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Chronicle Book Review: Mexico on the Brink

Hidden Dangers: Mexico on the Brink of Disaster by Robert Joe Stout (2014, Sunbury Press, 210 pp., $16.95 PB)

Today is the official 104th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The uprising that began then lasted for nearly two decades and by the time it was over, nearly two million Mexicans were dead, and the country was changed forever. That revolution overthrew a sclerotic, encrusted dictatorship that advanced the country materially and brought it to the brink of the modern era, but which ignored the interests of the vast majority of Mexicans.

Are we about to see a repeat? That's probably premature, but it's notable that authorities in Mexico City have canceled the official commemorative parade set for today, afraid of trouble breaking out. There has already been trouble in Mexico City today, anyway -- with masked demonstrators attempted to block access to the international airport -- so that decision may well be a prudent one.

What is motivating the protests today -- and for nearly the last two months -- is the disappearance (and almost certain murder) of 43 radical students from a provincial teachers' college in the south central state of Guerrero. It seems clear that the students and their threats of demonstrations were seen as a threat by Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca. Pineda, who has been identified as a leader of the Guerreros Unidos organized crime group (commonly referred to as cartels), is believed to have ordered Iguala municipal police to "take care of" the unruly students.

According to a version of events delivered by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Karam Murillo, Iguala police shot up the commandeered public buses the students were riding in (commandeering buses is not unusual in political protests), killing some of the students on the spot. The remaining students were then allegedly turned over by Iguala police to Guerreros Unidos gang members, who, according to Karam, killed them all, burned their bodies, chopped them to bits, and threw them in a river.

Of course, it took Karam a month to make that announcement, and in the meantime, anger over the disappearances grew by the day. Demonstrators attacked and burnt part of the state capitol complex in Chilpancingo; they attacked and burnt municipal buildings in Iguala; they fought pitched battles with police on the road to the Acapulco airport. And the demonstrations and solidarity protests are spreading.

This is a brutal scandal that has shaken even brutal scandal-plagued Mexico. Federal authorities have now arrested the mayoral couple, along with dozens of police men and gang members (some are undoubtedly both). The governor of Guerrero has been forced to resign. And President Enrique Nieto Pena and his government are now besieged, even though the mayor and the governor belonged to another political party.

This may be the landmine that sets off a long pent-up social explosion south of the border. I use the word "landmine" deliberately, for that is the precise term used by long-time journalist and current Oaxaca resident Robert Stout in his new book, Hidden Dangers. Although it appears to have been largely written before Pena Nieto took office nearly two years ago, it seems remarkably prescient.

In Hidden Dangers, Stout identifies several festering -- and interconnected -- problems facing Mexico, the result of ongoing economic and political changes.Looming large among the potential landmines are emigration, the war on drugs, rising popular political movements of resistance, official corruption and impunity, and increasing environmental degradation.

With the case of the missing 43 students, Mexico is stepping on two of those landmines: the war on drugs and the problem of official complicity and corruption. As Stout makes clear, Mexico's drug corporations (he never uses the word "cartels") have thrived in an atmosphere of violence and corruption and official complicity. I wouldn't say that drug money has corrupted Mexico's institutions because they have been deeply corrupted for years, as Stout illustrates throughout the book, but it has deepened the corruption and blurred the line between organized crime and state power.

What Stout has to say about the drug cartels and the counterproductive policies adopted on both sides of the border to stop them is probably not new to regular readers of these pages. Through violence and cold, hard cash, the cartels manage to suborn security forces, elected officials, and legitimate businesses alike. And heavy-handed, militaristic attempts to quash them, especially with an army that seems to have no notion of human rights, has only resulted in more violence and more mistrust of government.

But it is complicated, and looking at Mexico solely through the prism of its war on drugs is too narrow a focus to get a good grasp on the country's realities. Mexico's drug cartel problem doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of a deeper social and political malaise, which, in Stout's view, is related to the country's authoritarian, unresponsive government and its inability or unwillingness to address the country's aching concerns.

