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Plan Colombia: Ten Years Later

The United States has been trying to suppress Colombian coca production and cocaine trafficking since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, but the contemporary phase of US intervention in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) security analyst Adam Isaacson pointed out Wednesday in a cogent essay, "Colombia: Don't Call It A Model," it was on July 13, 2000, that President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mainly military assistance known as Plan Colombia.

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Plan Colombia coca eradication scene
Plan Colombia was supposed to cut Colombian cocaine production in half by mid-decade, and while total US expenditures on it have now risen to $7.3 billion, that goal was clearly not met. But, a decade down the road, there has been some "progress." The leftist peasant guerrillas of the FARC have been seriously weakened and are operating at half the strength they were 10 years ago. Violence has steadily decreased, as has criminality. The Colombian state has been strengthened -- especially its military, which has nearly doubled in size.

Still, as Isaacson notes, those gains have come at a tremendous cost. Thousands have been killed at the hands of rightist paramilitary groups aligned with powerful landowners and political elites, and while those paramilitaries officially disbanded several years ago, they appear to be reconstituting themselves. The seemingly endless "parapolitics" scandals linking the paramilitaries to high government actors demonstrate that the price of "progress" in Colombia has been corruption, impunity and human rights abuses.

And the war continues, albeit at a lower level. Some 21,000 fighters from all sides and an estimated 14,000 civilians died in the fighting this decade, and all the while, peasants were planting and harvesting coca crops, and traffickers were turning it into cocaine and exporting it to the insatiable North American and, increasingly, European markets.

While Colombian and US policy-makers have hailed Plan Colombia as a "success," neither Isaacson nor other analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week were willing to make such unvarnished claims. "'Success' has come at a high cost," wrote Isaacson. "Colombia's security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by 'collateral damage,'" including mass killings, other human rights abuses, and the weakening of democratic institutions."

"Success has eluded efforts to achieve Plan Colombia's main goal: reducing Colombian cocaine supplies," wrote Isaacson. Despite years of aerial eradication, coca remains stubbornly entrenched in the Colombian countryside, showing a significant decline only last year, after Colombia switched its eradication emphasis from spraying to manual eradication. "This strategic shift appears to be reducing coca cultivation, for now at least. In 2009 -- a year in which both aerial and manual eradication dropped sharply -- the UNODC found a significant drop in Colombian coca-growing, to 68,000 hectares."

But, as Isaacson and others note, that decline has been offset by increases in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. In fact, total coca cultivation in the region has remained remarkably consistent since 2003, at about 150,000 hectares per year.

"If you look at it from point of aiding the Colombian government to fight against the FARC and other insurgents, it has worked," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin American analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "A decade ago, Colombia was close to being a failed state, with the FARC controlling large swathes of territory and threatening major cities. Today they are terribly weak and on the run, and much of their leadership has been killed," he noted.

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coca seedlings
"Due to the widespread use of helicopters and the fact that guerrillas don't have that kind of mobility, the Colombians and Americans have been successful in shrinking the area of operation available to the guerrillas, and that has hurt the guerrillas' ability to recruit," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "A few years ago, there were maybe 16,000 FARC operating in six or seven major theaters, and now it's about half that. But that doesn't necessarily mean the FARC is finished; we haven't seen any sign of that. Their options are fewer, but they are far from disappeared. Plan Colombia has been successful in empowering the Colombian military, but not so much in solving the problem of the FARC insurrection."

"On the military side, the counterinsurgency, there has been definite progress," agreed Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs and counterinsurgency expert at the Brookings Institution. "The situation in the late 1990s was very bad. The FARC was in the hills above Bogotá, and the paramilitaries were highly organized. Today, the FARC is much weaker, land travel is more possible, and other security indicators also show progress. That said, the FARC is still around in substantial numbers and can jeopardize security and economic development in particular areas. And the paramilitaries are back, even if the Colombian government insists they are not the paramilitaries. They are, for all intents and purposes, just like the paramilitaries of the 1980s and 1990s."

"The idea was that if they suppressed the coca, the capabilities of the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries would be substantially weakened," said Felbab-Brown. "They said that if you eliminated coca in Colombia, the conflict would end, but I don't think you can bankrupt the belligerents through eradication. That didn't pan out. In some places, the government was able to diminish at least temporarily economic flows to particular elements of the FARC, but that was the result of military operations, not eradication," she argued.

"A lot of people say the FARC have lost their political agenda, that they are just traffickers, but I don't subscribe to that view," said Felbab-Brown. "If someone wants to conduct a rebellion, they have to have a way to finance it. I don't think the FARC is any different. One of the big accomplishments of the US and the Colombian military was taking out a lot of top FARC leaders," she continued. "Their current leaders have been out in the jungle so long, they suffer from a lack of intellectual imagination. But the FARC are peasant guerrillas, with a few intellectuals and students, and they were never strong ideologically. There is no equivalent of Comrade Gonzalo [of Peru's Shining Path] or Mullah Omar or Bin Laden for the FARC. And I think they've run out of ideas. Times have changed, and the ideological story they want to tell the world and their members is crumbling, but it's not the case they are just interested in money. They still want power, they still believe in narratives of war and conquest, but they don't have anything to frame it with anymore."

