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Feature: Failed Drug War Policies in Mexico? Let's Try More of the Same

Mexico and its wave of prohibition-related violence were front and center in Washington this week as the Obama administration unveiled its "comprehensive response and commitment" to US-Mexico border security and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico to preach renewed support in the fight against the powerful drug trafficking organizations, but also to enunciate a mea culpa for the US role in the bloody situation.

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US Border Patrol
More than 9,000 people -- including more than 600 police and soldiers -- have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent out the Mexican armed forces to subdue the cartels at the beginning of 2007, with the pace of killing accelerating last year and early this year. Now, some 45,000 Mexican army troops are part of the campaign, including more than 8,000 that are currently occupying Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, which has seen some of the highest levels of violence anywhere in the country. More than 1,600 were killed there last year, and more than a hundred so far this year.

Calderon intervened in ongoing rivalries between various trafficking organizations, helping to turn what had been turf wars for valuable drug smuggling franchises into a multi-sided battle pitching the cartels against each other and Mexican police and soldiers. The prize is a cross-border smuggling fortune estimated at anywhere between $10 billion and $40 billion and based on Americans' insatiable appetite for the drugs it loves to hate (or hates to love).

On Tuesday, the White House presented its plan to secure the border, including the disbursement of $700 million in previously authorized Plan Merida assistance to Mexico, ramped up enforcement on the US side of the border, and an increased emphasis on demand reduction in the US.

The Plan Merida aid will provide surveillance and information technologies, training for rule of law and justice reform, assistance to Mexican prosecutors in crafting effective witness protection programs, and five helicopters for the Mexican Army and Air Force and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican Navy. Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security is bringing its numerous resources to bear, including doubling Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripling the number of DHS intelligence analysts working the border, beefing up Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff in Mexico, bringing more surveillance technology to ports of entry, bringing more drug dogs to the border, and targeting flows of guns and money south as well as drugs north.

The DEA is adding 16 new agents on the border to its current 1,170 already there and forming four new Mobile Enforcement Teams to go after Mexican meth traffickers, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is moving 100 agents to the border and continuing its program of tracing guns used in drug cartel violence. Even the FBI is getting in on the act by forming a Southwest Intelligence Group to act as a clearinghouse for all FBI activities involving Mexico.

"The whole package we announced today is not only about enforcement and stopping the flow of drugs into the United States and helping Mexico against these very brutal cartels, but it includes money for more drug courts and reduction in demand," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview Tuesday. "So, we look forward to working on the demand side as well as the supply side, but I'll tell you, where the Department of Homeland Security is concerned, it's all about border safety and security and making sure that spillover violence does not erupt in our own country."

Secretary of State Clinton sang much the same tune in Mexico this week, but also bluntly accepted US responsibility for the violence, saying that decades of US anti-drug policies have been a failure and that US demand for drugs drove the trade.

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Clinton's visit came as the chorus calling for change in US prohibitionist drug policies is growing louder. Last month, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico called on the US to radically reassess its drug policies, and increasing concern over the violence in Mexico and its spillover in US border states is only turning up the volume of the calls for legalization.

Law enforcement on the border wants much more help -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called for 1,000 more agents or even National Guard troops -- but Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr., head of the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Association, said the administration move was a start. "The plan the president announced is a help," said Gonzalez. "But we still haven't seen the plan that was supposed to be in place last year."

Gonzalez's remote Zapata County has not seen much spillover from the violence across the river, but that's not the case elsewhere, the sheriff said. "As chairman of the association, I hear regularly from my colleagues that what we are seeing is spillover that has been going on for some time -- extortions, kidnapping, robberies. What we're concerned with now is that with the squeeze on in Mexico, there will be even more spillover here."

While security officials and law enforcement were talking more drug war, other observers doubted that the initiative would have much impact on the cartels and could make an intractable problem even worse. But they also saw an opportunity to advance the cause of ending America's reliance on drug prohibition as the primary approach to drug use.

"This is not a major departure from what was budgeted under the Bush administration," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The most important assistance the US can provide is intelligence-related assets, as in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s -- CIA or NSA-type information that helps the Mexicans target the most violent and powerful of the traffickers. Providing financial assistance to help pay local police more is also helpful, but beefing up the border is largely symbolic and is responding to both legitimate concerns as well as media and political hysteria around this. This is not a departure, not a major new initiative."

