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Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed around 40,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest or killing of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/wanted1.jpg
US Embassy in Mexico cartel wanted poster
Thursday, August 25

In Monterrey, 52 people were killed when suspected Zetas ignited gasoline at the entrance to the Casino Royale. As of August 31, twelve people are in custody for the attack. Many of those killed died of smoke inhalation after fleeing to offices and bathrooms in the interior of the casino.

Although the exact motive is yet unknown, police are investigating the possibility that the casino was attacked after having refused to pay protection money to the Zetas. Another possibility that has been floated in the Mexican press is that the casino was used to launder money for a rival cartel.

In Las Cruces, New Mexico, the former police chief of the town of Columbus pleaded guilty to conspiracy, smuggling, and public corruption charges. Angela Vega was arrested in March along with the town's mayor and 13 others. The group is known to have trafficked at least 200 weapons to La Linea, the military wing of the Juarez Cartel.

Friday, August 26

In Michoacan, wanted posters were put up by the Knights Templar Organization. The banners, which show the mugshots of five men the names of six men said to now be working for the Zetas, offered rewards of between $100,000 and $500,000 as well as a phone number to call.

Sunday, August 28

In Almoya de Juarez, near Mexico City, authorities discovered the decomposed bodies of five individuals buried in a corn field. The discovery was made after a family member of a missing man received a phone call from an unidentified man who said that 23 people were buried in the field. The other 18 remain unaccounted for.

Monday, August 29

In Acapulco, at least 140 local schools were closed after teachers refused to go to work because of extortion threats. School had just begun one week prior. Teachers indicated that at least four teachers had been kidnapped in the past eight days, and cars full of armed men were seen cruising past at least one school.

In Tamaulipas, authorities announced that a top Gulf Cartel commander was among several cartel members captured in the town of Camargo over the weekend. Abiel Gonzalez Briones, "R-2," 28, was captured after an aerial patrol spotted a group of armed men, at least seven of whom were captured. Gonzalez Briones is thought to have been a main financial operator of the Gulf Cartel and the area chief for the Miguel Aleman area.

In the mountain town of Guachochi, Chihuahua, seven bodies were discovered by the army. They had all been missing since August 13. Of the dead, six were strangulated to death, and the seventh, a woman, was shot. Additionally, near Ciudad Juarez, five human skulls thought to be several years old were discovered.

Tuesday, August 30

In Utah, authorities announced the dismantling of a Sinaloa Cartel cell. At least 30 people have so far been taken into custody after an 18th month investigation, which led to the discovery of several high-level men described as being "command and control" for the the cartel in Utah. At least 30 pounds of meth, 2.5 of heroin were taken into custody, as well as cash and high-powered weapons.

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600

Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Total Body Count for 2011: (approx.): 6,700

Lebanese Police Destroying Marijuana Fields Attacked

Lebanese anti-drug police on missions to destroy marijuana fields in the Bekaa Valley came under attack at least twice on Monday, the first day of annual eradication efforts aimed at the valley's deeply-embedded trade in hashish.

marijuana fields just before they are burned (image via wikimedia.org)
"Internal security forces in the Office of Drug Control cooperated with the Lebanese army to raze hashish fields in the northern Bekaa," NowLebanon.com reported early in the day before things started heating up. By day's end, Lebanese media would have reason to produce new reports as the clashes broke out.

The Lebanon Daily Star reported an early morning shoot-out on the Boudai Plain on the outskirts of the city of Baalbek. Later in the day, NowLebanon.com reported on a second clash near the town of Ollaq. No injuries were reported in either incident.

In the Boudai Plain incident, unknown assailants fired at least five rocket propelled grenades toward police razing the fields. The attackers fled after exchanging gunfire with security forces.

Later in the day, security forces again came under attack as they destroyed a marijuana field in the town of Ollaq. Armed men shot at the eradicators, as well as again launching missiles. The rockets damaged two cars, one belonging to the head of the anti-drug police, Col. Adel Mashmoushi, and one belonging to a Lebanese television network.

