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Authorities: Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Operating In The Tri-State

United States
Drug prohibition has incentivized Mexican drug trafficking organizations to come to our backyards. Their workers are hidden in crops and hillsides throughout rural Ohio counties.

For Mexican Drug Traffickers, Marijuana Is Still Gold

Times are good for marijuana growers of Mexico's western Sierra Madre mountains -- the army eradication squads that once hacked at the illicit marijuana fields have been diverted by the drug war raging elsewhere in Mexico. To the delight of traffickers, marijuana cultivation soared 35 percent last year and is now higher than at any time in nearly two decades.
McClatchy Newspapers (DC)

California Endures Another Summer of Outdoor Marijuana Raids [FEATURE]

It's August in California, and that means the state's multi-billion outdoor marijuana crop is ripening in the fields. It also means that the nearly 30-year-old effort to uproot those plants, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), is once taking up its Sisyphean task of wiping out the crop. The choppers are flying, the SWAT teams are deploying, and the federal funds that largely feed CAMP are being burned through.

marijuana eradication helicopter
The raids are nearly a daily event in the Golden State at this time of year. CAMP spokesperson Michelle Gregory told the Chronicle Wednesday that the campaign had uprooted 2.27 million pot plants as of this week, slightly behind the 2.4 million uprooted by this time last year. Last year was a CAMP record, with 4.4 million plants seized by year's end.

"It's about the same this year," said Gregory.

In just the past couple of weeks, CAMP and associated law enforcement agencies pulled up 91,000 plants in Santa Barbara County, 48,000 plants in Sonoma County, and 21,000 plants in Calaveras County. So far this year, in Mendocino County alone, more than 470,000 plants have been destroyed.

The enforcement effort has also led to the deaths of at least three growers this year. A worker at a grow in Napa County was killed early last month when he pointed a gun at police. Another worker at a grow in Santa Clara County was killed two weeks ago. And last week, police in Mendocino County killed a third grower they encountered holding a rifle during an early morning raid.

While the number of deaths this year is high -- one grower was killed in Lassen County last year, one was killed in Humboldt County in 2007, and two were killed in Shasta County in 2003 -- there have also been other violent incidents. Last month, somebody shot out the rear window of a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle as it left a grow raid in the western part of the county, and police in Lake County encountered an armed grower there, but he fled.

CAMP and other law enforcement efforts may destroy as much as 25% of the state's outdoor harvest, but it is unclear what real impact the program is having. Prices for outdoor marijuana have been dropping in California for the past year, the availability of pot remains high, and use levels appear unchanged.

Bureau of Land Management agents recording a
marijuana field's location using GPS
"To point out the obvious, in almost 30 years, CAMP has been unable to reduce marijuana use or availability," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "All it does is pay for law enforcement officers to go out in the woods and pull weeds. Every year, they find more and more, and that just motivates illegal growers to plant more."

"CAMP is an enormous waste of money -- I've even heard law enforcement refer to this as helicopter rides," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles. "It's fun for them, but spending this money on that doesn't do any good, and that's a shame when we're in such dire budgetary shape on all levels."

"I think we are making a difference," said CAMP spokesperson Gregory. "There are still plants out there, but at the same time, the way we look at it, they are willing to defend their grow sites, so we're obviously impacting them monetarily."

Gregory blamed Mexico drug trafficking organizations for much of the illicit production, but was unable to cite specific prosecutions linked to them. She also cited environmental damage done to national parks and forests by illicit grows.

"Nobody wants our national parks and forests to be turned into illegal marijuana grows," said Dooley-Sammuli, "but the question is what is the best approach. The more we spend on CAMP, the more helicopter rides and gardening projects we get, but marijuana prices don't go up, and there is no measurable impact on availability. What we do get is increased violence in the national parks. The government should be looking at how best to reduce illegal grows," said Dooley-Sammuli. "One way would be to allow lawful cultivation as part of a regulated market."