"The biggest problem in all this is that Calderon's policies have thrown gasoline on the fire," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "It was utterly foolish of Calderon to get in the middle of a cartel turf war. Those people are all about making money, and the violence isn't going to decline until the cartels reach a modus vivendi among themselves. There are rumors they are trying to do that; they want the killing to stop so they can get back to business."

Neither should we take much comfort in Mexico's ability to occasionally kill or capture a leading cartel figure, said Tree. "It's like killing Al Qaeda's number three man," he laughed grimly. "All it means is someone below him is going to move up, or there will be a struggle to see who replaces him."

For Tree, the situation in Mexico is taking on the ominous aspect of Colombia in the 1990s, where the breakdown of public security led to vigilantism and death squad activity, the predecessors of the Colombian paramilitaries. "When people became to realize the state was powerless to stop prohibition-related violence, it opened the door for other criminal activities, including kidnapping, and what makes this really dangerous is that now the ability of the state to protect individuals comes into question."

But Tree also noted that the situation in Mexico is forcing American media and policymakers to at least address calls for drug legalization. "This is doing what Colombia and Afghanistan couldn't do, which is to bring the violence of prohibition right to our door step and rub our faces in it," said Tree. "Calderon got in between some hornets' nests with a fly swatter, and now people in both countries have to make a choice. Mexicans supported this at first, but when they realized this isn't ending but is instead getting worse, they asked why he picked this fight."

"I'm worried about the militarization of the border and the assumption that that will fix this," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "On the other hand, it seems to be causing a growing crescendo of people wanting to talk about drug legalization. It's as if a critical mass has been arrived at. The recent statement by the three Latin American presidents was a voltaic shock to get the discussion going, and with the violence in Mexico, one has to acknowledge that a preponderance of the evidence shows the present model for drug control is not working. Even though there is a huge, formidable self-interested drug prohibition lobby, the logic of legalization is becoming so compelling it becomes all but impossible not to address it."

That political space to discuss legalization is changing things, Birns said. "Organizations like my own, which were timorous about taking on this issue now feel much more at ease with the clear recognition that everything else has failed. The possibility of legalization has to be seriously reviewed, inspected, and debated now."

Nadelmann suggested the current crisis could and should open debate about effective demand reduction strategies. "If we want to help Mexico by reducing demand, and want to give the notion more than lip service, then we have to remove the ideological inhibitions that limit our ability to effectively reduce demand," he said. "A small number of drug users consume a significant portion of all drugs. The traditional answer is to get more serious about drug treatment and rehab, but it could also mean providing addicts with legal sources of the drugs they are consuming. We know it works with heroin; the same approach deserves to be tried with cocaine and meth."

"The other thing we can do," Nadelmann argued, "is to move in the direction of legalizing marijuana. We know have 40% of Americans in favor of it, and it's approaching 50% out West. This is the first time a furor over drug-related violence has been so powerfully linked with marijuana prohibition. That mere fact that so many law enforcement people are saying it lends it credibility. This is putting the notion of marijuana legalization as a partial solution to prohibition-related violence on the edge of the mainstream political discussion in the US. With the Ammiano bill in California, Barney Frank's bill waiting to be introduced, Sen. Webb pushing for his commission, the conversation is really bubbling up now."

And so it goes. As the prohibition-related violence in Mexico continues and as the US appears to be heading down the reflexive path of fighting drug war failure with more drug war, the prohibitionist consensus grows ever more brittle. It's a shame that so many Mexicans have to die to get us to shift the direction of our dialogue on drugs.

If You Hate Gun Control, You Can Thank the Drug War for Causing it


Escalating drug war violence in Mexico has brought recent attention to the fact that the cartels are often armed with American guns. The border is really a two-way street, with drugs moving north while cash and weaponry travel south. Here's Mexican President Felipe Calderon claiming that over 90% of the cartels' firepower comes from the U.S.



U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has proposed re-implementing the assault weapons ban and discussions are under way about what else can be done to curb the flow of American weaponry across our southern border. Naturally, opponents of gun control are concerned. The popular right-wing blog NewsBusters has a post criticizing media coverage of the issue, arguing that recent statements regarding the role of U.S. weapons in facilitating Mexican drug war violence have been widely exaggerated. The conclusion caught my eye:
Gun control doesn't work to stop crime. Just look at places that have very strict gun regulation. Like ... Mexico.
Just replace "gun control/regulation" with "drug prohibition" and you've solved the riddle of why conditions in Mexico continue to deteriorate. Of course, while the NewsBusters site is overflowing with gun rights advocacy, discussion of drug policy is nowhere to be found, save for an occasional jab at the pro-pot liberal media. It never ceases to amaze me that some people actually believe enjoying guns is a personal choice, but enjoying marijuana is not.

