Glamorization of Criminality

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Heading Down Mexico Way

On Friday, once this week's Chronicle has been put to bed, I hop in the pick-up and head for Mexico for a month or so of on-the-scene reporting on the drug war south of the border. If all goes according to plan, I'll be spending a week in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros, the major Rio Grande Valley border towns on the Mexican side, where the Mexican government sent in the army a couple of weeks ago. After that, it's a week in Mexico City to talk to politicians, marijuana activists, academics, drug treatment workers, and others in the Mexican capital. Then, I'll head to the beaches of Oaxaca for a weekend, then up the Pacific Coast, stopping in the mountains above Acapulco to talk to poppy farmers, human rights observers, and whoever else I can find. A few hundred miles further north, in Sinaloa, I'll be trying to make contact with pot farmers, as well as seeing what the impact of the Sinaloa Cartel is on the ground in its home state. I will also, of course, be making a pilgrimage to the shrine of San Juan Malverde, patron saint of drug traffickers, on the outskirts of Culicacan. And then it's back toward Gringolandia, with a few days on the Tijuana side of the border, provided I have any money left by then. In the meantime, I'd like to share with you something that appeared last week but that got little attention. It's an analysis of drug situation in Mexico from Austin-based Strategic Forecasting, Inc, and it's pretty grim. Titled The Geopolitics of Dope, the analysis is a steadfastly realistic look at what drug warrior can hope to accomplish fighting the cartels. You should read the whole thing--it's very, very chewy--but here are the last few paragraphs:
The cartel’s supply chain is embedded in the huge legal bilateral trade between the United States and Mexico. Remember that Mexico exports $198 billion to the United States and — according to the Mexican Economy Ministry — $1.6 billion to Japan and $1.7 billion to China, its next biggest markets. Mexico is just behind Canada as a U.S. trading partner and is a huge market running both ways. Disrupting the drug trade cannot be done without disrupting this other trade. With that much trade going on, you are not going to find the drugs. It isn’t going to happen. Police action, or action within each country’s legal procedures and protections, will not succeed. The cartels’ ability to evade, corrupt and absorb the losses is simply too great. Another solution is to allow easy access to the drug market for other producers, flooding the market, reducing the cost and eliminating the economic incentive and technical advantage of the cartel. That would mean legalizing drugs. That is simply not going to happen in the United States. It is a political impossibility. This leaves the option of treating the issue as a military rather than police action. That would mean attacking the cartels as if they were a military force rather than a criminal group. It would mean that procedural rules would not be in place, and that the cartels would be treated as an enemy army. Leaving aside the complexities of U.S.-Mexican relations, cartels flourish by being hard to distinguish from the general population. This strategy not only would turn the cartels into a guerrilla force, it would treat northern Mexico as hostile occupied territory. Don’t even think of that possibility, absent a draft under which college-age Americans from upper-middle-class families would be sent to patrol Mexico — and be killed and wounded. The United States does not need a Gaza Strip on its southern border, so this won’t happen. The current efforts by the Mexican government might impede the various gangs, but they won’t break the cartel system. The supply chain along the border is simply too diffuse and too plastic. It shifts too easily under pressure. The border can’t be sealed, and the level of economic activity shields smuggling too well. Farmers in Mexico can’t be persuaded to stop growing illegal drugs for the same reason that Bolivians and Afghans can’t. Market demand is too high and alternatives too bleak. The Mexican supply chain is too robust — and too profitable — to break easily. The likely course is a multigenerational pattern of instability along the border. More important, there will be a substantial transfer of wealth from the United States to Mexico in return for an intrinsically low-cost consumable product — drugs. This will be one of the sources of capital that will build the Mexican economy, which today is 14th largest in the world. The accumulation of drug money is and will continue finding its way into the Mexican economy, creating a pool of investment capital. The children and grandchildren of the Zetas will be running banks, running for president, building art museums and telling amusing anecdotes about how grandpa made his money running blow into Nuevo Laredo. It will also destabilize the U.S. Southwest while grandpa makes his pile. As is frequently the case, it is a problem for which there are no good solutions, or for which the solution is one without real support.
This is the situation the Bush administration wants to throw $1.4 billion at in the next couple of years. Maybe it and Congress should be reading Strategic Forecasting analyses, too.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice," by Ethan Brown (2007, Public Affairs Press, 273 pp., $25.95 HB)

