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A Thousand March for "El Chapo" in Culiacan

As many as a thousand people marched through the streets of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, Wednesday in support of arrested Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

El Chapo's supporters march in Culiacan Wednesday (www.blick.ch)

They called for his release from a Mexican prison and for him not to be extradited to the United States. Many of them said he provided employment in poor areas of the nearby Sierra Madre mountains and that his group had provided security for residents.

Many were dressed in white, holding signs with messages that included "Don't Extradite El Chapo," "We Want Chapo Freed," and "Sinaloa Supports You, Chapo."

"The government doesn't give any job opportunities," said Daniel Garcia, an unemployed 20-year-old. "The situation is, honestly, really difficult and he helps out the young people, giving them jobs."

"We support 'Chapo' Guzman because he is the one who gives us jobs and helps out in the mountains," said Pedro Ramirez, who was part of a group of 300 who had travelled from Badiraguato, a town in the Sierra Madre where Guzman was born 56 years ago.

Another demonstrator said he trusted Guzman more than any elected official.

The obvious question, of course, is how did this demonstration come about? Going back to Pablo Escobar in Colombia, drug traffickers have sought and won popular support by providing jobs, services, and facilities to communities where they operate. Mexican traffickers have done the same thing, hosting children's parties and building soccer stadiums and the like.

Was this a spontaneous outpouring of support for Sinaloa's most famous son? Or did El Chapo's buddies buy themselves a demonstration? In either case, the power of the cartels to mobilize popular support should not be underestimated.

Location: 
Culiacan
Mexico

Chronicle Review Essay: Mexico's Drug Cartels

Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, by Sylvia Longmire (2011, Palgrave/Macmillan, 248 pp., $26.00 HB)

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo (2011, Bloomsbury Press, 301 pp., $27.00 HB)

Gangland: The Rise of Mexico's Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver (2012, Wiley, 276 pp., $22.95 PB)

I recall traveling by bus (one second-class standby was Flecha Amarilla -- the passengers used to joke that the rickety line's motto was "Better dead than late") through the southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca in the 1980s and being stopped regularly at military checkpoints replete with prominently displayed signs announcing they were part of the Mexican government's Permanent Campaign Against Drug Trafficking. The signs were bilingual, one supposes for the edification of any passing Americans, so that they would know Mexico was hard at work doing our government's bidding in the war on drugs.

The soldiers would order everyone off the bus, then randomly inspect luggage. Afterwards, everyone would trudge back onto the bus, and off we'd go, past a last sign proclaiming, "Thank you for your cooperation in the permanent campaign against drug trafficking." I never saw the soldiers actually find anything.

Funny thing about those checkpoints -- they never moved. Year after year, there they were in the same places. Of course, everyone in the area, including the dope growers up in the mountains and the traffickers who moved the weed, knew exactly where they were and simply went around them or paid the local military commander to look the other way when a load needed to pass.

But those checkpoints were there, and the Mexican government could point to them and say, "Look, we're doing our part." That Potemkin village-style "war on drugs" worked for Mexico for many years. In the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, observers would note sardonically that Mexico was not suppressing the drug trade so much as managing it.

Of course, it helped that Mexico was then under the venerable grip of "the perfect dictatorship," the one-party rule of the PRI that had governed the country more or less since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1919. The lines of authority were clear, PRI officialdom was happy to take traffickers' bribes and keep a semblance of order in the underworld, and those bundles of pot trickling down out of the mountains became a roaring river of reefer flowing to the insatiable north.

While government complicity kept the trade running smoothly -- with the occasional high-profile bust of a "kingpin" or two when the heat from Washington grew too intense -- a handful of what sophisticated Mexicans would consider country bumpkins from the mountainous western state of Sinaloa were creating the drug trafficking arrangements that evolved into the terrifying killing machines we today know as the cartels (although they are not really cartels in the normal sense of the word, as Ioan Grillo takes the time to explain, tracing the use back to descriptions of Colombian drug traffickers in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo was a fresh memory).

Back then, one man, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, was the undisputed godfather of the Mexican drug trade. To avoid unnecessary strife, he and his lieutenants divvied up the plazas, or franchises for a particular smuggling location, among themselves, creating the Tijuana cartel (the Arrellano Felix brothers), the Sinaloa cartel ("El Chapo" Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers), the Juarez cartel (Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies," and family), and the Gulf Cartel (Osiel Cardenas). Business was good. Profits from pot were plentiful, and in the 1980s, a new revenue stream, Colombian cocaine, only added to the permanent fiesta.

