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Drug War Logic 101

Pete Guither and Dave Borden already mentioned it, but I just can’t get enough of this quote from the Wall Street Journal:

"If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence," a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. There is violence "because these guys are flailing. We're taking these guys out. The worst thing you could do is stop now."

So let me get this straight. According to the U.S. government:

No violence = drug war is failing
Intense violence = drug war is going well

So when do we win the drug war then? When everyone’s dead?

Feature: It's Time for a New Drug Policy Paradigm, Say Latin American Leaders

A blue-ribbon commission of Latin American leaders has issued a report saying that the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health problem and decriminalizing marijuana. The report is an attempt to intervene not only in Latin American, US, and European drug policy debates, but also in the United Nations' ongoing 10-year review of global drug policies, which will culminate next month in a ministerial meeting in Vienna.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugsanddemocracy.jpg
The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a 17-member panel that includes former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. Other commission members include the writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a Wednesday press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

In the report, the commission calls for more humane and effective drug strategies. It emphasizes the following broad themes:

  • Treat drug use as a public health issue;
  • Reduce consumption through information and prevention actions;
  • Focus on enforcement against organized crime.

The commission also called on governments and civil society around the globe to "assess in the light of public health and advanced medical science the possibility of decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal consumption."

"We need to break the taboo that's blocking an honest debate," Cardoso said, repeating one of the phrases of the day. "Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco," said the well-respected former Brazilian leader.

"Decriminalization is only part of the solution," warned former Colombian President Gaviria. "You need to do what the Europeans are doing, which is helping addicts. That's what the US doesn't do; it just puts them in jail," he scolded. "You tripled the jail population in the US in the last 20 years because of prohibitionism. The half million people in jail because of drug consumption, is that reducing consumption?" he asked. "The excuse is that people commit crimes to get money, but you deal with that putting addicts under a doctor and helping them with their problem."

The commission has three objectives, said Gaviria. "We want to create a Latin American policy around the consumption of drugs, we want to promote a debate in the US -- we are very concerned that there is no real public debate on the politics of drug trafficking in US politics -- and we want the European Union countries to take more responsibility for drug consumption," he said. "They are not doing enough to reduce the consumption of drugs."

"This report represents a major leap forward in the global drug policy debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who addressed a commission session in Bogotá last September. "It's not the first high-level commission to call the drug war a failure, nor is it the first time any Latin American leader has criticized the prohibitionist approach to global drug control. But it is the first time that such a distinguished group of Latin Americans, including three highly regarded ex-presidents, have gone so far in their critique of US and global drug policy and recommendations for what needs to be done."

The commission report is on "the cutting edge" of the global drug policy debate, said Nadelmann. "This is evident in its call for a 'paradigm shift,' in its recognition of the important role of harm reduction precepts and policies, in its push for decriminalization of cannabis, and in its critique of 'the criminalization of consumption.'"

Now it is on to Vienna -- and beyond -- said commission members. It is past time for a new approach, not only in the US, but internationally, they said.

"We hope the meeting in Vienna will not produce a result like previous meetings, where they just kept pushing back the date on which drugs will disappear," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes of the civil society organization Viva Rio. "The main discussion in Vienna should be whether the world should adopt European harm reduction policies. Most Latin American countries are supporting the approach of dealing with this as a health problem, not a criminal one."

Fernandes looked with guarded optimism at the new Obama administration. "We hope the Obama administration will at least be able to open that possibility because now the US totally opposes harm reduction as good policy," he said. "The world is not moving to follow the US jail policy. The US needs to think about whether putting people in jail is really solving the problem."

"Discussions in Vienna are not enough," said Cardoso. "We need national debates in all our countries, as well as inside the US. A clear dialog with the US is very important. We will try to get in contact with the Obama administration."

And so the pressure builds, on both the UN and the US. Will it be enough to force dramatic changes in Vienna or Washington? Probably not yet. But the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling, clearly if slowly.

Mexican Drug Cartels Dissolve Corpses in Vats of Acid

Lately, the drug war is sounding less and less like an actual government policy and more like a distopian future from a science fiction movie:

As the nation's drug war rages on, with its weekly tallies of headless torsos, it is getting harder to produce a shock wave in the Mexican media. But the gruesome recipes of "The Stewmaker" have gripped public attention here, as authorities describe how a "disposal expert" working for a Tijuana drug cartel boss allegedly got rid of hundreds of bodies by dissolving the corpses in vats of caustic liquid. [Washington Post]

They call him "The Stewmaker" and his henchmen attacked the police station with machine guns after he was captured.

