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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.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

More asset forfeiture problems in Texas, plus a typical weekly rogues' gallery of dirty cops. Let's get to it:

In Austin, Texas, a former Brooks County sheriff is being investigated by the state attorney general's office over his lavish use of forfeited assets seized from drug and weapons suspects. The Corpus Christi Times details the allegations against former Sheriff Balde Lozano as well as a broader investigation into asset forfeiture in Texas in a series of reports. A state auditor has questioned Lozano's spending on new cedar paneling for his office, 18 vehicle purchases and sales, and $80,000 in credit card transactions.

In Los Angeles, a jailer at the LA County Jail was arrested last Monday on charges he was smuggling cocaine into the jail. Jailer Remington Orr, 24, was caught carrying the drugs when he went to work at the Men's Central Jail. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, transportation with intent to sell, and bribery. He was jailed on $1 million bail. Three sheriff's guards have been convicted and a fourth fired in recent years for smuggling or attempting to smuggle narcotics into jail for inmates.

In Athens, Ohio, a local police chief was arrested last Wednesday for peddling pain pills. Buchtel Chief of Police Kelsey Lanning went down after Athens County sheriff's deputies did a controlled buy at his home. Lanning is accused of buying the prescription medication to give to someone who was working with the sheriff's Narcotics Enforcement Team.

In Oklahoma City, an Oklahoma City police officer was charged last Friday with tipping off a drug suspect of an impending raid. Sgt. Mari Christina Cervantes is charged with a misdemeanor count of obstructing police officers. In November 2010, police raided two locations, including the home of one of Cervantes' snitches. Police found text messages from Cervantes on his cell phone, including one telling the informant to "stay away," another hoping police wouldn't find anything, and a third saying, "They are supposed to be kicking in the door, but you didn't hear it from me."

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a Miramar police officer was sentenced last Friday to two years' probation for searching the apartment of a drug suspect without a warrant and lying about it. Officer Jean Paul Jacobi, 39, was found guilty in December of official misconduct, falsifying records, and criminal mischief and could have gotten up to five years behind bars. The state asked for two years, but the judge gave him probation, and if he keeps his nose clean, with deferred adjudication, his felony record will be wiped clean. The search in question occurred after police arrested a drug suspect in a traffic stop and seized his vehicle. The keys ended up with another Miramar police officer, who gave them to Jacobi, who used them to enter the apartment without a warrant.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A state trooper transporting marijuana, a pair of cops ripping off drug cash, a constable smuggling across the Mexican border, and a cop with a bad pain pill habit make this week's hall of shame. Let's get to it:

In Chicago, a police sergeant and a patrol officer were charged Monday with stealing $5,000 in undercover government money in an FBI sting operation. Sgt. Ronald Watts, 48, and Officer Kallatt Mohammed, 47, allegedly took the money from a cooperating FBI witness who was under surveillance by federal agents. That same witness testified that Watts had previously asked to be informed of impending drug-cash transactions. Watts and Mohammed have each been charged with one count of theft of government funds. The pair have been released on unsecured $10,000 bonds. They are looking at up to 10 years in prison.

In Brownsville, Texas, a former reserve officer for the Nueces County constable's office was found guilty last Friday of smuggling cocaine and heroin across the Gateway International Bridge from Mexico. Mercedes Perez, 54, went down after a drug-sniffing dog alerted on his vehicle and Customs officers found five pounds of heroin and 15 pounds of cocaine concealed inside his car. Perez testified at trial that he didn't know the drugs were in his car. He was convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine and possession with the intent to distribute heroin and cocaine. He faces a mandatory minimum 10 years and could get up to life in federal prison.

In Charleston, West Virginia, a former state trooper pleaded guilty Monday to being involved in a major marijuana grow operation. Kurt Steffen, 30, was hired as a state trooper in May 2007 and shortly afterward joined with others in an indoor grow op that generated untold thousands of dollars before it was busted in January 2010. When it was busted, authorities found thousands of dollars worth of grow equipment and more than 300 plants. In pleading guilty, Steffen also admitted using his state patrol car to transport the weed. He copped to one federal count each of manufacturing and conspiring to distribute more than 100 pot plants. He's looking at a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, and up to 40 years.

