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Texas Trooper Cleared in Chopper Drug War Killings

A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who opened fire from a helicopter on a fleeing pickup carrying what he thought was a drug load near the US-Mexico border, killing two Guatemalan immigrants, will not face criminal charges. A grand jury in Edinburg declined Tuesday to indict him in the deaths.

Hidalgo County prosecutors had presented the case to a grand jury after the killing stirred outrage not only from the Guatemalan government, but also among people concerned about lax rules for law enforcement use of deadly force from the air.

In the October 2012 incident, Trooper Miguel Avila was aboard the Department of Public Safety (DPS) chopper as it participated in the pursuit of the pickup. DPS said Avila believed the truck, whose bed was covered with a cloth, was carrying drugs, and that he opened fire to disable it because the fleeing vehicle was headed toward a school zone. (The shooting took place on an unpaved rural road.)

The truck crashed after being fired upon. Police found no drugs, but instead found nine Guatemalan immigrants and a teenage driver. Six of the Guatemalans were in the bed of the pickup covered by a cloth. Two of them, Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, were fatally wounded by Avila's gunfire.

While the two men's killer escaped criminal charges, the killing did force DPS to revise its policies on the use of force from the sky. Since February, troopers have been prohibited from shooting from the sky unless they are facing deadly force.

"A firearms discharge from an aircraft is authorized only when an officer reasonably believes that the suspect has used or is about to use deadly force by use of a deadly weapon against the air crew, ground officers or innocent third parties," the revised policy says. Reckless or aggressive driving doesn't count as use of a deadly weapon, the policy states.

Edinburg, TX
United States

Texas Man Shot and Killed in Drug Raid

Texas sheriff's deputies executing a narcotics search warrant shot and killed a Hidden Harbor Hills man Monday night. Daniel Richard Vasquez, 33, becomes the 28th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year and the second in the past week.

According to the Athens Review, relying on police sources, Henderson County Sheriff's Office investigators were serving the search warrant when a "confrontation" occurred between Vasquez and the officers. "During the course of the search, an HCSO investigator shot Vasquez," the newspaper reported.

Vasquez was transported to the East Texas Medical Center in Gun Barrel City, where he was pronounced dead. His body has been shipped to Dallas for an autopsy.

The sheriff's office has not released any further details, including whether Vasquez was armed or whether any drugs were found.

The killing will be investigated by Texas Rangers. Any further information will be released by the Rangers and the Henderson County District Attorney's Office.

Hidden Harbor Hills, TX
United States

California Cops Gun Down Unarmed Meth Dealer

Undercover police in Sunnyvale, California, shot and killed an unarmed alleged methamphetamine dealer last Wednesday afternoon. Juan Ruelas, 34, becomes the 27th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to NBC Bay Area News, citing police spokesmen, Ruelas was being investigated by the Santa Clara County Specialized Crimes Action Team (SCAT) and members of a DEA drug task force, whose undercover officers had purchased meth from him several times over the past month. Police set up another buy Wednesday afternoon at a Hobee's restaurant in Sunnyvale, and an undercover officer had just purchased a pound of meth from him when the shooting occurred.

Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety Captain Dave Pitts said that after the deal went down, Ruelas suddenly threatened the officer and said he had a gun. Then, Pitts said, Ruelas "made a movement that led the officer to believe he was reaching for a gun." No fewer than six officers on the scene then opened on fire on Ruelas, mortally wounding him. He died later the same day in a local hospital.

No gun was found.

In an earlier NBC Bay Area News report, a manager at the Motel 6 next door to the restaurant provided a different account. He told reporters that it looked like a driver had been pulled over for a traffic violation. The manager, John Carroll, said officers were shouting at a person in the vehicle to get out of the car. When that person began to comply, police gunfire broke out, he said.

Ruelas' family wants to know what happened, members told ABC News 7. "Our question was, you know, 'Was he armed?'" said Ruelas' sister, Maria Bunker. "And he just told my brother, 'no, we never found a weapon.'"

Bunker also questioned the police narrative of events. "The pictures that we see all over the media, they show his truck being boxed in," Bunker said. "He had a stroke recently so it's like, he wasn't going to run from them."

Police spokesman Pitts said the shooters were five Santa Clara police detectives and a sheriff's detective. The shooting is being investigated by Sunnyvale public safety investigators, who will forward their findings to the county district attorney's office for review.