"The perpetrators fled the scene in four cars after then 10-minute fire fight," the Lebanese National News Agency reported.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's 2011 World Drug Report, Lebanon is the world's third largest hashish producer, accounting for 6% of global production. Morocco leads with about 19% of global production, followed by Afghanistan with about 10%, and then Lebanon.

After day one of this year's eradication effort, it appears Bekaa Valley hash producers aren't giving up without a fight.

Bekaa Valley
Lebanon

Chronicle Book Review: Hostage Nation

Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/hostagenation.jpg
Hostage Nation is a great read, but its title is something of misnomer. What the book is really about is the capture of four American contractors by FARC guerrillas after their plane went down on an anti-coca pesticide-spraying mission in 2003. One was executed by the FARC at the scene; the others spent more than five years in captivity in the jungles of Colombia before being rescued by the Colombian military in a stunning charade in which Colombian soldiers tricked rebels into delivering their hostages, who also included the famous former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, into their waiting arms.

In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.

And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.

Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.

They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.

But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.

As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.

The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.

But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.

As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.

Mexican Drug Traffickers Break Out of Jail Whenever They Want

As if you needed another reason to wince in exasperation at the total failure of each and every ongoing drug enforcement effort in Mexico, here we go again.

Just as Mexican authorities are struggling to put drug traffickers in prison, Mexican prisons are struggling to keep them there. Hundreds of dangerous inmates have escaped from state penitentiaries along the U.S. border in recent months, some through spectacular action-movie breakouts, others by simply walking out the door.

"I lock them up, and they let them out," President Felipe Calderon said in frustration, blaming local officials. [Washington Post]

Honestly, I've run out of words to describe the absurdity of the situation and I can't even imagine the thought processes that guide those who still pretend we're proceeding towards any sort of resolution to this epic fiasco. Apparently, some of those people are getting irritated with Obama for failing to clean up the mess, as though we had these narco-thugs surrounded when Bush left office:

Both Mexican and American officials, who say the two countries have never worked closer in fighting crime, are facing growing pressure to prove that their strategy is working. With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, the Obama administration will face renewed scrutiny to account for the $1.4 billion, multiyear Merida Initiative, the cornerstone of American aid in Mexico’s drug fight.  [New York Times]

I don't know what anyone expected, but it's definitely time we start scrutinizing our massive drug war budget expenditures, even if such inquiries are initiated merely to advance a partisan political agenda. It really is incredible to witness the redundancy of the drug war dialogue in Washington, but the Merida Initiative's dismal legacy will be difficult to salvage by any measure. When proposals inevitably emerge to double-down on our investment in Mexico's blood-stained drug war debacle, it should become clear to everyone that this idiocy knows no bounds.

Peruvian President Equates Drug Legalization with Barbarism and Euthanasia

Peruvian President Alan García said Monday he is absolutely opposed to drug legalization and warned that legalizing marijuana will take society down the path toward euthanizing the elderly.  He vowed a constant fight "on all fronts" against drug use and the drug trade.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/alan-garcia.jpg
Alan García
Peru is now the world's leading producer of coca, from which cocaine is made. In recent weeks, García has angled for a larger share of US drug-fighting dollars.  The stimulating herb has been used as an energy booster and hunger suppressor since time immemorial in the Andean region.

García said Monday that his anti-drug efforts will focus on eradication and alternative crops, as well as interdiction and money-laundering.  A reinvigorated eradication campaign has already led to renewed strife in the countryside, where tens of thousands of peasant families make a living from coca. Two weeks ago, hundreds of coca growers seized a hydroelectric plant in Ucayali province and blocked highways in the region to protest eradication efforts. Police later regained control of the plant, but the region remains restive.

