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Latin America: Killing of Salvadoran Politicians By Police in Guatemala Opens Window on Drug Corruption in Central America, Killing of Killers Closes It

Four Guatemalan police officers in an anti-drug and organized crime unit who were arrested in the gruesome February 19 murders of three Salvadoran politicians were themselves killed Sunday in a brazen assassination inside the prison where they were being held. The two sets of murders are raising serious questions about drug corruption in Central America and, in particular, links between Guatemalan police and organized crime, but the deaths of the police officers means that whatever they knew will go to the grave with them.

On February 19, Salvadoran politicians William Pichinte, Eduardo D'Aubuisson and Jose Ramon Gonzalez -- all members of El Salvador's ruling Arena party -- and their driver were found shot and burned to death in their vehicle on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where they had gone to attend a regional political meeting. With D'Aubuisson being the son of the late Roberto D'Auboisson, who led right-wing death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, early speculation was that the killings were a political assassination.

But when Luis Arturo Herrera, head of the Guatemalan police organized crime unit, and three of his subordinates were arrested in the crime three days later, various theories related to a drug hit came to the fore. According to speculation in the Central American press, the hit on the Salvadoran politicians came as corrupt Guatemalan police looked for drug money secreted in a hidden compartment in the vehicle. Another version, via Salvadoran police chief Rodrigo Avila, has it that Herrera and his men were tricked into killing the trio by unknowns who told them they were drug traffickers.

Based on GPS devices in Herrera's vehicle, which place it at the scene of the crime, he and his three subordinates were arrested and jailed at the notorious El Boqueron prison some 40 miles east of Guatemala City. On Sunday afternoon, according to eyewitness accounts from inmates' relatives who were visiting the prison, prison guards forced visitors to leave, unknown armed men entered the prison, and the sound of gunshots was heard. The four policemen were found shot to death in their cell.

"They told them [the visitors] that they had to leave because there was going to be a search, and they began pushing the visitors out," said the mother of one prisoner, whose daughter-in-law called her from outside the prison. "When they went outside, they saw armed men enter the prison. Then, when everybody was outside, they heard various gunshots," she said.

"What has happened is that they tried to shut the mouths of those subjects so that they didn't implicate other similar organizations," Salvadoran police chief Avila told reporters. The dead policemen were the victims of "police hit-men," he added. "It is obvious that the persons who committed the murders within the prison have a level of influence within the police structures, or the prison structures, or the structures of the state," Avila said.

Otto Perez Molina, former chief of Guatemalan military intelligence, was thinking along similar lines. "They killed those four because they knew too much about the criminality within the national civil police and they could have implicated the authorities." According to Perez Molina, at least two death squads are operating within Guatemalan law enforcement agencies. "These groups are operating with the complicity of the authorities," he said.

Guatemalan prison authorities Sunday attempted to obscure the circumstances of the killings by trying to tie them to an uprising in the prison that same day by members of Mara Salvatrucha, the Central American gang. But Salvatrucha members who called the press from inside the prison said they rioted after the killings out of fear of being blamed for the officers' deaths.

While the deaths of the four imprisoned police officers means the real reason behind the killings of the Salvadoran politicians may never be known, the two sets of murders are raising questions that could eventually lead to an unveiling of the dark and ugly underside of Central American organized crime and drug law enforcement.

Back from the Chapare

I'm now back from the coca producing region of the Chapare. Yesterday was a real grind: Get up very early, fly from La Paz to Cochabamba, take a taxi to the Andean Information Network office where I met up with AIN's Kathryn Ledebur and her husband, former Chapare human rights ombudsman ("defensor del pueblo) Gotofredo Reinecke, hopped in his jeep with him, stopped for gas and coca leaves (it's a tiring journey), then drove about two hours over an 11,000-foot mountain pass and down into the jungly Chapare.