So let me spell it out: the drug war is a huge reason the new administration is looking at the gun issue. Drug prohibition has created a bloodbath in Mexico that is now spilling across our southern border. The problem is getting worse because our strategy of fighting it out with the cartels just causes more crime and violence.

Marijuana prohibition alone plays a staggering role in funding the drug war violence that may soon result in new domestic gun control measures, yet NewsBusters has repeatedly criticized the discussion of reforming marijuana laws. The bottom line is that if you oppose gun control while simultaneously supporting a prohibitionist drug policy that increases gun violence and prompts calls for regulation, you're shooting yourself in the foot.
 

Latin America: Mexico Prohibition Violence Catches Washington's Eye, New Initiatives Pending

When lawmakers in Washington managed to tear themselves away from the AIG bonus scandal, much of their attention this week was focused on Mexico. With prohibition-related violence there showing no sign of a let-up -- more than a thousand people have been killed already this year -- legislators held a number of hearings this week to assess the threat and see what the Obama administration plans to do about it.

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DEA Spanish-language poster targeting Mexican trafficking organization (2007)
At a joint hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations posed a direct threat to the US. Citing a recent Justice Department report, he said they have a presence in at least 230 US cities.

But Durbin also said some of the blame resides north of the border. "The insatiable demand for illegal drugs in the United States keeps the Mexican drug cartels in business every day," he said.

"The facts about what is going on in Mexico are staggering, imposing an enormous threat to the United States," concurred Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

In the face of increasingly shrill congressional demands to "do something," Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who oversees the border as head of the Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration is working on an integrated plan to address the seemingly unending violence, much of it taking place in the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexican cities on the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

He said likely measures would include efforts to clamp down on the flow of guns into Mexico, tightening border security, and increased support for the Mexican military. "I think we'll have good plans come out of this work this week," he said.

Renuart also hinted that the new plan could involve more boots on the ground in the border region. "Certainly, there may be a need for additional manpower," he said. "Whether that is best suited or best provided by National Guard or additional law enforcement agencies, I think, this planning team will really lead us to," he told the committee.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed some 50,000 troops in his war against the cartels, including some 8,500 who occupied Juárez and took over policing duties there last week. But Calderón's two-year-old offensive has only led to increasing levels of brutal and exemplary violence. More than 2,000 people died in the cartel wars in 2007, more than 5,000 last year, and the pace of killings this year should yield similar numbers.

But DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Plácido told the joint committee that the escalating violence was a "desperate attempt" by traffickers to fight off the government offensive. "DEA assesses that the current surge in violence is driven in large measure by the government of Mexico's offensive against these traffickers who, in turn, perceive themselves as fighting for a larger share of a shrinking market," he said.

With passage of last year's Mérida Initiative, the US has pledged some $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid to Mexico over the next three years. The first tranche of that aid has already been delivered, providing Mexico with helicopters and sophisticated surveillance equipment.

On Wednesday, in the week's first concrete action to crack down on the border, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was sending 50 Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to the border to try to cut down the flow of weapons headed south.

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.

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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.

Ironic: Canada Seeks Extradition of American Gun Dealer

The U.S. is a major source country for guns:

TORONTO -- Canadian officials have told the United States they want to bring a Chicago gun dealer to Toronto to stand trial on charges of smuggling more than 200 handguns across the border.

The case, which may be a first for Canada, appears to signal a harder line against gun smugglers as Toronto grapples with a rash of gang-related shootings that have claimed several innocent bystanders.

Seventy per cent of the crime guns seized by Toronto police have been smuggled into the country from the United States. [National Post]

For 3 years, the U.S. has been attempting to extradite Canadian marijuana reformer Marc Emery for shipping pot seeds to America. Meanwhile, we’re supplying Canada’s violent criminals with all the firepower they could ever need.

American guns are driving the drug war in Mexico and beyond, while we prance about self-righteously issuing certifications to other countries based on their level of cooperation with our international drug strategy. American weapons kill more people than Colombian cocaine ever could, yet we pass judgment on small countries that fail to conquer the black market drug armies that are fed with our drug money and armed with our guns.

