rules Would Allow Toking Anywhere on One's Property. The Denver city council Tuesday gave preliminary approval to rules for marijuana consumption that would allow residents to smoke anywhere on their own property, even front yards. Earlier versions of the rules had attempted to impose stricter limits, but were beaten back. The rules would ban "display" or distribution of marijuana on the 16th Street Mall and in city parks. Violators would be hit with fines, not criminal offenses.

Up to an Ounce of Pot Now Legal in Jackson, Michigan. That didn't take long. Voters last week approved a local initiative to legalize the possession of up to an ounce, and on Tuesday, the city council unanimously amended city ordinances to comply. The change goes into effect immediately, but marijuana possession remains illegal under state law, and it isn't clear yet what local law enforcement is going to do.

Drug Overdoses

New Study on US Drug Overdose Deaths. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examines drug poisoning mortality on a county by county basis. Drug poisoning is now the leading cause of accidental death in the US and has increased threefold in the last three decades. The rise in drug poisoning deaths is correlated with an increase in the non-medical use of prescription drugs, especially opioids. There is a wealth of data in this study.


More Than 3,000 Doing Life in Prison for Nonviolent Offenses. Some 3,278 people in the US are serving sentences of life without parole for nonviolent offenses, and 79% of them are for drug offenses, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union. Two-thirds of them are black. "The punishments these people received are grotesquely out of proportion to the crimes they committed," said Jennifer Turner, ACLU Human Rights Researcher and author of the report. "In a humane society, we can hold people accountable for drug and property crimes without throwing away the key."

Congressional Drug Warriors Want Stiffer Penalties for "Candy-Flavored" Drugs. Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) Wednesday introduced the Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act of 2013 (not yet available online). The bill would increase penalties for "drug dealers who entice children with candy-flavored methamphetamine, cocaine, or other dangerous drugs." Although the announcement emphasizes hard drugs, it also references medical marijuana products "with child-friendly names like Pot Tarts and Reese's Crumbled Hash Brownies."

Supreme Court Hears Two Drug-Related Sentencing Cases. The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard two cases where drug defendants are appealing lengthy prison sentences. In one case, the defendant was sentenced to 20 years in prison after selling heroin that resulted in the death of a drug user; in the other case, the defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison for an "aiding and abetting" firearms offense during a drug deal gone bad. In both cases, the defendants argued that the sentences were not supported by the facts of the case. The cases are Burrage v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-7515 and Rosemond v. United States, 12-895, respectively.


Uruguay Senate to Vote on Marijuana Legalization Friday. Uruguay is poised to become the first country on the planet to legalize marijuana commerce with a Senate vote set for Friday. The lower chamber approved it earlier this year. Given that Uruguay has a parliamentary system and the measure has the support of the president and the governing party, it should be a done deal, but we'll check back in on Friday. (The link is Spanish-only. Lo siento.)

Afghan Opium Production at Record Levels, UN Says. Afghanistan produced a record 6,060 tons of opium this year, an all-time high, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported Wednesday. That's up 49% over last year and means that Afghanistan accounts for around 90% of the total global illicit opium supply. The withdrawal of NATO and US forces next year means no improvement is likely in the near future, the UN said.

South Africa Drug Treatment Groups Say Legalize Some Drugs. South Africa's Anti-Drug Alliance, a professional drug treatment group, is calling on the government to legalize some drugs and focus on treatment and prevention instead of emphasizing drug busts and related arrests. In a report last week, the group said government anti-drug spending, with its heavy emphasis on policing, was ineffective.

Marc Emery in Solitary Confinement in US Prison

Canadian marijuana seed magnate and political dissident Marc Emery, who is about four years into a five-year US prison sentence for selling pot seeds over the Internet, has been sent to solitary confinement at the Mississippi federal prison where he's doing his time. According to the magazine he founded, Cannabis Culture, he is being punished over false charges.