When a Baltimore hustler clothing line manufacturer and barber named Rodney Bethea released a straight-to-DVD documentary about life on the mean streets of West Baltimore back in 2004 in a bid to further the hip-hop careers of some of his street-savvy friends, he had no idea "Stop Fucking Snitching, Vol. I" (better known simply as "Stop Snitching") would soon become a touchstone in a festering conflict over drugs and crime on the streets of America and what to do about it.

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In a steadily rising crescendo of concern that reached a peak earlier this year when CBS' 60 Minutes ran a segment on the stop snitching phenomenon, police, politicians and prosecutors from across the country, but especially the big cities of the East Coast, lamented the rise of the stop snitching movement. Describing it as nothing more than witness intimidation by thugs out to break the law and get away with it, they charged that "stop snitching" was perverting the American justice system.

Not surprisingly, the view was a little different from the streets. Thanks largely to the war on drugs and the repressive legal apparatus ginned up to prosecute it, the traditional mistrust of police and the criminal justice system by poor, often minority, citizens has sharpened into a combination of disdain, despair, and defiance that identifies snitching -- or "informing" or "cooperating," if one wishes to be more diplomatic -- as a means of perpetuating an unjust system on the backs of one's friends and neighbors.

At least that's the argument Ethan Brown makes rather convincingly in "Snitch." According to Brown, the roots of the stop snitching movement can be traced directly to the draconian drug war legislation of the mid-1980s, when the introduction of mandatory minimums and harsh federal sentencing guidelines -- five grams of crack can get you five years in federal prison -- led to a massive increase in the federal prison population and a desperate scramble among low-level offenders to do anything to avoid years, if not decades, behind bars.

The result, Brown writes, has been a "cottage industry of cooperators" who will say whatever they think prosecutors want to hear and repeat their lies on the witness stand in order to win a "5K" motion from prosecutors, meaning they have offered "substantial assistance" to the government and are eligible for a downward departure from their guidelines sentence. Such practices are perverse when properly operated -- they encourage people to roll over on anyone they can to avoid prison time -- but approach the downright criminal when abused.

And, as Brown shows in chapter after chapter of detailed examples, abuse of the system appears almost the norm. In one case Brown details, a violent cooperator ended up murdering a well-loved Richmond, Virginia, family. In another, the still unsolved death of Baltimore federal prosecutor Richard Luna, the FBI seems determined to obscure the relationship between Luna and another violent cooperator. In still another unsolved murder, that of rapper Tupac Shakur, Brown details the apparent use of snitches to frame a man authorities suspect knows more about the killing than he is saying. In perhaps the saddest chapter, he tells the story of Euka Washington, a poor Chicago man now doing life in prison as a major Iowa crack dealer. He was convicted solely on the basis of uncorroborated and almost certainly false testimony from cooperators.

The system is rotten and engenders antipathy toward the law, Brown writes. The ultimate solution, he says, is to change the federal drug and sentencing laws, but he notes how difficult that can be, especially when Democrats are perpetually fearful of being Willy Hortoned every time they propose a reform. The current glacial progress of bills that would address one of the most egregious drug war injustices, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, is a sad case in point.

Brown addresses the quickness with which police and politicians blamed the stop snitching movement for increases in crime, but calls that a "distraction from law enforcement failures." It's much easier for cops and politicians to blame the streets than to take the heat for failing to prosecute cases and protect witnesses, and it's more convenient to blame the street than to notice rising income equality and a declining economy.