The coca leaf warehouse outside Shinahota. Here, local farmers bring their crops to be carefully weighed and sent on to legal markets within Bolivia. The entire process is controlled by the local growers' union. But first, we had to traverse a major landslide on the highway caused by incessant rains. (We were extremely fortunate to have a mostly sunny day, a rarity this rainy season). At the landslide, buses and cargo trucks were backed up by the dozens, as they had been for days. The smell of rotting fruit in the trucks was pervasive. Bus passengers had to gather their bags and make a mile-long trek over a muddy path to get to buses waiting on the other side, but we left the jeep on the near side and walked right down the roadway itself—a shortcut—after Godofredo explained to the soldiers that I was a photojournalist shooting the "derrumbe." My sandals, socks, and jeans were covered with mud (which made quite an impression at the Cochabamba airport this morning). Once across the washed out area, it was onto the backs of small motorcycles for hire for another half-mile to where the buses and taxis were waiting for travelers trying to continue their journey, and then we hired a taxi for the tour of the Chapare. In the miserably hot and humid lowlands, we stopped for lunch, where Godofredo spotted veteran newspaper vendor and scene-observer Don Jaime Balderrama, with whom we had an interesting chat. Then it was on to the local military base for a talk with the comandante, which proved absolutely fruitless. He refused to say a word of substance, saying it all had to be cleared with the military high command. Sadly, this seems to be the attitude throughout the Morales government when it comes to coca matters, and as a result, I am not making much progress in getting interviews with government officials (although I still have some feelers out and some hopes, fading as they may be). The army fort, bought and paid for by US tax dollars was nicely constructed, and the colonel's office featured the only air conditioning I ran across on the whole trip. Sweet for him. Sweet for us, too. I didn’t want to leave, even though we were getting nothing from him.

former cocalero leader Vitalia Merida with her daughter, in their coca field

Then it was on to visit Vitalia Merida, a former coca grower union leader (and current member), who has a coca field way out in the middle of nowhere. After her family suffered during the repression of the forced eradication years, she now reports that there is peace, if not prosperity. I'll be writing about what she had to say in a feature article this week. I have to say that is was an absolutely brutal hike in the mid-day sun to her coca patch. When I complained, Vitalia said, "You see how we suffer," although she sweated not a drop. Next was Shinahota, a small town that was the center of the Chapare cocaine economy during the Wild West days of the "cocaine coup" back in the early 1980s. Main street there features a bunch of two-story buildings erected at that time. Downstairs you bought cocaine, guns, and luxury items; upstairs you rented prostitutes. It's much quieter these days, and much less profitable. Just outside Shinahota, we stopped at a coca leaf warehouse operated by the local growers' union and had a nice chat with some Six Federation leaders who, sadly, were camera shy, and just a little bit suspicious of this wild-looking gringo. (I was indeed wild-looking by then: mud-splattered, sweat-drenched, my hair blown into knots as I hung my head out the window of the taxi seeking relief). We had an interesting conversation, though, and I will report on that in the Chronicle, too. Between Shinahota and Villa Tunari, we stopped briefly at a new coca leaf processing plant, which is being financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He has promised to import coca products to Venezuela, which would violate the UN Single Convention, but as AIN's Kathy Ledebur noted, "Who's going to stop him?" No one there but construction workers, though. Shortly past the new coca plant, in Villa Tunari, is a municipal hospital staffed primarily by dozens of Cuban doctors and nurses. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast: The US builds forts and supplies the military, Venezuela helps Bolivia industrialize coca, and the Cubans heal the sick. So it goes. That's my report for today. I now have in essence a day and half left in Bolivia. I'm attempting to line up some last interviews, but I'm a little depressed by my lack of success with government functionaries, and just bad luck with some other people I hoped to talk to. But I still have 36 hours... More pictures will be posted here later today.
Location: 
COC
Bolivia

Europe: Britain to Provide Heroin to Addicts, "Restricted" Home Office Brief Says

The British government is prepared to begin prescribing heroin through the National Health Service to "recidivist veteran users" after a pilot program has proven successful, according to a report in the newspaper The Independent, which cites a "restricted" briefing paper prepared by the Home Office strategic policy team. The briefing paper also suggests the licensing of heroin and cocaine sales, but the government will not go that far, The Independent said.

According to the brief, which The Independent says it has obtained a copy of, "The Home Office should consider wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS. Given the failure of supply-side interventions to have any significant effect on the drugs market, it is worth considering a greater management of the market by wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS."

According to the Home Office sources cited by the newspaper, only hard-core users who have not responded to methadone treatment will be eligible. "It is only going to apply to a small number of people," said a Home Office spokesman.