"They are about more than just criminality," agreed Isaacson. "They're raising drug money to buy guns and those guns are for something. While their ideology may be pretty stunted at this point, they are driven by a desire to take power -- unlike, say, the Sinaloa cartel, which is driven by a desire to sell drugs. They hate Colombia's political class, and they represent that small percentage of peasants on the fringe. Those boomtowns on the frontier, that's where the FARC's base is. Wherever there is no government and people are on their own, the FARC claims to protect them. They are not bandits -- they are more dangerous than bandits."

The paramilitaries continue to wreak havoc, too, said Felbab-Brown. "They assassinate community leaders and human rights organizers," she said. "In some areas, they collude with the FARC; in others, they fight the FARC over cocaine routes and access to coca production. They are still a real menace, and it is very discouraging that they have come back so quickly. That shows the failure of the Colombian government to address the real underlying causes of the problems."

That has been a serious flaw from the beginning, the Brookings Institution analyst said. "At first Plan Colombia was aimed at root causes of conflict and coca production, but that was dropped, and in the Bush administration it morphed into a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency project. Economic development was a minor component of the plan, and the US never tried to pressure Uribe to take on economic redistribution and the distribution of political power, nor has the US been very vocal about human rights and civil liberties issues."

"When Plan Colombia was first conceived, it was primarily a domestic program aimed at drawing in the Colombian population, which at that time had become totally disaffected from the state," recalled Birns. "It was to emphasize economic development, nutrition, and education. It was the Clinton administration that militarized Plan Colombia and made it into a security doctrine rather than an economic development formula."

That only deepened in the wake of 9/11, said Birns. "Increasingly, Plan Colombia morphed first into a counternarcotics program than again into an anti-terrorist vehicle. The US began to define the FARC, which never had any international aspect, as terrorists. It was a convenience for the US policy of intervention to emphasize the terrorism aspect."

But at root, Plan Colombia was first and foremost about reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production. "It wasn't sold here in the US as a counterinsurgency effort, but as an effort to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market," Cato's Hidalgo pointed out. "If you look at the acreage of coca planted in Colombia, it has decreased, but the production of coca remains the same, and coca production is increasingly dramatically in Peru and Bolivia. Once again, we see the balloon effect at work."

"As the reduction took place in Colombia, it simply moved back to Peru, whence it originally came," concurred COHA's Birns. "Peruvian cocaine production is now half the regional total, so total cocaine production remains essentially the same, even though there has been a reduction in the role Colombia plays."

"One of the best measures to see if the supply of cocaine has decreased is to look at price, but what that tells us is that cocaine was 23% cheaper in 2007 than it was in 1998 when Plan Colombia was launched," said Hidalgo. "It is clear that Plan Colombia has failed in its main goal, which was to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market."

"We've tried everything," said Hidalgo. "Aggressive aerial spraying of fields, manual eradication, as well as softer measures to entice producers to adopt other crops, and it's all failed. As long as the price of cocaine remains inflated by prohibition, there is big profit and a big incentive for producers and traffickers to grow the plant and export the product to the US and elsewhere. The only way to curtail this is by legalizing cocaine. Other than that, I don't see this as a battle that can be won."

Felbab-Brown called the coca and cocaine production estimates "extraordinarily squishy," but added it was clear that Plan Colombia had failed to achieve its goals there. "The plan was supposed to halve production in six years, and that clearly was not accomplished," she said. "It would be false to deny there has been some progress, but it has not been sufficient. I think it was bound not to work because it was so heavily focused on eradication in the context of violence and underemphasized the need for economic programs to address why people cultivate coca. And the larger reality is even if you succeeded in Colombia, production would have moved elsewhere."

Counternarcotics cannot solve Colombia's problems, said Felbab-Brown, because coca is not at the root of those problems. "There is only so much that counternarcotics programs can do given the basic economic and political situation in Colombia," said Felbab-Brown. "You have a set-up where labor is heavily taxed and capital and land are lightly taxed, so even when you get economic growth, it doesn't generate jobs, it only concentrates money in the hands of the rich. The Colombian government has been unwilling to address these issues, and inequality continues to grow. You can only do so much if you can't generate legal jobs. You have to take on entrenched elites, the bases of political power in Colombia, and Uribe's people are not interested in doing that."

But Uribe will be gone next month, replaced by his elected successor, Juan Manuel Santos. That could mean change, said Isaacson. "He's not as ideologically to the right as Uribe, some of his appointments indicate people who actually have an interest in governance, and he is the principle author of the program they're carrying out in the countryside to get the state and not just the military out there," he said. "He could also be more open to the idea of peace negotiations than Uribe was."

That may or may not be the case, but Plan Colombia under whatever president is not going to solve Colombia's drug problem -- nor America's, said Isaacson. "At home, we need to reduce demand through treatment and other options," he said. "In Colombia, as long as you have parts of the country ungoverned and as long as members of the government have nothing to fear if they abuse the population, there will always be drugs. Colombia needs to build the state and do it without impunity. We built up the Colombian military, but there was no money for teachers, doctors, or any public good besides security."

Seeing the Trend....