Does any of this sound like the story of a drug policy that works? How much more of this unfathomable gory mayhem do we feel like putting up with? We’ve crossed the line into some seriously dark territory here and it’s way past time something is done about it, something completely different from everything we’ve tried before.

The Drug Cartels are Becoming More Powerful Than the Government

They’re even doing their own diplomacy:

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – Mexico's warring cartels are negotiating a truce that, if it holds, could end one of the bloodiest eras since the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, according to a U.S. official and experts familiar with the talks.

A peace agreement would be the second in two years and, like the last one, its chances of surviving are slim, the U.S. official said.

"In the end, greed prevails over reason," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Dallas Morning News]

Actually, it was the drug war that prevailed over reason. We were all watching when Calderón declared war on the cartels and…wait for it…a huge bloody war broke out! Why is anyone acting confused or surprised by what happened? It’s all perfectly clear. If you throw rocks at a beehive, expect swarms of angry bees.

The fact that they’re negotiating their own peace agreements does not reflect well on the decades-long war that was supposed to disrupt the drug industry. They’ve become a second government that even controls its own territories:

Already, the violence is crippling regions and cities, some of them on the border with Texas. Some top U.S. officials and analysts describe these cities, including Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, as "failed cities," in which cartels, not city or police officials, have control. [Dallas Morning News]

Amazingly, the U.S. and Mexican governments actually believe we should continue the policies that produced this outcome.

The Drug War Only Causes Violence. It Can't Create Peace.

Someone help me understand what Mexico’s U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza is thinking:

"Calderón must, and will, keep the pressure on the cartels, but look, let's not be naïve – there will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That's the nature of the battle," Garza said. "The more pressure the cartels feel, the more they'll lash out like cornered animals." [Dallas Morning News]

This is correct except for the part about how Calderón has to do this (no, he doesn't) and the part about how things will get better (no, they won't). We’ve heard all this a thousand times before and it just gets sillier every time. The bottom line is that cracking down on the cartels either works or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to say that aggressive drug war policies will create violence in the short term, and then eventually that same approach will begin reducing bloodshed. That’s not logical.

The drug war causes violence. Just admit it. Stop pretending that it’s going to produce the opposite result at some point in the future. It isn’t going to.

Mexican Gangs Threaten School Children

Every day, the stories coming from Mexico get worse. Nothing surprises me at this point. Not even this:


MEXICO CITY – Elementary school teachers are the latest victims of an exploding extortion racket in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, as criminal gangs threaten educators to either hand over their coming Christmas bonuses or see harm done to their families or students, teachers' groups say.

With Monday a school holiday and news of the threats spreading in the media, on the Internet and by word of mouth during the long weekend, there were fears that an increasing number of parents would keep their children at home today, forcing additional schools to close. [Dallas News]


Is anybody going to come forward and claim this is just a temporary problem? Shall we double our drug war donations to restore law and order? Let’s get real. The drug war is destroying the entire country before our eyes and there’s no limit to how bad it can get.

It’s amazing to witness the criminal feeding frenzy that is now erupting all over the country now that the drug war has turned Mexico’s justice system into a complete mockery. Dangerous levels of police corruption have created a horrific laboratory in which violent criminals have begun experimenting with all sorts of terrible schemes. Can you even imagine what’s next?

If anything can solve the crime problems plaguing Mexico, it will have to be the exact opposite of everything we're doing right now.

Mexican Drug War Violence Has Begun Spilling Into the U.S.

The harder we push back against Mexican drug cartels, the more violence we’ll begin see within our own borders. Just look what’s happening in Pheonix:

A CBS News investigation has discovered that as of last weekend, there have been 266 reported kidnappings and 300 home invasions this year alone. Sources say the real figures could run as much as three times higher because so many go unreported.

"It wasn't uncommon to have a new kidnapping case coming into our offices on a daily basis," Burgett said.

Law-enforcement sources say the kidnappings signal the brutal expansion of the raging Mexican drug wars spilling across the border.

Now CBS News has learned enforcer gangs just south of the Mexican border have added military-grade hand grenades to their arsenal - something special agent Jose Wall expects to see in Phoenix any day.