And it's not just the PRI, the party that emerged from the Revolution to govern the country as "the perfect dictatorship" until the election of Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox in 2000. One of Stout's contributions to our understanding is his explication of the authoritarian character that defines all political parties in Mexico. Whether it’s the PRI or the rightist PAN or the leftist PRD, all have adapted the same top-down, strongman politics that characterized the PRI in its heyday.

It is worth noting that the mayor of Iguala and his wife are members of the PRD, which is a sad reflection on the Mexican left. But Mexicans don't need to read Stout's book to understand that the same rot grips all the parties, and that's part of the reason even the PRIista Pena Nieto is feeling the heat over the Iguala disappearances. The problem is systemic, Mexicans understand this, and that's why they're so angrily taking to the streets right now.

Hidden Dangers does a very good job of tying together the disparate "landmines" facing Mexico right now. Especially for readers who have approached the country primarily through the lens of drug policy, it is a welcome opening of perspective. And, at only a bit more than 200 pages, it's a relatively quick read, packed with information and plenty to ponder. Check it out. 

HSBC Bank Admits Cartel Money Laundering

The London-based HSBC Group, Europe's largest banking entity, has agreed to forfeit $1.256 billion and pay an additional $600 million-plus in fines for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels and other objects of American ire, federal officials announced Tuesday. The agreement was part of a deal to avoid criminal prosecution of the bank by the Justice Department and will result in deferred prosecution provided the bank lives up to its agreements with the Justice Department.

The bank was accused of violating the Banking Secrecy Act, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the Trading with the Enemy Act -- the latter two types of violations having to do with its transactions on behalf of customers in Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Burma, all of which were subject to sanctions enforced by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the time of the violations. The Banking Secrecy Act violations have to do with the banks laundering of at least $881 million for Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

"HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight -- and worse -- that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries," said Assistant Attorney General for Criminal Affairs Lanny Breuer. "The record of dysfunction that prevailed at HSBC for many years was astonishing. Today, HSBC is paying a heavy price for its conduct, and, under the terms of today's agreement, if the bank fails to comply with the agreement in any way, we reserve the right to fully prosecute it."

"Today we announce the filing of criminal charges against HSBC, one of the largest financial institutions in the world," said US Attorney for Eastern New York Loretta Lynch. "HSBC’s blatant failure to implement proper anti-money laundering controls facilitated the laundering of at least $881 million in drug proceeds through the US financial system. HSBC's willful flouting of US sanctions laws and regulations resulted in the processing of hundreds of millions of dollars in OFAC-prohibited transactions. Today's historic agreement, which imposes the largest penalty in any BSA prosecution to date, makes it clear that all corporate citizens, no matter how large, must be held accountable for their actions."

HSBC may have been slapped with the largest penalties ever, but it is hardly the only bank to have been caught profiting off prohibition. In 2010, Wachovia forfeited $110 million to avoid criminal prosecution for money laundering for the cartels, Sigue Corporation forfeited $15 million in 2008, American Express International Bank paid $65 million in fines and Union Bank of California forfeited $21.6 million in 2007, and Bank Atlantic paid a $10 million fine to avoid prosecution for laundering drug cartel profits in 2006. Like HSBC, all of those banks agreed to reform their banking practices and submit to federal oversight as part of the agreement.

HSBC is accused of under-staffing its anti-money laundering program and failing to monitor billions of dollars in purchases of physical dollars by its Mexican affiliate, HSBC Mexico. It reportedly failed to monitor over $670 billion in wire transfers and the purchase of over $9.4 billion in US dollars.

According to the Justice Department, "HSBC Mexico's own lax AML controls caused it to be the preferred financial institution for drug cartels and money launderers."

The unanswered question is why a government that lets bankers who launder hundreds of millions of dollars of drug profits routinely sends crack-slingers to federal prison for decades for selling a few dollars worth of drugs. Perhaps if those drug dealers had a few million dollars they could hand over to the feds, they could walk, too.

New York, NY
United States

Marijuana Votes Have Mexicans Talking Legalization

With US public support for marijuana legalization now at the 50% mark, and state legalization efforts now starting to come to fruition, people are naturally talking about it. Academics at RAND and elsewhere recently came out with a book, "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know," discussing the wide range of issues impacted by legalization and that will come into play affecting how it will play out. (We are sending out copies of this book, complimentary with donations, by the way.)