Deputies prepare to repel out of helicopter into a marijuana grow (Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office via SB Independent Weekly)
The US Justice Department is spending nearly $3.6 billion this year to augment budgets of state and local law-enforcement agencies. In addition, the federal government last year set aside close to $4 billion of the economic-stimulus package for law-enforcement grants for state and local agencies. The White House also is spending about $239 million this year to fund local drug-trafficking task forces. In California, many of those task forces work with CAMP.

One approach to defanging CAMP is to work to cut off the federal funding spigot. Since it is largely dependent on federal dollars, attacking federal funding could effectively starve the program, especially given the perpetual budget crisis at the state and local level in California. But that runs into the politics of supporting law enforcement.

"There are many federal funding streams that go to state and local law enforcement, and there is a lot of politics around that," said Dooley-Sammuli. "CAMP really has little to do with marijuana and a lot to do with funding law enforcement."

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko is a case in point. He told the Wall Street Journal last month that although he is having to lay off employees, reduce patrols, and even release inmates early because of the budget crunch, he's spending more money on pot busts because "it's where the money is."

He has spent about $340,000 since last year on eradication in order to ensure that his department gets $492,000 in federal anti-drug funds. That is "$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization," he said. "That could fund three officers' salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol."

Sheriff's Deputies transporting larger marijuana plants
from site (SBSO via SB Independent Weekly)
"We're giving law enforcement resources, but not allowing them to put them to the best use," said Dooley-Sammuli. "With all the cuts we're having, I don't know any Californians who would rather spend federal law enforcement on helicopter rides and pulling plants out of the ground. Why are we forcing our law enforcement to prioritize something that for most of the public is at the bottom of the list?"

It's the law of unintended consequences that provoked the boom in growing on public lands in the first place, said Meno. "Around 2002, law enforcement said they started seeing a dramatic shift toward outdoor grows on public lands, but that's because they were raiding people growing indoors and on private property. Prohibition and law enforcement tactics drove those people out into those federal lands. Now, some of our most treasured resources are overflowing with marijuana because they were pushed there by law enforcement."

For CAMP, the endless war continues. "The laws are what they are," said Gregory. "Whether it's marijuana or meth or heroin, we're going to enforce the law. If the law changes, that's different," she said, responding to a query about the looming marijuana legalization vote. "But we're always going to have something to enforce."

United States

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.
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.
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."

The War on Marijuana = Federal $$$ for Local Cops

If you've ever wondered how police departments can afford to send so many officers off into the woods looking for pot plants, the Wall Street Journal just figured it out:

IGO, Calif.—Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there's one mission on which he's spending more than in recent years: pot busts.

The reason is simple: If he steps up his pursuit of marijuana growers, his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding, helping save some jobs. The majority of the funding would have to be used to fight pot. Marijuana may not be the county's most pressing crime problem, the sheriff says, but "it's where the money is."

Every year, more money is spent and more marijuana is discovered. The growers then respond by planting still more. New records are set every harvest season, keeping growers and the police who pursue them steadily employed. The big losers in this ridiculous cycle of idiocy are the taxpayers, who spend billions on this stupid self-perpetuating escapade while neighborhood crimes go unsolved.

Just because some people think legalizing marijuana might "send the wrong message," we're instead stuck in a massive domestic war that we can't afford, and we're losing worse every year. Meanwhile, cops and criminals just continue cashing in.

For more, check out this interesting exchange between MPP's Mike Meno and a California reporter who's been following the story.

Police Cut Down 400 Pot Plants, Then Realize it's Not Marijuana

Further proof that police aren't exactly experts on botany:

I suppose it's ok to laugh at this one, since nobody got shot. On the other hand, it's probably just a matter of time before a similar mistake results in someone getting a gun shoved in their face. Oh wait, it's already happened.