In Denville, New Jersey, a former Denville police officer was sentenced last Friday to three years in prison for ripping off oxycodone and heroin from the department's evidence room. Eugene Blood, 38, a nine-year veteran of the department, had pleaded guilty in December to stealing the drugs in 2010 and 2011, when he was the evidence officer. Before sentencing, Blood apologized for the thefts and said he had developed an addiction to painkillers. Blood's thefts compromised numerous narcotics cases, prosecutors said.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Two of our four bad apples this week come from the Big Apple, one for planting drugs and one for transporting them. Of the other two, one picked the wrong friends and the other picked the wrong wife. Let's get to it:

In Annapolis, Maryland, an Anne Arundel County police officer was arrested last Thursday on allegations he notified the subjects of a narcotics search warrant that a raid was pending. Corporal Rick Alexander, 36, a 14-year-veteran of the department, was ratted out by some of the very people he tipped off, old friends of his who told searching police he had alerted them. Police found a small quantity of a controlled substance at the home. Based on interrogations at that location, police searched a second location and found 82 grams of marijuana that had been moved after the tip. Alexander is charged with obstruction and hindering a police officer, conspiracy to distribute marijuana, misconduct in office, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He was arraigned and released on his own recognizance.

In Woodward, Oklahoma, a former Woodward police detective was charged last Thursday with repeatedly stealing methamphetamine from the department evidence room to support his then-wife's drug habit. Former detective Michael Morton, 55, faces 13 drug-related felony counts for the thefts that took place between May 2009 and March 2010. The couple divorced in June 2010.  Morton took his then-wife along during several of the thefts and showed her the location of the drugs. The little racket imploded when Morton's spouse ripped some off on her own, kicking open the evidence room door, ripping open evidence envelopes, and stealing the speed inside. Morton faces up to life in prison because on some occasions he gave his then-wife drugs within a thousand feet of a school. 

In New York City, a retired NYPD officer was convicted last Friday of transporting 10 kilos of cocaine from Long Island to the Bronx in return for a $12,000 payment. Alfredo Rivera, 53, went down in a sting operation. He is guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possessing a weapon while possessing drugs. He is looking at 15 years to life in federal prison when he is sentenced in May.

In New York City, a former NYPD narcotics detective was sentenced last Thursday to five years probation and 300 hours of community service for planting drugs on a woman and her boyfriend. Jason Arbeeny, a 14-year-veteran of the force, had been found guilty of eight counts of falsifying records and official misconduct for planting drugs on suspects, a crime he said he committed to reach arrest quotas. The practice of planting drugs on people, known as "flaking," has so far cost the city $1.2 million in lawsuit settlements.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

More dope-dealin' and/or sticky-fingered cops this week, plus a tweaker judge gets sentenced. Let's get to it:

In Norwalk, Connecticut, a state marshal was arrested last Tuesday after police found more than a quarter-pound of pot in his vehicle. Marshal Alan Freedman, 58, was pulled over for running a red light, and a police drug dog alerted on his vehicle. Police found two bags of marijuana, a plastic container containing marijuana, digital scales, nine pipes with pot residue, a bag of seeds, and empty baggies. The pot seized came to 4.8 ounces. Freedman is charged with possession of more than four ounces of marijuana, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, illegal distribution of marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to sell within 1,500 feet of a school. Freedman was released after posting $10,000 bond. State marshals are certified law enforcement officers, but typically handle civil matters, such as serving court documents.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, a Shreveport police officer was arrested last Wednesday for peddling drugs and soliciting prostitutes. Officer Jeffrion Smith, 30, went down after the department got information that he was looking for hookers, and an undercover investigation resulted in his arrest. He is charged with solicitation of prostitution, distribution of a Schedule I narcotic, and possession of a firearm with a controlled dangerous substance. He is now on administrative leave after being booked into the Caddo Parish Jail.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a Memphis police officer was arrested last Friday after getting ensnared in a drug sting operation. Officer Melvin Robinson, 28, went down after telling an FBI informant in November he was having money problems and agreeing to buy and sell 10 kilos of cocaine with a street value of $300,000. Robinson used his police squad car to drive to a south Memphis truck parking lot and grabbed a black duffle bag full of what he thought was cocaine. He was then arrested. He is charged with attempted possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.

