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Marijuana Votes Have Mexicans Talking Legalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two More Drug War Deaths Last Week

A Louisville, Kentucky, woman was killed in a high-speed chase as police pursued a drug suspect last Tuesday and a St. Paul, Minnesota, man was shot and killed by police officers trying to arrest him on crack cocaine charges that same day. Stephanie Melson, 31, and Victor Gaddy, 41, become the 52nd and 53rd persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to Louisville Courier-Journal, Melson was driving in her vehicle in West Louisville when it was struck by a pickup driven by a man later identified as Joseph Johnson, 63, who was being pursued by up to a half-dozen marked and unmarked police cruisers at high speed.

While Louisville police spokeswoman Alicia Smiley wouldn't initially confirm that a high-speed chase had taken place, she did say the incident began as a drug investigation. Detectives were investigating at 40th Street and Broadway when a pick-up fled the scene. Police pursued it several blocks before it ran a stop sign and collided with Melson's vehicle.

"They still have to review the in-car video," Smiley said. "They still have to interview the officers as well as the guy who's in the hospital [Johnson, the suspect]."

But eyewitness Nita Gardner told the Louisville Courier-Journal she was sitting on her front porch with a friend one house away from the intersection where the accident occurred when they saw Melson's car approach the intersection. At that point, she said, they heard sirens, "and at the same time, the truck just came and smashed her. He rammed her, which pushed her car all the way four houses down and she flipped," Gardner said.

Gardner said she blamed police for Melson's death. "If the police were not chasing that man, he wouldn't have did that. I don't think he woke up to say, 'I'm going to kill this woman," she said. "The truck came fast first, but the police car was right behind him -- not a second behind him, like right behind him," with five or six unmarked cars also following, she said.

Kerry King, the father of Melson's three children, told the Courier-Journal the next day that he held Johnson responsible for her death, but also the police.

"Just as the man who ran into her is responsible, the Louisville police department shares a responsibility too," said King. "These streets aren't that wide. They don't need to be flying through here. It's sickening and it needs to stop."

Police charged Johnson with murder in Melson's death. He is also charged with fleeing police, disregarding a traffic control device, two counts of trafficking in a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana, and receiving stolen property. Police said they found large amounts of cocaine in his vehicle and more cocaine and guns at his home.

Louisville police spokesman Dwight Mitchell said last Wednesday that the department's Professional Standards Unit would review whether officers complied with policies on pursuits. Those policies say police "must weigh the immediate danger or the potential danger to the public, should the suspect be allowed to remain at large, against the danger or potential danger created by the pursuit itself."

"Every pursuit is always evaluated to see what could have been done differently," Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, undercover Minneapolis police had enlisted the help of St. Paul police to stop Gaddy, whom they had been informed was delivering crack cocaine. When unmarked police cars boxed in Gaddy's vehicle, police said he rammed into the police cars in front of and behind him.

Gaddy "accelerated rapidly toward one of the police vehicles, striking it and nearly pinning a St. Paul police officer between the suspect vehicle and the police vehicle," then reversed and rammed another vehicle, police said. "Several officers were in harm's way while the driver of the suspect vehicle appeared to use his car as a weapon," leading officers to shoot him.

But Gaddy's nephew, Terrence Wilson, 20, who was a passenger in the car and whom police have charged with drug possession, disputes the police account, his attorney said.

"He thinks the police murdered his uncle and doesn't think his uncle was doing anything aggressive to police," attorney Bruce Wenger said. "The police felt threatened, apparently, by his (Gaddy's) driving, but my client has said his uncle was not using his car as a weapon as the police have indicated."

Gaddy had a long criminal history with several drug convictions and was known as a crack supplier by Minneapolis police. They found nearly an ounce of crack in and around his vehicle after the shooting.

His older sister, Rayela Gaddy, told the Pioneer Press said she wouldn't "paint some pretty picture" of him but said he wasn't a "menace" as police portrayed him. "A lot of people do things they shouldn't do, but as far as being a 41-year-old man who is executed in the middle of the street, who is unarmed, who is in his car -- whatever kind of person he was, it didn't justify killing him," she said.