Prohibition: Drug War is a Failure, Associated Press Reports

In a major, broad-ranging report released Thursday, the Associated Press declared that "After 40 Years, $1 Trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of Its Goals." The report notes that after four decades of prohibitionist drug enforcement, "Drug use is rampant and violence is even more brutal and widespread."
The AP even got drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to agree. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske said. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The AP pointedly notes that despite official acknowledgments that the policy has been a flop, the Obama administration's federal drug budget continues to increase spending on law enforcement and interdiction and that the budget's broad contours are essentially identical to those of the Bush administration.

Here, according to the AP, is where some of that trillion dollars worth of policy disaster went:

  • $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico -- and the violence along with it.
  • $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
  • $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
  • $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
  • $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the US were serving sentences for drug offenses. [Editor's Note: This $450 billion dollar figure for federal drug war prisoners appears erroneous on the high side. According to Department of Justice budget figures, funding for the Bureau of Prisons, as well as courthouse security programs, was set at $9 billion for the coming fiscal year.]

The AP notes that, even adjusted for inflation, the federal drug war budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon asked for in his first federal drug budget.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron told the AP that spending money for more police and soldiers only leads to more homicides. "Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use," Miron said, "but it's costing the public a fortune."

"President Obama's newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush's, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. "This despite Obama's statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue."

"For the first time ever, the nation has before it an administration that views the drug issue first and foremost through the lens of the public health mandate," said economist and drug policy expert John Carnevale, who served three administrations and four drug czars. "Yet... it appears that this historic policy stride has some problems with its supporting budget."

Of the record $15.5 billion Obama is requesting for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it is destined for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction. About one-third will go for prevention and treatment.

The AP did manage to find one person to stick up for the drug war: former Bush administration drug czar John Walters, who insisted society would be worse if today if not for the drug war. "To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."

Uh, yeah, John, that's what it's saying.

NEW LOCATION: Reformers to Call for New Approach TODAY at Marijuana Eradication Conference

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                 

MAY 10, 2010

Reformers to Call for New Approach TODAY at Marijuana Eradication Conference

Location Changed for Today’s Press Conference; Former Law Enforcement, Clergy Members, Other Advocates Will Call for End to Wasteful, Ineffective Eradication Campaigns

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director …………… or 707-291-0076

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — At a press conference today, reform-minded advocates will make the case for ending the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), which, since 1983, has inarguably failed to achieve its stated goal: reducing marijuana use and availability by eradicating illegal grow sites.

            Today through Wednesday, local, state, and federal law enforcement officers will gather at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego to begin organizing this year’s eradication campaign, the wisdom of which has been increasingly called into question as Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would end the state’s prohibition on adult marijuana use.

         “It’s time to stop this insanity of repeating the futile exercise of CAMP and instead replace marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation,” said Aaron Smith, California policy director for MPP, who is leading Monday’s press conference.

         Today’s press conference was originally planned to be held in the same hotel as the CAMP conference, but organizers were informed at the last minute and without explanation that they would not be able to hold the event in the same hotel. 

         NEW LOCATION: Westin Gas Lamp Quarter Hotel, Coronado Room, (3rd floor), 910 Broadway Circle, San Diego, CA 92101

         WHAT: Press conference to call for an effective marijuana policy and an end to eradication campaigns

         WHEN: Monday, May 10, at 11:00 a.m.

         WHO: Speakers who will question the wisdom behind CAMP will include:

Leo Laurence, a retired deputy sheriff and former legal researcher for the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The Rev. Canon Mary Moreno-Richardson, an Episcopal priest and coordinator for Hispanic Ministries at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, who has worked extensively to prevent violence in the community and help at risk youth.

