Eradication

RSS Feed for this category

Peru Coca Crop Keeps Getting Bigger

coca leaf statures, Rio Apurimac Valley (stopthedrugwar.org)
Coca cultivation in Peru increased again last year, up 5.2% over 2010, according to the 2011 coca monitoring survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Peruvian government. That was the sixth straight year of increases in coca cultivation and leaves Peru just behind Colombia when it comes to acres planted.

The survey estimated Peruvian coca planting at 157,000 acres, with government-led eradication efforts destroying only about 25,000 acres, down 14% from the previous year. The UNODC estimated total coca leaf output of 131,3000 tons, up 4.3% over 2010.

Half of the Peruvian crop is planted in the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro valley region in the southeast, but the biggest increase in cultivation came in the northern states of Bajo Amazonas, Maranon, and Putumayo, with a regional increase of 40.4%.  Production in those states is on the increase to meet the demand for cocaine and crack cocaine in Europe and Brazil, which is the second leading consumer country after the United States.

"Drug traffickers are becoming more efficient," said Flavio Mirella, the head of the agency's Peruvian office, at a Lima press conference. "Traffickers need less coca leaf to produce more cocaine. Routes of supply are diversifying and producing areas are getting closer to certain routes of exit" toward Brazil and through Bolivia to Brazil and beyond.

Guerrillas of the leftist Shining Path have also been involved in the coca and cocaine trade, and have stepped up attacks on Peruvian police and military this year. President Ollanta Humala has vowed to increase both eradication and the presence of the state in remote, guerrilla-infested coca production areas.

Peru

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: The Lebanese Connection

The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall (2012, Stanford University Press, 261 pp., $24.95 HB)

It's harvest time in Lebanon right now, and Shiite farmers in the Bekaa Valley are out working their fields, preparing to turn thousands of acres of cannabis plants into hashish, the Red Lebanese and Blond Lebanese for which the tiny Middle Eastern country is famous. And with the harvest comes conflict, as the country's anti-drug agency and the Lebanese Army head out into the fields to try to eradicate them.

The Chronicle reported at the beginning of August about hash farmers firing machine guns and RPGs at eradicators, vandalizing tractors and bulldozers used to plow under the fields, and organizing street blockades in cities in the valley. Protests broke out in Yammouneh, Baalbek, and Boudai, and authorities backed off, announcing a week later that they would form a committee to study development issues in the Bekaa. And the harvest goes on.

Of course, it wasn't just farmers' resistance that hampered the eradication effort this year. The Bekaa Valley, with its Shiite tribes, sits right next door to Syria, currently embroiled in a brutal civil war now based largely on sectarian and confessional divisions, many of which echo profoundly in Lebanon. In fact, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria until the French carved it out under a League of Nations mandate in 1943. Now, it has seen outbreaks of street fighting between rival pro- and anti-Assad militias in Tripoli, the largest city of the Lebanese north, as well as kidnapping by Shiite tribal militias after some of their number were kidnapped by Sunni militias on the other side of the border.

"Our policy is very clear. We want to demolish all of the hashish cultivation in the Bekaa," Col. Adel Mashmoushi, head of the office of drug control, tells the Lebanon Daily Star a couple of weeks ago, before quickly adding that eradication had been enfeebled this year because "the situation in the Bekaa is very delicate right now" due to "the political and security situation caused by Syria."

Mashmoushi said his men had managed to destroy only about 1,500 acres of cannabis fields out of what he estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 acres planted in the northern valley.

But, as global drug trade scholar Jonathan Marshall makes clear in his masterful and highly informative The Lebanese Connection, despite the terrifying sectarian war next door, the violent echoing clashes in Tripoli, and the Bekaa farmers' and traders' violent defense of their industry, this is a relatively quiet time in Lebanon's history in the international drug trade. According to his elaborately sourced estimates, Lebanese hash production was at level five to seven times higher during the period on which he focuses, the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.

In fact, relying heavily on archival State Department, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and DEA documents, among other sources, Marshall shows that the tiny sliver of the Levant that is Lebanon was a giant in the drug trade going as far back as the 1950s and a significant hash producer as early as the end of World War I.