Still, the problem is not our gun laws. The problem is drug prohibition, which creates an infinite international market for high-powered weaponry. It is really quite absurd to think that we live in a country that manufactures enough guns to kill everyone on earth tomorrow, yet we jail our own citizens for growing marijuana for personal use and we try to extradite foreigners for being nice enough to send us decent pot seeds.

Will Mexico's Drug War Violence Come to the U.S.?

A troubling alert from the FBI:

The FBI is warning that one of Mexico´s most brutal drug cartels is attempting to violently regain control of drug trafficking routes in the United States and has been ordered to engage law enforcement officers to protect their operations, according to an intelligence report obtained by The Washington Times.

Los Zetas, the enforcer of Mexico´s infamous Gulf Cartel, is reinforcing its ranks and stockpiling weapons in safe houses in the U.S. in response to recent crackdowns in the U.S. and Mexico against drug traffickers, said the FBI San Antonio Field Office's Joint Assessment Bulletin. The bulletin was dated Oct. 17 and was sent to law enforcement officials in the Texas region. [Washington Times]

As difficult as it is to imagine Mexico-level drug trade violence within our borders, it’s a much more likely outcome than, say, winning the drug war. The harder we push, the more bloodshed and disorder awaits us. And just as intolerable levels of violence have invigorated the drug war debate in Mexico, there is no doubt that increased casualties here at home would draw yet more attention to the role of prohibition in funding and sustaining violent organized crime. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Europe: Hashish Growers Fight Police in "Greece's Colombia"

Three Greek police officers taking part in a raid on a hashish plantation were ambushed and shot by suspected growers armed with AK-47s Sunday night, leaving one officer in critical condition with a head wound. The attack took place in the village of Malades on the Greek island of Crete, about nine miles from Heraklion, the island's largest city.

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Port of Heraklion, Crete
Sunday's shooting is the second serious attack by hash growers against police on the island in seven months. Last November, three police officers were shot and wounded when their convoy was headed to the village of Zoniana, just west of Heraklion. The Greek government responded with a massive police sweep and house-to-house searches. Police arrested 16 people in connection with the ambush and a series of bank robberies, but recovered few of the heavy weapons believed to have been used in that assault.

Crete has a longstanding tradition of gun-ownership, and weapons remain readily available despite police efforts to crack down. Marijuana growing is rife in remote mountain villages on the island. Marijuana growers and dealers routinely take pot-shots at police helicopters or vehicles patrolling their area, prompting the Greek media to refer to the region as a "Greek Colombia" and a "state within a state," according to Agence France-Presse. Local officials in Crete are often accused of protecting growers and traffickers, the agency noted.

As was the case after the Zoniana ambush, Greek police responded this week with another manhunt. Greek Police head Vassilis Tsiatouras ordered a contingent of police from Athens to the scene, including Greek SWAT teams, members of the criminology service, officers of the police drugs squad, and members of the homicide force. In all likelihood, their search will reach the same inconclusive results as before.

No Relief in Sight: Reynosa, Mexico, Military Occupation Yields No Let-Up in Drug War Violence

In the latest move in his ongoing war against Mexico's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- President Felipe Calderón last month sent some 6,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police into the cities on his side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Nuevo Laredo down to Matamoros. They disarmed the municipal police forces, who are widely suspected of being in the pay of the traffickers, established checkpoints between and within cities, and are conducting regular patrols in Reynosa and elsewhere.

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Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
The crackdown on the Tamaulipas border towns came after a bloody year last year. According to the Reynosa-based Center for Border Studies and the Protection of Human Rights (CEFPRODHAC), drug prohibition-related violence claimed 67 lives in Tamaulipas border towns last year. But it was only after a violent shootout in Rio Bravo (between Reynosa and Matamoros) last month that resulted in several traffickers killed and nearly a dozen soldiers wounded, and the cartel's retaliatory attacks on army patrols in the center of Reynosa the next day that Calderón sent in the soldiers.

Since then, the military occupation has put a damper on the economy -- and especially the nightlife -- of Reynosa and other valley border towns, but it hasn't stopped the killing. According to CEFPRODHAC, as of Tuesday, 18 more people have been killed in the Tamaulipas drug wars so far this year, accounting for the vast majority of the 25 killings overall. In Reynosa, a whopping 12 of the city's 14 homicides this year were related to the drug war, including one Sunday night.

If the army hasn't stopped the killing, it has brought the city's tourist economy to a near halt. Several bar and club owners in the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone near the international bridge said they had been ordered to close at 10:00pm by soldiers or police. They also said it barely mattered, because they weren't getting any business anyway.