         With more than 124,000 members and supporters nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit


San Diego, CA
United States

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy," by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy (2010, Harvard University Press, 256 pp., $28.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

For more than a decade, French researcher Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy has been cementing his reputation as one of the world's leading experts on opium and the opium trade, and now, with "Opium," he makes his work accessible to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, he reveals the long and fascinating history of the opium poppy and explores the dynamics behind the ever-mutating patterns of cultivation and distribution that mark the trade for the past century. He also explains why decades of aggressive anti-drug policies by the US and the United Nations have failed to suppress or even reduce illicit poppy production.
Chouvy's knowledge of the trade is extensive -- he has spent years trudging around the backwaters of Asia, from Burma and Laos to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and his grasp of its motors and contours is impressive. As he traces the 20th Century evolution of the opium trade, he also shows how damnably difficult it is to suppress the pain-relieving poppy.

Chouvy takes the reader through China's (at least temporarily) successful opium ban of the 1950s and demonstrates how the ban stimulated production just south of the border in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Similarly, he shows how opium bans in Turkey and Iran around mid-century stimulated production in Pakistan and now Afghanistan.

Along the way, Chouvy reveals the futility of drug war approaches by unveiling the symbiotic relationship between drug economies and war economies. A trade that thrives on the poverty and underdevelopment created by violent conflict cannot be defeated militarily. Thus, the logic of the drug war is almost completely backwards, he argues.

It's not that opium bans or eradication can never work, Chouvy notes. They have worked, at least locally, whether through harsh repression, as in China in the 1950s or Burma in the 2000s, or in combination with economic development efforts, as in Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. But to reduce opium cultivation requires alternative livelihood programs and economic and social development programs that are well-constructed, adequately funded, and long-lived because "poverty and food insecurity are the main drivers of illicit opium production."

(One could argue that demand drives production, although opium is the sort of commodity that creates its own demand, or that artificially inflated prices due to the global prohibition regime drive production, but for Chouvy, the appetite for opium and the reality of drug prohibition are givens.)

That has not generally been the case, Chouvy rather convincingly chronicles. Especially in areas dominated by US and UN drug war paradigms, the approach has been ass-backwards, with eradication done before alternative development is in place and with development assistance tied to eradication. A key issue here is sequencing. Development must come before eradication or bans, or it is unlikely to work.

Similarly, the amount of resources devoted to alternative development programs has been so paltry in comparison to resources devoted to eradication and interdiction that most programs have been doomed to failure or, at best, limited local success.

A third problem with alternative development programs is that, until recently, they have been designed as "one size fits all" without taking into account differences in poppy cultivation patterns between countries and, especially, within countries. In Afghanistan, for example, poor farmers suffering from food insecurity will supplement their wheat crops with poppy, while wealthier farmers grow poppy not out of desperation but out of the desire to gain profits. Development programs must be targeted with acute specificity to fit local needs and conditions, Chouvy writes.

But reducing illicit opium cultivation faces even more fundamental challenges. "It is necessary to identify and address the causes of poverty and food insecurity, no matter how diverse they might be, if illegal poppy cultivation is to be reduced or suppressed," Chouvy writes. "Ultimately, since illicit opium production stems from the need of farmers to cope with poverty and food insecurity, what is required in order to achieve drug supply reduction is broad and equitable economic development, especially in rural areas."

That's a tall order for a country like Afghanistan or Burma, and it demands the kind of economic, social, and political changes that may be inimical to the interests of major donor nations like the US.

With "Opium," Chouvy has made a major contribution to the literature of the poppy trade. His book needs to be read by academics, activists, policy-makers, development NGOs, and anyone else with a serious interest in the opium trade and how to deal with it.

Feature: Chronicle of an Offensive Foretold -- The Occupation of Marja, Afghanistan

America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.
opium field in Marja (from
The thousands of new troops are to provide the muscle to wrest and hold territory from the Taliban. The new drug strategy is designed to win over Afghan farmers long enough for economic development projects to take hold once the troops and their NATO and Afghan Army counterparts secure key areas.

One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.

The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)

Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.

The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.

Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.

While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.

And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.

Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.

"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."

Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.

She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."

Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."

It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."

Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.

"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."

The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."

The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."

The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."

"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."

The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.

"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."

"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."

It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.

"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."

Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."

Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."

The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).

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