Its largest market back then was Egypt, which had been supplied by Greek growers. But when the Greeks banned cannabis planting in 1918, poor Shiite farmers in the Bekaa took up the slack, and they haven't stopped growing ever since. Production boomed during the civil war and was banned in 1992 after the return of a central government, but it has never stopped. Eradication programs have been half-hearted, ill-conceived, and met with hostility, and promised alternative development schemes somehow never seem to materialize.

But it wasn't just hash, either. With Beirut a rising financial center for the Middle East and the center of global networks of Lebanese traders, Marshall shows definitively how it also became a center of the global drug trade. Opium skimmed from legal production in Turkey was smuggled into Syria by Kurds, transmuted to morphine base by Syrian chemists in Aleppo, smuggled into Lebanon by various means and various actors, transported through seaports controlled by Christian politicians to be delivered to French (later, Italian) organized crime groups, whose chemists refined it into heroin, and whose international networks, including American mobsters, sent it on the veins of consumers in the West.

In a history replete with ton-plus hash busts and multi-kilo heroin seizures, Marshall works his way through the underworld of Lebanon-based drug trafficking, its connections abroad, its crime bosses and political allies, both foreign and domestic. Along the way, he exposes the hypocrisy and cynicism of numerous nations, who with one hand raged against drugs, while with the other were complicit in--or at least looked away from--the billion-dollar a year business.

Marshall excels at seeing through the smoke of the murky milieu where all this took place. And what a milieu! Beirut in the mid-20th Century was a decadent, cosmopolitan oasis in the desert of Middle East culture, home to Westernized Arab princes, anything-goes nightclubs, lavish casinos, and European prostitutes. It was also awash in spies, arms dealers, and adventurers -- the Cold War Russian and American intelligence services, the French, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Turks, and, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a flashpoint of the brewing proxy war between the Shia Islam of Iran and the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

And Lebanon was a weak, communally divided state operating under a political agreement that divvied up key political positions by sect -- the Christian Maronites got the presidency and the leadership of the armed forces, the Sunnis got the prime minister's office -- but froze those divisions even as the demographic makeup of the country shifted toward its Muslim communities, not to mention an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Israel, and later, Jordan after the Hashemite kingdom drove out the PLO in 1970.

A weak central state, rising sectarian tensions, highly profitable drug smuggling operations, external manipulation by any number of foreign interests, and a tradition of corruption in government came together in a perfect storm as Lebanon imploded into civil war in 1975, not to emerge from it for 15 years. When it came to the role of drugs in the conflict or to arming the various factions, Marshall shows definitively that nobody had clean hands.

As the Lebanese economy crumbled amidst the violence, the importance of the illicit drug economy became all the more critical for the militias: they relied on drug profits to pay their soldiers and buy their weapons. The global drug trade may not have been the cause of the conflict (although it was a cause -- Marshall cites incidents of precursor violence between Christian and Palestinian militias over drug deals that helped ratchet up the tension), but he shows that it was profits from the trade in prohibited drugs that allowed the contending factions to make the war deadlier and longer than it otherwise would have been.

He also shows that some of the most deadly fighting was not for sectarian reasons, but over control over lucrative drug smuggling routes and, especially, ports. And, paradoxically, he shows how complicity in the drug trade overcame sectarian and even regional divisions: Syrian soldiers patrolling the Bekaa turned a blind eye to Shiite hash farmers, who trafficked their product with the connivance of Christian Maronite warlords. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence turned a blind eye to hash smuggled into and through Israel by its allies in the South Lebanon Army or by other traffickers from whom it thought it could glean intelligence.

The Lebanese Connection is too dense with chewy information to do more than touch on its contents in a review, but it is a sterling contribution to the academic literature on the global drug trade, having made a truly original contribution.  It also opens a revealing view not only on the contemporary Middle East, but contemporary terrorism, covert operations by state and non-state actors, and the making of narco-states and failed states.