While Brown doesn't appear to want to throw the drug war baby out with the snitching bathwater, he does make a few useful suggestions for beginning to change the way the drug war is prosecuted. Instead of blindly going after dealers by weight, he argues, following UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, target those who engage in truly harmful behavior. That will not only make communities safer by ridding them of violent offenders, it will reduce the pressure to cooperate by low-level offenders as police attention and resources shift away from them.

Cooperating witnesses also need greater scrutiny, limits need to be put on 5K motions, cooperator testimony must be corroborated, and perjuring cooperators should be prosecuted, Brown adds. Too bad he doesn't have much to say about what to do with police and prosecutors who knowingly rely on dishonest snitches.

"It was never meant to intimidate people from calling the cops," Rodney Bethea said of his DVD, "and it was never directed at civilians. If your grandmother calls the cops on people who are dealing drugs on her block, she's supposed to do that because she's not living that lifestyle. When people say 'stop snitching' on the DVD, they're referring to criminals who lead a criminal life who make a profit from criminal activities... What we're saying is you have to take responsibility for your actions. When it comes time for you to pay, don't not want to pay because that is part of what you knew you were getting into in the first place. Stop Snitching is about taking it back to old-school street values, old-school street rules."

Playing by the old-school rules would be a good thing for street hustlers. It would also be a good thing for the federal law enforcement apparatus. It's an open question which group is going to get honorable first.

Feature: ONDCP Kicks Off Annual Summer Marijuana Scare Campaign With Report Linking Drugs to Gangs, Violence

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ONDCP TV ad ''flat''
Drug czar John Walters and his minions at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have kicked off the summer season with a report on teens, drugs, gangs, and violence. The report, part of ONDCP's widely criticized National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, links marijuana use to gang membership and links teen drug use to higher rates of violence and other anti-social activities. But the ONDCP report is raising a storm of disapproval from critics who charge it is misleading and intentionally obfuscatory.

"Teens who use drugs are more likely to engage in violent and delinquent behavior and join gangs," the report declared. "Research shows that early use of marijuana -- the most commonly used drug among teens -- is a warning sign for later gang involvement." After next warning that summer is a risky time and that "teens who use drugs are twice as likely to commit violent acts," the report got to a series of bullet points including the following:

  • Teens who use drugs, particularly marijuana, are more likely to steal and experiment with other drugs and alcohol, compared to teens who don't;
  • One in four teens (27%) who used illicit drugs in the past year report attacking others with the intent to harm;
  • Nearly one in six teens (17%) who got into serious fights at school or work in the past year report using drugs;
  • Teens who use marijuana regularly are nine times more likely than teens who don't to experiment with other illicit drugs or alcohol, and five times more likely to steal.

"This is such transparent nonsense that I'm almost speechless," said Bruce Mirken, the usually loquacious communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Marijuana doesn't cause violence and it doesn't cause criminality. Prohibition, however, does. That's the connection and that's exactly what they don't want to talk about. In that sense, this report is even more egregiously dishonest than most of what ONDCP puts out."

"It is incredibly ironic to see ONDCP simultaneously advancing the idea that marijuana causes laziness, which it has been doing for years, and then turn around and try to tell us that marijuana causes violence," said Scott Morgan, blogger for DRCNet. "It is also pretty shoddy to suggest a link between marijuana and gang membership. To whatever extent marijuana users are likely to join gangs, these relationships are facilitated by drug prohibition, which creates the black market in which these gangs thrive."

"That some kids join gangs has nothing to do with marijuana at all," agreed Mirken. "Our drug laws have handed the marijuana market to the gangs, and the association is a direct result of stupid laws. If we regulated marijuana like alcohol, those associations would disappear overnight."

In fact, the data linking marijuana use to gang membership is quite limited. ONDCP relied on one 2001 study of Seattle students to arrive at the conclusion that the two are linked.

"Walters and Murray seem to have their usual array of components at work here: an ad hominem attack against the 1960s, a bunch of supposedly pro-family pablum, an attack against those who take a different approach, and their typical twisting of data for the uninformed," groaned Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"What ONDCP is in effect telling us is that its billions of dollars worth of propaganda does not stop young people from using marijuana, and secondly, that a very small percentage of them go on to experiment with other drugs," said St. Pierre.