Gaddy said she didn't think her brother would try to escape police or ram their cars. "I think he knew the procedure," she said of his having being arrested before. She added that the family would pursue justice for her brother in the courts.

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Dear Drug War Chronicle reader:

With marijuana legalization initiatives heading to the ballot, some with a good chance of passage, and with growing international support for a real debate on prohibition, people are talking about drug policy like they never have before. And so two of our three new offers for donating members come from the academic world rather than activist reformer circles: Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know and Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition.

This is also a time of continuing outrages in the government's drug war, including the federal campaign against medical marijuana. And so our third new offer is the DVD Lynching Charlie Lynch, by director Rick Ray, telling the story of one of California's most respected and responsible medical marijuana providers, now facing time in federal prison. (Follow the three links above for Drug War Chronicle reviews of each of these works.)

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Baltimore Police Change Story on Drug Custody Death

A 46-year-old Baltimore man died Friday night after allegedly swallowing drugs as police attempted to arrest him. The as yet unidentified man becomes the 47th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

[Update: The man has been identified as Anthony Anderson, a black male. The police story has evolved. The original version follows below. The updated version appears after that.]

According to Baltimore police spokesman Donny Moses, officers observed the man selling drugs at the corner of Montford and Biddle Streets early Friday evening. As they attempted to place him under arrest, he placed an unknown amount of drugs in his mouth and swallowed. Within minutes, he became ill.

Police transported him to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center for treatment, but he was pronounced dead a short time later. The cause of death has yet to be determined.

Not everyone is buying the police version of events. One local minister told the Baltimore Sun he is investigating what happened.

"There are some sharp differences between the accounts of the eyewitnesses and what we're hearing from the police," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, local leader of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference. "We have tremendous concerns about what took place," Witherspoon said, adding that he would not characterize them until he has more information.

Baltimore police said investigations are underway by both the homicide and the internal affairs divisions.

[Update: The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that police revised their initial account Monday, saying the cause of death was unclear pending an autopsy. Police also acknowledged that Anderson had physical injuries, including at least one broken bone.

The Sun also reported that "an account that describes Anderson being manhandled by police has whipped through the neighborhood, and those who have had encounters with police say it fits into their perception of overly aggressive drug police they refer to as 'knockers.'"

Dozens of people rallied Tuesday at the trash-strewn field where Anderson died, where activists said they saw the incident as yet another reason for their ongoing protests against police brutality and corruption. They called for city residents to attend Anderson's funeral as small children held signs reading"Jail Killer Police."]

Activists leading the rally Tuesday — the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon and Sharon Black, who represents All People's Congress — said they want to use the incident to step up their ongoing protests against what they say is police brutality and corruption.

They've called for residents across the city to attend Anderson's funeral and march through the streets afterward. Small children held signs that read "Jail Killer Police."

Police said they continued to investigate and asked for patience.].



 

Baltimore, MD
United States

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: The Lebanese Connection

The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall (2012, Stanford University Press, 261 pp., $24.95 HB)

It's harvest time in Lebanon right now, and Shiite farmers in the Bekaa Valley are out working their fields, preparing to turn thousands of acres of cannabis plants into hashish, the Red Lebanese and Blond Lebanese for which the tiny Middle Eastern country is famous. And with the harvest comes conflict, as the country's anti-drug agency and the Lebanese Army head out into the fields to try to eradicate them.

The Chronicle reported at the beginning of August about hash farmers firing machine guns and RPGs at eradicators, vandalizing tractors and bulldozers used to plow under the fields, and organizing street blockades in cities in the valley. Protests broke out in Yammouneh, Baalbek, and Boudai, and authorities backed off, announcing a week later that they would form a committee to study development issues in the Bekaa. And the harvest goes on.

Of course, it wasn't just farmers' resistance that hampered the eradication effort this year. The Bekaa Valley, with its Shiite tribes, sits right next door to Syria, currently embroiled in a brutal civil war now based largely on sectarian and confessional divisions, many of which echo profoundly in Lebanon. In fact, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria until the French carved it out under a League of Nations mandate in 1943. Now, it has seen outbreaks of street fighting between rival pro- and anti-Assad militias in Tripoli, the largest city of the Lebanese north, as well as kidnapping by Shiite tribal militias after some of their number were kidnapped by Sunni militias on the other side of the border.