About ~ our privacy is at risk and nobody seems to make heads or tails of this. Ongoing debate? i'm not sure this would even be considered a 'free country' if this were done.' ie: The new bill Lieberman has before the President. The Fail-Safe 'shut down' of all personal computers should a 'National Emergency' be deemed and subsequent collection of any and ALL information in one's private affairs. (see url below) It's already a nightmare of epic proportions. And with the size of ever-increasing hard drives, i don't believe they realize the fallout or the MAJOR & obvious violations of our human rights and civil liberties. IF (and i wouldn't believe it could) this bill does pass. AS an advocate/activist i am careful about such things. If computers did not exist, the closest scenario I could think of would be if such a 'state of emergency' were called - the likely scenario would be that anyone from a gov agency wanted to...it would be no different than setting a curfew and going into folks homes/apartments to take all personal and other information from bills, to private notes/messages to lovers, friends, children, family, All of your pictures, scrapbooks, family albums and writings, art, poetry and music to try and find something.... it's a blatant invasion of privacy. I've wanted to post for a long time but now i'm more reluctant to do so. I will be making donations and as far as i'm able, willing to act and help. Much Gratitude~ and all my best to those who need it :)

Death Penalty: Iran Goes On Drug Offender Execution Binge

Just three weeks ago, we did a feature article on the International Harm Reduction Association report, The Death Penalty for Death Offenses: Global Overview 2010 and the associated international campaign against the death penalty through the Harm Reduction and Human Rights campaign known as HR2. Since then, Iran has been on an execution binge, proving the report's contention that it is one of the world's most egregious offenders and highlighting the need for the anti-death penalty campaign to continue and intensify.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran, Iran
According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, which compiles information about death sentences and executions from local sources, Iranian hangmen have been very busy with drug offenders indeed lately.

On May 23, two days after our article came out, a man identified only as "SR" was hanged in Khuzestan's Karoun Prison for carrying 675 grams of heroin. Two days later, four people identified only by their initials were hanged in Yazd Prison, three for trafficking crack, marijuana, opium, and heroin, and one for trafficking 125 kilos of opium. On May 31, Afghans in Afghanistan's western Herat province reported that seven of their relatives had been executed in Taibad prison and asked the government's help in retrieving their bodies. That same day, another Afghan citizen, Nour Jamal S., was hanged at Isfahan prison for smuggling 1,385 kilos of crack cocaine, and two more people were hanged in Shirvan Prison in Khorasan province for drug trafficking.

There was no let-up so far this month. Last Friday, Jalil B. was hanged in Mianeh Prison in East Azerbaijan for drug trafficking. On Monday, 13 people were reported hanged for drug trafficking in Ghezel Hesar Prison in Teheran. On Tuesday, a man identified only as Masoud, 33, was reported hanged in Teheran for drug trafficking.

That's 30 people executed for drug offenses in the Islamic Republic in the last three weeks. But Iran isn't the only offender, even if it's the only one that actually put someone to death for a drug offense in that time period. Death sentences for drug offenses were handed out to a methamphetamine trafficker in Malaysia, five drug offense death sentences were handed down to foreigners in the United Arab Emirates, and five Chinese nationals were sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Vietnam.

And the beat goes on...

Feature: Jamaica Rocked As Kingston Drug Gangs Fight Police and Army -- At Least 73 Dead

The capital of Jamaica, Kingston, is still smoldering -- literally -- after four days of violent conflict between Jamaican security forces and a fugitive drug "don" (as the heads of gangs are called there) and his supporters left at least 73 people dead by official count. The fighting took on much of the form of an urban insurrection, with gunmen attacking police and soldiers and assaulting at least 18 police stations, one of which burned to the ground. Three policemen were killed in the first day of fighting.

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Prime Minister Bruce Golding
The fighting pitted followers of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, an alleged major gang leader and drug and weapons trafficker wanted by the US, against a government they felt had betrayed him -- and them. Last week, after months of trying to block an American extradition request, the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding gave in to mounting political pressure and ordered him sent to the US, setting off mass demonstrations by his followers centered in the tough Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens.

Dudus' supporters put up street barricades of wrecked vehicles and other debris and armed young men strolled the streets amid reports that members of other Jamaican drug gangs, or posses, were streaming into to Kingston to join the fight. Golding announced a state of emergency Sunday night after the first attacks on police stations, but it took until Thursday for the police and the army to exert control over Tivoli.

Although the violence has died down, many issues remain unresolved. Dudus is still a free man, having eluded the authorities' assault on his stronghold in Tivoli Gardens, the prime minister's relationship with Dudus is being closely scrutinized, and now, complaints about unjustified killings by security forces this week are once again raising serious concerns about Jamaica's human rights record.

And while the violence has died down, it hasn't ended. Police stormed a house in the middle class community of Kirkland Heights Thursday after hearing that Dudus may have holed up there, setting off a two-hour firefight. Among the casualties there was the brother of former Minister of Industry and Commerce Claude Clark, who was killed by security personnel in the crossfire.

The confrontation in Kingston is shining the spotlight on long-acknowledged but usually quietly ignored connections between Jamaica's two main political parties, the ruling Labor Party and the opposition People's National Party, and tough Kingston slum gangs. Ever since violent election campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders of both parties recruited neighborhood toughs, the "rude boys" of reggae lyrics, in Kingston slums like Tivoli or Trenchtown to act as their deniable armed wings, the parties have relied on these neighborhood gangs not only for fighting when necessary, but also to deliver the vote. In return, they turn a blind eye to some of the gang's more nefarious activities.

