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Will Mexico's Drug War Violence Come to the U.S.?

A troubling alert from the FBI:

The FBI is warning that one of Mexico´s most brutal drug cartels is attempting to violently regain control of drug trafficking routes in the United States and has been ordered to engage law enforcement officers to protect their operations, according to an intelligence report obtained by The Washington Times.

Los Zetas, the enforcer of Mexico´s infamous Gulf Cartel, is reinforcing its ranks and stockpiling weapons in safe houses in the U.S. in response to recent crackdowns in the U.S. and Mexico against drug traffickers, said the FBI San Antonio Field Office's Joint Assessment Bulletin. The bulletin was dated Oct. 17 and was sent to law enforcement officials in the Texas region. [Washington Times]

As difficult as it is to imagine Mexico-level drug trade violence within our borders, it’s a much more likely outcome than, say, winning the drug war. The harder we push, the more bloodshed and disorder awaits us. And just as intolerable levels of violence have invigorated the drug war debate in Mexico, there is no doubt that increased casualties here at home would draw yet more attention to the role of prohibition in funding and sustaining violent organized crime. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

The Drug War is Destroying Mexico Right Before Our Eyes

Everywhere you look, it is just so obvious that the drug war is making Mexico’s problems worse, not better:

A record number of Mexicans are fleeing to Canada, claiming their own country cannot keep them safe as it struggles to contain a grisly narcotics war that is spilling into nightclubs and restaurants.

There are currently 9,070 Mexican refugee claimants waiting to have their cases heard, the largest number yet from one country since the Immigration and Refugee Board was established in 1989.

The brutality is intense: human heads lobbed into discos; bound men found asphyxiated in cars; shootouts in shopping centres in the middle of the day. In September, grenades were lobbed at a public celebration of Independence Day in Morelia, a colonial town about 240 kilometres west of Mexico City, prompting some to call it "narco-terrorism" as the victims were civilians. [Globe and Mail]

How much more of this can the Mexican people withstand? The number of refugees may soon grow exponentially as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no plan to stop the violence, or rather, that the plan currently in effect is exactly what’s causing the problem. As bad as things already are, the potential for greater bloodshed and disorder is virtually limitless and it seems we’re now marching forth into a true test of wills as the drug war faithful must behold and somehow defend the unfathomable disaster they’ve created.

It stands to reason that there exists a threshold beyond which the insanity of the drug war cannot be sustained. This has to stop somehow, because it really is as bad as the drug war’s critics have long maintained. I believe we may be witnessing the emergence of a tipping point at which the totality of drug war destabilization, festering for decades, has now exploded all over the map. Calderon can’t turn back without admitting the drug war’s failure, nor can he push forward without placing in great jeopardy the very foundations of the society he’s sworn to defend.

We are witnessing the deadly consequences of a failed international drug strategy. The virus of prohibition that entered the sociopolitical bloodstream decades ago is now shutting down vital organs and inflicting damage that won’t soon heal. It cannot be allowed to continue as it has for so long. This must end and although legalization isn’t a magical or perfect solution, it is at least something that can be tested and manipulated to maximize benefits and minimize harm.

Already, the most apocalyptic visions of drug legalization’s legacy pale in comparison to the nightmare of prohibition that smolders right in front of us. It may soon become very difficult for our opponents to continue presenting reform as the dangerous, frightening approach to the drug problem.

Drug Czar Tells Cartels to Surrender or Die

If the traffickers don’t surrender soon, drug czar John Walters will kill them with his bare hands:

U.S. drug czar John P. Walters, in Mexico City to reassure officials that aid to fight drug gangs is in the pipeline, said traffickers resort to "fear and horror" in their campaign to take over government institutions but will ultimately fail.

Ultimately, he said, the drug lords will face a stark choice: "They surrender, or they die." [LA Times]

Walters then pulled a hand grenade from his vest and destroyed a speeding SUV from 100 yards away.

Feature: NATO, US Deepen Anti-Drug Operations in Afghanistan in Bid to Throttle Taliban

The NATO and US forces battling Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan are on the verge of expanding their counterinsurgency efforts by getting more deeply involved in trying to suppress the country's booming opium trade. In so doing, they are stepping into tricky territory because they risk alienating large swathes of the population that are dependent on the trade to feed themselves and their families and driving them right into the tender embrace of the Taliban.