Home Office sources added that in Switzerland, where doctors prescribe heroin rather than methadone to such users, 26% have quit using and criminality and unemployment have decreased. Citing the Swiss experience, the brief says, "Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence that heroin does not necessarily intoxicate the user -- it can be stabilized with people living relatively normal lives."

The brief also warns that Britain is in a losing battle with drug smugglers and suggests legalizing the sale of heroin and cocaine. "There is mounting evidence of the impossibility of winning the war against drugs supply. A system of controlled availability of drugs would allow the Government to exert a much greater degree of influence over the way in which substances are used than is currently possible," the report advised. "There is a strong argument that prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs. One option for the future would be to regulate drugs differently, through either over-the-counter sales, licensed sales or doctor's prescription."

But in an Independent on Sunday editorial, the newspaper noted that the government will not move to license or otherwise regulate drug sales. "Legalising drug supply has been firmly rejected by the government because it would sanction the use of drugs," the newspaper noted. "The policy of targeting drug smugglers and dealers continues, despite the report's warning that reducing the drug supply drives up the price and increases crime."

Europe: Legendary Irish Broadcaster Says Country Should Debate Legalizing Drugs

Former Irish talk show host and current head of the Road Safety Authority Gay Byrne has called for a national debate on legalizing drugs. As host of the Late Late Show in Ireland from 1962 to 1999, Byrne was a leading catalyst in the transformation of Irish society, tackling such taboo subjects as abortion, homosexuality, the sexual abuse of children by priests, divorce, and AIDS. Now, he is speaking out on drug policy.

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Gay Byrne
In remarks reported over the weekend, Byrne said he had arrived at the point where he believed fresh thinking on Irish drug policy was needed. "This is a mighty chasm for me to leap," he said, "but I've come to the conclusion that the possibility of legalizing drugs should be looked at."

Byrne said Irish police are spending millions of dollars trying to stop the drug trade and have been doing so for years, without much success. "Dead bodies are being found every day of the week. All I am saying is maybe there is another way of doing it," he said. "Do you keep on trying to solve a problem that has been with us for 40 years, or should we be looking at legalizing the bloody thing?"

Drug prohibition leads to increased criminality, Byrne suggested. "You do not find people killing each other over a packet of cigarettes or a can of Heineken," he argued. "How long do you keep on repairing a car that is not working before you say maybe there is another way of doing this?"

Forever, if the Irish government has its way. Despite growing concerns over prohibition-linked crime, high rates of drug use, and drug overdoses, the government was quick to respond to Byrne's comments with a firm negative. "I'm entirely opposed to legalizing any drug," said Noel Ahern, minister of state responsible for drug policy. "At different stages, different people have tried to make an argument for legalizing drugs. But it's not a suggestion that can work. Drugs are illegal, and that's the right way to have them. Any talk about liberalizing drugs is irresponsible."

Right. Better to continue down the merry path of failing prohibitionist policies than even discuss alternatives, one supposes. But given Gay Byrne's history as a catalyst of change, Ahern and his colleagues in the government might want to think again.

Colombia political scandal imperiling US ties

Location: 
Bogota
Colombia
Publication/Source: 
The Boston Globe
URL: 
http://www.boston.com/news/world/latinamerica/articles/2007/02/25/colombia_political_scandal_imperiling_us_ties/

Home Office backs heroin on the NHS in effort to cut crime

Location: 
United Kingdom
Publication/Source: 
The Independent (UK)
URL: 
http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article2303023.ece

Cartels grip a border city

Location: 
Nuevo Laredo
Mexico
Publication/Source: 
Miami Herald
URL: 
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/16772540.htm

U.S. drug czar finds ally in Tory government

Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada
Publication/Source: 
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070223.DRUGS23/TPStory/National

U.S. drug czar urges Canada to crack down on pot

Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada
Publication/Source: 
Canoe Network (Canada)
URL: 
http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2007/02/22/pf-3655412.html

Chronicle on the Scene Feature: Bolivia's "Coca, Yes, Cocaine No" Policy is Beginning to Work

On the long, arduous highway connecting Puno, the last major city in the Peruvian south, with the Bolivian capital of La Paz, travelers approaching Bolivia cross the border on the shores of Lake Titicaca near the small Bolivian town of Copacabana. There, the entrance to Bolivia is marked with a large billboard proclaiming Bolivia's intention to fight the traffic in cocaine and the precursor chemicals needed to transform coca into the popular stimulant drug. The billboard is a stark visual reminder that while Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, has embarked on a policy of defending coca, his government has every intention of cracking down on the cocaine business.