In Gulf Shores, Mississippi, a Gulf Shores Police jail guard was arrested last Friday on charges he pilfered items from the department's evidence room. Barry Martin got busted after police searched his home and recovered several guns and prescription medications taken from the police lockup. He is charged with theft of property and unlawful possession of a controlled substance.ed possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He faces up to life in prison.

In Los Angeles, an LAPD gang and narcotics division detective was arrested last Friday after a fellow detective saw him taking money from the scene of a drug raid. Det. Ramon Alvarez, a 27-year veteran of the department, was detained at the scene and his vehicle was searched. The money was found in the vehicle. Alvarez faces one count of grand theft.

In Los Angeles, a former Redondo Beach police officer was charged Monday with tipping a Torrance policeman that narcotics investigators were about to raid a house where the policeman allegedly had gone to buy drugs, prosecutors said Monday. Christopher Sabosky, 33, allegedly sent a text message to Torrance Officer Jeff Grau when he recognized Grau as a police task force prepared to serve a search warrant in 2010. Grau tried to leave without buying drugs, but was detained. Prosecutors allege Sabosky tried to "influence another officer into not detaining Grau." He is charged with felony counts of revealing warrant information prior to execution of a search or arrest warrant, and conspiracy to commit an act injurious to the public. Sabosky was arraigned Monday, pleaded not guilty, and was released on his own recognizance. 


In Oakland, California, a former San Ramon police officer pleaded guilty last Thursday to multiple corruption counts in the ongoing CNET (Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team) scandal. Louis Lombardi, 39, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts for stealing cash and property during searches of homes and five felony counts for possessing and selling stolen drugs and firearms while he worked for CNET. The former CNET commander and two other police officers still face a raft of state and federal charges ranging from stealing and selling marijuana and methamphetamine to shaking down workers at an illegal massage parlor they operated to selling steroids to involvement in a scheme to create "dirty DUIs" by targeting men in bars to get them drunk, then arresting them on the highway to help their spouses in divorce cases. Lombardi is looking at up to 60 years in federal prison.

In Chicago, a former Chicago police officer was convicted in federal court Tuesday along with four others of being part of a drug dealing and rip-off crew led by a narcotics kingpin who had once been his snitch. Glenn Lewellen, 55, who resigned from the department in 2003, had the kingpin working as his informant from 1996 to 2000. In 2004, Lewellen participated with the kingpin and others in the rip-off of 70 kilos of cocaine by driving up in a fake squad car and allowing the courier to flee. While he was convicted of conspiracy in that case, he was not convicted in a racketeering conspiracy spanning a decade that included robberies and kidnappings.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a former Crockett County General Sessions court judge was sentenced last Thursday to six months in prison for his involvement with methamphetamine. Shannon Jones had pleaded guilty to a single count in October of conspiracy to manufacture and possess meth with the intent to distribute. He had originally been arrested on state charges after sheriff's deputies said they found meth-making materials at his home, but he was indicted on five federal charges in June. Jones must also pay the DEA $3,000 and submit to drug testing.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Lead us not into temptation with seized cash, nearby evidence rooms, and the perks of police powers, amen. A few law enforcement officers haven't been reciting the prayer. Let's get to it:

In Austin, Texas, the state attorney general's office is reviewing the use of asset forfeiture funds by the Brooks County Sheriff. An audit of $562,000 in asset forfeiture spending by Sheriff Balde Lozano found that he spent $394,000 to purchase 18 cars without county approval for reasons that had nothing to do with law enforcement and that he charged more than $88,000 in restaurant dinners, department and electronics store purchases, and at hotels and gas stations. He spent $3,000 at Cavender's Boot City alone. Lozano has not yet been charged with any crime, but the investigation comes only eight months after former Brooks County DA Joe Frank Garza was sentenced to prison for skimming at least $1.2 million from the fund for himself and his former staff members.