Yes, there were drug killings back then. You don't rise to the top of a ruthless Mexican drug trafficking outfit by being an overly nice guy. But the violence was minimal compared to the bloodletting that has gone on since 2008, when, under pressure from President Calderon's all-out offensive against them, the cartels turned on each other in a bloody fratricidal struggle, as well as going to war against the police and the military. The killing continues to this day, as does the flow of drugs north and cash and guns south.

And the alarm bells are ringing across the land, thus this spate of books. Former California state intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire, veteran British-born Latin America reporter Ioan Grillo, and Canadian journalist and author Jerry Langton all describe the evolution of the cartels from their humble Sinaloa roots to their positions today as hugely wealthy, murderously violent drug trafficking organizations with a global reach, although they all bring different perspectives into play.

There are three countries in North America, and it's as if each one gets a book here. Langton is Canadian, and Gangland has Canadian concerns and connections; in Cartel, Longmire seems to speak to and from the perspective of US law enforcement and national security; while, with El Narco, Grillo seems to be most in tune with the realities on the ground in Mexico. While all three have their strengths -- Langton, for example, follows the blow-by-blow of the cartel wars in a way that really helps you make sense of those occasional blips about gangland killings that appear in the American media -- if I had to choose only one, it would be Grillo and El Narco.

Grillo has spent years working in Mexico, and it shows. He feels more attuned to Mexican culture, although Langton provides some excellent historical background, and his book is the most interested in the broader social phenomena surrounding Mexico's drug wars. Grillo takes the reader into the world of the narcocorridos, the border ballads celebrating the exploits of the traffickers, and their singers, quite a few of whom have been killed for their efforts. He also explores Santa Muerte, the peculiarly Mexican church (or cult, depending on whom you ask), favored by the poor, the delinquent, and the dopers.

Our authors disagree on just exactly what the cartels are. For Langton, they are essentially just frighteningly overgrown criminal gangs; for Grillo, they are a "criminal insurgency;" for Longmire, she of the national security optics, they are closer to terrorists, of whom she cites Al Qaeda and Colombia's FARC in the same breath.

I don't know that I can buy either the criminal insurgency or the terrorist appellation, though. Both insurgency and terrorism imply political, or, more precisely, ideological goals. While the cartels can be said to have political goals, such as putting a paid-off politician in a powerful post, those goals are merely means to the cartels' real ends: making money. Unlike the FARC, who have a strong (if fraying at the edges) revolutionary socialist platform, or Al Qaeda types, with their Islamic fundamentalist credos, as far as anyone can tell, Shorty Guzman could care less about anything other than making money.

Which is not to say the cartels aren't scary as hell. They are an insurgency in so far as they represent a serious challenge to the Mexican state's monopoly on the use of force. And they do. These guys are heavily armed, thanks in part to "straw buyer" weapons purchased in the US, some of them have police or military training (the Zetas in particular have proven to be a paramilitarized menace even to the Mexican armed forces), and they are capable of acts of exemplary savagery. They are also known to roll through cities in convoys dozens of vehicles long, all full of heavily-armed men, in brazen displays of power.

Grillo notes a key turning point: the effort to arrest Gulf cartel head Osiel Cardenas in 2004, a couple of years after he formed the Zetas out of former US-trained elite anti-drug troops. In the good old days of Mexico's "war on drugs," the occasional arrest was understood as part of the game and took place in an almost gentlemanly fashion, at least at the top. But Cardenas didn't go down like that. Instead, his Zetas engaged the military in a day-long running gun battle, viciously defending their chief against the odds until his capture, and continuing to attack even as the military fled with its captive to a local airport and then back to Mexico City. Now, that's what you call a challenge to the state's monopoly on force.

And that was just the beginning. Now, you can go to web sites like El Blog del Narco and read about almost daily pitched battles between narcos and soldiers. And narcos and police. And narcos and narcos. And police and soldiers. And federal police and state police. There is truly multi-sided mayhem going on.

So, what is to be done about it all? None of the authors are very optimistic that anything will turn this around anytime soon. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be unanimity among them that reforming the hopelessly corrupt, complicit, and outgunned Mexican police forces is high on the agenda. A single national police force may be an answer, but that will take years, if it ever happens at all.

Longmire in particular argues for smarter and more law enforcement on both sides of the border, but concedes that it's unlikely to make much difference. In the end, even she suggests that maybe we should think about legalizing marijuana. Grillo suggests that, too, noting that the cartels are making billions a year on Mexican brick weed. All of them note the utter futility of trying to eradicate the trade.