Dudus, as leader of the Tivoli Gardens posse, which was affiliated with Labor, had long been an ally of Prime Minister Golden. The neighborhood is even part of Golden's constituency -- thus the anger against the government by residents who had benefited from Dudus' largesse amid poverty and neglect from the government.

Like Pablo Escobar in Colombia, who gained popular support by building schools and soccer stadiums, or the contemporary Mexican drug cartels, who do the same sort of public-minded philanthropy for the same mix of genuine and public relations purposes, Dudus provides services -- as well as security -- for Tivoli Gardens and its residents. In doing so, he came to be viewed by many as a sort of Robin Hood figure.

"Coke was the standard 'Teflon don,'" said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, whose associate, Katherine Haas, this week published in a most timely fashion, Jamaica: Different Drug War, Different Strategy, a critique of US drug policy on the island. "For a relatively small percentage of the swag, he saw to it that there was a tremendous amount of goodwill in the neighborhood for his candidates. For Coke, it was always Labor, the Republicans of Jamaica."

Prime Minister Golding did his part by stalling for nine months the extradition order against Dudus after he was indicted on drug trafficking and weapons smuggling charges by a federal grand jury in New York. He even went as far as hiring a Washington, DC, public relations firm to attempt to lobby the indictment away, but when that became public knowledge, Golding's support for Dudus was not longer politically tenable.

"Coke was working for the JLP and Golding stalled as long as he possibly could to get the extradition going, but his ability to sustain his position vanished, so they had to go after Coke," Birns said. "But Coke had developed a cordon sanitiare of affection and appreciation because of what he has done for his neighborhood."

"They do have popular support because of the numbers of beneficiaries, and the financial support they provide to the communities," agreed Jamaican marijuana legalization activist Paul Chang.

US drug policy toward Jamaica hasn't helped, said Birns, whose organization has become increasingly critical of drug prohibition in recent years. American efforts to ameliorate some of the negative results of that policy are too little, too late, he said.

"US drug policy plays a role in this because the administration has announced a new program that will emphasize institution-building all the drug-infected countries in the region and emphasize the demand side, but we've heard all that before," he said. "Administration after administration has hurled rhetoric at the problem, but the existence of the drug cartels shines a laser-light like on the results of these policies. Anyway, although none of these islands has a viable economy, they want to give the paltry sum of $100 million to the Caribbean and Central America under Plan Merida. Guatemala alone could consume all that," he said.

"When it comes to Jamaica, you have the confluence of inadequate Latin America policy-making fused to a misconceived drug policy, and that becomes a very explosive mixture, and the ensuing violence we see in Jamaica is just the result," Birns summed up.

As of this writing, Dudus is still on the lam, Tivoli Gardens is still smoldering, Amnesty International is calling for an investigation of alleged street executions by security forces, and Prime Minister Golding is still holding on to power. But the violent challenge to the state's monopoly on the use of force has rocked Jamaica and revealed the dark webs of power linking politics and the underworld. The reverberations from this week will be felt in Jamaica for a long time to come.

Southeast Asia: Not Executing Drug Offenders Sends Wrong Signal, Singapore Says

An official of one of the world's leading drug executioner states has justified its mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking by saying to do otherwise would send the wrong signal to "drug barons." The state is Singapore, the authoritarian city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and the official was Law Minister K Shanmugam.

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Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign flyer featuring Yong Vui Kong case
Shanmugam made his remarks to the Straits Times Sunday when asked about the case of Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, 22, who was sentenced to death for smuggling 47 grams of heroin in 2007. His case has attracted international attention from human rights groups and is now before the Singapore Court of Appeal.

It would be wrong if drug smugglers got off too cheaply because of mitigating factors like youth or motherhood, he said. "We are sending a signal to all the drug barons out there: Just make sure you choose a victim who is young, or a mother of a young child, and use them as the people to carry the drugs into Singapore," the minister said.

In March, Yong's attorney argued before the appeals court that the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin was unconstitutional because it gave judges no discretion to consider mitigating factors. But the government responded that the sentence was in line with the law passed by Singapore's legislature.

According to a report on the death penalty for drug offenses from the International Harm Reduction Association, more than 400 people have been executed in Singapore since 1991, the majority for drug offenses. Drug executions accounted for 76% of all executions there from 1994 to 1999, and Singapore has been executing drug offenders at a rate of about 20 a year for the past decade.

It's worth it, said Shanmugam. The death penalty had been critical for suppressing drug trafficking and use in the city-state, and unlike most countries, it had not lost the war on drugs. "But you won't have human rights people standing up and saying: 'Singapore, you have done a great job, having most of your people free of drugs,'" he said.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal 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 over 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several 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:

Friday, March 19

In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon armed men blocked highways leading out of the city with buses and trucks they commandeered in an apparent attempt to disrupt military operations in the area. The incidents began on Thursday, when armed men began pulling drivers out of vehicles and parking them across the highways. The tires of several vehicles were slashed to make them more difficult to move. At least 31 separate roadblocks were set up.

Saturday, March 20

In Acapulco, a wedding ended in disaster after a ferocious firefight broke out between a group of men attending the party and a group of armed men who arrived in a pickup truck. Five men, all between the ages of 25 and 33, were killed, and four were wounded. In another part of the city, a clash between groups of rival gunmen left one dead. In another incident, two policemen and two gunmen were killed after a gunfight broke out on the Iguala-Ciudad Altamirano highway.