Rockin' the joint at Yazoo City FCI. That's Emery on bass on the left. (
Emery, along with other prisoners at the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Institution, formed a band some months ago. Photos of the band were taken by prison staff, then developed and sent to his wife, Jodie Emery, in Vancouver, and were posted on his blog in April. According to Emery, permission for the photos was granted by three separate administrators, including one at the prison's Special Investigative Services department.

But now, prison officials have placed Emery and his bandmates in solitary confinement while they say they are investigating the possibility the photos had been taken with a prohibited smart phone. Prisoners in solitary, or, as it is euphemistically known, the Special Housing Unit (SHU), are locked in their cells 23 hours a day and denied normal prison amenities.

"Got to see Marc for 1.5 hours," Jodie Emery posted in an online statement Friday, shortly after a trip to visit him. "Prison has him in solitary confinement to 'investigate' the photos of his band that the prison itself approved! The investigation (could take months) is to see if Marc had a cell phone to take the band photos -- despite proof the prison camera was used! The warden, guards, music/recreation admins -- everyone -- knows Marc got official permission for those photos. Yet they put him in solitary?!"

Cannabis Culture reported that prison authorities were unavailable to comment until after the weekend.

As an entrepreneur and activist, the Vancouver-based Emery was a burr under the saddle of US drug warriors, who managed to indict him for his seed-selling business. Canadian authorities declined to help him, although they had allowed his business to operate untrammeled for years.

He was eventually sentenced to five years in federal prison in a plea deal designed to spare his codefendants from facing the wrath of US prosecutors. In a press release the day of his arrest, the DEA issued a press release crowing that taking him down was "a significant blow… to the marijuana legalization movement… Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery's illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on."

With little more than a year to go on his sentence, Emery is seeking a transfer to a Canadian prison. Interested parties can support his bid by sending a letter to the Justice Department's transfer division.

Yazoo City, MS
United States

Is the International Narcotics Control Board Ignoring Human Rights?

A recent report by the UN special rapporteur on torture charged that compulsory drug treatment centers in some countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand, constitute "forced labor" camps that engage in "torture." Long-time addiction writer Maia Szalavitz wrote about this in Time last week, and Phil did in our newsletter last Monday. The report is online here.

photo from the 2011 HRW report on Vietnam's so-called drug rehabilitation centers
The issue is not a new one, having been raised by Human Rights Watch in September 2011. HRW detailed forced labor, worker pay getting taken by the centers or staffs, inmates getting beaten, even bones broken, if they didn't comply with instructions.

Nevertheless, in its 2011 annual report, published five months after HRW's, the International Narcotics Control Board had only this to say in relation to Vietnam's treatment centers:

In September 2010, the Government of Viet Nam issued a decree on the strengthening of family-based and community-based drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In March 2011, the Ministry of Public Security of Viet Nam adopted measures to improve the collection and analysis of drug-related data. In June 2011, the Government of Viet Nam adopted the national strategy on drug control and prevention for the period ending in 2020. Based on that strategic document, the national target programme for the period 2011-2015 was developed to address drug-related issues in the country.


The Board welcomes the steps taken in Viet Nam to improve the treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers and the efforts made in participating in different projects sponsored by [the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC] in that area. The Board encourages the Government to reinforce and support existing facilities as well as to undertake capacity-building in the field of treatment for drug abusers.

The 2012 INCB report, released last week -- more than a month after the special rapporteur's report was released -- offers just this:

The Government of Viet Nam launched its new national drug control and crime prevention strategies in July 2012. The strategies highlight the need for a comprehensive national response that combines effective law enforcement, drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation measures that allow for better integration of former drug dependent persons into society and the active participation of communities in crime prevention.

I understand that any system involving confinement has the potential for abuse, in the best of times and places, and that any one report on a subject can miss the mark. But we have allegations from a respected organization, and now from the UN itself, of systemic abuses, of a degree of seriousness that would seem to invalidate the entire project. Presumably international funding is in the mix at well. So why not even a word about it, from the self-described "quasi-judicial body" overseeing the international drug control regime?