But while Longmire and Grillo talk about legalizing weed, Langton correctly points out that that's a long shot, and even if you legalize marijuana, that still leaves cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy for the cartels to traffic and grow rich off of.

None of them directly confront the fundamental root cause of the problem: drug prohibition. The cartels are the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition, created by the mad policymakers of Washington and their hunch-backed global anti-drug bureaucracy assistants in Vienna ("Yeesssss, master") and energized by an unending flow of black market dollars. Langton is right -- legalizing marijuana isn't going to do the job by itself, even if it does attack one cartel revenue stream (though that is not an argument against legalizing it).

At this point, even legalizing everything will not make the cartels vanish. They are now too wealthy, too well-established. They've diversified into extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes. They own businesses. They are integrating. Still, ending drug prohibition would take substantial wind out of their sails, much as ending alcohol Prohibition severely weakened, but did not kill off, the US mob. That may be the best we can hope for.

Or, barring that, Langton mentions another possibility, one not spoken much of aloud these days, but one that is being quietly murmured as the PRI appears set to retake the presidency after the July elections. Mexico can either continue down the path of the drug wars and hope the violence subsides, as with the crack epidemic in the US in the 1980s, he writes, "or they can go back to collaborating with the cartels, allowing them to keep the peace in their own way."

Mexico

Chronicle Film Review: Prohibition

Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2011, Florentine Films/WETA, 3 discs, 5 ½ hrs., $41.99)

One of America's leading documentarians has done it again. Ken Burns, producer of the widely watched and hailed documentaries, Baseball and The Civil War, has now teamed up with Lynn Novick to examine the rise, fall, and repeal of the 18th Amendment banning alcohol sales and production. It is a worthy effort, and well-executed.

Prohibition "postcards" online at pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/send-postcards/
The multi-hour must-see premiered over three nights this week on PBS, pulling in nearly four million viewers on its opening night -- very big numbers for public TV. It's also available online at the PBS Ken Burns Prohibition web site.

For most us of Prohibition is ancient history, skimmed over bloodlessly in dusty tomes in high school and undergraduate history courses. My 83-year-old mother, for instance, was still a toddler when revelers across the land tippled with delirious joy to mark repeal. For anyone younger than her -- and that's most of us -- Prohibition is no more than a school lesson, not a thing of living memory, except, perhaps, for an old story or two told by grandpa or grandma.

One of the successes of Prohibition is the way it brings that dry history to life. Through the skillful use of contemporary film, photographic stills, oral history, written remembrances narrated by actors, and a lively narration by Peter Coyote, Burns and Novick are able to recreate the living, breathing reality of second half 19th and early 20th Century America. Staring face to face at the glowering glare of a doughty battle-axe like Carrie Nation or the lizard-lidded, full-lipped gaze of Chicago gangster Al Capone, listening to Al Smith rail against the dries or Mabel Willibrand rally preachers against repeal, helps us put a human face on the  passions and frailties behind the march of the social revolution that was Prohibition and the mass rejection of it that was repeal.

Similarly, vivid scenes of saloon debauchery, with passed out drunks and giddy tipplers, of speakeasies filled with good-time guys and giddy flappers, of mass marches for and against, of political conventions and campaigns in which Prohibition was a burning issue of the day, help put living flesh on the dry bones of history.

The early 20th Century experiment in social control and legislating morality contains many lessons for contemporary activists seeking to undo the damage done by drug prohibition. Burns and Novick deserve our thanks for teasing out the varied strands that turned the 19th Century's temperance movement among mostly rural, Protestant, church-going women into a political powerhouse capable of blunting the power of big booze, shuttering the breweries and distilleries, and eliminating the saloons men saw as their last refuge from the demands of wife and children.

For me, the most important achievement of Prohibition is the way in situates the temperance movement within the broader social and political context of a tension-filled, rapidly evolving America. As Burns and Novick make abundantly clear, Prohibition did not happen in a vacuum. Among the forces propelling it were many of the same forces active today propelling reactionary social movements: racism (directed against newly arrived Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants), nativism (ditto), religious bigotry (aimed at those Catholic immigrants), nationalism (against mainly German-American beer brewers, especially during World War I), and rural vs. urban tensions.