In Bridgeton, New Jersey, a Williamstown police officer was arrested last Wednesday on steroid-peddling charges, including a count of intending to deal drugs near a local school. Officer Robert Smith, 31, went down after local police received information he was involved in narcotics. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled dangerous substance with the intent to distribute, and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance in a school zone. At last report, he was being held in the Salem County jail on $75,000 cash bail. He has been suspended without pay and faces dismissal if found guilty.

In Alexandria, Louisiana, a former supervisor of the Rapides Parish drug task force was indicted last Thursday on a slew of drug and malfeasance charges. Michael LaCourt had originally been arrested in Augusts, but a parish grand jury issued a superseding indictment charging him with distribution of methamphetamine and conspiracy to distribute meth. He is also charged with having sex multiple times with a woman who was under the supervision of the Division of Probation and Parole. He faces four malfeasance charges, three of them for his misbehavior with the woman and one for falsely telling Crimestoppers that a certain person had provided information in a case, allowing that person to collect reward money. Bond was set at $150,000. LaCour had headed Metro Narcotics from 2008 until his August 2011 arrest. He went down after "three female offenders" complained about him.

In Carlsbad, California, a Carlsbad vice and narcotics detective was arrested last Thursday after he was caught stealing drugs from the evidence room "by various police employees." Det. Michael Koch, 44, an 18-year veteran of the department, was arrested within hours of the incident and posted $25,000 bail last Friday. The department declined to comment on the type or quantity of drug is accused of taking.

In Tucson, Arizona, a Border Patrol agent and an Arizona prison guard were arrested last Thursday on charges they had conspired to smuggle drugs into the US. Border Agent Ivhan Herrera-Chiang and corrections officer Michael Lopez are charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. Herrera-Chiang had been part of the Border Patrol's Smuggling Interdiction Group since March 2011, but was actually acting as a middle man between Mexican drug traffickers and Lopez. He is accused of monitoring Border Patrol radio and agent locations and notifying Lopez where the smuggling effort should occur. Both men are reported to have made at least partial confessions.

In Savannah, Georgia, a former Savannah-Chatham police officer pleaded guilty last Friday to extorting drugs and a cell phone while working off-duty at a night club while in uniform. Floyd Sawyer, 45, went down after DEA agents informed the FBI they had received reports that Sawyer and another Savannah police officer, Sgt. Kevin Frazier, were shaking down dealers at the club and taking their drugs and other possessions. FBI agents set up a sting, sending an undercover agent into the club posing as a dealer. Sawyer and Frazier shook down the agent, taking Oyxcontin pills and a cell phone from him. The pills ended up going to a local small-time dealer and the phone ended up with one of Sawyer's relatives. Sawyer pleaded guilty to extortion, but denied using force or intimidation, leaving the judge in the case to warn that he may not accept the plea bargain.

In Palm Beach, Florida, the commander of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office SWAT team has been placed on administrative leave, the office announced Tuesday. Lt. Daniel Burrows, a 17-year-veteran of the department was placed on leave January 3 amid allegations of misuse of prescription pain medication and possibly being under the influence of drugs while on duty.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Jailers smuggling drugs in burritos, cops planting drugs, cops doing security for drug deals, and evidence walking out of the evidence room. It's just another week of police misconduct in the drug war. Let's get to it:

In Asheville, North Carolina, drugs are missing from the police department evidence room. The word comes after an audit done after 380 pills were found missing in April. Now, it appears more drugs are missing and criminal cases are being dismissed. Local authorities said they are putting new procedures in place. Meanwhile, evidence pertaining to the missing drugs has been sent to the FBI, and authorities are vowing to arrest whoever did it if they can figure out just who that was.

In Costa Mesa, California, the city of Costa Mesa will pay a $150,000 settlement to a man who alleged that a former Costa Mesa police officer planted drugs on him and that prosecutors did not inform him that a drug test on the substance would have exonerated him. Tim Slappy was arrested and pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charges, only to learn months later that the substance wasn't cocaine at all. Slappy was arrested in March 2009 by former officer Robert Harris after Harris produced a white substance on the ground while searching him. It was only because he was subpoenaed for a hearing about other complaints lodged against Harris in Newport Beach that Slappy learned from Costa Mesa detectives that the substance found near him was not cocaine. The city does not admit any guilt.