Sunnyvale, CA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: "Our Lost Border" and "The Fight to Save Juarez"

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, eds. (2013, Arte Publico Press, 290 pp., $19.95 PB)

The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico's Drug War, Ricardo Ainslie (2013, University of Texas Press, 282 pp., $25.00 HB)

More than six years after then President Felipe Calderon unleashed the Mexican military to wage war against the country's wealthy, powerful, and murderous drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- Calderon is gone, but the unprecedented violence unleashed by his campaign continues largely unabated. The new administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto is claiming some successes, but lauding the fact that the killings are now going on a rate of only a thousand or so a month is more a sign of how far things still have to go than have far we have come.

While talking a good game about how his administration is going to pursue a different path from that of his predecessor, Pena Nieto has in fact largely maintained Calderon's policies. The military is still out in the field fighting cartel gunmen, the government still shouts out with pride whenever it captures a top capo (and it has captured three in the past six weeks), and Pena Nieto's plan for a national gendarmerie to replace the soldiers is busily vanishing before our eyes.

Rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, it still looks much like the same old Mexican drug war, even if it isn't garnering the attention north of the border that it did last year. The reason for that lack of attention now may not be nefarious. Last year was a presidential election year in both countries. For the US electorate, that meant the border and the Mexican drug war was an issue; for the Mexicans, the drug war came to define Calderon's tenure. Now, the elections are over and attention (at least north of the border) has turned elsewhere.

But for the people who actually live on the border, the issue isn't going away. And even if the violence, the corruption, and the criminality miraculously vanished tomorrow, the scars -- physical and psychological -- remain. Too many people have died, too many communities have been devastated, too many decapitated heads have been left in too many places. Local economies have been devastated, long-time cross-border ties, familial and otherwise, disrupted.

At best, one can say that Rio Grande Valley Mexican border towns like Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have already been through the worst of the conflagration -- like a forest after a wild fire, most of the combustible fuel is gone. The scores have largely been settled on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande: The Sinaloa Cartel has severely weakened its rival Juarez Cartel, the Zetas have nearly eliminated the Gulf Cartel. While only a couple of years ago, Juarez and the other valley cities were ground zero for the Mexican drug war, the fire has moved on, to place like Michoacan, Durango, and Chihuaha City.(Although, after these recent captures of cartel leaders, things could flare up again as rival underlings scramble to replace them and rival cartels scramble to take advantage.)

In The Fight to Save Juarez, psychoanalyst and multi-media documentarian Ricardo Ainslie details life in El Paso's sister city during the worst of the cartel violence, relying on a quite impressive series of interviews with then Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, human rights workers, state and federal government officials, cartel gun molls, and ordinary citizens. Ainslie provides a smart, detailed, and fascinating look at a city devastated by anarchic violence and the winking complicity that accompanied it.

One of his most striking achievements is to narrate the outbreak of war between the Juarez Cartel and the encroaching Sinaloans, and to locate the opening of hostilities squarely in the ranks of the Juarez municipal police. Ainslie makes painfully clear how corrupted the department was, with a high proportion of its membership doing double duty as La Linea, the strong-armed enforcers and executioners for the Juarez Cartel. It was those guys who were targeted by the Sinaloa Cartel, first with exemplary executions, then with invitations to switch sides, then with more executions of those police who refused their offer. And the gang war was on.

Ainslie deftly navigates the intricacies of state (not so much, thanks to a corrupted Chihuahua governor), local, and federal efforts to do something about the savagery and about the police department. The bloodletting in Juarez, already festering in the national imagination, became Mexico's issue number one after the massacre of neighborhood youth at a party in Villas de Salvarcar by cartel gun men, and Ainslie was there as Calderon and his ministers were forced to come to Juarez and take the heat for the results of their policies.

Ainslie brings nuance and subtlety to his reporting, illuminating political rivalries and the interplay of different levels of government, as well as the human suffering and economic disruptions involved. The Fight to Save Juarez clears away much of the murkiness surrounding what went on in Juarez during those bloody years beginning in 2008, and places the struggle there in the context of a society where just about everyone is complicit in one way or another in the gravy train that is the Mexican drug trade.

What Ainslie does not do is question drug prohibition. For him, drug prohibition is simply a given, and the answers to Mexico's problems with prohibition-related violence and corruption must come from somewhere other than reevaluating the drug laws. That said, his reporting is still a valuable contribution to understanding the realities of Mexico's drug war.

Similarly, the essays in Our Lost Border generally do not question drug prohibition. What they do do, with uneven degrees of success, is bring life in a war zone home at a very personal level. Whether is it Richard Mora lamenting the loss of the Tijuana of his youth or Diego Osorno writing about the wholesale abandonment of a Rio Grande Valley town to warring cartel factions in "The Battle for Ciudad Mier," these Mexican and Mexican-American writers describe a cherished past vanquished by a bloody, horrifying present.