But while it may be easy to ridicule the reactionaries of the last century, the roots of Prohibition also come uncomfortably close for present-day progressives. The temperance movement -- in all its intemperance -- was closely tied to "what about the children!" sentiment and women's suffrage, a cry for healthy living,  as well as the sort of "do-gooderism" conducted by "busybodies" that still informs much of the discourse when it comes to drug policy reform today.

As Prohibition shows most excellently, the politics of morality and social control are deep and twisted, and unraveling them reveals some unflattering facets of progressivism, as well as the more easily derided absolutists of what could fairly be called the Christian Right.

Where Prohibition is perhaps most useful to modern day drug reformers is in its depiction of the social ills it generated. Much as the Drug Policy Alliance likes to say "drug abuse is bad, drug prohibition is worse," viewers of Prohibition could fairly draw the conclusion that "mass drunkenness is bad, mass drunkenness under Prohibition is worse." Burns and Novick sketch the rapid expansion of organized crime under Prohibition, the gang wars of Chicago and New York, the corruption of cops and public officials -- all the side-effects of prohibition so familiar to present day reformers.

Prohibition "postcards" online at pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/send-postcards/
But they also look at its public health consequences, which -- like current drug prohibition -- were also in many ways disastrous. There were mass deaths from bad bathtub gin, deaths from drinking wood alcohol, outbreaks of "Jake Leg," a neurological disorder caused by contaminated whiskey that crippled hundreds, if not thousands, and while alcohol consumption initially declined, that decline was soon reversed, and with even more unhealthy drinking patterns.

In the end, Prohibition died of neglect, ridicule, and changing social attitudes, forged at least in part by the experience of Prohibition itself. And at the end, it revealed itself to be hollow, crumpling with amazing rapidity after the Great Depression hit and the big city, immigrant-friendly Democrats under FDR took power. Before the end of FDR's first year in office, Prohibition was history.

There are many lessons and parallels for contemporary drug reformers in Prohibition, but they are not exact and may not apply across the board. Alcohol prohibition lasted barely a decade, but drug prohibition is now in its second century. Why one was a flash in the pan and the other remains a painful, enduring legacy are questions that need to be answered if we are ever to leave drug prohibition in the dustbin of history along with Prohibition. Prohibition can help us start to ask the questions that will give us the right answers.

Disappointingly, Ken Burns doesn't appear interested in pursuing the parallels, nor even the dissimilarities, between Prohibition then and prohibition now. He does not reference the prohibition of other drugs in Prohibition (although heroin and cocaine were already criminalized federally and marijuana was being banned in a number of states), nor, as he has made clear in interviews, does he see a useful comparison between the two.

But that disagreement or lack of boldness notwithstanding, Prohibition is still a great viewing experience that brings alive a critical episode in US social and political history, an episode who reverberations still linger and whose contours are still echoed in drug prohibition. This is your history, America -- watch, enjoy, learn, and ponder.

Latin America: Mexico Proposes Banning Narcocorridos (Drug Ballads)

Los Tucanes de Tijuana performing "The People's Doctor." The good doctor who has the medicine to cure his patients' ills sends his "Greetings to all my patients in Texas and Colorado, and also Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Chicago, and California and Arizona, and Nevada, my biggest market."

Under a bill presented to Mexico's congress last week by the ruling National Action Party (PAN), musicians could be sent to prison for playing songs that glorify the drug trade. People who produce or perform songs or films that glamorize criminality could be imprisoned for up to three years, according to the proposed legislation.

The bill is aimed squarely at narcocorridos, the norteño musical form typically featuring men in cowboy hats playing guitars, accordions, and drums, and singing about the exploits, trials, and tribulations of people in the drug trade. Corridos have been a border musical form for more than a century, but in the past, their themes tended to romance, revolution, and banditry.

These days, narcocorridos are popular on both sides of the border, with groups like Los Tigres del Norte or Los Tucanes de Tijuana pulling in crowds of tens of thousands in Tucson and Torreon, Austin and Aguascalientes. But as with gangsta rap in the US, politicians, law enforcement officials, and moral entrepreneurs have denounced the form for glorifying Mexico's wealthy, violent drug trade.

Traffickers have been known to pipe taunting or threatening messages accompanied by narcocorridos into police radio networks after some killings. And while narcocorridos often lament personal disasters in the drug trade, they also extol successes, lionize leading traffickers, and ridicule security forces.

And now the government of President Felipe Calderon, who has presided over an explosion of prohibition-related violence since taking office in December 2006 and calling out the army to take on the traffickers, is going after the singers. "Society sees drug ballads as nice, pleasant, inconsequential and harmless -- but they are the opposite," Oscar Martin Arce, a PAN MP, told the Associated Press.