It's also a very timely book, appearing as Syria bursts into flames. Syria is Lebanon writ large: many of the same ethnic and sectarian divisions are at play, as is the international meddling at several levels of proxy war, with familiar faces like the US, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all seeking to influence the outcome and doing goodness knows what behind the scenes. Syria, however, is not a major global drug trade hub, but careful followers of the  situation there will have noted the occasional accusations -- from both sides -- of  "criminals" being involved. Maybe in 20 years, we will have a better idea of what went on behind the scenes and the role of drug trafficking and smuggling networks there. In the meantime, The Lebanese Connection provides some insight into the forces at play.

Book Review: The FARC

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency, by Garry Leech (2011, Zed Press, 178 pp., $19.95 PB)

The FARC (the Spanish-language acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are considered terrorists by the US, Colombia, and the European Union, and narco-terrorists at that because of their participation in Colombia's extremely profitable coca and cocaine trades. They are criticized for their penchant for kidnapping members of the upper and middle classes, for their sometimes indiscriminate use of weaponry, and other human rights violations.

They are also frequently dismissed as both bearers of a dead ideology -- Marxism-Leninism -- and of degenerating from it into nothing more than another well-armed drug gang. And less than five years ago, it seemed as if the decades-long peasant-based guerrilla army was on its last legs. In 2008, the Colombian military finally managed to kill a member of the FARC Secretariat, another was killed by his own security guard, and the guerrillas' long-time leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda died of old age.

In another coup, the Colombian military rescued a group of long-held, high-profile FARC captives, including abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractor pilots. And the FARC was on the defensive militarily, being pushed back into its strongest rural redoubts by a Colombian military and law enforcement apparatus pumped up on billions of dollars of US anti-drug and, after 9/11, anti-terrorism (counter-insurgency) assistance.

Plan Colombia has also managed to put a dent -- the size of which is debatable -- into the country's coca and cocaine trade, but it remains substantial and hasn't gone away. The FARC hasn't gone away, either. In fact, it is killing more Colombian soldiers and police than ever, more than it did when the guerrillas were at the peak of their strength around the turn of the century.

In its recently-released "Country Reports on Terrorism," the State Department reported that FARC attacks against security forces were up substantially last year, and there's been no sign of a let up this year. And despite the killing of the FARC's top leader, Alfonso Cano, last November, the FARC and Colombia's other leftist guerrilla army, the ELN (Army of National Liberation), "continue to pose a serious threat to Colombia's security," the State Department said.

In his eponymously-titled primer on the FARC, longtime and on-the-ground observer of Colombian affairs journalist Garry Leech paints a far more nuanced picture of the world's longest-running insurgency than the caricature described in the opening paragraphs. He provides the historical context of political violence and extreme -- and still-growing -- inequality out of which emerged peasant self-defense militias in the wake of La Violencia in the 1950s, militias that in 1964 would become a Marxist-Leninist politico-military organization whose aim was to overthrow the Colombian capitalist state and replacement it with a communist one.

That's right, these guys were old school. And, Leech shows, they still are. As passé and outré as it may seem to North American readers, those AK-47-toting bearded guerrillas in fatigues in the jungle are still out there and they still want to make the revolution. Unlike other actors in the illicit drug trade, for the FARC, the profits of prohibition are a means to an end -- financing the revolution -- not an end in themselves. FARC leaders live in camps in the jungle, not in fancy mansions. Their drug money goes for war materiel, not fast cars and exotic animals.

For parts of the FARC's peasant base -- and it is very much, almost exclusively, peasant-based -- Leech shows, coca growing is the means of making a living, often the only means of making a living. As Marxist revolutionaries, who tend toward the dour and puritanical, the guerrillas don't really approve of drug crop production, but they argue that their base needs it, and they are happy to tax and regulate it.

"They work with marijuana and coca leaf because they don't have any work," says FARC commander Simon Trinidad. "This problem is caused by the economic model of the Colombian state, and the Colombian state has to fix that problem. We are the state's enemy, not their anti-narcotics police."