In Los Angeles, an LA County sheriff's deputy was arrested January 11 on charges he smuggled heroin stuffed inside a burrito into a courthouse jail. Deputy Henry Marin, 27, is charged with bringing contraband into the jail and conspiracy to commit a crime. Martin was booked and released pending trial. Three LA County sheriff's guards have been convicted and a fourth fired in recent years for smuggling or attempting to smuggle narcotics into jail for inmates.

In Atlanta, a former Clayton County police officer was sentenced Tuesday to federal prison for taking bribes to protect drug transactions and stealing personal property from a driver during a traffic stop. Jonathan Callahan, 28, was sentenced to five years and two months for accepting $1,000 in cash to be present during a drug deal in a sting conducted by the FBI. He came to investigators' attention after a motorist he had stopped for a traffic violation complained Callahan had stolen two firearms from him. That netted him a civil rights violation conviction for violating the driver's right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Cops continue to have problems keeping their hands off the drugs they come across. And they're developing problems with prescription pills, too. Let's get to it:

In Seattle, a South Seattle police officer was arrested January 4 in a sting after colleagues and members of the public complained of his handling of drug evidence. Patrolman Richard Nelson went down after failing an "integrity test," in which an undercover officer posing as someone who found a purse containing cocaine turned it in to him as investigators monitored him. He didn't turn in the drugs and was arrested. He was released from jail early the next morning, and hours later, he shot himself to death in the Cascades foothills.

In Rhine, Georgia, the Rhine police chief was arrested last Thursday on charges he was trafficking in prescription pills. Chief Kip Herman Cravey went down after a joint investigation by the Dodge County Sheriff's Office, the Eastman Police Department, and the Oconee Drug Task Force. He is charged with one count of unlawfully distributing Schedule III narcotics (two dozen Soma tablets) and one count of criminal attempt to purchase Schedule II narcotics (Roxicodone). Additional charges may be filed. No word yet on bail arrangements.

In Piscataway, New Jersey, a former Piscataway police officer pleaded guilty last Thursday to stealing cocaine from the department's evidence vault. Albert Annuzzi, 47, a 22-year veteran of the department, was arrested in April 2011. In court, he admitted he took the cocaine for his own personal use. Under a plea deal with prosecutors, he faces up to three years in prison and must serve two before being eligible for parole. He will also be banned from holding any public job in New Jersey and forfeit his pension. He is free on bond pending sentencing.

In Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, a former Wolfeboro police officer was convicted last Thursday of stealing drugs from the department's evidence room. Roger Martel, 40, was caught stealing 120 oxycodone tablets given to police as part of a prescription drug take-back program. He was charged and convicted on one count of theft by unauthorized taking and one count of controlling a vehicle in which a controlled drug was illegally kept. The eight-year veteran will do only three days in jail after he convinced the judge that he stole the pills because he had developed an addiction to them after being injured on the job. He was sentenced to 12 months behind bars, but the judge deferred all but three days provided Martel follows the court's other orders.

In Buffalo, New York, a former TSA "behavior detection officer" was sentenced January 4 to two years in prison for letting a local drug operation smuggle cash through the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Minnetta Walker got the maximum sentence allowed after pleading down from her original charges of participating in a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

In St. Ignace, Michigan, a former state prison guard was sentenced last Friday to 10 months in jail for trying to smuggle drugs into the prison. Matthew Bell was busted in September 2011 and later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to deliver less than 50 grams of heroin, possession of less than 25 grams of heroin, and maintaining a drug house. He must also do two years probation.

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 45,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year and approximately 12,000 this year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest or killing of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Thursday, December 22

In Veracruz, suspected Zetas attacked three passenger buses with gunfire and a grenade in an apparent robbery spree, killing eleven people. Three of the dead were later confirmed to be US citizens who were visiting relatives in Mexico for the holidays. The army later announced that it killed the five gunmen after they were shot at attempting to arrest them.

Friday, December 23

In Culiacan, army commandos captured the head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel. Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, "The Engineer," is thought to have run cartel operations in Durango and in part of Chihuahua. No shots were fired during the arrest operation. Over the course of 2011, Cabrera was involved in a bloody dispute with another Sinaloa Cartel faction in the state of Durango.