"We used to have the Texans coming across to party," said one club owner who asked not to be named. "Now they don't come. They don't want to be harassed by the soldiers."

Workers in some of Reynosa's seedier industries -- prostitutes, strip joint workers, pirate taxi drivers -- even led a protest march two weeks ago, complaining that the occupation was making it impossible for them to earn a living. (A pair of Reynosa businessmen who absolutely declined to go on the record claimed that the march was backed by the narcos, but that is a charge that is yet unproven.)

While Calderón's resort to sending in the army -- more than 20,000 troops have been deployed to hotspots in the past year -- has won praise in Washington and even some support among Reynosans tired of the violence, it is also leading to a spike in human rights abuses, according to CEFPRODHAC. "We have had 11 complaints of abuse filed with us since the soldiers came," said Juan Manuel Cantú, head of the group's documentation office. "One in Rio Bravo and 10 here. People are complaining that the soldiers enter their homes illegally, that they torture them, that they steal things from their homes -- electronic equipment, jewelry, even food. The soldiers think they're at war, and everyone here on the border is a narco," Cantú complained.

CEFPRODHAC dutifully compiles and files the complaints, Cantú said, but has little expectation that the military will act to address them. The military opened a human rights office last month, but it has so far made little difference, he said. "Until now, there is no justice. When the complaints go to SEDENA [the office of the secretary of defense], they always say there are no human rights violations."

When the abuses come at the hands of the police or the military, victims or relatives will at least file complaints, even if they don't have much expectation of results. But when it comes to abuses by the narcos, the fear of retaliation is too great for the victims or their families to complain. "People don't want to talk about those crimes," said Cantú. "They won't talk to us or the official human rights organizations, they won't talk to the military, they won't talk to the federal police. They feel threatened by the narcos."

Paired with Brownsville and McAllen on the Texas side, Reynosa, Matamoros, and the other cities on the Mexican side are part of a bi-national conurbation with a combined population somewhere around three million. (Roughly 700,000 people in the McAllen area, 400,000 in the Brownsville area, 700,000 in Matamoros, another 500,000 in Reynosa, and a few tens of thousands scattered in between). Spanish is the most commonly heard tongue on both sides of the border. While the military occupation and the drug war violence (for the most part) is restricted to the Mexican side, the drug trade and the drug war are felt on both sides, albeit in different ways.

Mike Allen is vice-chair of the Texas Border Commission, a non-governmental entity that seeks to represent the interest of elected officials on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Among the commission's primary concerns are facilitating cross-border trade and fending off what it sees as bone-headed responses to concerns about security on the border.

Number one on the commission's list of complaints is the planned border wall, which is set to cut across South Texas, forcing landowners to go through distant gates to get to portions of their property beyond the fence and, according to unhappy local officials, damaging the environment without serving its stated purpose of controlling the border. Local officials and landowners are now engaged in legal battles with the Department of Homeland Security as the department threatens to exercise eminent domain to seize property for the wall.

"The wall is a huge waste of money," said Allen. "Those of us living here know that. The Mexicans will go over, under, or around it. But you have to remember that 99% of the people coming across that border are trying to get jobs. They're not criminals or terrorists or drug traffickers."

But some of them are, he conceded, pointing a finger at his own compatriots. "The reason we have so much drug trafficking here is that we have so many American citizens taking drugs," said Allen. "It doesn't matter what we do -- the drug trafficking will continue one way or another because there is such a demand for it in the US."

The drug trade has not adversely affected local economies, said Allen. That is perhaps an understatement. While the Lower Rio Grande Valley has high indices of poverty, it also has gleaming office towers, numerous banks, high-end specialty stores, thrumming traffic, and gigantic shopping centers like La Plaza in McAllen, where the JC Penney's store stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone -- customers and employees alike -- seems to be speaking Spanish.

"We have more banks here than we have 7-11s," former DEA agent and valley resident Celerino Castillo chuckled ruefully. "This is supposed to be a poor area, but everybody's driving Escalades."

But while the drug trade may not have hurt business along the border, the drug prohibition-related violence associated with it has -- on both sides of the border. "People hear about those shootings, and they don't want to cross the bridge into Mexico," said Allen. "A lot of Americans don't want to cross into Mexico, and that means some of them won't be coming here on their way," he said.

And while there is much noise about corruption in Mexico, that door swings both ways, said Castillo, who first came to public attention when he exposed US-linked drug-running out of El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base during the Central American wars of the 1980s in his book Powderburns.