They may also dabble in cocaine production and facilitate distribution within Colombia, always claiming their cut in taxes, but despite repeated efforts, the US has been hard-pressed to make any international drug trafficking charges stick against high-ranking FARC members. Trinidad himself was captured and taken to the US, where the Justice Department twice failed to convict him of drug trafficking, although it did manage to convict him on kidnapping charges and he now sits in a federal prison.

Interestingly, Leech shows how the drug trade has been a two-edged sword for the FARC. On the one hand, drug profits allowed the FARC to expand dramatically, especially in the 1990s, when it grew to its greatest size, sent hundreds of fighters at a time on offensive attacks against the Colombian police and military, seized effective control of vast swathes of national territory, and appeared poised for a final push toward overthrowing Colombian capitalism.

On the other hand, the FARC's rapid, coca profits-based expansion in the 1990s led to a lessening of ideological rigor in the ranks, and its success at territorial expansion meant that in newly-controlled areas, the organic links with the peasant base forged over decades of communal struggle were not present. And make no mistake about it: In its core areas, where it has been in control for years, the FARC has been putting its socialist vision into action in concert with its base. The FARC provides core functions of the state that the Colombian state never has in these remote areas: a justice system, a health care system (whose facilities the government bombs), infrastructure (whose bridges the government bombs), municipal services through taxes on commodities like beer, and schools.

But it wasn't like that in the areas newly under FARC control. There, the guerrillas had no organic political presence, only a military one, and in the eyes of locals, they were just another of too many groups of men with guns. And their expansion was ringing alarm bells in Washington, as well as Bogota. Thus, Plan Colombia.

The US had done it before, and not so long ago. In the 1980s, $4 billion in US assistance managed to blunt the rise of the FMLN in El Salvador, and a 1989 truce defanged the leftist revolutionary movement, turning it into a player in El Salvador's liberal -- the FARC would say bourgeois -- democracy. The Salvadoran left won the chance to participate, but only at the price of giving up its dream of a real social revolution. (Leech notes that since the end of the Central American civil wars on the 1980s, the violence generated there by social inequality hasn't gone away; it has only been displaced from the sphere of politics to that of criminality.)

As in Central America in the 1980s, so in Colombia in the last decade. The US has thrown billions of dollars at stopping a social revolution in Colombia -- overtly aiming at the FARC (and not just the drug trade) since 2002 -- and it has worked. Historically, we will probably look back and say the FARC hit its high water mark at the turn of the century, but a decade later, it's still going strong. That's because, Leech argues convincingly, the Colombian state has been unwilling to entertain reforms necessary to alleviate the inequality, suffering, and lack of access to opportunity of millions of its poorest citizens.

Rather than address the nation's economic model and its role in the global economic system as part of a negotiated settlement, successive Colombian governments have instead demanded the demobilization of the FARC as a precondition to any negotiations. The FARC has made it clear that is not going to happen. The FARC has been around for nearly a half-century now; will it be around for another? Quite possibly.

[Update: In late August, President Santos announced that his government had begun preliminary discussions with the FARC about restarting peace talks. Time will tell whether either side will be willing to make the concessions necessary for the process to move forward.]

In the context of the Colombian civil war, it's probably a good thing for drug reformers to think for a moment about Colombian President Santos. He wins kudos on the cocktail circuit for his talk about talking about drug legalization or alternatives to prohibition -- he's even received them here. But he is also the hand-picked successor to the hard-line Alvaro Uribe, the leader of a government that sprays pesticides on poor peasants to eradicate their crops, while providing no effective alternatives, and which continues to prosecute the drug war full speed ahead -- a government that was in bed with the rightist paramilitaries responsible for atrocities that make the FARC look mild-mannered (the "para-politics" scandal currently ensnaring member after member of the Colombian congress. This is a government whose policies have created one of the largest internally displaced populations on the planet.

The FARC is a most excellent corrective for what passes for coverage of the FARC in most North American media sources, and a serious study of the group's origins, politics, problems, and prospects. Leech is sympathetic, but he's no apologist. If you're serious about learning about what's going on in Colombia, you need to read him. Mao's ghost still stalks the land there.