Sunday, March 21

In Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon, gunmen attacked a convoy in which the local public security chief, Rene Castillo Sanchez, was traveling. In the gun battle that ensued, two bodyguards were killed and several people were wounded. The assault was apparently an attempt to rescue two prisoners who had been taken into custody earlier in the day and were also traveling in the convoy. One of the two men was wounded in the clash.

After the shootout, the two prisoners were taken to Castillo's office, where they were transferred into the custody of Mexican marines, who took the two men to a local hospital by helicopter. One of the men, who was unscathed in the attack on the convoy, was later found dead wrapped in a blanket and tossed on the side of a road. The second suspect is now also reported missing. It is unclear exactly what happened, but many fear that the men were executed by the Mexican military.

Monday, March 22

In Chilpancingo, Guerrero, the dismembered bodies of two police officers were discovered outside police headquarters. Notes from the killers were left at the scene, but police have refused to disclose their content. One of the dead was a regional police commander, and the other a state police official. Nearby, in Acapulco, another two mutilated bodies and a note were left outside the home of a former deputy traffic police chief.

Tuesday, March 23

In Ciudad Juárez, several aircraft carrying an additional 450 federal police agents landed in the city. This brings the total number of federal police personnel in the city to 3,500, where they operate alongside local and state police forces and elements of the Mexican Army. So far this year, some 500 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez.

In Mexico City, Hillary Clinton arrived with a delegation of high ranking officials to meet with Mexican officials, including President Calderon and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. Among the other individuals in attendance were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. The subject of the meetings was US-Mexico cooperation on issues related to drug and weapons trafficking and the fight against drug cartels. Clinton's arrival came 10 days after three individuals with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez were gunned down by men thought to be tied to the Juárez Cartel.

Wednesday, March 24

In Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, nine people were killed in a series of incidents involving a group of gunmen. The killings began when individuals traveling in two vehicles shot four men dead in a motorcycle repair shop. A fifth person was killed as the men made their escape. Soon after, the gunmen ran into a Mexican army convoy, and shot dead two soldiers. Following the clash, the gunmen fled into a pizza shop, where another two men were shot dead.

Thursday, March 25

In Michoacan, a high-level heroin trafficker was arrested by police. Jose Antonio Medina, 36, is thought to have run a network that transported 440 pounds of black tar heroin a month into Southern California. Medina's network was independent, but he was known to cooperate closely with La Familia Michoacana, the primary drug trafficking organization in the state of Michoacan.

In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 41 prisoners escaped from a local prison. Two guards are also reported missing. All but three of the prisoners were charged with federal crimes, rather than state crimes. In the past, many local leaders have complained that the federal government overburdens their prison with federal prisoners, who are often more dangerous and violent, and often tied to drug trafficking groups.

Total Body Count for the Week: 251

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,323

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,528

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Feature: Mexico Conference Calls for New Direction in Drug Policy, Says Prohibition Has Failed

On Monday and Tuesday in Mexico City, political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists from at least six countries came together for the Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World conference sponsored by the Mexico City-based Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy (CUPHID). Coming as Mexico's war on drugs turns bloodier by the day, the conference unsurprisingly concluded that current prohibitionist policies are a disaster.

"The principal conclusion is that we need a more integrated drug policy based on prevention, scientific evidence, and full respect for human rights," summarized CUPHID president Jorge Hernandez Tinajero. "It remains clear that, yes, there exist alternatives to the current strategy."

In a press release after the conference, CUPHID emphasized the following points:

  • The so-called war on drugs has failed and, without doubt, we need "winds of change" to advance toward alternative policies to address the problematic of drugs across the globe.
  • The prohibitionist paradigm has been ineffective, and furthermore, for the majority of countries it has implied grave violations of human rights and individual guarantees, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as an escalation of violence that grows day by day, ever broadening the scope of impunity for organized crime.
  • Drugs are never going to disappear. Thus, a more realistic drug policy should focus on minimizing the harms associated with drug use -- overdoses, blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS, and violence. This concept is known as "harm reduction," and must be the backbone of any drug policy.

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Colombia Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia, on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
The conference opened Monday morning by putting its star power on display. In its opening session, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who, as a member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy coauthored a report a year ago with former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo denouncing drug prohibition as a failed policy, returned to the theme. Noting that as president of Colombia in the 1990s, he had been a firm supporter of prohibition, Gaviria said he had changed his tune.

"With the passing of time, prohibitionism, in which I believed, has demonstrated itself a failure," he told an attentive crowd jammed into a conference room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in upscale Colonia Napoles. The attendant human rights abuses were a big reason why, he said.

"You have to be very careful in the matter of human rights," Gaviria said. "The issue of militarization is so risky because militarization of the struggle against the drug trade, even though it may seem necessary and imperative at a given time, almost always veers into violations of human rights."

Militarization is an especially prickly issue in Mexico, where President Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers in the war against drug trafficking organizations. While the military has failed to stop the so-called cartels or reduce the violence -- it has, in fact, increased dramatically since the military was deployed three years ago -- it has generated an increasing number of human rights complaints. According to the official National Commission on Human Rights, more than 1,900 complaints alleging abuses by the military -- ranging from harassment, theft, and illegal entry to torture, murder, and disappearances -- were filed in Mexico last year.