In the port of Manzanillo, authorities seized 21 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to produce crystal meth on a ship headed towards Guatemala.

In Tampico Alto, Veracruz, ten bodies were discovered. The bodies all bore signs of having been tortured and several were decapitated.

In Los Mochis, Sinaloa, three decapitated bodies were discovered at a location where the body of a municipal police officer was found on December 18th.

Saturday, December 24

In Michoacan, the body of a teenage American citizen was found in the trunk of a burned car along with two others. The teenager, Alex Uriel Marron, 18, was reportedly from the Chicago area and visiting family in the village of Quiringuicharo.

In Saltillo, Coahuila, three gunmen were killed in a fire fight with police. A fourth person was wounded. Several assault rifles were confiscated from a car in which the gunmen were traveling.

Sunday, December 25

In Tamaulipas, authorities discoved 13 bodies in an abandoned truck just across the state border from Veracruz. A banner left with the bodies indicated that the killings were due to an ongoing cartel battle for control of the Veracruz region.

Tuesday, December 27

In Mexico City, the leader of a small cartel was arrested at the airport. Luis Rodriguez Olivera, "Whitey," is thought to have been head of the "Blondies" Organization which has been allied to several larger cartels. US authorities were offering a $5 million reward for his capture, and accuse him and a brother of smuggling cocaine and meth to the US and to Europe.

In Nuevo Leon, police discovered seven bodies buried in a shallow pit or in a well. The bodies, which were found in Linares and Montemorelos, were discovered using information provided by a group of captured kidnappers alleged to be Zetas.

In Sinaloa, a former high-ranking federal police official was sentenced to 10 years for helping the Sinaloa Cartel. Javier Herrera Valles was arrested in 2008, although the arrest was controversial because he had recently accused some of his commanding officers of corruption or incompetence.

Wednesday, December 28

In Michoacan, six gunmen were killed in two separate clashes with the army. In the first, which took place Wednesday night, three men were killed after encountering an army patrol in the Buenavista Tomatlan area. Later, early Thursday morning, another three were killed in a nearby village. All the dead men are thought to be members of the Knights Templar Organization, which is active in the area. In 2011, troops in 21st military district in Michoacan shot dead a total of 91 gunmen from several organizations.

In Ciudad Juarez, a leading cartel enforcer was arrested by police. Arturo Bautista, 31, "El Mil Amores," is thought to be a high-ranking member of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juarez Cartel. It is unclear, however, if that is his real name. He has been identified as a resident of El Paso, Texas. Bautista was arrested along with three other men after the murder of a woman whom police say was thought to have been passing intelligence to a rival criminal group.

Friday, December 30

In Veracruz, the Zetas hung up a banner stating they were not responsible for the December 22 bus attacks which killed at least seven people, including three US citizens. The banners claim that corrupt police officers were responsible for the attacks.

In Coahuila, seven suspected Zetas were captured by the army on the Saltillo-Torreon highway. One of the men was identified as a high-ranking member, but the army has so far not identified him.

Saturday, December 31

In Ciudad Juarez, at least four people were murdered in several incidents. According to researcher Molly Molloy, this brings the city’s 2011 homicide numbers to 1,980 for the year. This is nearly 40% lower than the 3,622 murders that took place in 2010, but still considerably higher than the 2008 total of 1,623. In total, since 2007, 10,299 homicides have taken place in Ciudad Juarez. February was the bloodiest month in 2011, with 231 murders having taken place.

Sunday, January 1

In Mexico City, the National Human Rights Commission said that they concluded that five men held in connection with a July 2010 car bombing in Ciudad Juarez had been tortured to obtain confessions. They recommended that six federal police officers and a doctor be questioned in relation with the incident. The men were also accused of the killings of two federal agents. Although cleared in those incidents, the men remain incarcerated on narcotics and weapons charges.

Tuesday, January 3

In Sonora, at least five people were murdered. In one incident, the bodies of three young men were found on the side of a highway. In another part of the state, two men were found dead in a bullet-riddled truck. Several weapons, including an AK-47 were found in the truck.