Pete Guither at the Drug WarRant blog took issue with the claim that drug users were involved in 17% of fights. "It all sounds scary, unless you actually look at it," he wrote. "If you look at the 2007 Monitoring the Future report, you see that the percentages of any teens who used drugs in the past year are: 8th grade (14.8%), 10th grade (28.7%), and 12th grade (36.5%). So to say that 17% of teens who got into serious fights report using drugs is not a particularly alarming thing. In fact, it appears by these numbers that teens who use drugs are actually less likely to get into serious fights."

ONDCP also seems to have trouble with the notion of cause and effect, said MPP's Mirken. "If you look at the studies of kids, the ones who are smoking marijuana or using drugs or alcohol at a young age are the ones that are already having problems, already not doing well in school," said Mirken. "It is not surprising that this troubled group of young people is doing all sorts of bad behaviors, but trying to pin that on marijuana is just absolute nonsense."

The report's release may have more to do with ONDCP worries about budget cuts for programs proven not to be effective, like the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, than with actual cause and effect relationships between youth drug use and anti-social behavior, suggested Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).

"It would appear that ONDCP has nervously pushed this out because they are terrified that congressional leaders are moving to cut the funding for many of their so-called anti-drug programs," said Angell. "They're grasping at straws, trying to get as much ammo as possible to defend their much-loved big budget items."

"This is just another shock report that ONDCP feels it needs to put out to get any press at all," said St. Pierre. "Everything ONDCP has done for the last five years is about whipping up fear, anxiety, and emotional contagion among parents to try to maintain the status quo and keep some part of the media reporting on this ridiculous report."

Even there, ONDCP had limited success. Aside from reports in several Philadelphia media outlets, where drug czar Walters held a press conference to announce the report, a lone Associated Press story was picked up by 65 media outlets, most of them TV news stations in small to medium markets. Only a handful of print media ran the story, and that includes one outlet in marijuana-phobic Australia and one in Great Britain.

But that won't stop ONDCP from producing more sensational but misleading reports, said NORML's St. Pierre. "We can set our calendars and know that about a week before school starts in the fall, we'll get the next big scare effort from ONDCP," he predicted.

Mexican President Blames US for Drug War

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Press TV
URL: 
http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=11883&sectionid=3510207

Editorial: Their Security Demands You Vote Repeal

This week a headline came out of Birmingham, Great Britain, of a type that particularly frustrates me. It's the type of headline that moved me to sign up with the fledgling drug legalization movement 13 years ago. "Criminal gangs are infiltrating Birmingham schools and children as young as nine are being used as drugs mules," as well as schools in Manchester and London, the Birmingham Post reports Education Minister Jim Knight as having told a House of Commons panel. "It is an emerging issue we want to nip in the bud before it becomes something genuinely worrying for parents and pupils," Knight said after the hearing.

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David Borden
How much does he want to nip it in the bud? Enough to brave politics and defy ideology? There's one sure way to end the problem -- legalization. But while they do talk about legalization a bit more in Britain than our politicians do here in the US -- the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, has raised the issue before -- they still don't talk about it enough. At least not enough yet to actually do it, despite how obvious a good move it would be.

Make no mistake, it is obvious. If the primary fear in the drug issue is that drugs put kids in danger, what about the very real danger kids are placed in once drawn into illegal drug gangs, or even as bystanders? But that problem exists only because of prohibition. For all the downsides of alcohol and cigarettes, for example, drugs as surely as any other, how often does one hear about kids selling them on the street, or in the schools to other kids?

It is an endemic problem, and "tough" enforcement is no solution. Back in the early 1990s, police in Boston, Massachusetts, did a major "sweep" of Mission Hill, a primarily African American neighborhood plagued by violence and disorder, much of it from the drug trade. A friend of mine spent a summer there as a teacher and mentor to a group of schoolchildren -- the summer after the sweep took place, as it so happened. There was a difference in the neighborhood, he told me, it was a lot cleaner than before, at least for awhile. But even then, the kids in his group would still get accosted on their way to and from school by drug gang members wanting them to do work for them, a troubling and disheartening phenomenon.