Referring specifically to the Mexican situation, Gaviria added: "In the long run, one of the things that most delegitimizes public policies against drugs is when human rights are violated."

Gaviria's comments sparked a quick reply from Deputy Carolina Viggiano of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who called Calderon's decision to send in the military "the worst mistake" of his administration and one that was likely to ruin the prestige of the Mexican military by the time his term ends in three years.

While arguing that organized crime must sometimes be fought with extreme measures, such as anti-mafia laws and integrated counterintelligence operations, Gaviria also said that at some point, governments have to bring the traffickers in from the cold, perhaps by agreeing to let them plead guilty to offenses with short prison sentences. "Not 40 or 50 years in prison, but maybe eight or 10, and then the person can say, 'I'm done with this, I confess my crimes, I'll do my time, and that's that.' That is a solution with the justice system, not through militarization," he said.

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Jorge Castañeda
If Gaviria was looking for reconciliation with the traffickers, his co-panelist former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was a bit more provocative. He suggested that Mexico needs to go back to the "good old days" of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking organizations.

The PRI, of course, ruled Mexico in a virtual one-party state for 70 years before being defeated by Vicente Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 elections. It was widely (and correctly) seen as not fighting the drug trade so much as managing it.

Given the bloody mess that is the Mexican drug war today, perhaps it is time to return to a quiet arrangement with the cartels, Castañeda suggested. "How do we construct a modus vivendi?" he asked. "The Americans have a modus vivendi in Afghanistan," he noted pointedly. "They don't care if Afghanistan exports heroin to the rest of the world; they are at war with Al Qaeda."

Castenada's comments on Afghanistan rang especially true this week, as American soldiers push through poppy fields in their offensive on Marja. The US has made an explicit decision to arrive at a modus vivendi with poppy farmers, although it still fights the trade by interdiction and going after traffickers -- or at least those linked to the Taliban.

Casteneda also came up with another provocative example, especially for Mexican leftists in the audience. "We had a modus vivendi with the Zapatistas in Chiapas," he noted. "We also pretended they were real guerrillas with their wooden rifles. We created a liberated zone, and the army respected it, and it's still there. But it is a simulation -- the army could eliminate it in 90 seconds."

And in yet another provocative comment on the theme, Casteneda suggested that somebody may already have arrived at a modus vivendi with the Sinaloa Cartel -- a suggestion that is getting big play in Mexican newspapers these days. "Why is it that of the 70,000 drug war prisoners in Mexico, only 800 are Chapo Guzman's men?" he asked. "Many people think the government has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know if it's true."

The Mexican government was forced Wednesday to deny such claims, a clear sign they are getting wide circulation.

Peruvian drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon told the conference that while Latin America has been a loyal follower of the UN's and the US's prohibitionist drug policy discourses, it was time for something new. "The UN anti-drug paradigm is broken," he said. "We have to change the paradigm. We have to offer something other than prohibition and the criminal justice system, but what? A regulated market? What does that mean? What we need in any case are policies that are fundamentally based on human rights and deal with it from a public health viewpoint."

Human rights and the drug war remained a key theme of the conference on its second day, with Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of the Federal District (Mexico City) Commission on Human Rights, and Monte Alejandro Rubido, Subsecretary for Human Rights for the Secretariat of Public Security, speaking and being grilled by the audience.

"The violent and militaristic policy against drugs generates more violence and has produced more dead," said Placencia. "We have to consider whether this anti-drug policy has become counterproductive," he added.

But Rubido, a federal functionary, stood fast, saying the Calderon government remained firm in its commitment to keep drugs criminalized. Far from being a failure, the strategy is working, he said, to hoots and groans from the crowd. "It is achieving good results," he said.

During a question and answer session that followed the pair, Rubido was raked over the coals by questioner after questioner, but remained stolidly unshakable in his support for current policy.

"How many people has marijuana killed and how many has the policy of repression killed?" asked one conference-goer, but Rubido just smirked in silence.

"People have consumed drugs forever," said Haydee Rosovsky, the former head of Mexico's national commission on addiction, from the floor, as she called out the bureaucrats. "You functionaries have to come out like Gaviria and Zedillo, and not wait until you are ex-functionaries."

National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) researcher Luis Astorga presented graphs showing which party governs which Mexican states and which coastal and border municipalities and how they appear to be affiliated with different blocs of cartels. "The PRI governed states on the Gulf Coast are where the cocaine flows," he said, "and the PRI controls most border municipalities."

That is the province of a bloc of cartels consisting of the Gulf (los Zetas) and Juarez cartels and the Beltra Leyva breakaway from the Sinaloa cartel, Astorga suggested, while taking pains to say his research is only "a work in progress." On the other hand, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) controls the northwest states of Baja California, Sonora, and Sinaloa, playground to the Sinaloa, and La Familia cartels, and breakaway factions of the Tijuana cartel. Echoing Casteneda, Astorga suggested it might be time for a "pax mafioso," although he admitted it would be difficult to find political cover for such a move.

Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance briefed the crowd on the US medical marijuana experience at event organizers' request, although he expressed bemusement at the issue's relevance to Mexico and its drug war and labored to make a useful connection.