Lebanon Hashish Eradication Hits New Obstacle

Last week, we reported on armed resistance against Lebanese government marijuana plant eradication teams in the Bekaa Valley, one of the world's leading hashish-producing regions. The country's Internal Security Forces (ISF) aren't having much easier going this week, though at least no one is shooting at them.

A Lebanese marijuana plot before being burned by eradicators (wikimedia.org)
But if no one is shooting, no one is cooperating, either, according to the Daily Star. The Beirut newspaper reported that the ISF had to postpone operations to destroy marijuana fields in Hermel Tuesday after it was unable to hire enough bulldozers to plow the plants under.

The bulldozer owners in the area are refusing to rent out their machinery for eradication operations out of fear they will be targeted by the marijuana growers. They pointed to skirmishes on the outskirts of Baalbek last week that left one policeman wounded and two police vehicles damaged. Of more direct concern to the bulldozer owners, 15 tractors were attacked during that incident, and the drivers said they were warned against participating in the crackdown.

ISF units accompanied by the Central Office of Drug Control and the Lebanese Army headed to Hermel to begin eradication there Tuesday morning, but had to abort the operation when the bulldozers failed to arrive. The Daily Star also reported that the forces on the ground decided to delay the operation "to avoid confrontations between prominent families in the area."

Lebanon is one of the world's leading hash producers, and the Bekaa Valley has long been known as a site of cannabis production. During the Lebanese civil war, the trade blossomed into a multi-billion dollar business, but after the war, the government banned it in 1992, and has undertaken eradication operations with varying degrees of enthusiasm each year since.

Farmers in the Bekaa say their area has been poor and marginalized for decades and that attempts to come up with substitute crops have been ineffective. Efforts to get farmers to switch to crops like sunflowers, saffron, and tobacco have not gone well, with the crops proving unsuitable for the environment and not as profitable as marijuana, and support for crop substitution programs has been inconsistent.

The eradicators have about another month to get at the sticky cash crop before Lebanese harvest season begins in earnest.

Lebanon

Colombia Bill to Decriminalize Drug Crops Advances

A the first draft of a bill that would decriminalize the cultivation of illegal drug plants in Colombia, including coca, opium poppies, and marijuana, was approved by its lower house of congress last Wednesday, according to Colombia Reports.

coca eradication plane spraying herbicides in Colombia (wikimedia.org)
An incident in the country's northeast that same day underscored the need for a new approach in Colombia. Suspected leftist guerrillas attacked a police coca eradication team, leaving at least seven dead and 12 wounded. Police sources blamed fighters of the FARC, which has been engaged in an insurgency against the central government since 1964 and finances its operations at least in part through the coca and cocaine trade, for the attack in North Santander province.

Rep. Hugo Velazquez, who sponsored the bill, said the country cannot progress with "the failed drug policy pursued by Colombia and the United States."

Since the adoption of Plan Colombia in 1999, the US has spent more than $7 billion to fight the drug war in Colombia. While the effort has had some success -- the number of hectares cultivated is down from its peak early in the last decade -- that success has come at a high cost, not only in dollars, but in lives lost in the conflict, hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, and environmental damage from spraying crops with herbicides.And while, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, total cocaine production has declined by about one-third in the past decade, coca cultivation has increased in Peru, where its extent may now exceed Colombia's.

Under current Colombian law, persons convicted of growing illicit drug crops face between four and 12 years in prison. Of the 105,000 people in prison in the country, some 23,000 are there for either growing or trafficking in drugs.

"The important thing is that we have the opportunity to listen to congressmen from drug producing regions and hear from different government officials, not just those in opposition [to the bill] with Minister of Justice Juan Carlos Esguerra," Velazquez said, adding the drug crop production is an agricultural issue as well as a legal one.

While Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been a loud advocate of putting drug policy reform on the international agenda, he has been less interested in his own country leading the way. That position was reflected by Justice Minister Esguerra, who reiterated that the government is staunchly opposed to the bill.

The country is at a "turning point in the fight against drugs" and this is not the time to make policy changes, he said. "It's not the time to anticipate a set of rules on this issue. This cannot work like the Lone Ranger," he added.

But the bill remains alive.