Drug-related violence was confirmed in at least six other states, with nine people confirmed dead.

[Editor's Note: Our 2011 estimated death toll is 12,150, pending the release of official figures.Our new 2012 death toll is also an estimate.]

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600

Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Total Body Count for 2011 (approx.): 12,150

Total Body Count for 2012: (approx.) 15

TOTAL: > 46,000

Mexico

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

The Chronicle may have taken a week off, but drug prohibition-related police corruption didn't. And so we have two weeks worth of corrupt cops. Let's get to it:

In Memphis, Tennessee, a Memphis police officer was arrested December 16 on charges he was involved in a 200-pound marijuana deal. Michael Sinnock was carrying 20 opioid pain pills for which he had no prescription when he was arrested on duty and in uniform, so he is being charged for that, too. His formal charges are possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to distribute. 

In Plainview, Texas, a veteran Plainview narcotics officer was indicted December 20 on a trio of misconduct charges. Detective Ramiro Sanchez is charged with felony theft and two misdemeanors, for forgery and official misconduct. It's unclear just exactly what Sanchez is accused of because neither prosecutors nor the town police chief are talking.

In Bakersfield, California, a Bakersfield police officer was charged December 23 on multiple drug counts after being caught earlier in the month with methamphetamine in his pocket. Officer Ofelio Lopez went down after an informant told police he had delivered meth to Lopez' home on numerous occasions. Police set up a sting in which a purse containing meth was planted in a remote location and Lopez was sent to retrieve it. He failed to turn in the purse and the drugs at the end of his shift. Police then searched Lopez, his car, and his home and found meth in his pocket, the purse and meth in the trunk of his car, and brass knuckles at his home. He is charged with transporting a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance while armed with a loaded firearm, possession of a controlled substance, being under the influence of methamphetamine while in possession of a loaded firearm and possession of a dangerous weapon (brass knuckles). He's now out on bail and on paid administrative leave.

In Clinton, Tennessee, a probationary jail guard at the Anderson County Jail was arrested December 28 on charges she was smuggling drugs to inmates. Kaitlin Paige Hardin, 21, was fired and charged with manufacture/ delivery/sale/ possession of a controlled substance and introduction of drugs into a penal institution. She went down in a sting after authorities received information she was bringing drugs in. They offered her prescription opiods that were to be brought to an inmate, and she took them. At last report, she was still behind bars.

In Kinston, North Carolina, a former Lenoir County narcotics officer was arrested last Friday on drug trafficking charges. Clay Kell is charged with trafficking in heroin/opium, which under North Carolina law includes opioid pain medications as well. Kell joined the sheriff's office in 1999 and was promoted to narcotics detective in 2003. He resigned last year.

In Stockton, Kansas, the Rooks County sheriff was arrested Saturday for alleged involvement in a methamphetamine distribution ring. Sheriff Randy Axelson, 43, went down after an investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Rooks County sheriff's deputies, and two local police departments. Axelson is charged with meth distribution. At last report, he was being held in the neighboring Ellis County Jail awaiting a bond hearing.

In Bellingham, Washington, a former state prison employee pleaded not guilty last Friday to charges he provided security and intelligence to a heroin dealer with ties to the Aryan Nation. Christian Knight, who worked first as a prison guard and then as a classification counselor, is accused of passing "sensitive law enforcement information" to a convicted felon now accused of running a meth and heroin ring associated with an Aryan Nations-affiliated gang called The Hated. Knight is one of 12 people charged in the case. He faces drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a former Shelby County narcotics deputy was sentenced December 21 to two years and four months in federal prison after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about a confidential informant. Eric Curtis, 37, lied in sworn court testimony and to FBI investigators about a person known as "Informant A," who he claimed provided information that resulted in numerous arrests and drug seizures. The FBI later learned the information came from other sources.

In Attleboro, Massachusetts, drugs are missing from the police department evidence room. An audit of the evidence room found that cocaine and other illegal drugs are gone. The Bristol County District Attorney’s Office and the State’s Attorney General Office have both been notified, and are assisting in the investigation. The routine audit came after a new police chief was named.

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