"There is corruption on both sides of the border," said Castillo. "The drug war isn't about stopping drugs; it's about lining pockets. That's why this billion dollar aid package is just bullshit. We've been fighting this war for 30 years, and we're worse off than when we started."

Castillo regularly works gun shows in the area selling Vietnam-era memorabilia, and he said he regularly encounters cartel members there. "They're always showing up looking for weaponry," he said, "along with members of the Mexican military. It's very, very busy."

Some handguns are in high demand by cartel members, said Castillo. "They really like the Belgian FN Herstal P90 because they can easily remove the serial number," he explained. "These things retail for $1,000, but cartel buyers will turn around and pay $2,500 for them, and whoever takes them across the border gets $4,000 a weapon," he said.

Other, heavier, weapons and munitions are not available in the civilian gun market, but that just means the cartels use other networks, Castillo said. "The heavy weapons, the grenade launchers, the mass quantities of ammo are only available in military armories, here or in Central America. We sell tons of weapons to the Salvadoran Army, and it's my belief they're turning around and selling them to the cartels."

The drug trade thrives off poverty of both sides of the border, said one local observer. "In reality, you can put a lot of money into policing, but people have to eat, people have to survive," said Marco Davila, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas-Brownsville. "If there are no jobs, you have to do something. It's not just the drug trade, there is also prostitution, theft, and other forms of deviance."

What is needed on both sides of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is real assistance, not massive anti-drug programs for law enforcement, said Davila. "You can put that money wherever, but if the people are still hurting, it will be a toss-up whether it will work. The people who need money are not the cops and soldiers," he said.

CEFPRODHAC's Cantú agreed with that assessment. "That money isn't going to make us safe," he said. "It won't do anything good. If the soldiers get that US aid, it will only mean more violence. They are prepared for war, not policing. What we need are programs for drug education and prevention, even here in Mexico, but especially in the United States," he said. When asked about drug legalization, Cantú was willing to ponder it. "It might stop the violence," he mused.

On the Texas side, said Davila, a culture of poverty traps whole generations of poor Latinos. "Look at these kids in Brownsville," he said. "They have no hope. They've given up. They're not talking about trying hard. They're saying 'We're gangsters, we're gonna sell drugs.' People used to have tattoos of the Virgin of Guadelupe, but now she's been replaced by Scarface."

On the other side of the river, poverty drives the drug trade, too -- as well as illegal immigration. "The Mexicans are just broke, scared, and hungry. They have nothing else," said Davila. "If they don't want to go into an illegal trade, like drug trafficking, they come across the border any way they can. People are putting their lives on the line to cross that river," he said.

And many of them are paying the ultimate price. According to reports from Reynosa human rights watchers, 75 would-be immigrants drowned in the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros last year. Another five have drowned already this year.

And so it goes on the Mexican border. Just as it has for the past 20 years, when in yet another stark example of the law of unintended consequences, then President Reagan appointed Vice President George Bush to head a task force designed to block Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes. From that moment, what had previously been relatively small, local, family smuggling operations carrying loads of marijuana into the US began morphing into the Frankenstein monster known as the cartels.

Mexico and the United States are inextricably intertwined. A solution to the problems of drug abuse and the violent black market drug trade is going to have to be a joint solution. But few observers on the ground think throwing more money at Mexico's drug war is the answer.

When Cops Ask For Machine Guns, You Know the Drug War Has Failed

If the drug war supposedly reduces crime and violence, how come we keep reading things like this?
Citing a dramatic increase in the availability of high-powered, semiautomatic assault rifles -- like the one used Thursday to kill a Miami-Dade County police officer -- Miami Police Chief John Timoney has for the first time authorized patrol officers to start carrying similarly lethal weapons.

A burgeoning ''arms race'' between police and heavily armed drug gangs forced him to sign the new policy earlier this week, Timoney said. [Miami Herald]
It is just amazing that there are machine gun battles breaking out in major American cities, and drug policy reform is still considered a politically suicidal fringe position. Meanwhile, the prohibitionist peanut gallery continues to pronounce with pride the glorious progress we've made towards preventing people from partying.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney nails it:
''This is really a failure of leadership at the national level. We are absolutely going in the wrong direction here,'' Timoney said. 'The whole thing is a friggin' disgrace.''
I couldn’t have put it better myself, except he's not even talking about drug policy. He's referring to gun control, which wouldn't even be necessary if we stopped the endless brutally violent war we've decided to wage against each other on our own soil.
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