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WONPR poster (courtesy Hagley Museum and Library)
The legalization question came up in conversation when he and kids and parents were hanging out together one night as they often did. He expected almost everyone to be against it, but interestingly it was split about half and half. Also interestingly, the split was not generational -- there were kids who wanted the government to get tougher on the drug trade, and parents who wanted to legalize it all, and vice versa. His report made me wonder if we might have more support than we realize we have in certain communities.

Much is at stake here. If prohibition draws children -- as young as nine -- into the drug trade, at some point it also acquaints them with the guns that underground sellers use to protect themselves. Youth and guns don't always mix well, to say the least. A young person has more probability (on average) of actually using such a weapon in the fear or passion of the moment, or through a misjudgment, than an adult does (again, on average), even an adult criminal. Blumstein tentatively attributed the mid-1980s spike in violence, and the significant rise in youth gun ownership, to the combination of the crack trade -- which increased the number of sellers needed in the drug trade because the drug is short acting and addicts make more separate purchases of it -- and the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which increased the risk to adults in the drug trade and thereby the price they required to participate in it, and the incentive therefore to use minors who are not subject to the mandatory minimums and so would work more cheaply. Osmosing from that base, guns became more common in the youthful population at large. Unintended consequences, but not so unpredictable.

A famous poster from alcohol prohibition days depicts a motherly figure with children, reading, "their security demands you vote repeal." So it did then -- so it does now.

Latin America: Mexican Narco-Saint On the Move

In Culiacan, the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, long a hot-bed of drug cultivation and the drug trade, for decades narco-traffickers have joined common Mexicans in worshipping at the shrine of San Malverde (or San Juan Malverde or San Jesus Malverde). Malverde, a 19th century bandit who may or may not have actually existed and who may or may not have been hung in 1909, is a Robin Hood-like figure in Mexican culture, and is the unofficial patron saint of bandits and drug traffickers.

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San Malverde image on sale for $6.95, nicoworldbotanica.com
When the shrine to Sal Malverde began is unclear, but evidence of its popularity dates back decades. When Culiacan municipal officials moved to tear it down to make way for new city buildings in the 1970s, protests erupted until officials promised to replace it with a new, improved shrine.

As northwest Mexico's "narcoculture" spread -- if globalization exists in any industry, it is the drug trade -- so has the visage of San Malverde. The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found for sale in botanicas in the Carolinas and hanging from rear view mirrors in cars pulled over in Utah.

San Malverde's image also appears in prison cells across Mexico, in private shrines in residences, and tattooed on the backs of more than a few men. A second, smaller shrine to him appeared in Tijuana some years ago. Now, the first known public shrine to San Malverde has popped up in Mexico City.

Maria Alicia Pulido Sanchez, a housewife in the city's gritty Doctores neighborhood, has built a glass-encased shrine on a sidewalk near her home. For Pulido Sanchez, it was not San Malverde's succor for the narcos that inspired her, but because he helps poor people.

"He wasn't a drug trafficker. He was what you might call a thief, but he helped his community," she said. Although San Malverde is not recognized by the Catholic Church, Pulido Sanchez was not concerned. "We make our saints by the power of our belief," she said. "We can believe in anyone who fulfills our petitions."

Pulido Sanchez said she decided to build the shrine after her son recovered from injuries in a 2005 car crash in just days after she prayed to a statue of San Malverde belonging to a friend. While Pulido Sanchez may worship San Malverde for his aid to the poor and defenseless, some of the people coming by to pay homage may have other things on their minds. She said lawyers, policemen, and "men with big bunches of jewelry" frequent the shrine, along with housewives, secretaries, and "people from every walk of life."