Bogota
Colombia

Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Ricardo Soberon, the reformist head of DEVIDA, the Peruvian drug agency, has been fired and replaced, the Peruvian government announced Tuesday. Soberon made waves last August when he implemented a temporary ban on forced eradication of coca plants, taking the US Embassy by surprise, but that was soon reversed on the orders of his boss, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes.

statues of coca leaves adorn a small town plaza in Peru (photo by author)
Relations between Soberon and Valdes never warmed, and he "resigned" on Tuesday after just five months in office. Soberon also found himself increasingly at odds with President Ollanta Humala, who had campaigned on a pledge to not aggressively pursue eradication, but who has shifted to the right on this and other issues since taking power.

Soberon had taken that same message to coca growers, with whom he had forged relationships after years of work in the field. His departure could mean an uptick in conflict in the already contentious relationship between coca grower unions and the government.

"Soberon's exit was a matter of time," Peruvian drug policy expert Jaime Antezana told the Washington Post. "There was no chance that Oscar Valdes would keep him in the job."

Soberon had been working on a five-year national drug strategy that would have called for vigorous pursuit of cocaine traffickers and money launderers and interdiction of incoming precursor chemicals and outgoing cocaine, but de-emphasized punishing the peasants who grow coca outside the government coca monopoly, ENACO. That strategy was never approved.

Peru is now arguably the world's largest producer of cocaine, having surpassed Colombia despite the latter country's having more acreage of coca planted, according to US officials. Peru's coca fields are higher-yielding because they are more mature, and the country had the potential to produce 325 metric tons of cocaine last year, compared to 270 tons in Colombia.

Peru eradicated about 15% of the crop last year, but at the political price of alienating thousands of coca growing farm families. Now, it appears ready to deepen that divide.

Lima
Peru

Fixing Our Drug Policy Will Require a Hatchet, Not a Scalpel

I have a new piece at Huffington Post discussing recent claims from the Drug Czar's office that the Obama Administration is working hard to "reform" our drug policy. We've reached an interesting moment in the debate when both sides are wrapping themselves in the flag of reform. 

Drug Crop-Killing Fungi Too Risky, Scientists Say

Using pathogenic fungi to eradicate coca, opium, or other illicit drug crops is too risky because there is not enough data about how to control them and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a panel of scientists commissioned to study the subject by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

fusarium oxysprorum (wikimedia.org)
The finding came in a report, Feasibility of Using Mycoherbicides for Controlling Illicit Drug Crops, which was released November 30 by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council (NRC). ONDCP requested the report after it was required do to so by Congress in its 2006 budget authorization bill.

Mycoherbicides are killer fungi that can be targeted at specific plants and reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for years. Hard-line drug control advocates have urged their use against coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan, seeing them as a potential "magic bullet" that could eliminate drug problems at the source. But Colombia rejected the use of mycoherbicides in 2002 and the Afghan government has strongly signaled that it is not interested in using them there.

The NRC scientists found that the evidence base to support using mycoherbicides was scanty. "Questions about the degree of control that could be achieved with such mycoherbicides, as well as uncertainties about their potential effects on non-target plants, microorganisms, animals, humans, and the environment must be addressed before considering deployment," they said.

The panel did not reject outright the use of mycoherbicides; instead, it recommended "research to study several candidate strains of each fungus in order to identify the most efficacious under a broad array of environmental conditions." But it warned that "conducting the research does not guarantee that a feasible mycoherbicide product will result, countermeasures can be developed against mycoherbicides, and there are unavoidable risks from releasing substantial numbers of living organisms into an ecosystem."

The use of mycoherbicides would require meeting multiple domestic regulatory requirements, as well as possible additional regulations and agreements before being used on drug crops in foreign countries, the report noted. That might also prove problematic because "approval to conduct tests in countries where mycoherbicides might be used has been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past."

Congressional and bureaucratic drug warriors are going to have to look elsewhere for their "magic bullet" to win the war on drugs -- unless they're in the mood to appropriate more funds for more research that may or may not come up with a workable mycoherbicide. Then all they would have to do is sell the idea to the government of the country they want to spray it on.

Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School