Open Society Foundation's Joanne Csete noted comments by the late Hamid Ghodse, then INCB chairman, at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year, disclaiming any role for human rights concerns in the drug treaties or his agency. But that is not the stated position of the other main UN drug agency, UNODC.

So do we have a scandal in the making -- or better yet, an opportunity to reform the international drug control regime?

[By the way, Csete's afore-linked essay is part of the LSE IDEAS report included in our current membership offers.]

UN Report Slams Cruel Drug Treatment as "Torture"

Compulsory "treatment" for drug addiction in some parts of the world is "tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," according to report last month from the UN's special rapporteur on torture and other degrading treatments and punishments. The report was delivered to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Vienna.

drug "rehabilitation center," Vietnam (
Authored by Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, the report takes special aim at forced "rehabilitation centers" for drug users. Such centers are typically found in Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as in some countries in the former Soviet Union. But the report also decries the lack of opiate substitution therapies in confinement setting and bemoans the lack of access to effective opioid pain treatment in large swathes of the world.

"Compulsory detention for drug users is common in so-called rehabilitation centers," Mendez wrote. "Sometimes referred to as drug treatment centers or 'reeducation through labor' centers or camps, these are institutions commonly run by military or paramilitary, police or security forces, or private companies. Persons who use, or are suspected of using, drugs and who do not voluntarily opt for drug treatment and rehabilitation are confined in such centers and compelled to undergo diverse interventions."

The victims of such interventions face not only drug withdrawal without medical assistance, but also "state-sanctioned beatings, caning or whipping, forced labor, sexual abuse, and intentional humiliation," as well as "flogging therapy," "bread and water therapy," and forced electroshock treatments, all in the name of rehabilitation.

As Mendez notes, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office on Drug Control (UNODC) have determined that "neither detention nor forced labor have been recognized by science as treatment for drug use disorders." Such forced detentions, often with no legal or medical evaluation or recourse, thus "violate international human rights law and are illegitimate substitutes for evidence-based measures, such as substitution therapy, psychological interventions and other forms of treatment given with full, informed consent."

Such centers continue to operate despite calls to close them from organizations including the WHO, the UNODC, and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And they are often operating with "direct or indirect support and assistance from international donors without adequate human rights oversight."

Drug users are "a highly stigmatized and criminalized population" who suffer numerous abuses, including denial of treatment for HIV, deprivation of child custody, and inclusion in drug registries where their civil rights are curtailed. One form of ill-treatment and "possibly torture of drug users" is the denial of opiate substitute therapy, "including as a way of eliciting criminal confessions through inducing painful withdrawal symptoms."

The denial of such treatments in jails and prisons is "a violation of the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment," Mendez noted, and should be considered a violation in non-custodial settings as well. "By denying effective drug treatment, state drug policies intentionally subject a large group of people to severe physical pain, suffering and humiliation, effectively punishing them for using drugs and trying to coerce them into abstinence, in complete disregard of the chronic nature of dependency and of the scientific evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of punitive measures."

The rapporteur also noted with chagrin that 5.5 billion people, or 83% of the planet's population, live in areas "with low or no access to controlled medicines and have no access to treatment for moderate to severe pain." While most of Mendez' concern is directed at the developing world, he also notes that "in the United States, over a third of patients are not adequately treated for pain."

Mendez identified obstacles to the availability of opioid pain medications as "overly restrictive drug control regulations," as well as misinterpretation of those regulations, deficiencies in supply management, lack of concern about palliative care, and "ingrained prejudices" about using such medications.

New York City, NY
United States

Iran Drug Execution Frenzy Continues This Year

Last Wednesday, three men convicted of drug related charges were hanged in the prison in the Iranian city of Isfahan, state media reported. The prisoners died unnamed; only the charges and the fact of their execution were mentioned.