"Our policy is very clear. We want to demolish all of the hashish cultivation in the Bekaa," Col. Adel Mashmoushi, head of the office of drug control, tells the Lebanon Daily Star a couple of weeks ago, before quickly adding that eradication had been enfeebled this year because "the situation in the Bekaa is very delicate right now" due to "the political and security situation caused by Syria."

Mashmoushi said his men had managed to destroy only about 1,500 acres of cannabis fields out of what he estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 acres planted in the northern valley.

But, as global drug trade scholar Jonathan Marshall makes clear in his masterful and highly informative The Lebanese Connection, despite the terrifying sectarian war next door, the violent echoing clashes in Tripoli, and the Bekaa farmers' and traders' violent defense of their industry, this is a relatively quiet time in Lebanon's history in the international drug trade. According to his elaborately sourced estimates, Lebanese hash production was at level five to seven times higher during the period on which he focuses, the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.

In fact, relying heavily on archival State Department, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and DEA documents, among other sources, Marshall shows that the tiny sliver of the Levant that is Lebanon was a giant in the drug trade going as far back as the 1950s and a significant hash producer as early as the end of World War I.

Its largest market back then was Egypt, which had been supplied by Greek growers. But when the Greeks banned cannabis planting in 1918, poor Shiite farmers in the Bekaa took up the slack, and they haven't stopped growing ever since. Production boomed during the civil war and was banned in 1992 after the return of a central government, but it has never stopped. Eradication programs have been half-hearted, ill-conceived, and met with hostility, and promised alternative development schemes somehow never seem to materialize.

But it wasn't just hash, either. With Beirut a rising financial center for the Middle East and the center of global networks of Lebanese traders, Marshall shows definitively how it also became a center of the global drug trade. Opium skimmed from legal production in Turkey was smuggled into Syria by Kurds, transmuted to morphine base by Syrian chemists in Aleppo, smuggled into Lebanon by various means and various actors, transported through seaports controlled by Christian politicians to be delivered to French (later, Italian) organized crime groups, whose chemists refined it into heroin, and whose international networks, including American mobsters, sent it on the veins of consumers in the West.

In a history replete with ton-plus hash busts and multi-kilo heroin seizures, Marshall works his way through the underworld of Lebanon-based drug trafficking, its connections abroad, its crime bosses and political allies, both foreign and domestic. Along the way, he exposes the hypocrisy and cynicism of numerous nations, who with one hand raged against drugs, while with the other were complicit in--or at least looked away from--the billion-dollar a year business.

Marshall excels at seeing through the smoke of the murky milieu where all this took place. And what a milieu! Beirut in the mid-20th Century was a decadent, cosmopolitan oasis in the desert of Middle East culture, home to Westernized Arab princes, anything-goes nightclubs, lavish casinos, and European prostitutes. It was also awash in spies, arms dealers, and adventurers -- the Cold War Russian and American intelligence services, the French, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Turks, and, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a flashpoint of the brewing proxy war between the Shia Islam of Iran and the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

And Lebanon was a weak, communally divided state operating under a political agreement that divvied up key political positions by sect -- the Christian Maronites got the presidency and the leadership of the armed forces, the Sunnis got the prime minister's office -- but froze those divisions even as the demographic makeup of the country shifted toward its Muslim communities, not to mention an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Israel, and later, Jordan after the Hashemite kingdom drove out the PLO in 1970.

A weak central state, rising sectarian tensions, highly profitable drug smuggling operations, external manipulation by any number of foreign interests, and a tradition of corruption in government came together in a perfect storm as Lebanon imploded into civil war in 1975, not to emerge from it for 15 years. When it came to the role of drugs in the conflict or to arming the various factions, Marshall shows definitively that nobody had clean hands.