The bill was also aimed at low-budget films glorifying traffickers, Martin said. "We cannot accept it as normal. We cannot exalt these people because they themselves are distributing these materials among youths to lead them into a lifestyle where the bad guy wins," Martin said. The intent was not to limit free speech, but to prevent the incitement to crime, he said.

That didn't sit well with Elijah Wald, author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas." Wald told the AP politicians were trying to censor artists instead of addressing Mexico's real problems. "It is very hard to stop the drug trafficking," he added. "It is very easy to get your name in the papers by attacking famous musicians."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugwarzone.jpg
The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Targets Informal Saints of the Poor and the Narcos

Beware San Malverde! Watch out, Santa Muerte! The enemies of Mexico's violent and thriving illicit drug trade are after you. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last weekend that Mexican authorities destroyed dozens of religious shrines paying homage to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), an informal Catholic saint favored by the poor as well as by criminals and drug traffickers, and San Malverde, a similar figure based on a peasant highwayman of the late 19th century.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/malverde-items.jpg
San Malverde picture, with Malverde pot leaf, Malverde keychain and Malverde pot leaf belt buckle (author's personal collection)
Images of both saints have been appropriated by Mexico's drug traffickers and have been found on walls, tattoos, pendants, belt buckles, even engraved into the grips of pistols. For US law enforcement, coming across either saint is strongly indicative of drug trade activity. But the saints are also widely revered by Mexico's Catholic poor. Marches for Santa Muerte have drawn thousands of adherents in Mexico City, and San Malverde branded beer is available in Sinaloa, his home state and home of the Sinaloa cartel.

Four shrines to Santa Muerte and one to San Malverde were destroyed last Saturday in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito Beach. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said it was a military action, but the military has not confirmed that. Two days later, city and federal officials destroyed 34 more Santa Muerte chapels that had sprung up in recent years along the highway between Monterrey and the border town of Nuevo Laredo.

For officials, the unsanctioned saints are, like the narcocorridos (drug ballads), celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers, evidence of the drug culture seeping into broader civic culture. "This is a subject that must open a great social debate in Tijuana," Ramos said in an interview last week. "Should we permit these spaces where hired assassins who kill children, families, police seek protection? What side are we on? I am on the side of tranquility and security."

Ramos, a member of President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party (PAN), is pushing censorship as a response to the spreading drug culture. He is agitating for a package of bills before the Baja California legislature that would ban the broadcast of narcocorridos, as well as videos and images that would "glorify" drug traffickers.

But such plans have their critics, who argue that destroying shrines will not accomplish anything and that the informal saints are adored by many who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. "Destroying these chapels is not going to do anything to diminish crime," said Jose Manuel Valenzuela, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana think-tank. "Someone who's going to commit a crime could just as easily go to a Catholic church as a Santa Muerte shrine, or go nowhere at all."

The people who came to the Tijuana shrines last week only to find they had been destroyed were not happy. "I feel so angry," said Zaida Romero, 33, a used-clothing vendor and single mother of seven, standing by the pile of rubble and twisted metal on the day the shrines were destroyed March 21. "She has helped me so, so, so much," said Romero, explaining that La Santa Muerte helped her overcome cancer.

Feature: Obama and Calderón Meet Amidst Rash of Dire Warnings on Mexican Drug Violence

President-elect Barack Obama met Monday with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to discuss bilateral issues of major importance for the two countries. In addition to NAFTA and immigration policy, Mexico's ongoing plague of prohibition-related violence was high on the agenda.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/malverde1.jpg
shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacán -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from ''the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona''
More than 5,400 people were killed in the violence last year, and more than 8,000 in the two years since Calderón ratcheted up Mexico's drug war by sending thousands of troops into the fray. The multi-sided conflict pits rival trafficking groups -- the so-called cartels -- against each and the Mexican state, but has also seen pitched battles between rival law enforcement units where one group or the other is in the pay of the traffickers.

The Obama-Calderón meeting comes as the violence in Mexico is creating increasing concern among US policy and defense analysts. Last month, the National Drug Intelligence Center warned in its National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that "Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."

In a December report to the US Military Academy at West Point, former drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned dramatically that even the $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan approved by Congress and the Bush administration last year was barely a drop in the bucket, noting that it was only a tiny fraction of the money spent on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The stakes in Mexico are enormous," McCaffrey warned. "We cannot afford to have a narco state as a neighbor. Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism."