And Our Lost Border is bilingual, the essays appearing in both Spanish and English. That is appropriate and even symbolic; Mexico's drug war isn't just Mexico's. As Americans, we own it, too, and for border Mexican-Americans or even as Anglos with cross-border ties, this isn't about violence in a distant land, this is about the binational community, friends, and family.

Neither of these books even pretends to be an anti-prohibitionist manifesto. But that's okay. They both help us achieve a richer, deeper understanding of what is going on on the border in the name of the drug war. We can draw our own conclusions.

Mexico's New Drug War Looks Like the Old Drug War

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came into office in December vowing to break with his predecessor's reliance on the Mexican military to fight the so-called drug cartels. He said he wanted to concentrate on lowering crime and increasing public security instead of making high-profile busts or killings of cartel leaders, and he said he would create a militarized national police force to replace the military in drug fighting.

But Pena Nieto announced last week that the new militarized national police force has been shrunk from 40,000 to 5,000, with his government citing concerns from civil society that the initiative should go through the legislature. And his administration clarified that only 1,400 members had so far been recruited, and the "national gendarmarie" would not take the field until July 2014.

Meanwhile, even though the government has been touting a 20% reduction in the number of drug war killings, the blood-letting continues at the rate of about a thousand dead a month, and the military continues to be deeply involved. The number of dead in Mexico's drug war since Felipe Calderon called in the military six years ago is now somewhere north of 80,000, with additional tens of thousands "disappeared."

And while the government has said it was shifting its focus from going after cartel leaders to reducing crime, it has scored three major victories against cartel capos in the last six weeks. Authorities detained Zetas cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Trevino, alias "Z-40," on July 15, followed by Gulf cartel leader Mario Ramirez Trevino on August 17, and over the weekend, they managed to roll up "Ugly Betty," otherwise known as Alberto Carillo Fuentes, the head of the battered Juarez Cartel.

The Juarez Cartel had fought, and apparently lost, a nasty turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, but remains a player in the country's drug trade. While the capture of leaders of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Juarez Cartel are significant, critics worry that their removal from the playing field will result in more violence as underlings fight to replace them.

The Mexican public is demonstrating mixed feelings over Pena Nieto's version of the drug war. According to an El Universal poll conducted last week, almost half thought that drug war violence had increased. Some 49% of respondents said it had, up nine points from February, while only 25% thought security had improved and another 25% thought things were about the same.

Still, only 34% said they thought Pena Nieto's strategy had made the country less safe, down from the 53% recorded in May 2012, during the last months of the Calderon presidency. And 59% said they had seen evidence of a new strategy, compared to 24% saying they saw no difference.

When it comes to restoring order and public safety, Mexicans were split on how to do it. Only 10% wanted more arrests and trials of cartel bosses, while 24% wanted to see the cartels smashed, and 27% said the priority should be to lower the violence.

Mexico

India Police to Spray Maoist Rebels' Marijuana Crops

Police in the eastern Indian state of Orissa said Friday they planned to use aerial spraying to eradicate marijuana crops cultivated by Maoists rebels, the Times of India reported. There was no mention of what agent might be used to kill the crops.

Maoist Naxalite rebels (platypus1917.org)
For decades, the Maoist rebels, also known as Naxalites, have waged a low-level guerrilla campaign against the Indian state beginning in West Bengal in the 1970s. Their presence has spread through eastern and southern India, and by 2006, they boasted 20,000 cadre in arms and another 50,000 in close support.

The Indian government went on the offensive against the Naxalites in 2009 and has managed to reduce the groups' presence and the number of casualties since then. But Naxalites remain an active force; in May, they attacked an Indian National Congress rally in Chhattisgarh, killing 29 people, including high ranking party members.

Police said Friday that farmers are growing marijuana at the behest of the Naxalites in remote districts where it is difficult for them to go, and that spraying would be the best option.

"Cannabis cultivation and its trade is a major source of income for Maoists. To clip their wings, we have to clampdown on cannabis cultivation," said a senior police official. "We are exploring the possibility of using aerial spray to destroy cannabis in remote areas of the state," he said.

Police, joined by excise, revenue, and forest service officers have already been eradicating pot fields, but managed to destroy only 1300 acres last year and 1500 the year before that. They said marijuana production was prevalent in Rayagada, Malkangiri, Gajapati, Kandhamal, Angul, Sambalpur and Boudh districts.

India

DEA Must Pay $3 Million in 2010 Killing of LA Teen

A federal judge Tuesday awarded $3 million to the family of an 18-year-old Los Angeles honors student who was gunned down by undercover DEA agents in a parking garage in 2010. But the judge also ruled the officers were not negligent in their actions.