As the Lebanese economy crumbled amidst the violence, the importance of the illicit drug economy became all the more critical for the militias: they relied on drug profits to pay their soldiers and buy their weapons. The global drug trade may not have been the cause of the conflict (although it was a cause -- Marshall cites incidents of precursor violence between Christian and Palestinian militias over drug deals that helped ratchet up the tension), but he shows that it was profits from the trade in prohibited drugs that allowed the contending factions to make the war deadlier and longer than it otherwise would have been.

He also shows that some of the most deadly fighting was not for sectarian reasons, but over control over lucrative drug smuggling routes and, especially, ports. And, paradoxically, he shows how complicity in the drug trade overcame sectarian and even regional divisions: Syrian soldiers patrolling the Bekaa turned a blind eye to Shiite hash farmers, who trafficked their product with the connivance of Christian Maronite warlords. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence turned a blind eye to hash smuggled into and through Israel by its allies in the South Lebanon Army or by other traffickers from whom it thought it could glean intelligence.

The Lebanese Connection is too dense with chewy information to do more than touch on its contents in a review, but it is a sterling contribution to the academic literature on the global drug trade, having made a truly original contribution.  It also opens a revealing view not only on the contemporary Middle East, but contemporary terrorism, covert operations by state and non-state actors, and the making of narco-states and failed states.

It's also a very timely book, appearing as Syria bursts into flames. Syria is Lebanon writ large: many of the same ethnic and sectarian divisions are at play, as is the international meddling at several levels of proxy war, with familiar faces like the US, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all seeking to influence the outcome and doing goodness knows what behind the scenes. Syria, however, is not a major global drug trade hub, but careful followers of the  situation there will have noted the occasional accusations -- from both sides -- of  "criminals" being involved. Maybe in 20 years, we will have a better idea of what went on behind the scenes and the role of drug trafficking and smuggling networks there. In the meantime, The Lebanese Connection provides some insight into the forces at play.

SF Bay Area Police Kill Man, Seize Ecstasy Tablets

Police in the gritty San Francisco Bay area suburb of Vallejo shot and killed one man and wounded another early Sunday morning and seized about 50 Ecstasy tablets in a roadside encounter turned fatal. Mario Ramiro, 23, becomes the 45th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to KTVU TV News, citing police sources, two Vallejo Police officers were on patrol about 4:30am Sunday in "an area known for recent gang-related activity" when they spotted two men sitting in a vehicle. The police turned their patrol car spotlights on the vehicle to illuminate it.

Police said the driver, Ramiro, got out of the vehicle and they saw the butt of a handgun in his waistband. Police said Ramiro, partly hidden behind the driver's door, reached for the gun and began turning toward the officers. The officers then opened fire, but Ramiro remained crouched behind the driver's door. Police said he did not comply with their demands to show his hands and instead reached toward the vehicle's center console. So they shot him some more. Police said they fired 30 rounds, and Ramiro slumped over.

Ramiro was taken to a Vallejo hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The passenger, Joseph Johnson, 21, was shot at least five times and was being treated at a hospital in Walnut Creek.

After the shooting, police searched the vehicle and found not a handgun but an airsoft pellet gun, which was the weapon they had spotted in Ramiro's waistband, and more than 50 Ecstasy tablets.

Ramiro's sister, Cynquita Martin, told KTVU that she watched the shooting from inside a nearby home and that neither man posed a threat to police. She accused police of out-of-control shooting as angry friends and family members gathered in front of the police department Sunday afternoon. Video of the aftermath showed multiple bullet holes in the vehicle's windshield.

"When I went to the window I saw him [a police officer] re-clip his gun, hop on the hood and just start firing," Martin said. "His arms was out the window. My brother is slumped in the car already."

Ramiro's mother Cynthia also said the police didn't have to use deadly force.

"The Vallejo Police Department has killed my son, an innocent person sitting in the car and then they're trying to make it like it's a shootout," she said. "It wasn't a shootout. The only shootout was them shooting him."

The Vallejo Police and the Solano County District Attorney's office are investigating. Vallejo Police already announced that both Ramiro and Johnson were on parole for felony weapons violations.

