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Mexico's Symbol of Drug War Resistance Says It's Our Fight, Too [FEATURE]

At the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles last weekend, one of the more heart-wrenching sessions focused on the prohibition-related violence in Mexico, where somewhere north of 40,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to wage war on the cartels in December 2006. A panel of Mexican politicians, activists, and journalists led by poet Javier Sicilia -- and El Paso City Councilwoman Susie Byrd -- examined the roots and consequences of Mexico's war on drugs and called eloquently on Americans to take action to stop the carnage.

Javier Sicilia addressing conference, with translator Ana Paula Hernandez (photo courtesy HCLU,
Mexican journalist Diego Osorno, author of a book on the Sinaloa Cartel, explained how Calderon took power amidst mass mobilizations and turmoil after a closely contested election in which his foe refused to accept defeat. "Calderon took power amidst political and social crisis," Osorno explained. "He began the militarization using the pretext of drugs," he said.

The next panelist, former Mexican congressman Victor Quintana of Chihuahua (where Ciudad Juarez is located) looked at what Mexico's drug wars had done to his home state. "In Chihuahua, we had 407 people killed in 2007," he said. "In 2010, that number was 5,200. If the US had the same murder rate, that would be 400,000 dead in one year," he said.

"There has been an authentic genocide committed in our state," Quintana continued. "We have 10,000 drug war orphans and 230,000 people internally displaced. We face not only the violence of organized crime, but the violence of the state."

A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch makes clear just what Quintana was talking about when it comes to the violence of the state. The 212-page report, Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico's "War on Drugs," portrays systematic human rights abuses committed by Mexican government forces, including dozens of documented killings.

Human Rights Watch officials visited Mexico this week to deliver copies of the report to Calderon, members of the Mexican Congress, the Supreme Court, and civil society groups.

"Instead of reducing violence, Mexico's 'war on drugs' has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country, said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the organization.

Like other panelists at the conference in Los Angeles, Quintana took pains to make clear that Mexico's tragedy was tied to the US and the way we deal with the drugs we love to hate (or hate to love). "This is a bi-national war," he said. "America sends the guns and money, and Mexico gets the deaths."

Prohibition is a godsend to the cartels, said El Paso city councilwoman Byrd, who explained how a pound of marijuana sells for $25 in Mexico's pot-growing areas but $525 in Chicago. "Legalizing marijuana is the best way to take it to the cartels," she said.

Ciudad Juarez is "the epicenter of pain and tragedy, but also the epicenter of resistance," said Zulma Mendez, a bi-national El Paso university professor and Ciudad Juarez activist. The resistance has an agenda calling for demilitarization, justice and truth, and re-founding the city in a more human form, she said.

Zuma, too, called on Americans to act. "The bloodshed here is related to Plan Merida," she said. "US taxpayers are funding this to the tune of $2.5 billion. People in the US should demand an end to Plan Merida. US citizens can demand drug reform and revision of weapons policies and immigration and asylum policies," she challenged.

But it was gruff-voiced, cowboy hat-wearing Javier Sicilia who proved most powerful. A poet and journalist who became the voice of resistance after his son and five others were murdered in Cuernavaca earlier this year, Sicilia has led caravans of protestors across Mexico to demand truth and justice and an end to the violence.

"Who is being held accountable?" he asked, complaining of a culture of impunity, and not just in Mexico. "Where is the money being laundered, and not just the drug money, but the money from other crimes? Money is the blood of the poor. We have 50,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared. The word to describe this would be 'demonic.' We are all responsible for these crimes against humanity because they are done by our governments," he said.

"If we were to put a human face on the suffering, it would be something we could not bear," Sicilia continued. "This is the image of our country: A six-year-old orphaned boy waiting for us on the road, holding a photo of his father, who had been killed and returned in a blanket. The face of that orphan is the face of our country. In a century when we talk of human rights, that is the tragedy."

The Mexico session wasn't the only place Sicilia made his voice heard. He also appeared before the crowd at a boisterous anti-drug war demonstration in MacArthur Park Thursday night and at the final plenary session of the conference. Then it was back to Mexico and the quest for peace and justice.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Guatemala President Wants "NATO-Style" Force to Battle Narcos

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said Central American countries threatened by Mexican drug cartels should lobby for the creation of a regional NATO-style military force in an interview with the Financial Times Wednesday. The center-left politician said only a combined regional military force and improved intelligence could thwart the power of the violent and well-armed drug trafficking organizations.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom would rather go to war with the narcos then legalize drugs. (Image: World Economic Forum)
Guatemala and other Central American nations form a transit corridor for South American cocaine destined for North American markets, an industry estimated to be worth as much as $40 billion a year. Mexican cartels seeking to expand their operations or fleeing the pressure cooker of the vicious drug war at home have moved into those small, relatively weak neighbors, with the Zetas in particular establishing a presence in Guatemala's Peten province.

In May, Zetas killed 27 farm workers at a ranch when they came looking for the owner, who wasn't there. A few days later, Zetas killed and dismembered a Guatemalan prosecutor working on the case. Drugs gangs are suspected in the killing of Facundo Cabral, the celebrated Argentine folk singer, who was gunned down as he headed toward the airport after a Guatemala City concert earlier this month. The attack was believed to be aimed not at Cabral, but at his Guatemalan concert promoter.