The consequences of US failure to act decisively in support of Calderón's drug war would be dire, McCaffrey warned. "A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the US border to escape the domestic misery of violence... and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state."

This week, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff jumped on the bandwagon. In their report, The Joint Operating Environment 2008, which examines global threats to the US, the Joint Chiefs warned that Mexico was one of the two countries most in danger of becoming a failed state. The other was Pakistan.

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely," the report noted, "but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

But for all the dire warnings of doom, the incoming president gave little sign that he would do anything other than stay the course. Nor did he suggest in any way that he would make a radical break with US drug policy on the border. Obama has stated publicly that he supports the Mérida Initiative aid package, and Monday he limited his public remarks to generalities.

Noting the "extraordinary relationship" between the US and Mexico, Obama added: "Not only did we talk about security along the border regions, how the United States can be helpful in Mexico's efforts, we talked about immigration and how we can have a comprehensive and thoughtful strategy that ultimately strengthens both countries."

Despite taking his first meeting with a head of foreign state with President Calderón and pledging renewed cooperation, and despite the chorus of cassandras crying for more action, analysts consulted by the Chronicle said that given the raft of serious problems, foreign and domestic, facing the Obama administration, Mexico and its drug war are likely to remain second-tier issues. Nor is the Mérida Initiative going to be much help, they suggested.

"Obama is busy with other pressing issues," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "He just doesn't have the space and will to take on this other fight in Mexico."

On the other hand, the border violence frightening US policy makers is largely "a self-inflicted wound," Tree said. "Mix together high domestic demand here, prohibition economics, and a tough law and order approach, shake vigorously, and you have a disaster cocktail. It's not like we didn't warn them," he said.

Also, Tree noted, despite the rising alarm in Washington, there is little interest in opening a new front on the southern border. "Who has the stomach to take this on right now?" he asked. "Who is clamoring for this outside of institutional actors who want to protect their budgets? There is a lot of war-weariness and budget shock in this city, and that might leave some openings" for reform, he said.

"Probably not much will come of that meeting," said Tomás Ayuso, Mexico analyst for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Calderón was pleading for Obama to put Mexico at the top of his list of priorities, but given what Obama is facing, the Mexican drug war is not at the top of his agenda."

Still, the situation in Mexico is serious and could get worse, Ayuso said. "If this isn't addressed now, Mexico could really descend into chaos. The drug cartels have virtually unlimited funding, their coffers are overflowing. The shadow economy in which they operate is booming, their operatives are armed to the teeth, and the next step is to set up a shadow government. It's very easy for them to influence people. They say: 'Accept our bribes or we'll kill you and your family.'" Ayuso said. "It's pretty effective."

"This meeting looked mostly like generalities, but Obama has said repeatedly during the campaign that he supports the Mérida Initiative, and that will most likely continue during his administration," said Maureen Meyer, Mexico analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America. "With more and more reports lately painting Mexico as a security crisis, we are seeing a recognition by the new administration that this is a priority, and it will continue cooperating with Mexico."

But the looming crisis on the border and in Mexico could provide openings for reform, Meyer said. "We hope to have more openings to reopen the debate on US drug policy internationally, and Mexico could give us the opportunity to look at what has and has not worked in the Andean region and Mexico as well," she said.

That debate could include modifications to the Mérida Initiative, which is heavily weighted toward military and law enforcement equipment and training, said Meyer. "Congress has reiterated its support for the Mérida Initiative, but we've also seen a tendency to redirect funding toward arms trafficking going south and demand here in the US. The Congress will also, we hope, start to look away from sending more equipment and toward more support for institutional reforms. Helicopters aren't going to have any impact on Mexico's underlying problems," she said.

The violence in Mexico could help further weaken already eroding support for US drug policy in the hemisphere as a whole, said Ayuso. "In Latin America, where most of the suffering is happening, many countries are asking whether the Washington-led war on drugs is the answer," he said. "That's something Calderón himself has brought up, but Obama is probably not going to budge on that. Still, the chorus is growing. More and more people want to reevaluate the drug war."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District," by Peter Moskos (2008, Princeton University Press, 245 pp., $24.95 HB)

Immortalized by the hit HBO series "The Wire," Baltimore's Eastern District is one tough neighborhood in one of the country's toughest towns. With some 45,000 residents, almost entirely black, it generates 20,000 arrests a year, the vast majority of them drug-related. It's a tough, gritty neighborhood with widespread poverty, open-air drug markets, a healthy heroin (or "hair-on" in Eastern District-speak) habit, and all the attendant problems associated with those ills.