Vallejo, CA
United States

Alabama Narcs Kill One, Wound One

Undercover narcotics officers with the Hueytown Police shot and killed one man and wounded another in nearby Brighton last Wednesday afternoon. Calvin Robinson, 21, becomes the 44th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to a statement on the Hueytown Police Facebook page: "Hueytown Narcotics investigators were involved in an incident today in Brighton. Shots were fired. Thankfully, neither officer was injured. The incident is now being investigated by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. It would be improper for us to comment further until this investigation is complete. We appreciate the timely assistance of the JCSO, Birmingham PD, and Brighton PD. I ask that the public wait until the investigation is complete before drawing conclusions about this incident. Thank you. Chief Hagler."

At this point, there is no indication that Robinson or the as-yet unnamed wounded man were armed or had fired on police. Nor is there any word about whether any drugs were found.

Police have made no further statements since then except to describe the shooting victims as "suspected drug dealers," but a witness interviewed by CBS 42 News said he saw several police cars chasing Robinson's vehicle down the Bessemer Highway before it turned off the freeway and headed toward Robinson's home. 

"It was, you had about five of them that was coming behind that car. But by the time I turned around right here, all you could hear was gunshots," said Briscoe Fuller. "That didn't make no sense all that shooting they did."

Robinson's family told CBS 42 they were still coming to grips with his killing, but wanted justice.

"What's going through my mind right now is he was a 21-year-old young man who still had a whole life ahead of him to lead. And as an educator myself I see a senseless killing that took place today," said Angela Kornegay James, Robinson's cousin. "He was less than, as the young man said earlier, 20 feet away from his house. You can see his back yard from the place where he was killed so apparently he was trying to just make it home."

"I loved my brother," said Tyrus Robinson. "My brother don't bother nobody. My brother works. It was a senseless killing. We not going to stop until we find justice."

Brighton, AL
United States

Book Review: The FARC

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency, by Garry Leech (2011, Zed Press, 178 pp., $19.95 PB)

The FARC (the Spanish-language acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are considered terrorists by the US, Colombia, and the European Union, and narco-terrorists at that because of their participation in Colombia's extremely profitable coca and cocaine trades. They are criticized for their penchant for kidnapping members of the upper and middle classes, for their sometimes indiscriminate use of weaponry, and other human rights violations.

They are also frequently dismissed as both bearers of a dead ideology -- Marxism-Leninism -- and of degenerating from it into nothing more than another well-armed drug gang. And less than five years ago, it seemed as if the decades-long peasant-based guerrilla army was on its last legs. In 2008, the Colombian military finally managed to kill a member of the FARC Secretariat, another was killed by his own security guard, and the guerrillas' long-time leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda died of old age.

In another coup, the Colombian military rescued a group of long-held, high-profile FARC captives, including abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractor pilots. And the FARC was on the defensive militarily, being pushed back into its strongest rural redoubts by a Colombian military and law enforcement apparatus pumped up on billions of dollars of US anti-drug and, after 9/11, anti-terrorism (counter-insurgency) assistance.

Plan Colombia has also managed to put a dent -- the size of which is debatable -- into the country's coca and cocaine trade, but it remains substantial and hasn't gone away. The FARC hasn't gone away, either. In fact, it is killing more Colombian soldiers and police than ever, more than it did when the guerrillas were at the peak of their strength around the turn of the century.

In its recently-released "Country Reports on Terrorism," the State Department reported that FARC attacks against security forces were up substantially last year, and there's been no sign of a let up this year. And despite the killing of the FARC's top leader, Alfonso Cano, last November, the FARC and Colombia's other leftist guerrilla army, the ELN (Army of National Liberation), "continue to pose a serious threat to Colombia's security," the State Department said.

In his eponymously-titled primer on the FARC, longtime and on-the-ground observer of Colombian affairs journalist Garry Leech paints a far more nuanced picture of the world's longest-running insurgency than the caricature described in the opening paragraphs. He provides the historical context of political violence and extreme -- and still-growing -- inequality out of which emerged peasant self-defense militias in the wake of La Violencia in the 1950s, militias that in 1964 would become a Marxist-Leninist politico-military organization whose aim was to overthrow the Colombian capitalist state and replacement it with a communist one.