It's not just hand grenades, kidnappings and home invasions that have law enforcement on edge. They say it's only a matter of time before innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire. [CBS News]

It’s really just amazing that this can continue to escalate before our eyes without provoking a widespread, spontaneous revelation that something is fundamentally wrong with our drug strategy. How much more obvious could it be? The harder we push the worse it gets. That’s how this works. It’s the only outcome the drug war formula ever produces.

The only thing we’ll get in exchange for the hundreds of millions we’re pouring into the Mexican drug war is more violence within our own borders. Nothing short of a full reversal in our strategy can prevent that result. And since Obama has pledged to continue this madness, we can be reasonably sure this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Mexican Drug War Scaring Off Investors

Further evidence that the Mexican drug war is making progress…in the exact wrong direction:

MONTERREY, Mexico, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Companies in Mexico are scrapping plans to float shares on the stock exchange for fear of raising their profile amid a brutal drug war and a surge in kidnappings, the bourse president said on Tuesday.

Stock exchange President Guillermo Prieto said that aside from market volatility in the past two months due to the global financial crisis, crime was a major issue for firms thinking about initial public offerings (IPOs).

Going public to raise funds for expansion requires far greater company disclosure and a higher public profile for company executives who go on roadshows to attract investors.

This is a whole new level of economic disruption, as the drug war begins to chip away at financial institutions. If this kind of thing continues, there’s no limit to how far-reaching the damage could become.

Violence and corruption are just the first symptoms of the disease of drug prohibition. If left untreated, the sickness spreads throughout every social institution, weakening anything it touches.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Southwest Asia: US, UN Squabble Over Afghanistan Opium Production Drop, But Taliban Stash Suggests No Shortages Any Time Soon

In August, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual survey of Afghan opium production, reporting for the first time in several years a slight -- 6% -- decrease in overall production. Last Friday, the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), released its own US government estimate, claiming that production was down a whopping 31%.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/afghanistanopiummap08.gif
opium security map, ONDCP, July 2008, from whitehousedrugpolicy.gov
Both the UNODC and ONDCP concurred that acreage devoted to poppy production was down, but the UNODC said increased productivity in remaining poppy fields meant the decrease in production was not as great as the decrease in acreage. The ONDCP report said yields were decreasing, not increasing. Both UNODC and ONDCP agreed that 18 provinces were now poppy-free, up from 12 two years ago.

"Afghanistan needs peace, a flourishing economy and the rule of law to succeed as a democracy," said drug czar John Walters as he announced the figures. "Each of these conditions is undone by narcotics production. That is why today's news is so encouraging to the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been victimized for too long by the violence, misery, and addiction caused by the illegal drug trade. We look forward to continuing cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan and our allies as we work to defeat the narcotics industry and the terrorist groups that rely on the drug business to kill innocent people and attack democracy and freedom across the globe."

Despite the US report, UNODC officials in Afghanistan were sticking to their numbers. At a Kabul press conference Monday, UNODC Afghanistan head Christina Orguz said she had "high confidence" in the UNODC numbers because they were based on ground inspections, analysis of the actual opium yield of the latest crop and satellite imagery.

"Whichever figure it would turn out to be right would be a tragedy because it's still far too much produced, in any case," she said.

Both the US and the UN reported some successes in luring farmers away from the poppy crop with public information campaigns and alternative development programs. Eradication and interdiction have been less successful, but now NATO and the US have committed their forces to deeper involvement in the anti-drug effort. Still, Afghanistan remains the world's leading opium producer by far, accounting for 93% of global production.

And, if UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa is correct, Afghanistan has for the past several years produced more opium than the global illicit market can absorb. According to the UNODC, global demand for illicit opium is steady at about 4,500 tons a year, while Afghanistan has been producing considerably more for the past few years. Some 6,000 to 8,000 tons are surplus, and Costa thinks he knows where they are.

"Where is it? We have been asking," he told Time. Because of the surplus, "the prices should have collapsed," said Costa. "But there has been no price collapse."

Costa said he believed the missing opium was being stockpiled by the Taliban for lean times and as a price control mechanism. "This is classic market manipulation," he said.

So, while the US and the UN can congratulate themselves on production reductions and squabble over how big they really are, the Taliban is sitting on a gold mine of opium. At an estimated $465,000 a ton for opium, that adds up to a $3.2 billion war chest, and even a dramatic drop in production or successful eradication will not impede the Taliban's ability to wage war against the West and the government in Kabul.

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