Spanish-language infographic from the Mexican Institute for Competitives marijuana legalization report
One of the most interesting discussions going on is about how legalization in Washington and Colorado will affect Mexico. We reported yesterday that Mexico's incoming administration plans to reassess Mexico's fight against drugs, which has cost the country dearly in lost life. Luis Videgaray, a key advisor to President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, assures that the president continues to oppose legalization, according to the AP. Nevertheless, other Mexican voices are raising the legalization question with increased intensity.

"It seems to me that we should move to authorize exports," [governor of the the violence-plagued border state of Chihuahaha Cesar] Duarte [an ally of Pena Nieto] told Reuters in an interview. "We would therefore propose organizing production for export, and with it no longer being illegal, we would have control over a business which today is run by criminals, and which finances criminals."
 

And as The Economist noted last week (hat tip The Dish), the Mexico City-based think tank Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) believes that legalization may cost the cartels big time. IMCO estimates that Mexican drug trafficking organizations earn $2 billion per year from marijuana, with $1.4 billion of it going to the US. Significantly, IMCO doesn't just think that legalization by the US and Mexico would cut off the cartels from those funds. They have speculated that marijuana grown in Washington and Colorado (particularly Colorado) might be diverted and sold in other states, with a dramatically lowered cost made possible by legalization causing prices to drop elsewhere as well. Lower prices in turn might lead US marijuana users who now buy Mexican weed to switch to marijuana grown in the US instead, even if it's still illegal in their own states.

I am skeptical that we will see that kind of price drop just yet, in the absence of federal legalization, even in Washington or Colorado. It hasn't happened yet from medical marijuana, even though marijuana grown for the medical market is just as divertable as marijuana grown for the recreational market may be -- the dispensaries themselves haven't undercut street prices, partly to try to avoid diversion. Sellers in other states, and the people who traffic it to them, will continue incur the kinds of legal and business risks that they have now. And it is still impossible to set up the large scale farming operations for marijuana that reduce production costs today for licit agriculture. But we don't really know yet.

Now one study is just one study, at the end of the day -- there are other estimates for the scale and value of the marijuana markets and for how much Mexican marijuana makes up of our market. But the cartels clearly have a lot of money to lose here, if not now then when federal prohibition gets repealed -- IMCO's point is valid, whether they are the ones to have best nailed the numbers or not.

It's also the case that some participants in the drug debate, such as Kevin Sabet, have argued that legalization won't reduce cartel violence, because "the cartels will just move into other kinds of crime." But those arguments miss some basic logical points. Cartels will -- and are -- diversifying their operations to profit from other kinds of illegal businesses besides drugs. But it's their drug profits -- the most plentiful and with the highest profit margin -- that enable them to invest in those businesses. The more big drug money we continue to needlessly send them, the more they will invest in other businesses, some of which are more inherently violative of human rights than drugs are.

Some researchers believe that Mexican cartels will step up their competition in other areas, if they lose access to drug trade profits, which could increase violence at certain levels of the organizations. But such effects are likely to be temporary. Nigel Inkster, former #2 person in Britain's intelligence service and coauthor of "Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition," at a book launch forum said he thinks that at a minimum the upper production levels of the drug trade, as well as the lower distribution levels, would see violence reductions. (We are also offering Inkster's book to donors, by the way.)

And it isn't just violence that's the problem. As a report last year by the Center for International Policy's Global Financial Integrity program noted, "[C]riminal networks... function most easily where there is a certain level of underdevelopment and state weakness... [I]t is in their best interest to actively prevent their profits from flowing into legitimate developing economies. In this way, transnational crime and underdevelopment have a mutually perpetuating relationship." The money flow caused by prohibition, accompanied by violence or not, is itself an important enough reason to urgently want to end prohibition as we do, and to reduce the reach of prohibition as much as is politically possible in the meanwhile, as Colorado and Washington have done.

And so Mexican and other thinkers are speaking up, as are victims of the current policy. For all their sakes, President Pena Nieto should not dismiss legalization so quickly. And Sabet and others should not be so quick to try to argue away the impact that the billions of dollars drug prohibition sends each year to the illicit economy has in fueling criminality and hindering societies from developing.