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Bolivian government border billboard about anti-cocaine enforcement
Since his election in December 2005, Morales has broken with two decades of US "zero coca" policy in the country and appears to be having some success in establishing limits on coca production without, for the most part, setting off violent social conflict. He has also, as the billboard suggests, moved aggressively against the cocaine traffic. The question now, with the US State Department's annual certification of drug-producing countries' compliance with US drug policy objectives looming next month, is whether the Bush administration is willing to let Morales and the country's coca growers take the time necessary to arrive at reductions in overall coca production without engendering further social conflict.

The third largest producer of coca, from which cocaine is derived, Bolivia has for decades hewed to a policy of coca eradication directed from Washington, but it has paid a high price. In this decade, five presidents were driven from office in five years, at least in part because of simmering resentment over Bolivian obeisance to the US's "zero coca" policy. Prior to the election of Morales, eradication campaigns were accompanied by violent clashes, peasant rebellions, military and police violations of human rights, and numerous fatalities as successive governments sought to impose the will of the US on the country's impoverished coca growers.

"This has been a long-term negative approach," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, (AIN) whose analyses of Bolivian coca politics inform much of this article. "The US needs to move away from just measuring the size of the coca crop or how much is eradicated and look at how this will play out in the next few years," she told Drug War Chronicle.

As a former coca grower union leader in the Chapare, Morales has the credibility with coca growers to enforce what is known as "cooperative eradication," as opposed to the forced eradication in pursuit of US policy aims that has engendered conflict and political instability in one of Latin America's poorest countries (average annual income under $1,000). While cooperative eradication began in the Chapare before Morales' election, it has gathered steam during his presidency, and in the last two years, Bolivia has seen the smallest increase in coca production of any of the Andean region's three big producers.

The other two major producers are Colombia and Peru. According to US estimates, coca production in Peru increased from 68,000 acres in 2004 to 95,000 acres in 2005, a 38% increase, while Colombian production increased from 285,000 acres to 360,000 acres, a 26% increase, despite widespread aerial fumigation of coca crops there. In Bolivia, on the other hand, the US estimated that production increased from 61,000 acres to 65,000 acres, an increase of only 8%. (The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, on the other hand, estimated an 8% decrease in Bolivian coca production during the same period, but both estimates are very close in terms of the actual size of the 2005 Bolivian crop.)

Overall, when looking at the regional coca production figures for the last five years, despite a US policy of aggressively seeking to eradicate coca, total coca production has increased in a step-wise fashion, rising from 125,000 acres overall in 2000 to nearly 500,000 thousand acres in 2005. This steady climb in overall coca production raises the question of whether any prohibition-based policy aimed at reducing production will achieve success as long as the global demand for cocaine continues to be high. Still, the Morales government is making what appears to be a good faith effort to both slow the rate of increase and appease the Americans.

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Christo Deneumostier, owner of The Coca Shop, Cusco, Peru
In Bolivia, there are two major coca production areas, the Yungas of La Paz province and the Chapare in the eastern Amazon lowlands. Prior to the October 2004 agreement with Chapare growers, only growers in the Yungas, the traditional home of Bolivian coca production, could legally grow coca, and they were limited to 30,000 acres. But the 2004 agreement, which has been accelerated by the Morales government, ignored the 30,000-acre rule, instead allowing all growers in the program to harvest one cato (about 1,600 square meters, or about one-third the size of a football field) of coca, in return for which farmers agreed to accept eradication in two national parks and to cooperatively eradicate any coca beyond the one-cato limit. By growing a cato of coca, farmers are able to generate an annual income of between $900 and $1,300 a year.

That plan was to stay in place until the completion of a study to see how much coca is needed for legal markets, but that study has yet to be completed, and the agreement remains in effect. The majority of the reduction in coca production reported by the UN is now in the Chapare, and the violent conflict that plagued previous forced eradication efforts is now a thing of the past.