That's par for the course for the Islamic Republic, which in recent years has emerged as one of the world's most prolific executioners of drug offenders. Hundreds were sent to the gallows for drug offenses last year (a final tally isn't in yet) and nearly 500 the year before that, according to Iranian human rights sources and state media reports compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain. 21 more were executed in January alone, bringing the total so far this year to 24.

It's a grim litany:

  • Five prisoners executed January 30 at the prison in Kerman for "armed trafficking of 53 kilograms and 250 grams of opium."
  • One man hanged January 28 at the prison in Mianeh for selling 890 grams of crack. In addition to being executed, this unnamed man was fined $3 million rials for being a drug addict.
  • Six prisoners, including two women and one Afghan, hanged January 27 in Esfahan after being convicted of drug trafficking.
  • One man identified only as "Ch.P." hanged January 24 at Sharoos Prison for trafficking 1.94 kilograms of morphine.
  • Three prisoners identified only by their initials fined, lashed, and hanged January 23 at Qazvin Prison for "possession and trafficking of narcotic drugs."
  • Two prisoners, "M. Sh." and M. F.," hanged January 16 at Semnan Prison for trafficking 6.732 grams of crack and 1,739 grams of crack and 30.8 grams of crystal meth, respectively.
  • Two prisoners hanged January 6 in Khomarabad for "possession and trafficking of drugs."
  • One unnamed prisoner hanged January 2 in the prison at Yasouj for trafficking 20,050 ampules of heroin and 74,917 "psychotropic pills."

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the United Nations, a stance embraced by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

"UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

The Iranian resort to the death penalty for drug offenses has attracted international condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International and the Norway-based human rights group Iran Human Rights, which in 2011 helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran.

More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."


It Looks Like 2016 for a Marijuana Legalization Bid in California [FEATURE]

If the first day of the California NORML state conference is any indication, most of the major players in Golden State marijuana law reform are lining up behind the idea of waiting until 2016 to try another legalization initiative there. They have some good reasons, but not everybody's happy with that, and some heart-rending reasons why that's the case were also on display as California marijuana activists gathered in San Francisco for day one of the two-day event.

Stephen Gutwillig, Dale Gieringer, Paul Armentano
Richard Lee's groundbreaking Proposition 19 garnered 46.5% of the vote in the 2010 off-year election, and no marijuana legalization initiative campaigns managed to make it onto the ballot last year, although several groups tried. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington beat California to the Promised Land, becoming the first states to legalize marijuana in last November's election.

Now, California activists are eager to make their state the next to legalize, but crafty movement strategists are counseling patience -- and trying to build their forces in the meantime. The Prop 19 campaign made a strong beginning, bringing in elements of organized labor and the black and Hispanic communities, as well as dissident law enforcement voices, to help form a coalition that came close, but didn't quite make it.

As CANORML deputy director Ellen Komp reminded the audience at a Saturday morning panel on what comes next for marijuana law reform, the people behind the Proposition 19 campaign have formed the core of the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform in a bid to forge unity among the state's diverse, multi-sided, and sometimes fractious marijuana community -- and to encourage new voices to join the struggle.

For the Marijuana Policy Project, California is a big prize, but only part of a broader national strategy, and one that should most likely wait for 2016, said the group's executive director, Rob Kampia, as he explained its plan to push legalization bills in state legislatures in four states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont) this year and beyond, but not pushing legalization initiatives anywhere but Alaska in 2014.

MPP is envisioning a big legalization initiative push in 2016 instead, setting its sights on seven states, including California, when the presidential election pumps up the vote. (The others are Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.)

"There's a big demographic difference between 2014 and 2016," said Kampia. "If we do 2016, it's ours to lose."

The Drug Policy Alliance, another major player with access to the big-time funding that can turn an initiative into a winner, also seemed to be looking to 2016.

"It's up to us how, where, and when marijuana prohibition will end," Steve Gutwillig, a DPA deputy executive director and former California state director told the full house at the Ft. Mason Conference Center, "but the presumption is 2016, more than 2014. We need to run a unified campaign, we need to build the base and do alliance-building among people who are already convinced."

spontaneous fundraiser for Daisy Bram
Those positions are in line with the thinking of long-time CANORML head Dale Gieringer, who has long argued that initiatives fare better in presidential election years.