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, drogriporter.hu/en)
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

WikiLeaks: Is Argentina Washing Dirty Drug Trafficking Money? (Opinion)

Location: 
Argentina
Need more evidence of the futility of the war on drugs? Look no further than a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Argentina released last week. It turns out that for all the happy talk about international cooperation to combat money laundering, the embassy believes some politicians may not really be interested.
Publication/Source: 
The Wall Street Journal (NY)
URL: 
Need more evidence of the futility of the war on drugs? Look no further than a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Argentina released last week. It turns out that for all the happy talk about international cooperation to combat money laundering, the embassy believes some politicians may not really be interested.

"Murder City," by Border Cognoscenti Charles Bowden (BOOK REVIEW)

"Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields," by Charles Bowden (2010, Nation Books, 320 pp., $27.50 HB)

by Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/murdercity.jpg
Last Saturday, Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, marked a grim milestone: its 6,000th murder victim since the beginning of 2008. The discovery of 10 bodies that day pushed the beleaguered city past that marker, but the week -- still only half-done as I write these words -- held more gore. On Wednesday, two headless bodies appeared propped up against the wall of building. The heads sat atop upended ice chests in front of them. Writing on the ice chests claimed that one of the men was a carjacker and the other a kidnapper and extortionist, and that both were members of the Aztecas, a street gang that peddles dope and acts as neighborhood enforcers for the Juarez Cartel.

Gruesome photographs of the death scene ran in the Mexican press -- there is a longstanding tabloid press there that positively revels in full-color photos of murder victims, car accident fatalities, burned bodies -- but, according to Charles Bowden, it is almost a certainty that we will never hear another word about them, that we will never know why they had to die so horribly, that no one will ever be arrested for their deaths, that we will never even learn their names.

And Charles Bowden should know. He's probably forgotten more about Ciudad Juarez than most journalists writing about the city ever knew. The poet laureate of the American Southwest, Bowden has been living and writing about the border for decades, and with "Murder City" he is at the peak of his powers.

"Murder City" is beautiful and horrifying, not just for the exemplary violence it chronicles, but even more so for the portrait it paints of Juarez as a community stunned and staggering, hit hard by the vicissitudes of the global economy, the corruption of the Mexican state, and the wealth and violence generated by the trade in prohibited drugs.  It is non-fiction, but reads like a surrealist fever dream.

We learn of Miss Sinaloa, an achingly gorgeous, white-skinned beauty queen, who turns up raving mad at "the crazy place," a desert shelter for the mentally ill, the homeless, the glue- or paint-destroyed kids. Turns out she had come to the city and been invited to a weeklong, whiskey- and cocaine-fueled party at a motel where she was gang-raped for days by eight Juarez policemen. Miss Sinaloa weighs on Bowden, a witness to the city's violence and depredations, its ugly degradation. She's gone now, taken back home by her Sinaloa family, but there's always another one, he writes.

We learn of reporters killed by the military. We learn about other reporters' poor salaries and about how their real pay comes in envelopes from shadowy men, and they know it means they will not write about certain things. We learn of one reporter who inadvertently crossed the military in 2005 and had to flee to the US border for his life when the military came looking for him three years later. He sought political asylum. What he got was imprisoned for seven months until a Tucson civil rights lawyer managed to spring him.

As Bowden notes:

"It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don't think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the US government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United States would be hard-pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight the war on drugs. But then the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: The war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government-financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children."

Bowden writes about a Ciudad Juarez policewoman taken away by the military and raped for three days. Bowden writes about the military patrol sitting yards away from a drug treatment center where armed assailants shoot the place up for 15 minutes, leaving eight dead. Bowden writes about how the press describes convoys of killers as "armed commandos" dressed in uniforms and says that's code for military death squads.

Remember those two headless gentlemen in the first paragraph? This is why we will never learn anything more about them. The reporters are scared for their lives. Bowden writes about the "narco-tombs," safe houses where victims are tortured and killed, then buried on the grounds. The exhumation of the bodies takes place with great fanfare, but the forensic scientist doesn't want her name used or her face shown, and then the bodies just vanish. Poof! They are never identified, no one knows where they went, no one knows why they died, no one knows who killed them.