"The Peruvian government has a firm position: I am absolutely against the drug legalization," García said after opening the 20th meeting of the Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA) of Latin America and the Caribbean. Human beings "cannot kneel before their own powerlessness," he said.

"I think this (drug legalization) is like opening the way for the degradation of human beings, because if we legalize marijuana as a soft drug then we will legalize cocaine as hard drugs, and finally we will also legalize the elimination of the elderly, as in the old societies, because they can no longer contribute to the production," he said.

García added that his government's position is firm and will not change before he leaves office next July "even though those who raise the flag of the drug legalization are very intelligent and well-known and noisy." He said he will always oppose advocates of ending drug prohibition because "they represent, without knowing it, the backward step of the human being in his path to freedom, which is basically the way of his conscience, i.e. to use his skills without escapes through drugs."

Not only will drug legalization lead to killing grandma, García said, it will lead mankind down a death spiral to "fascist barbarism" and genocide.

García's sentiments put him out of step with a region that is increasingly amenable to ending the decades long war on drugs. Former heads of state from Columbia, Brazil, and Mexico have called for an end to the drug war, while Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have depenalized simple drug possession.

Lima
Peru

Mexico Drug War Update

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 28,000 people, the government reported in August. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Wednesday, September 8

Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal
In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, police said that the Tuesday killing of 17 people was related to gangs that work for Mexican organized crime groups. Local gangs such as MS-13 and Mara 18 are known to work for Mexican cartels moving drugs through Central America or as enforcers. They are often paid in product, leading to an increase of drug consumption across Central America.

In Washington DC, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Mexico's drug war was an insurgency resembling that of Colombia 20 years ago. Mexican government officials, most notably security spokesman Alejandro Poire, quickly responded to Clinton's remarks, calling them untrue.

Thursday, September 9

In Ciudad Juarez, 25 people were murdered across the city. This makes it the bloodiest single-day total in Ciudad Juarez in its history. The dead included seven females, three minors, and a handicapped man. In one incident, four people were shot dead after witnessing the murder of another two individuals in the Juarez Nuevo neighborhood of the city. In another incident, four people were killed after gunmen stormed a house in the El Granjero neighborhood.

Friday, September 10

In Reynosa, 85 prison inmates escaped after allegedly climbing a fence. Police immediately took over 40 guards and other prison staff into custody. Two guards were reported missing. Prison escapes have become fairly common in northern Mexico.

Sunday, September 12

In Sinaloa, four people were killed in several parts of the state.In Culiacan, a man was found shot dead with had his hands and feet bound. A note left along with the body accused the man of being an informant and a rapist. In Los Mochis, a man was found tortured and shot dead.

Monday, September 13

In Puebla, Marines captured Sergio Villareal, a high ranking cartel figure nicknamed "El Grande". Villareal is thought to be a lieutenant of cartel boss Hector Beltran-Leyva, and was fighting against a faction led by Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, who was arrested last week. Villareal was arrested in an operation involving dozens of marines backed by armored vehicles.

Tuesday, September 14

In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, three explosions were heard near the international bridge, followed by gunfire between unknown parties that lasted up to an hour.

Across Mexico, security was stepped up for Mexico's bicentennial celebrations, which are to begin on Wednesday. Several cities, including Ciudad Juarez, have canceled celebrations due to security concerns, and many others have scaled back previously planned celebrations. In 2008, a grenade attack at an independence day celebration in Morelos, Michoacan killed eight people and wounded over 100.

Total Body Count for the Week: 134

Total Body Count for the Year: 7,862

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.

Mexico

Ending the War on Drugs

Location: 
Australia
Australian barrister and former political adviser Greg Barns opines on why drug prohibition is bad for Australia and calls for an end to the drug war.
Publication/Source: 
ABC News Online (Australia)
URL: 
http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2998116.htm

If You Think Marijuana Legalization Helps Drug Cartels, Think Again

One of the most enduring disconnects in the legalization debate is the question of what will become of those nasty drug cartels when we end marijuana prohibition. Here's how Tim Rosales of the No on Prop 19 campaign framed it in a debate with Jane Hamsher on CNN:

You would just be giving the Mexican drug cartels a platform, a legal platform, to operate from here in the United States. I don't think that's a risk that a lot of Californians, or even Americans, want to take.