Zachary Champommier (justiceforazac.blogspot.com)
Zachary Champommier died when he drove into a Studio City shopping center parking lot to meet a friend. Also in the parking lot were a group of undercover officers, including DEA agents and LA County sheriff's deputies and LAPD officers who had been deputized by the DEA.

The cops were discussing a search warrant they had just served when they observed Champommier's friend walking in the parking garage. Suspecting the friend was breaking into cars, they detained him. When Champommier drove up, he saw his friend being accosted by people he didn't know and attempted to drive away from possible trouble.

Officers claimed that Champommier's vehicle struck a deputy as he attempted to leave the scene. Officers opened fire, killing the 18-year-old honor student and "band geek."

Both the DEA and the LA County Sheriff's Department said the shooting was justifiable because Champommier had tried to run down an officer.

"The nature of [Champommier's] aggressive actions, actually hitting the deputy -- that is not someone who is without some degree of fault," Sheriff Lee Baca said shortly after the shooting.

Champommier's mother, Carol, filed a wrongful death lawsuit, charging that federal and local drug enforcement officers were reckless in shooting at her son, who she claimed posed no reasonable threat.

US District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the DEA agents did have reason to believe they were in danger, but acted recklessly in shooting at Champommier's vehicle as it passed them because at that point they were no longer in danger.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

South Carolina Man Is Latest Drug War Fatality

A Summerville, South Carolina man was shot and killed by police after allegedly engaging them with gunfire as he fled a traffic stop turned drug bust. Travis Miller, 22, becomes the 26th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to WCSC-TV Live 5 News, citing police sources, the incident began as an attempted traffic stop by city of Hanahan police. They were trying "to stop a motorist for a window tint violation a little before midnight" Monday, but the driver refused to stop. Instead, he led police on a short pursuit before pulling over.

When the vehicle stopped, police then said they smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle and ordered the driver and three passengers to exit the vehicle while they searched them and the car. Miller took off running with police in pursuit. Police said Miller opened fire on them as they pursued him. They returned fire.

Shortly thereafter, police found Miller dead in a wooded area. A handgun was found on him, police said.

The driver and the other two passengers were charged with marijuana possession, and the driver was cited for the tinted window violation. All three had prior drug arrests, and Miller also had an arrest history, but it wasn't clear what offenses he had been charged with.

The police officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

Hanahan, SC
United States

New Hampshire Cops Kill Man Fleeing Drug Sting

An undercover drug bust in a Weare, New Hampshire, shopping mall Wednesday night ended with the target of the bust shot to death as he attempted to flee. The as yet unidentified victim is the 25th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Concord Monitor and a press release from the state attorney general's office, several Weare police officers and two confidential informants were outside Dunkin' Donuts in Lanctot's Plaza on US Highway 114 doing a drug sting on the target, a suspected heroin dealer.

When officers attempted to detain the man, he tried to flee. Two officers then opened fire, wounding the man as he sped off in his vehicle. He made it about one hundred yards before crashing near an ice cream stand along the highway. He was taken by ambulance to a Manchester Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Police have not said why they opened fire. They have not claimed that the man was shooting or pointing a gun at them, or even if a weapon was recovered. They have not claimed he was trying to run them over and they feared for their lives. And they have not mentioned the seizure of any drugs.

The attorney general's office said the investigation into the killing was "ongoing."

Weare, NH
United States

Leahy Blocks Release of Some Mexican Drug War Aid

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, last week blocked the release of $95 million in funds destined to help Mexico prosecute its war on drugs, saying neither the US nor the Mexican governments had shown they had a clear strategy for moving forward.

Sen. Patrick Leahy
The money was appropriated as part of the Merida Initiative, a Bush-era plan to support the Mexican government's crackdown on the country's violent and powerful drug cartels. The Merida Initiative was a $1.4 billion, multi-year foreign assistance program, but it has had no appreciable impact on either the violence or the drug trade there.

"The whole things looks like coughing up money with no accountability," a Leahy aide told CQ Roll Call.

Leahy had originally blocked a $229 million State Department request for Plan Merida funding last fall, but the committee released $134 million in April after receiving a 2 ½ page explanation from State. The committee held up the remaining $95 million pending further information from the US and Mexican governments, but neither government had responded by last week, so last Thursday, Leahy reconfirmed the hold on the funds and called on both governments to define a joint strategy that could succeed.

"We received less than three pages of explanation," said the Leahy aide. "Senator Leahy does not sign away a quarter of a billion dollars just like that."

In addition to concerns over the lack of strategic vision, Leahy also has raised alarms about increasing human rights violations as the Mexican government handed a larger role to the military and about the issue of coordination and consultation. His aide said that lack of a clear difference in vision under new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto also contributed.

Washington, DC
United States

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