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A Look Inside Brazil's Drug "Commands"

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

Afghan Fighting Blamed for Opium Bonanza

Location: 
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
The Daily Telegraph
URL: 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/09/15/wafg15.xml

Bolivia Seeks Coca Legalization, Path to the Sea

Location: 
Bolivia
Publication/Source: 
Jerusalem Post
URL: 
http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1157913633521&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

As Border Crackdown Intensifies, A Tribe Is Caught in the Crossfire

Location: 
Alir Jegk, AZ
United States
Publication/Source: 
Washington Post
URL: 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/14/AR2006091401827.html

Pot Crimes May Get Less Attention

Location: 
San Francisco, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
San Francisco Chronicle
URL: 
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/09/12/POT.TMP

Feature: Afghan Opium Crop Hits Record as Violence Increases

Things are not going well in Afghanistan. In a stunning admission that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to eradicate the country's opium crop had accomplished little, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced Saturday that this year's Afghan opium crop is up a "staggering" 60% over last year and will yield a record 6,100 tons this year, leading to a global surplus in black market heroin.

Opium is the backbone of the Afghan economy, accounting for somewhere between 35% and 50% of gross national product, and Afghan opium is the backbone of the global traffic in narcotics, now accounting for 92% of total illicit global production, according to UNODC.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/eradicationteam.jpg
opium eradication team (photo from the Senlis Council report, photo library section)
Meanwhile, US soldiers and NATO forces, who took over operations in the restive south of the country earlier this year, are being killed at a record pace as Taliban and Al Qaeda rebels reinvigorated by profits from the opium trade are taking the battle to the foreigners and the government they prop up. And in a reflection of the increased NATO role, for the first time, NATO casualties are keeping pace with American casualties. In what is turning into the bloodiest year so far for Afghanistan's occupiers, 73 NATO troops and 74 American soldiers have been killed so far. Last year, the second bloodiest since the US invasion nearly five years ago, 99 US and 31 NATO troops were killed in fighting.

"The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency," UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa told a Kabul news conference after presenting results of its crop survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control."

In southern Helmand province, now a hotbed of Taliban activity, cultivation rose by a whopping 162% and accounts for 42% of total Afghan opium cultivation, the UNODC said. Costa told the Kabul news conference that NATO must step up its role in fighting the opium trade, especially in the south, where it is helping to fuel the Taliban insurgency.

"We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I'm afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future," Costa said.

But while NATO commanders late this week called urgently for more troops on the ground in the south, they have little interest in fighting the drug war. NATO's official position is that its mandate is for stability and peace-keeping, not counternarcotics.

Still, there is pressure from the Americans and the British to try to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs simultaneously. The top American anti-drug official in Afghanistan, Doug Wankel, told the press conference the need was urgent. "This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," he told reporters. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the US does not want to see that again."

But analysts consulted by Drug War Chronicle warned that attempting to quash the opium economy and fight the Taliban at the same time is a recipe for disaster. "Paradoxically, the more they go after opium production, the more they strengthen the bond between the Taliban and the population and the traffickers," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government Affairs. "It is a difficult conundrum. There can be no fundamental progress on either the narcotics problem or stabilization in general unless we deal with the insurgency," she told the Chronicle.

"The Taliban have now once again become integrated into production in the south," Felbab-Brown explained. "After 2001, they were pretty much forced out of the drug trade because they were fleeing and because the US and coalition forces were not going after drug trafficking. But now, the traffickers need someone to protect them, to scare off the eradication teams and the state presence, and the Taliban is providing this protection. It is also exploiting the eradication effort," the expert on illicit drugs and military conflict said. "They are handing out leaflets saying things like 'We are the Taliban. Isn't it awful that Karzai under the pressure of the foreign infidels is trying to destroy our crops. Here's our cell phone number. Give us a call.' So now, the Taliban is not only profiting financially, it is also gaining the allegiance of the population by providing protection."

"Things are a bit out of control because so many things happening in Iraq and the Middle East keep the superpowers' eyes off of Afghanistan, so the intruders have more opportunities to accelerate their destruction and illegal activities," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "At the same time, the coalition and the Karzai government are too busy fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda to concentrate on eradication," he told the Chronicle.

"The Taliban is moving into the areas where there is drug cultivation, and they receive support from farmers who have had their crops destroyed or threatened," Yaseer continued. "Thus, the traffickers and growers have a bit more freedom than usual. That's why business is booming for the drug dealers. There are too many fronts to deal with, and eradication is just one front."

Solutions are hard to come by. "Nobody knows what the answer is," Yaseer conceded. "Out of those billions of dollars they are spending, they need to use some to compensate farmers and create other jobs and projects. People in the provinces are unemployed and hungry, and the terrorists offer them money to join them. People turn to the Taliban and the terrorists and the drug dealers because that's where the money is. The government and the coalition cannot compete with the money drug dealers offer. It doesn't help that there is such nepotism and involvement of high level officials in the trade. That only makes it all the more difficult to enforce the drug laws. Many government officials are supporting the trade, not fighting it."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-smaller.jpg
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"There is no doubt lots of government officials are complicit in the trade, but focusing on individuals is a mistake," noted Felbab-Brown. "This isn't about individuals, but about deep structural factors like the lack of stability, security, and economic development. Whoever is in power, whether honest or corrupt, will have to contend with these issues. The honest ones will confront the fact that there is nothing but poppy-growing for much of the population. The only way they can do eradication now is at gunpoint, and that is not the way to carry out a legitimate, widely-embraced policy. Forced eradication generates instability and opposition from the people, and ambitious politicians in the south will link up with the Taliban."