I think he's right insofar as people do worry about this, and stirring up those sorts of anxieties isn't a bad strategy for legalization's opponents to embrace (particularly given how little they have to work with). But the idea itself is about as brain-dead ridiculous as can be.

Here's the thing: criminal drug organizations don't want this "legal platform" you speak of. That's not how they do business. Their product is grown by day laborers and slaves, not master cultivators. Their business strategy is characterized by assassination and bribery, not Facebook fan pages and free massage Fridays. They have no intention of paying taxes or appearing before local zoning boards, and they can't compete with American entrepreneurs who are happy to do the paperwork and can explain where their investment capital came from.

We're going to legalize pot, not thuggery. The murderers in Mexico don't possess a single skill that would give them an advantage in a regulated market. Their only asset is a willingness to break the law, and in the unlikely event that they elected to run a legal business instead, they wouldn't be criminals anymore. We will control the regulatory process and there's nothing about marijuana that invites fraud or extortion to any greater extent than every other taxable commodity on the market.

If you're still not getting this, let me put it another way: Mexican drug cartels don't sell marijuana because they're passionate about cannabis culture or botany, or because they love stacking bricks of mid-grade in the back of a pick-up truck. Absolutely the only reason they're in the marijuana business is because we gave them a monopoly on it. When we take that away from them, they will make less money and their organizations will get smaller.

Those who still can't or won't accept this are entitled to their opinions. But please allow us the courtesy of giving it a try. You had your chance to crush the cartels. Now it's our turn.

Calderon: Mexico drug gangs seeking to replace state

Location: 
Mexico
Drug prohibition can even lead to governments being overthrown. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has warned that drug gangs are seeking to replace the state and impose their own law in parts of the country. The gangs were imposing fees like taxes in areas they dominated and trying to impose their own laws by force of arms, said Calderon.
Publication/Source: 
BBC News (UK)
URL: 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10877156

Mexican President Calls for Drug Legalization Debate

After presiding for years over the bloodiest drug war escalation in history, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is finally ready to discuss legalization.

MEXICO CITY — President Felipe Calderon said he would consider a debate on legalizing drugs Tuesday as his government announced that more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug violence since he launched a crackdown against cartels in 2006.

"It's a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality (of opinions)," he said. "You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides." [AP]

It's just an earth-shattering concession from the man who staked his presidency on a desperate attempt to prove that aggressive enforcement could somehow restore peace and order. Now, with the streets stained in blood and corruption permeating the highest levels of government, Calderon appears poised to confront the crushing reality that there's just no upside to any of this. He needs room to maneuver, and after exhausting every traditional tactic in the drug prohibition playbook, there remains only one conversation left to be had.

Of course, Calderon was careful to clarify that he's acknowledging, rather than endorsing, the legalization argument:

But Calderon has long said he is opposed to the idea, and his office issued a statement hours after the meeting saying that while the president was open to debate on the issue, he remains "against the legalization of drugs."
 

Riiiight. He's a politician and surely realizes that paying lip service to a touchy subject like this serves only to give it momentum. Posturing aside, Calderon knows exactly what happens when you open this door. He can see it already in the American press, and I can only imagine that he's now perfectly willing to witness the emergence of a sizable movement for reform in Mexico. If he weren't, you can bet he'd never dare drop the "L" word with a microphone at his mouth.

Whether he intended to or not, Calderon has spent his presidency performing the most compelling imaginable exhibit in the failure of prohibition. After sacrificing so much, his only chance at redemption may depend on his willingness to take the lead in learning something from the smoldering nightmare that now surrounds him.

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