A Look Inside Brazil's Drug "Commands"

Brazil, Latin America's largest and most populous nation gets surprisingly little press in the US. The mass media paid some attention back in May, when the country's "commands"--the criminal gangs formed in Brazil's prisons that control the drug trade and act as a de facto government in some of the favelas (ghettos) surrounding Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro--rose up in open rebellion against the Brazilian state. But since then, the silence in the US press has been deafening. Fortunately, not everyone in the English-speaking press is asleep at the wheel, and I want to use this opportunity to recommend an article from Britain's Observer magazine. Called Blood Simple, the piece by Tom Phillips is an interesting capsule history of the commands and a frightening look at the war between the state and the gangs. Here are the opening paragraphs, just to whet your appetite: "Blood simple Four months ago, the hostility between Sao Paulo's police and gangs erupted into violence - the result was open warfare. Tom Phillips reports from a city caught in a spiral of terror Sunday September 17, 2006 The Observer The taxi driver squints uncomfortably. 'It's like fire there,' he warns ominously, as I pass him the address on the eastern limits of Sao Paulo. We cut through block after block of grimy, graffiti-clad housing. Ahead, ragged shantytowns cling to the hilltops; behind us a trail of abandonment stretches back towards the city centre, in the form of empty warehouses and cracked windows. As we begin the descent towards our final destination, the driver looks nervously into his rear-view mirror. A police car's flashing siren ushers us to a standstill. Under the gaze of their Taurus revolvers we are hauled out of the vehicle, told to place our hands on the car roof and given an invasive frisk down. When we are finally sent on our way, after a 10-minute interrogation, the driver is apologetic. 'I had to pull over,' he mumbles. 'If you don't, they open fire.' Welcome to the periferia of Sao Paulo; the impoverished outskirts of one of the world's largest cities, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the megalopolis in search of gold-paved streets have been abandoned to their own dismal fate." There is much, much more about what is going on in one of the worl'd largest cities. Check it out.
Location: 
Sao Paulo, SP
Brazil

Drug Gangsters Immortalized in Song

The Associated Press reported Saturday on Colombia's "narco-ballads," songs that "pay lyrical homage to the lifestyles of the rich and dangerous: drug-lords, assassins, leftist rebels and far-right warlords," according to the story. Among the thugs being rhapsodized in song are two of the most murderous, Carlos Castano, who founded the infamous right-wing paramilitary movement that has massacred tens of thousands, and Pablo Escobar, who murdered hundreds of Colombia government officials and once had an airplane blown up in order to take out two people who were on it.
"These songs are about what's happening in our country, we sing about the paramilitaries, the rebels and the drug-traffickers and they all love it," said Uriel Hennao, the king of the genre, responsible for such anthems as "Child of the Coca," "I Prefer a Tomb in Colombia (to a jail cell in the US)" and "The Mafia Keeps Going."
One of the more pernicious consequences of drug prohibition is the glorification that ends up accruing to violent criminals. I don't know enough about the culture in Colombia and among the people who like this music to know whether they are listening in admiration of drug lords like Escobar and terrorists like Castano or simply because, as Hennao said, it's about what's going on in their country, so I'm not going to pass judgment on either artist or audience. But I don't think it's good for any country to be in that kind of a place. I wrote about this phenomenon here in the US (a situation not involving music, but the same cultural corruption idea) in February 2005 in Boston, before moving to Washington, the case of a gangster named Darryl Whiting who by the account of the prosecutor who put him away was someone who lured young people into lives of crime. The prosecutor, Wayne Budd, was the same guy who had brought federal civil rights charges against the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating. But getting Whiting off the streets, he said, was one of the things he was most proud of. I saw Budd speak on a panel at Harvard -- he predictably did not express agreement with my contention that legalization would have been the way to keep Darryl Whiting and people like him from ever getting into that position. But legalization is what is needed for that purpose. Alcohol prohibition turned Al Capone into a pop hero, and drug prohibition is doing the same thing to top-level gangsters now, even if they don't become as well known to mainstream, majority society as Capone did.
Location: 
Colombia

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