For Felbab-Brown, it comes down to doing counterinsurgency right. "It is critical to increase the number of forces, to increase the troop presence and the delivery of aid," she said. "It's difficult to deliver aid during an active insurgency, but it is vital. But we also need patience, especially on the narcotics issue. The big pressure for premature eradication coming from Washington and international organizations needs to be resisted. We need more money, more troops, more development. Is this international community willing to provide these resources?"

Being patient with the opium economy is getting closer to the correct approach, said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign affairs and drug policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "The only solution is one that no one in any position of influence in Washington or the NATO capitals will consider -- drug legalization," he told Drug War Chronicle. "That would take the black market profits out of the drug trade. It is the ultimate solution. If they won't consider legalization, the very least they can do is look the other way with regard to the drug trade. That worked in Peru in the 1980s, when the Peruvian generals figured out that leaving the coca crop alone dried up support for the Shining Path. Something similar needs to occur in Afghanistan, whether they admit it or not. If they are serious about preventing a further rebound of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they need to lay off the drug war."

Trying to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs undermines US policy in the country, Carpenter argued. "There is a fundamental inconsistency in the US nation-building strategy in Afghanistan. The primary goal remains to undermine the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but the problem is if they go after the drug trade, they alienate a major portion of the population and strengthen support for the Taliban. Even trying to prosecute the war on drugs there undermines the primary US goal in Afghanistan."

One European defense and development group, the Senlis Council, has proposed for nearly a year now that the Afghan opium crop be licensed, legalized, and diverted to the legitimate medicinal market. Senlis was harshly critical of Western policy this week.

"Huge amounts of money have been spent on large and costly military operations, but after five years southern Afghanistan is once more a battlefield for the control of the country," said Senlis executive director Emmanuel Reinert as he announced the publication of a new report on the rebirth of the Taliban. "At the same time Afghans are starving. The US has lost control in Afghanistan and has in many ways undercut the new democracy in Afghanistan. I think we can call that a failure, and one with dire consequences which should concern us all. The US policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe-haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy."

But the Senlis licensing proposal is getting little respect or traction and is unlikely to prevail, said Yaseer. "I don't think the Senlis Council proposal will get very far," said Yaseer. "There is all kinds of opposition to any legalization. The religious groups will not support it, the legislators will not support it. There are also serious questions about whether it would just open up more venues for growing and trafficking."

Questions, questions. There are lots of questions in Afghanistan, but few good answers.

Attention Night Owls: Your Editor Will Be on the Radio Sunday Night

Chronicle editor Phil Smith (that's me) will be the guest on Kootenay Co-op Radio's "Fane of the Cosmos" program Sunday night. Based in Nelson, BC, Kootenay Co-op Radio is the independent voice of the Kootenay counterculture. "Fane of the Cosmos" is hosted by local attorney Dustin Cantwell, who is perhaps better known as one of the owners of the Holy Smoke Culture Shop in Nelson, which was raided over alleged marijuana sales earlier this summer. Cantwell will interview me about Afghanistan and the latest atrocities from the American war on drugs (the Canadians really love that stuff), while I will interview Cantwell about the latest on the Holy Smoke situation. The program airs at 10pm Pacific time, 1am on the East Coast and is available over the internet.
Location: 
Nelson, BC
Canada

Not Asking the Basic Questions

The North Hunterdon district in Clinton Township in southern New Jersey is debating their substance abuse policy, according to the Courier News. The discussion comes amidst recognition that the school has drug use. Senior Jad Walther think it's on the rise; he told the News that "he sees drugs being sold near lockers or in hallways when teachers aren't around." As is the usual, basic questions are not being asked:
  1. Given that there is not a single drug free high school in the country (an exaggeration, perhaps, but not much of one), will North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School succeed where all others have failed?
  2. Why is it that this one vice among all the others in which humans (including young people) are wont to indulge takes the form of a criminal underground trade literally running out of the school, from the lockers?
  3. If it's so easy for kids to get away with not only using but also selling drugs -- merely waiting until a teacher is not around -- is it realistic to think that further crackdowns will do the trick -- if it's that easy?
  4. Won't the drug selling just move somewhere else if they do crack down inside the schools? Perhaps getting taken over by especially dangerous people in especially dangerous places?
The obvious point that drugs are being sold out of school lockers, by kids to other kids, because they are illegal and only because they are illegal. There is not a major, school-locker-based, criminal trade in alcohol, even though it is illegal for minors (and even though many of the under-age manage to get it). Alcohol abuse is an issue, but it is not a cause of black market violence, of criminal economic conduct inside school buildings, or of temptation through the profit motive to get involved in crime. My recommendation to North Hunterdon is, whatever else they attempt with regards to drug policy, they also enact a resolution calling on Congress and the state of New Jersey to legalize drugs. At a minimum they should start asking the basic questions. Letters to the editor go to: cnletter@c-n.com
Location: 
Clinton Township, NJ
United States

Rainbow Farm Deaths Remembered: Supporters Mark Fifth Anniversary of Campground Standoff

Location: 
Cassopolis, MI
United States
Publication/Source: 
South Bend Tribune
URL: 
http://www.southbendtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060905/News01/609050379

Opium Cultivation Rose 60% in Afghanistan This Year, All-Time Record, UN Says

Location: 
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/09/02/asia/AS_GEN_Afghan_Drugs.php

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