Colom, who is now in his final year in office, said that national borders meant nothing to the traffickers, while the region's armies and police forces have to respect the sovereignty of their neighbors.

"What good is it if the forces of one country are pursuing drug traffickers who cross a river but then have to stop to avoid an international incident?" he said. "Why not have a type of Central American NATO?"

Colom said he was against legalizing drugs and looked for financial assistance from the US to help fight the battle.  "Without support of co-responsibility from the consumer markets, this is going to be a permanent war," he said.


Chronicle Book Review: Hostage Nation

Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)
Hostage Nation is a great read, but its title is something of misnomer. What the book is really about is the capture of four American contractors by FARC guerrillas after their plane went down on an anti-coca pesticide-spraying mission in 2003. One was executed by the FARC at the scene; the others spent more than five years in captivity in the jungles of Colombia before being rescued by the Colombian military in a stunning charade in which Colombian soldiers tricked rebels into delivering their hostages, who also included the famous former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, into their waiting arms.

In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.

And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.

Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.

They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.

But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.

As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.

The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.

But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.

As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.

Obama Sends Drones to Fight Failed Mexican Drug Prohibition War

The Obama administration has been sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence. The American assistance has been kept secret because of legal restrictions in Mexico and the heated political sensitivities there about sovereignty.
The New York Times (NY)

Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Draw Guatemalan Army to Jungles Where It Fought Civil War

The once-fearsome Guatemalan army has returned to the jungles where it battled Marxist guerrillas a generation ago, this time to hunt shadowy Mexican drug traffickers fighting for control of strategic smuggling routes to the United States. The military operations are the clearest sign yet that as Mexico's wealthy drug trafficking organizations spread into Central America, wary but weak governments here are preparing to follow Mexican President Felipe Calderon's U.S.-backed decision to turn the armed forces against the traffickers. That prohibitionist strategy has failed to slow the violence in Mexico, which has left more than 34,000 dead in four years.
The Washington Post (DC)

Mexican President's Visit to Stanford Meets with Objections Due to His Drug Prohibition War

Palo Alto, CA
United States
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has been invited to give the commencement address at Stanford University in June, but an editorial in this week’s El Mensajero calls it the "wrong choice" due to his prohibitionist drug war. El Mensajero editor María Mejía writes that the point of a commencement address is to inspire students, adding that if she were a student, she wouldn’t feel inspired by Calderón. "I don’t admire his war against drug trafficking...I can’t believe that more than 30,000 dead during his administration due to violence stemming from narcotrafficking is something that could inspire me," she wrote.
The Bay Citizen (CA)

Top Army Official Suggests U.S. Troops Might Be Sent to Mexico to Fight Drug Prohibition War

Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, the second-highest ranking civilian official in the U.S. Army, described the situation in Mexico created by drug prohibition as an insurgency and fretted over a scenario in which armed U.S. soldiers could be called to the border and/or into Mexico. Westphal is the most senior U.S. official to publicly compare Mexico’s drug cartels to an insurgency since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar assessment last September. Westfall — who said he was expressing a personal opinion, but one he had shared with the White House — said he didn’t want to ever see a situation in which "armed and fighting" American soldiers are sent to combat an insurgency "on our border, in violation of our Constitution, or to have to send them across the border."
The Salt Lake Tribune (UT)

Colombia's FARC May Inherit Hundreds of Men from Slain Drug Lord

Colombia's largest rebel group FARC may benefit from the recent killing of neo-paramilitary drug lord "Cuchillo," newspaper El Espectador reports. According to the newspaper, the death of Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias Cuchillo, late last month brought an end to the paramilitary rule of the underworld of Colombia's eastern plains that started when the AUC took control of the region in the 1990s. A police investigator told El Espectador that members of Cuchillo's organization ERPAC have been meeting to assure a continuation of the drug trade, but have not been able to appoint a successor of their slain leader.
Colombia Reports (Colombia)

Mexico's Drug Prohibition War: Troops Killed Innocent U.S. Man

Joseph Proctor told his girlfriend he was popping out to the convenience store in the quiet Mexican beach town where the couple had just moved, intending to start a new life. The next morning, the 32-year-old New York native was dead inside his crashed van on a road outside Acapulco. It is at least the third case this year in which soldiers, locked in a prohibitionist drug war with trafficking organizations, have been accused of killing innocent civilians and faking evidence in cover-ups. Such scandals are driving calls for civilian investigators to take over cases that are almost exclusively handled by military prosecutors and judges who rarely convict one of their own.
Newsday (NY)

US Drug War Military Presence in Costa Rica Rejected

Costa Rica
In the middle of this year, the Costa Rican Parliament authorized the arrival of 7,000 soldiers, 46 war ships, more than 200 helicopters, 10 Harrier planes and two submarines. The permission provoked the rejection of various parties and social sectors, regarding it as anti-constitutional and violating national sovereignty. "We are quite much worried with such an excessive military force to fight drug trafficking," said Victor Emilio Granados, from Partido Accesibilidad sin Exclusion (PASE) - Accessibility without Exclusion Party. Other parties such as Frente Amplio and Accion Cuidadana also rejected the US military presence.
Inside Costa Rica (Costa Rica)

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