Even some of the proponents of the competing initiatives from last year are, while not exactly enthusiastic about waiting for 2016, are seemingly resigned to it.

Steve Collette, who was a proponent of the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative, told the Chronicle he would prefer 2014, but could get behind 2016, too, while Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, coauthor of the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act initiative, implied in his remarks in a later panel that he, too, was resigned to waiting for 2016.

Noting the confused state of California's medical marijuana laws -- "Nobody knows what the laws are!" -- Figueroa argued for either legislative action or a 2014 medical marijuana initiative "until a legalization initiative in 2016."

Not everyone was as ready to give up on 2014 just yet. Displeased grumblings were heard in the hallways, and an earnest advocate for the Herer-ite California Cannabis Hemp Initiative 2014 took advantage of a post-panel question-and-answer opportunity to declaim in support of it.

The most powerful and visceral opposition to waiting came in the form of Daisy Bram, a mother of three young children and legal medical marijuana grower. Bram became a symbol of the cruelty of pot prohibition last year, when local authorities in rural Butte County raided her grow, seized her children and place them in foster care, and filed criminal charges against her.

Despite being counseled to comply with the demands of Child Protective Services officials in order to secure the return of her children, one of whom was quite literally torn from her arms, Bram fought back and eventually won the return of children. But just this past week, it happened again. Another raid in another county -- although led by the same investigator -- has resulted in new criminal charges and her children once again being taken by the state.

Omar Figueroa, Michael Levinsohn, Daisy Bram
"My kids need you," she told the hushed crowd. "If it were legal, they wouldn't have my kids."

Daisy Bram doesn't want to wait until 2016 for marijuana to be legalized, she wants it yesterday, and she wants justice, and, most of all, she wants her children back in her arms. Her brief presentation at a panel Saturday afternoon was chilling, impassioned, and powerful, and visibly moved many in the audience.

[Update: CANORML reported Wednesday that at a family court appearance the previous day in her Tehama County case, the state authorities who are already seized her children seized her personal vehicle, a 2002 Ford Explorer, which they claim was the proceeds of crime.]

And while California is a state where just about anyone can get a medical marijuana card and possession of under an ounce is decriminalized, the case of Daisy Bram makes the uncomfortable point that marijuana prohibition continues to exact a real toll on real people, including the innocent. It's not just mothers labeled child abusers because the grow pot; it's also fathers denied visitation, patients thrown out of public housing, workers who must choose between their medicine and their jobs.

It's a bit easier to be sanguine about waiting until 2016 when you're not the one being bitten by those lingering vestiges of prohibition. As Komp put it when introducing Bram, until there is legalization, "there is a lot of human rights work to be done."

San Francisco, CA
United States

Indonesian Court Gives British Grandmother Death for Drugs

An Indonesian court last Tuesday sentenced a British woman to death for trying to smuggle about 10 pounds of cocaine into the resort island of Bali, the anti-death penalty group Hands off Cain reported. Lindsay Sandiford, 56, cried when she heard the sentence, but had no other comment before being led back to jail.

Sandiford had been arrested upon arrival in Bali's international airport in May, when authorities found 4.8 kilograms of cocaine in the lining of her suitcase. She told authorities a criminal gang had threatened her and her children if she didn't transport the drugs, which had a street value of $2.5 million.

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the UN, which considers it a human rights violation. That stance is even embraced by th UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

While Indonesia has notoriously harsh drug laws -- it is among the nations listed by Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project as both having and using the death penalty for drug offenses -- Sandiford's sentence was harsher than expected.

Two other Britons charged in the case received lesser sentences (a fourth awaits sentencing), and prosecutors had recommended only 15 years in prison, but judges at the Denpasar District Court said there was no reason for a light sentence. She had damaged Bali's reputation as a tourist destination, they said.