"Medical marijuana provided the angle of attack that broke the marijuana policy logjam in the United States," he noted. "What Mexico needs is to find some sort of similar issue, some sort of similar angle. Perhaps the best approach is to argue that by legalizing marijuana we can deprive the cartels of a significant income stream," he suggested.

The Mexico City conference this week is just one more indication that the cracks in the wall of drug prohibition in Latin America are spreading. But while the drug reform movement in the hemisphere has some big names behind it, it is still going to take on the ground, grass roots organizing in countries across the hemisphere to move forward. The conference in Mexico City helped lay the groundwork for that, at least in Mexico.

Latin America: Mexico's Drug War Stirs Opposition in the Streets and from the Bishops

As the death toll tops 17,000 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the so-called drug cartels in December 2006, and with no end to the killing in sight, demonstrators took to the streets of bloody Ciudad Juárez Sunday to denounce the killing and the government's approach. The next day, Calderon's drug policies came under attack from an entirely different direction: the Catholic Church in Mexico.

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Council of Bishops event releasing report
In Juárez, where more than 2,600 people were killed in prohibition-related violence last year and 15 teenagers were gunned down last week in an incident that shocked the nation, more than a thousand people took to the streets Sunday in a "March of Anger" against the drug violence, with some leaders saying the presence of 6,000 federal troops is only making things worse.

"The army's presence is anti-constitutional and violates citizens' rights. That's why we're asking them to withdraw," National Front Against Repression leader Javier Contreras told the crowd.

Human rights and civil society groups in Juárez and, more broadly, across Mexico, have charged that Mexican law enforcement and armed forces have harassed, tortured, kidnapped, "disappeared," and killed innocent people in overzealous prosecution of the drug war. That won't work, said Contreras.

"You can't fight violence with more violence and breaking the laws," he said.

The protest came just days after President Calderon visited Ciudad Juárez in a bid to placate angry and frightened citizens. He apologized to the families of the massacred teenagers for initially blaming their deaths on gang warfare, said he was sending in 400 more federal police, and vowed to seek community cooperation in setting a new strategy against crime and violence. Still, he was booed by crowds during that visit. He returned again this week, touting a new security plan.

If Calderon is having a hard time placating angry Juárez residents, he's not having much better luck with the Catholic Church. The day after the Juárez protest, the Mexican Church's Council of Bishops issued a report critical of Calderon's drug policies.

In the report, the bishops said that using thousands of army troops to police Mexican cities raises severe human rights concerns. The bishops also pointed at a corrupt judicial system. They said many suspects are paraded before the media in "perp walks" even before being charged with any crime and called on the government to speed up police reforms so the troops can return to their barracks.

The bishops conceded that Calderon's deployment of the military initially had broad public support, but warned it was eroding. "As time passed, the participation of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime has created uncertainty in the population," the report said. "The armed forces have the obligation to respect human rights."

The bishops also harshly criticized the criminal justice system, saying few criminals are brought to justice because of corruption and inefficiency, while at the same time, innocent people are too often jailed because of police tactics. They noted that many of those people arrested and paraded before the media end up being released or charged with much lesser crimes than those announced at the time of their arrest.

The "perp walks" should stop, the bishops said. Authorities must "respect the judicial principle that someone is innocent until proven otherwise, because now we see that detainees are exhibited before the media before they are brought before judicial authorities."

More than halfway through his six-year term, President Calderon faces the threat of seeing his presidency defined by the bloody drug wars his policies have not only failed to stop, but have exacerbated. He seems to have no response except more of the same.

Feature: El Paso City Council Passes Resolution Criticizing Drug War, But Only After Killing Marijuana Regulation Language

A year ago, dismayed at the violence rocking its sister city of Ciudad Juárez just across the Rio Grande River, the city council in the remote Texas border city of El Paso unanimously passed a resolution calling for serious consideration of ending drug prohibition, only to see it vetoed by Mayor John Cook. Then, after heavy-handed warnings from US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and the city's delegation in the state legislature that such a resolution could threaten the city's funding, the city council backed down, failing to override Cook's veto.

With those votes and the controversy surrounding them, El Paso was thrust into -- and helped ignite -- a national debate on the country's drug policies. This week, the El Paso city council returned to the issue when, led by Councilmembers Beto O'Rourke and Steve Ortega, it considered a resolution calling for a "comprehensive examination of our country's failed War on Drugs," and advocating for "the repeal of ineffective marijuana laws" and their replacement with taxed, regulated, and controlled marijuana production, sales, and consumption for adults.

The resolution also called for an immediate meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President Obama to address prohibition-related violence in Mexico, rejected the "militaristic" approach of Plan Merida, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance scheme for Mexico and Central America, called for that aid to be tied to strict human rights reporting requirements, and called for any additional aid to Mexico to be aimed at improving the country's "social, educational, and economic development."

"It's up to us to act and make some tough decisions and do some uncomfortable things," said O'Rourke, as he urged his colleagues to support the resolution.

"The fuel to the fire in Juárez is the profits of a black market," said Councilwoman Susie Byrd, explaining why she supported the marijuana regulation language.

But not all the council members were in accord. "We didn't talk about demand reduction. We didn't talk about prevention, and we didn't talk about treatment," said Councilman Carl Robinson, explaining his vote against the resolution.