That's right, these guys were old school. And, Leech shows, they still are. As passé and outré as it may seem to North American readers, those AK-47-toting bearded guerrillas in fatigues in the jungle are still out there and they still want to make the revolution. Unlike other actors in the illicit drug trade, for the FARC, the profits of prohibition are a means to an end -- financing the revolution -- not an end in themselves. FARC leaders live in camps in the jungle, not in fancy mansions. Their drug money goes for war materiel, not fast cars and exotic animals.

For parts of the FARC's peasant base -- and it is very much, almost exclusively, peasant-based -- Leech shows, coca growing is the means of making a living, often the only means of making a living. As Marxist revolutionaries, who tend toward the dour and puritanical, the guerrillas don't really approve of drug crop production, but they argue that their base needs it, and they are happy to tax and regulate it.

"They work with marijuana and coca leaf because they don't have any work," says FARC commander Simon Trinidad. "This problem is caused by the economic model of the Colombian state, and the Colombian state has to fix that problem. We are the state's enemy, not their anti-narcotics police."

They may also dabble in cocaine production and facilitate distribution within Colombia, always claiming their cut in taxes, but despite repeated efforts, the US has been hard-pressed to make any international drug trafficking charges stick against high-ranking FARC members. Trinidad himself was captured and taken to the US, where the Justice Department twice failed to convict him of drug trafficking, although it did manage to convict him on kidnapping charges and he now sits in a federal prison.

Interestingly, Leech shows how the drug trade has been a two-edged sword for the FARC. On the one hand, drug profits allowed the FARC to expand dramatically, especially in the 1990s, when it grew to its greatest size, sent hundreds of fighters at a time on offensive attacks against the Colombian police and military, seized effective control of vast swathes of national territory, and appeared poised for a final push toward overthrowing Colombian capitalism.

On the other hand, the FARC's rapid, coca profits-based expansion in the 1990s led to a lessening of ideological rigor in the ranks, and its success at territorial expansion meant that in newly-controlled areas, the organic links with the peasant base forged over decades of communal struggle were not present. And make no mistake about it: In its core areas, where it has been in control for years, the FARC has been putting its socialist vision into action in concert with its base. The FARC provides core functions of the state that the Colombian state never has in these remote areas: a justice system, a health care system (whose facilities the government bombs), infrastructure (whose bridges the government bombs), municipal services through taxes on commodities like beer, and schools.

But it wasn't like that in the areas newly under FARC control. There, the guerrillas had no organic political presence, only a military one, and in the eyes of locals, they were just another of too many groups of men with guns. And their expansion was ringing alarm bells in Washington, as well as Bogota. Thus, Plan Colombia.

The US had done it before, and not so long ago. In the 1980s, $4 billion in US assistance managed to blunt the rise of the FMLN in El Salvador, and a 1989 truce defanged the leftist revolutionary movement, turning it into a player in El Salvador's liberal -- the FARC would say bourgeois -- democracy. The Salvadoran left won the chance to participate, but only at the price of giving up its dream of a real social revolution. (Leech notes that since the end of the Central American civil wars on the 1980s, the violence generated there by social inequality hasn't gone away; it has only been displaced from the sphere of politics to that of criminality.)

As in Central America in the 1980s, so in Colombia in the last decade. The US has thrown billions of dollars at stopping a social revolution in Colombia -- overtly aiming at the FARC (and not just the drug trade) since 2002 -- and it has worked. Historically, we will probably look back and say the FARC hit its high water mark at the turn of the century, but a decade later, it's still going strong. That's because, Leech argues convincingly, the Colombian state has been unwilling to entertain reforms necessary to alleviate the inequality, suffering, and lack of access to opportunity of millions of its poorest citizens.

Rather than address the nation's economic model and its role in the global economic system as part of a negotiated settlement, successive Colombian governments have instead demanded the demobilization of the FARC as a precondition to any negotiations. The FARC has made it clear that is not going to happen. The FARC has been around for nearly a half-century now; will it be around for another? Quite possibly.