Despite the successful effort in the Chapare, US officials have continued to criticize the Morales government's coca policies. Last summer, US drug czar John Walters told reporters that Bolivia's "current level of [anti-drug] cooperation is not what it has been in the past, nor what it needs to be to continue reducing the problem." And just days earlier, a high-level USAID official, Adolfo Franco, testified before Congress that: "In Bolivia, Evo Morales and his Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party have continued to waver on economic policy, democracy and counternarcotics…"

The US has also been critical of an agreement between Morales and coca growers to de facto raise the legal limit from 30,000 acres to 50,000. US officials have criticized the agreement as allowing an increase in coca production. But as AIN's Ledebur told the Chronicle, "The idea that the increase in allowed production will lead to a real increase in production is mistaken. The increase merely accounts for coca that is actually being produced."

But the US Embassy in Bolivia has taken a slightly friendlier approach, one that recognizes the success in the Chapare. Last May, the month before Walters and Franco criticized Bolivia's coca policies, the embassy asked Bolivia to withdraw a US-funded police force from the Chapare, where it had been responsible for protecting eradicators and preventing the road blockades that had plagued the region in the past. The embassy has also publicly praised Morales' appointment of former Chapare coca grower Felipe Caceres as Bolivia's "drug czar" as an "excellent choice."

While the Morales government has adopted cooperative eradication in the Chapare and pro-coca policies that seek to increase legal markets for coca and recognize its positive attributes as part of Bolivian culture and as a food and medicine, it has also continued to work with US authorities in cocaine interdiction efforts and reported record levels of cocaine seizures last year.

Ironically, with the Chapare now essentially pacified, it is the Yungas region, home of the permitted legal cultivation, where problems are now arising. Coca production has expanded above the 30,000 acres allowed, and Bolivian government efforts to restrain the size of the crop have led to clashes between growers and the armed forces. Last May, the Morales government signed an agreement allowing growers in a part of the Yungas where production has been illegal to grow one cato per family, and negotiations are underway with growers in other parts of the Yungas.

But that agreement also called for a government task force to continue eradication efforts, and the first violent conflict with coca growers in two years occurred there in September, when two cocaleros were shot dead by members of a joint military-police eradication team during a conflict over eradication. The conflict had been simmering ever since last February when the task force entered the Vandiola Yungas after an agreement to eliminate coca in a national park there. But further negotiations about coca growing outside the park faltered, and in September the task force set up camps in the region. While local farmers allowed eradication to go inside the park, on September 29, they tried to block eradicators from entering what they considered a legitimate coca growing area, with the result that two farmers were killed.

Things have since cooled down somewhat in the Vandiola Yungas after an agreement allowing 650 families to grow 400 catos of coca, but tensions remain. Meanwhile, in the primary Yungas growing regions, there is increasing tension over efforts to curb cultivation there, which well exceeds the legal limit.

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much more to life in Bolivia than coca -- fiesta in the Altiplano
As Bolivian coca growers await the study that will determine the size of the legitimate market in coca, they are looking not only to their own government, which is seeking to expand markets and has contracted with the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez both to build a processing plant in the Yungas and to ship coca to Venezuela, but also to entrepreneurs like Peruvian Christo Deneumostier, owner of the Coca Shop, in Cusco, Peru, who sells everything from coca cookies and pastries to coca ice cream. He told the Chronicle this week he wanted to become the Starbucks of coca by opening a series of Coca Shop franchises across Peru -- and beyond. "We transform coca into legal products," he said. "We need to start marketing coca to expand the legal market. The problem is not the plant, but the demand for cocaine. If we can expand legal markets with our products, we won't have to see those plants turned into cocaine."

But the marketing of coca for legitimate medicinal and alimentary uses is still in its infancy, and Starbucks-like coca shops are still a glimmer in the eye of excited entrepreneurs. Still, the Morales government has substantially managed to put a lid on civil conflict around coca, has worked with the US government in interdiction efforts, and is undertaking real eradication campaigns. In that sense, Bolivian coca policy is working in a way it never has before. Will the US government recognize this, or will it continue to criticize Morales for allowing increases in production in some regions? Look for an answer to that question next month, when the annual certification report comes out.

In the meantime, Drug War Chronicle will be visiting the Chapare and, probably, the Yungas next week, as well as seeking a deeper understanding of the issues from analysts, growers, and Bolivian and US government officials. Stay tuned.

(Phil will be publishing several more from-the-scene reports over the coming weeks, during and after his stay. Read last week's report from Peru here and Phil's ongoing blog reports from the region here.)

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