Bowden writes about El Sicario, the former state policeman/cartel assassin, who talks with professional pride about kidnapping, torturing, and killing hundreds of people. Now, El Sicario is afraid. The killers are after him, and he has fled his former hunting grounds. And what is even more disturbing for the reader is El Sicario's statement that he doesn't even know which cartel he was working for. In the cell-like structure in which he operated, he knew only his boss, not the boss's boss, or even who the boss's boss was. El Sicario killed for phantoms.

But what is really terrifying is that El Sicario is being chased by "a death machine with no apparent driver," a web of hidden complicities where the cartels are the military are the police are the government, nobody knows who anybody really is, and the dead become evil by virtue of having been killed.

We can blame the cartels (or, obversely, drug prohibition), we can blame street gangs, mass poverty, uprooted families migrating to the city for jobs that have now vanished, corrupt cops, corrupt governments, but the violence may now have escaped any good explanation, Bowden writes. As the Mexican state fails to suppress the violence (at least in part because it is committing a great part of it, the killings are establishing "not a new structure but rather a pattern, and this pattern functionally has no top or bottom, no center or edge, no boss or obedient servant. Think of something like the ocean, a fluid thing without king and court, boss and cartel... Violence courses through Juarez like a ceaseless wind, and we insist it is a battle between cartels, or between the state and the drug world, or between the army and the forces of darkness. But consider this possibility: Violence is now woven into the very fabric of the community, and has no single cause and no single motive and no on-off button."

Absolutely chilling stuff, and absolutely brilliant. Bowden turns prose into poetry, and he provides an understanding of Juarez and its woes that hits you at the visceral level. "Murder City" will give you nightmares, but it's worth it.

Drug Dealer's Bill of Choice Boosts the Euro Zone

Location: 
Gangsters, drug dealers and money launderers are playing their part in helping shore up the financial stability of the euro zone. Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, says that high-denomination euro bank notes, in particular the €200 and €500 bills, are increasingly "making the euro the currency of choice for underground and black economies, and for all those who value anonymity in their financial transactions and investments."
Publication/Source: 
The Wall Street Journal (NY)
URL: 
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704532204575397543634034112.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Charles Bowden on Mexico's Dirty War Against Drugs

democracynow.org has an excellent Charles Bowden discussing human rights violations in the drug war in Mexico. One interesting quote: "Trying to eradicate the drug industry in Mexico is like trying to eradicate gambling in Las Vegas. It is the economy". Summary below.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy blocked the release of a State Department report affirming that Mexico has respected human rights in its fight against drug cartels. Leahy’s move holds up more than $100 million in US aid. The money has been delayed under a law linking 15 percent of US funding to Mexico under the Merida Initiative to Mexico’s record on human rights. On Monday, President Obama praised the Mexican government for its handling of the drug war. We speak with Charles Bowden, a reporter who has been extensively covering the human consequences of Mexico’s drug war. [includes rush transcript]

The Drug Cartels Have Their Own (Stolen) Oil Company

I thought I'd heard it all, but the latest news from Mexico is so ridiculously over-the-top, I was genuinely shocked:

MEXICO CITY – U.S. refineries bought millions of dollars worth of oil stolen from Mexican government pipelines and smuggled across the border, the U.S. Justice Department told The Associated Press — illegal operations now led by Mexican drug cartels expanding their reach.

Criminals — mostly drug gangs — tap remote pipelines, sometimes building pipelines of their own, to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil each year, the Mexican oil monopoly said. At least one U.S. oil executive has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in such a deal. [AP]


What the hell is going on here!? It's been clear for a while now that these people should never be underestimated, but this seriously sounds more like the plot of a James Bond movie than something that could be pulled off in real life. Once again, the situation in Mexico has managed to reach new heights of out-of-control absurdity and it seems to be doing so with increased frequency as of late.

Does anyone honestly believe that pouring more money and lives down the drug war drain is the solution to this?

Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vienna-international-center.jpg
Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vienna2009demo1.jpg
SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

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activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

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Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

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