The public also joined in the debate, with University of Texas-El Paso political science professor Tony Payan refreshing the council's member about the city's historic role in marijuana prohibition. "It was the first city council a hundred years ago that passed the first resolution forbidding the use of marijuana," he said. "One hundred years later we've come full circle, and now we're debating 100 years of a failed policy."

"We've got this war that's cost us billions of dollars in Iraq and there's a huge problem next, right next door!" said El Paso resident Eric Contreras.

"It is time to change the laws because drug prohibition is a failed policy," said El Paso resident Richard Newton, a retired veteran US Customs agent and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The bottom line is that the reason you have cartels in Juárez fighting each other is to sell drugs in the United States. They sell drugs because they can make money. Get rid of the money and you get rid of the cartels."

Not everyone was on board, however. "Quit calling it our sister city. No one wants a disease-riddled prostitute as a sister," said El Paso resident Armando Cardoza. [Ed: That was rude.]

After debating the resolution on Monday, the council voted, arriving at a 4-4 tie vote. Once again, Mayor Cook swooped in to block reform, even in the form of a resolution. His vote against the resolution broke the tie.

But that wasn't the end of it. The council then amended the resolution by dropping the paragraph referring to marijuana regulation and unceremoniously passed the amended resolution on a 6-2 vote. O'Rourke was one of the no votes, saying that regulating marijuana was an integral part of his approach.

Still, the El Paso city council has gone on record as condemning current US drug policies and demanding a shift to a smarter, more humane approach to drug sales and use. And it has clearly called on the US government to take a smarter, more humane approach to the drug violence just across the river in Juárez.

When asked what is was about El Paso that made it amenable to passage of such a resolution critical of the drug war, LEAP's Newton mentioned the city's unique location. Tucked into the triangular tip of far West Texas, El Paso not only borders bloody Ciudad Juárez, with its daily prohibition-related killings, but it also borders New Mexico, a state that has been a leader in drug policy reforms, ranging from medical marijuana to passing the country's first Good Samaritan drug overdose law to working with the Drug Policy Alliance on methamphetamine prevention and education programs.

"This is a strange city for Texas," Newton continued. "The state is very Republican, but there aren't any Republicans in El Paso. Bush didn't carry El Paso County. Silvestre Reyes has not had a Republican run against for several elections now. I wouldn't say El Paso is especially liberal or progressive, but it is Democratic."

Last year, Mayor Cook and Congressman Reyes pulled the plug on the resolution, but there is no sign yet that we will see a repeat this year. That would be progress, even if O'Rourke lost his marijuana regulation language. And he and the rest of the council still have three years to make up for city council's 1913 vote to criminalize marijuana. The city was a leader then; it can be a leader once again, only this time in the right direction.

Southeast Asia: Human Rights Watch Charges Torture, Rape, Illegal Detentions at Cambodian Drug "Rehab" Centers, Demands Shutdown

In a scathing 93-page report released today, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Cambodian drug detention centers of torturing and raping detainees, imprisoning children and the mentally ill, and illegally detaining and imprisoning drug users. The centers are beyond reform and should be closed, the group said.

"Individuals in these centers are not being treated or rehabilitated, they are being illegally detained and often tortured," said Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at HRW. "These centers do not need to be revamped or modified; they need to be shut down."

The report cited detailed testimonies from detainees who were raped by center staff, beaten with electric cables, shocked with cattle prods, and forced to give blood. It also found that drug users were "cured" of their conditions by being forced to undergo rigorous military-style drills to sweat the drugs out of their systems.

"[After arrest] the police search my body, they take my money, they also keep my drugs... They say, 'If you don't have money, why don't you go for a walk with me?... [The police] drove me to a guest house.... How can you refuse to give him sex? You must do it. There were two officers. [I had sex with] each one time. After that they let me go home," said Minea, a woman in her mid-20's who uses drugs, explaining how she was raped by two police officers.

"[A staff member] would use the cable to beat people... On each whip the person's skin would come off and stick on the cable," said M'noh, age 16, describing whippings he witnessed in the Social Affairs "Youth Rehabilitation Center" in Choam Chao. The title of the HRW report is "Skin on the Cable."

More than 2,300 people were detained in Cambodia's 11 drug detention centers in 2008. That is 40% more than in 2007.

"The government of Cambodia must stop the torture occurring in these centers," said Amon. "Drug dependency can be addressed through expanded voluntary, community-based, outpatient treatment that respects human rights and is consistent with international standards."

Cambodian officials from the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Interior Ministry, the National Police, and the Social Welfare Ministry all declined to comment when queried by the Associated Press. But Cambodian Brig. Gen. Roth Srieng, commander of the military police in Banteay Meanchy province, denied torture at his center, while adding that some detainees were forced to stand in the sun or "walk like monkeys" as punishment for trying to escape.

Children as young as 10, prostitutes, beggars, the homeless, and the mentally ill are frequently detained and taken to the drug detention centers, the report found. About one-quarter of those detained were minors. Most were not told why they were being detained. The report also said police sometimes demanded sexual favors or money for release and told some detainees they would not be beaten or could leave early if they donated blood.

The report relied on testimony from 74 people, most of them drug users, who had been detained between February and July 2009.

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