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The new, more aggressive anti-drug stance will come in two forms. On one hand, NATO has committed for the first time to actively target and track down drug traffickers and heroin-processing laboratories. On the other hand, US military forces training the Afghan military will now begin accompanying Afghan soldiers as they provide force protection for Afghan government poppy eradication teams.

The more aggressive posture comes as the political and military situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen. Some 242 NATO and US troops have been killed in fighting there this year, 10 more than last year with two and a half months to go, and last year was the worst so far for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some 33,000 US troops, including 13,000 under the command of the ISAF and 20,000 under direct US command, and nearly 40,000 NATO soldiers, are now in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration is calling for an additional 20,000 US troops to be deployed there next year.

The Taliban and related insurgents have shown increased military capabilities, in part because they are able to supply themselves with funds generated by the opium trade. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are making perhaps $100 million a year from taxing poppy farmers and providing protection to drug traffickers.

A leaked draft of an as yet unreleased US National Intelligence Estimate last week revealed that US intelligence agencies believe the war in Afghanistan is "on a downward spiral," with part of the problem resting with a corrupt government under President Hamid Karzai and part of the problem linked to the "destabilizing impact" of the opium trade.

That deteriorating situation impelled US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head to Europe to try to bring reluctant NATO members on board for a more aggressive anti-drug strategy last week. European countries have been reluctant to step into the morass of anti-drug efforts there, citing the risk of alienating the population and arguing that law enforcement is the responsibility of the Afghan government.

"Part of the problem that we face is that the Taliban make somewhere between $60 million and $80 million or more a year from the drug trafficking," Gates said at the NATO meeting in Budapest. "If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavour."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith in formerly opium growing village near Jalalabad
By last Friday, NATO had signed on. According to a Saturday NATO press release, "Based on the request of the Afghan government, consistent with the appropriate United Nations Security Council resolutions, under the existing operational plan, ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, in the context of counter-narcotics, subject to authorization of respective nations."

"At the request of the Afghan government, I am grateful that the North Atlantic Council has given me the authority to expand ISAF's role in counter-narcotics operations," added NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Gen. John Craddock in a statement the same day. "We now have the ability to move forward in an area that affects the security and stability of Afghanistan. It will allow us to reduce the funding and income to the insurgents, which will enhance the force protection of all ISAF and Afghan National Security Force personnel."

That's what Gates and the Bush administration wanted to hear. "It is just going to be part of regular military operations. This is not going to be a special mission," Gates said Saturday," adding that the counter-drug effort was likely to focus on the southern part of the country. "It starts with the commander of ISAF, and then it would be a question of what forces are available. Obviously the United States and the UK are interested in doing this. I think several others would but didn't speak out," he said. "I am fairly optimistic about the future," Gates said. "There is also an understanding that NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."

To that end, the US is taking another step deeper into the Afghan drug war: Using US ground troops to help eradicate poppy fields. The London Daily Mail, among other media, reported that a small number of US soldiers who are training the country's Poppy Eradication Force will accompany their charges as they head into the poppy fields around the beginning of the new year.

The idea is to target land owned by corrupt Afghan power brokers, especially in southern Helmand province, which accounts for the majority of Afghanistan's 93% share of global opium production. That is also an area where the Taliban presence is heavily felt. Some 75 Afghan eradicators were killed last year.

"There shouldn't be any no-go areas for eradication teams in Helmand, and in order to do that they are going to need more force protection," an unnamed British embassy counter-narcotics official told the Daily Mail. "Land that's controlled by major land owners, corrupt officials or major narco-figures is land that should be targeted. Having force protection is more likely to make that possible.'"

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
A US military spokesman told the Daily Mail there are 11 US soldiers training the Afghan Counter Narcotics Battalion in Kandahar. They will deploy along with Afghan soldiers on eradication missions, he said.

The US has long argued for stronger eradication efforts, but was rebuffed by the Karzai government when it floated the idea of aerial spraying earlier this year. But with manual eradication wiping out only 3.5% of the crop this year, pressure to do more is strong. The question is whether doing more to fight the drug trade will help or hinder the effort to build a strong, stable government in Kabul.

"This whole issue has been discussed in different forums in Afghanistan for some time now, said Sher Jah Ahmadzai, an associate at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "The government rejected aerial eradication for various reasons, even though it was desired by the US. But this NATO move is being welcomed by the government and the international agencies because now they are targeting the drug lords, not the farmers themselves. If you go after the farmers, it could backfire on NATO and the Afghan government, so going after the big drug lords is the viable option now. Everyone knows who they are," he said.