[Update: In late August, President Santos announced that his government had begun preliminary discussions with the FARC about restarting peace talks. Time will tell whether either side will be willing to make the concessions necessary for the process to move forward.]

In the context of the Colombian civil war, it's probably a good thing for drug reformers to think for a moment about Colombian President Santos. He wins kudos on the cocktail circuit for his talk about talking about drug legalization or alternatives to prohibition -- he's even received them here. But he is also the hand-picked successor to the hard-line Alvaro Uribe, the leader of a government that sprays pesticides on poor peasants to eradicate their crops, while providing no effective alternatives, and which continues to prosecute the drug war full speed ahead -- a government that was in bed with the rightist paramilitaries responsible for atrocities that make the FARC look mild-mannered (the "para-politics" scandal currently ensnaring member after member of the Colombian congress. This is a government whose policies have created one of the largest internally displaced populations on the planet.

The FARC is a most excellent corrective for what passes for coverage of the FARC in most North American media sources, and a serious study of the group's origins, politics, problems, and prospects. Leech is sympathetic, but he's no apologist. If you're serious about learning about what's going on in Colombia, you need to read him. Mao's ghost still stalks the land there.

Iowa City Man Killed in Undercover Drug Operation

Members of the Johnson County Drug Task Force conducting an undercover operation at a run-down trailer park just outside the Iowa City city limits shot and killed one man and wounded another last Thursday evening. Ivan Carl Hardemon, 24, becomes the 43rd person to die in US domestic drug law operations so far this year.

Police are releasing few details of what actually happened, but a Department of Public Safety press release said two state agents with the Division of Narcotics Enforcement assigned to the task force were conducting an undercover operation at a trailer in the park when "an altercation ensued and shots were fired," leaving Hardemon dead and another man, Demarco Dudley, wounded.

The passive-voice press release very carefully does not say whether Hardemon or Dudley fired shots, nor does it make any mention of weapons or drugs recovered at the scene. Police said they would not release more information until their investigation is completed.

The shooting left neighbors uneasy. Patty Krueger, who lives nearby, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen she no longer felt safe in the neighborhood.

"I have kids at home, I don't like the fact that the neighborhood's been disrupted like this," Krueger said. "I've felt safe out here for the last few years and now it doesn't seem like it's safe anymore."

Update: In a later report, undercover police said Hardemon and Dudley attempted to rip them off when they showed up with a large sum of money to buy drugs and gunfire was exchanged.

Iowa City, IA
United States

New Orleans Police Officer Indicted in Drug Raid Killing

In an unusual step, the New Orleans police officer who shot and killed an unarmed young man during a March drug raid aimed at small-time marijuana distribution has been indicted on manslaughter charges. Officer Joshua Colclough was indicted last Thursday and turned himself in for booking the following day.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/wendell-allen-200px.jpg
Wendell Allen (family photo)
Colclough shot and killed Wendell Allen, 20, as he served a search warrant at Allen's Gentilly residence. Colclough encountered Allen at the top of a stairway in the house and shot him once in the chest. No weapon was found.

Allen was the 15th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. The death toll is now at 42 and will go to 43 later today when we post an article about the latest drug war killing, this one in an Iowa City drug raid late last week.

No officers have been indicted in any of those deaths. And despite drug war deaths at the rate of more than one a week in recent years, no police officers have been indicted in any of those incidents since an Ohio police officer was indicted in the killing of an unarmed woman and the wounding of the baby she was holding during a January 2008 SWAT raid. That officer was indicted on two misdemeanor counts of negligent homicide and negligent injury, but later acquitted.

The unusual indictment in the Allen killing came after the shooting generated outrage in the city, including threats from the Louisiana Justice Institute to sue the city if it did not release information about the case and take it to a grand jury. It also comes at a police department that just last month agreed to comprehensive reforms under the eye of the US Justice Department as a result of a pattern of misconduct in the department.

Officer Colclough spent the weekend in jail under a $300,000 bond. A bail reduction hearing was set for Monday.

New Orleans, LA
United States

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