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For a bit more than a year, the Eastern District was Peter Moskos' beat. The Harvard educated sociologist (now on the faculty of City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice) with an interest in police socialization joined the Baltimore Police Department to become a "participant-observer" on the sociology of policing in that department, enabling him to achieve a degree of intimacy with his fellow officers rarely achieved by outside academics.

For Moskos, and for his readers, his sojourn on the mean streets has paid off handsomely. Moskos got a book deal (and presumably a dissertation) out of his experiences, and we readers get a real treat. The uniformed Moskos -- he served exclusively as a beat officer -- was able to win the trust and fellowship of his colleagues, and in so doing, he was able to open a window on what it is like to be a police officer in the drug war.

I would imagine that most Drug War Chronicle readers -- LEAP members excluded -- have little knowledge of or empathy for the men in blue. The cops, after all, are the front line in the drug war. And, as Moskos reports, drawing on extensive notes, the drug dealers and users of the Eastern District are relatively easy pickings for police officers looking to generate arrest statistics.

"In high drug areas, there is no shortage of drug offenders to arrest," he writes. "The decision to arrest or not arrest becomes more a matter of personal choice and police officer discretion than of any formalized police response toward crime or public safety."

Not only do police routinely arrest suspect Eastern District residents -- for loitering, if nothing else -- they almost universal despise them and their drug habits. Moskos really shines at getting his comrades to speak openly and honestly about their attitudes, and in that sense, "Cop in the Hood" is as revelatory as it is sometimes disturbing. Such attitudes may be deplorable, but they are also understandable. When all you see is the worst of humanity, it's easy to get alienated. As one officer put it, "You don't get 911 calls to tell you how well things are going."

But not all beat officers are eager to arrest drug offenders. As Moskos details, the cops get frustrated by the revolving-door that sees drug offenders sent to county jail on arrest only to be spit out a few hours later or to have drug dealing charges reduced to simple possession because prisons are packed and prosecutors overworked. (Moskos observes that the drug war would grind to a halt if drug offenders uniformly demanded jury trials. Now, there's a reason to unionize drug users!)

Police officers don't want to be social workers, Moskos reports, and they are not interested in the root causes of drug use and attendant social ills. What they are interested in is doing their job with a minimum of hassle (from the streets or their superiors), returning home safely each night, and retiring with a nice pension. That means that for many officers, high drug arrest numbers early in their careers will drop off over time as they confront a combination of a sense of futility, overtime, and paperwork. As one officer put it:

You'll get out there thinking you can make a difference. Then you get frustrated: a dealer caught with less than 25 pieces will be considered personal use... Or you go to court and they take his word over yours. You're a cop and you're saying you saw something!... After it happens to you, you don't care. It's your job to bring him there [to court]. What happens after that is their problem. You can't take this job personal. Drugs were here before you were, and they'll be here long after you're gone. Don't think you can change that. I don't want you leaving here thinking everybody living in this neighborhood is bad, does drugs. Many cops start beating people, thinking they deserve it.

While Moskos by no means sugarcoats the behavior or attitudes of his coworkers, his reporting will undoubtedly help readers attain some understanding of how they got that way. "Cops in the Hood" is also useful for understanding the bureaucratic grinder facing police officers in large urban departments, where they are caught between pressures from above for more arrests, from Internal Affairs to do it by the book, from the neighborhoods to clean out the riff-raff and from the same neighborhoods to respect the civil rights of residents.

Moskos brings the added advantage of not writing like an academic. "Cops in the Hood" is engaging, even riveting, and makes its points straightforwardly. Yes, Moskos references policing theory, but he does so in ways that make it provocative instead of off-putting.

He also includes a well-researched and -written chapter on the evils of prohibition -- it's subtitled "Al Capone's Revenge" -- but in this case, it's hardly necessary. Like a good student listening to his English composition instructor, Moskos has shown us and he really doesn't need to tell us. Still, it is a strong chapter.

Moskos writes about his experience as a beat officer. That's a different animal from the largely self-selected group of police cowboys who end up in drug squads and SWAT teams. I have less sympathy for them, but that's another book, not this one.

People interested in the nitty-gritty of street-level drug law enforcement need to read this book. Criminal justice students and anyone thinking about becoming a police officer need to read this book, too. And the politicians who pass the laws police have to enforce (or not), need to read this book as well, although they probably won't.