Sandiford joins an estimated 114 other prisoners on Indonesia's death row, most of them convicted of drug offenses. At least 40 death row inmates are foreigners, including several Australians.

Since 1998, five foreigners have been executed in Indonesia, all for drug offenses. The good news is that Indonesia hasn't actually executed anyone since 2008, when 10 people went to the gallows.


Amnesty Raps Mexico on Human Rights Abuses in Drug War

Mexico must take decisive action to rein in systematic and widespread use of torture, ill-treatment, and other human rights abuses, which have increased dramatically since outgoing President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military to fight the country's so-called cartels nearly six years ago, Amnesty International said in a report released last Thursday.

Mexican military displaying detainees (
The report, Known Abusers, But Victims Ignored: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Mexico, documents the increase of cases of torture and ill-treatment by the police and military forces, the lack of effective investigations and almost total lack of prosecutions, and the juridical weaknesses and lack of political will that allow such abuses to go unpunished and even allow testimony obtained through torture to be used to convict its victims.

An estimated 60,000 people have been killed and another 160,000 displaced in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderon made waging the drug war the centerpiece of his then new administration in December 2006. The cartels are responsible for much of the mayhem, but as the violence intensified, human rights complaints filed with federal authorities have more than quadrupled, from 392 in 2007 to 1669 in 2011. Nearly 5,000 federal complaints have been filed overall, and those are just the cases when someone bothered to go through the formality of a process that too often produces no results.

And, the Amnesty report shows, it is mainly just a formality. According to the report, federal prosecutors prosecuted no torture cases in 2007 or 2008, one in 2009, and filed four more in 2010. Similarly, the number of state level torture prosecutions can be counted in the single digits each year since 2007.

"The Calderón administration has effectively turned a blind eye to the 'torture epidemic' we've been witnessing in Mexico," said Rupert Knox, an Amnesty International Mexico researcher. "The protection of human rights has been ignored or sidelined in favor of the government's strategy of militarized combat of organized crime and drug cartels. Across Mexico criminal suspects often face detention and trial on the basis of evidence obtained under torture and ill-treatment while prosecutors and courts fail to question seriously information or evidence obtained in this manner."

Miriam Isaura López Vargas is a case in point. She was arbitrarily detained in Ensenada, Baja California, on February 2, 2011. During interrogation in a military barracks in Tijuana by a civilian federal prosecutor, members of the army reportedly sexually assaulted her, subjected her to near asphyxiation and stress positions, and threatened her in order to coerce her into signing a confession falsely implicating other detainees in drug trafficking offenses.

"I heard a man scream many times, they kept on asking him, 'Where are the guns, where are the drugs?' A bit later I heard 'Take him away and bring me the next one.' I heard them open a door," Lopez Vargas recounted. "They put a wet cloth over my face, when I tried to breathe. I felt the wet cloth, it became difficult to breathe, I then felt a stream of water up my nose, I tried to get up but couldn't because they had me held down by my shoulders and legs… someone was pressing down on my stomach, they did this repeatedly as they kept on asking the same questions."

A week later, she was transferred to Mexico City and held without being brought before a judge until April 26, 2011, when she was charged with drug offenses. The following month, the case against her collapsed, and she was released by a federal judge. She filed a complaint alleging she was tortured; it has yet to be acted on.

The involvement of the Mexican military in the Lopez Vargas is not unusual. Across Mexico,  military personnel performing policing functions have held thousands of suspects in military barracks before presenting them to prosecutors. In this context, there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment while in military custody.

"Federal authorities have shown an absolute lack of leadership to combat torture and ill-treatment seriously at the state level or federal level," said Knox. "The only way to tackle torture and ill-treatment is by ensuring that all cases are properly investigated and those responsible, brought to justice. In a letter sent to Amnesty International, Mexican President elect Enrique Peña Nieto committed to implement policies and take action to end torture, we urge the authorities to abide by their promises."


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

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