Latin America: Mexico's PRD May Call for Legalization

According to Mexican press reports this week, Mexico's Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD -- Democratic Revolution Party) is preparing to consider legalization of the drug trade as a response to the wave of narco-violence that has swept the country in the last year and a half. Around 5,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderón escalated Mexico's long-running drug war by enlisting the military in the fight in December 2006.

PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency in 2006, and the party remains the second strongest political force in the country, behind the ruling Partido Acción Nacional (PAN -- National Action Party). But because of party infighting since that election, the PRD may drop into third place after this year's midterm elections, behind both the PAN and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI -- Revolutionary Institutional Party).

According to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, the PRD's national council is calling on the party's legislators to begin discussing legalization as part of a "grand national accord" to deal with violence and insecurity in the country. The proposal came from the PRD's New Left faction, led by Jesús Zambrano, and was approved unanimously by the national council.

In an interview with Mexico's Televisa TV network, the PRD coordinator in the lower house, Javier González Garza, upped the ante, saying legalization should be considered not only in Mexico, but also in the US. "We can't continue thinking that we are going to combat the problem of drug trafficking without more radical measures, and one of them has to be the legalization of drugs in the United States," he said. "After the United States will we continue with Mexico? Of course, or both at the same time... This war, the way it is outlined, is going to be lost, we're all going to lose, it makes no sense and there need to be some changes."

Some 25,000 Mexican army troops are fighting drug traffickers along the border and in a number of major cities and drug-growing areas. Many observers blame the spike in violence -- more people have been killed already this year than in all of last year -- on the aggressive stance of the Calderón government. But the US government is pleased; it recently passed a $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico, most of which will go to beefing up military and police capabilities.

At the Shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's Narco-Saint

You don't find Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa, in the tourist guide books for some reason. But it is a thriving city of more than a million, and it is the home of one of the stranger manifestations of the drug wars of the last few decades: The shrine to San Malverde, (unofficial) patron saint of bandits, and now, drug traffickers. shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacan, Sinaloa -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from "the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona" (more pictures below the fold) I visited the shine in the heat of the afternoon sun today. During the half hour or so I was there, a few dozen people came to light candles to the santo, pay their respects, or otherwise recognize his alleged powers of protection. A handful of musicians for hire hung around, waiting for someone to pay them to play a tune to the saint, and about a dozen vendors sold San Malverde memorabilia--candles, plaques, good luck amulets, prayer cards, and the like. (Hmmm, do I feel an idea for a StoptheDrugWar.org premium gestating?) The vendors told me that dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people arrive each day, some to pray, some to light candles, some to make donations, some to put up plaques:
"Thanks to God and San Malverde for favors received." "Thanks to God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for helping us move forward." "O miraculous Malverde, O, Malverde my Lord, Concede me this favor, And fill my heart with happiness."
Given the way Mexico's drug war is raging these days, I would imagine the good saint is getting a real work-out. Mexicans are so inured to the daily drug war death toll that the newspapers generally relegate it to box score-type accounts, but when you or a friend or a family member is working in the trade, you probably figure some supernatural help can't hurt. I'll spend the next few days here in Culiacan. I had wanted to go up to the drug-producing areas in the mountains nearby, but so far, everyone is demurring--it's too dangerous, they say. Nonetheless, I'll keep working that and see what happens. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I'll be attending and "International Forum on Illicit Drugs: The Merida Initiative and the Experiences of Decriminalization," organized by the brave journalists of the Culiacan news weekly Riodoce. While the other Sinaloa papers have largely gone silent in the face of threats and killings, Riodoce keeps plugging away. I'll be meeting with some of the Riodoce staff tomorrow, right after I meet with Mercedes Murillo, head of the local human rights organization the Sinaloa Civic Front, which just a couple of days ago filed what could be a historic court motion to have military personnel accused of crimes against civilians tried in civilian--not military--court. There have been several nasty incidents of soldiers killing civilians here since Calderon sent in the troops, and under current Mexican law, they seem to get away with it. Stay tuned. It should be an interesting week. And then it's back to Mexico City to visit Saint Death and attend the Global Marijuana Day demonstration at the Alameda. (more pictures below the fold) shrine of San Malverde, more plaques Musicians for hire -- they play for people making pilgrimages or offerings. the cathedral in Culiacan
Location: 
Culiacan, SIN
Mexico

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