But not all drug lords are equal, said Ahmadzai. "There are many drug lords who are involved in the government, there are high ministers who are believed to have been drug lords before they were appointed, there are a number of people in the provincial governments who are involved, but the government is not going to go after them because that could create a backlash," he said. "But the other drug lords, the ones who are openly supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they will go after them."

Only with a stronger Afghan state sometime in the future would it be feasible to actually go after all drug traffickers, said Ahmadzai. "The next phase would be strengthening the Afghan government so it can purge itself," he said.

But Ahmadzai's view is much rosier than some. Critics of the move said it would only worsen the insurgency. "The NATO governments did say they will try to target drug trafficking operations that seem to be in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which makes this policy shift merely unwise instead of egregiously unwise," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "But pressuring NATO and the Karzai government on this simply guarantees that we will drive many people back into the arms of the Taliban, and that's a short-sighted strategy," he argued.

"The Americans have been training Afghan counter-narcotics forces, but they were creating problems for the government because they were aiming straight at the farmers, and the farmers would go straight to the Taliban," agreed Ahmadzai. "If you go after the farmers, you risk alienating them. If you don't, the Taliban and Al Qaeda profit. It's really a double-edged sword."

"The underlying problem is that the drug trade is such a huge part of the Afghan economy," said Carpenter. "The UN says there are some 509,000 families involved in growing or other aspects of the drug trade. If you just consider a standard nuclear family, that's about 15% of the population involved in the drug trade, but when you consider that Afghanistan is very much an extended family- and clan-based society, the real number is more like a third to 40% of the population earning a livelihood off the drug trade. There is no realistic way to shut that down."

There is an alternative, said Carpenter. "US policy-makers could just look the other way, ignore the drug commerce, and focus on trying to weaken the Taliban and Al Qaeda, our mortal adversaries," he said.

While that would leave the Taliban and Al Qaeda free to fund themselves from opium profits, that's a price we would have to pay, Carpenter said. "No doubt those groups derive revenue from the drug trade, but unfortunately for our strategy, so do Karzai's allies. Most major power brokers are involved in some way with the illegal drug trade. It's such a lucrative enterprise because of the black market premium that anyone who exercises power and influence in that society is tempted to get involved."

Noting that the NATO plan to go after only traffickers linked to the insurgency would in effect remove the competition for government-linked drug traffickers, Carpenter said the decision was no surprise. "I don't think that is a deliberate motive, but to the extent that the Karzai government is interested in cooperating, it will be precisely because it will eliminate the competition for those traffickers with backing in Kabul. Expecting the Kabul government to truly suppress the trade would be like asking Japan to eliminate its auto and high-tech industries. It isn't going to happen," he said.

And deeper into the morass we go.

Latin America: UNODC Head Again Blames Drugs -- Not Drug Prohibition -- for Crime and Violence

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Antonio Maria Costa used the occasion of the October 8 meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Safety in Mexico City to again blame the drug trade for the crime and violence caused by drug prohibition. In so doing, he also took a pot-shot at drug reformers, calling them the "pro-drug lobby."

"As a hemisphere, the Americas face the world's biggest drug problem," Costa told the assembled drug fighters in a speech opening the event." Whether we measure it in hectares of cultivation, tons of production, its market value or even by the gruesome number of people killed in the dirty trade," the drug crisis affecting the security of the ordinary people in the area is huge.

"Your citizens indeed say that what they fear the most is not terrorism, not climate change, not a financial crisis. It is public safety. And in the Americas, the biggest threat to public safety comes from drug trafficking and the violence perpetrated by organized crime," he stated.

But Costa ignored the incontrovertible fact that the threat to public order and safety from illicit drug trafficking is a direct result of drug prohibition, which creates the conditions in which such lawlessness and violence thrives, and not of some property inherent to currently proscribed drugs. He blamed everything from urban violence in the US to Canadian biker gangs to Mexican drug wars to Colombia's insurgency and Brazil's drug "commandos," on "drug crime," not drug prohibition.

And even as more and more Latin American governments, tired of trying to achieve UN and US drug policy goals, ponder drug decriminalization and/or legalization (see related story here), Costa sounded the tocsin about the temptations of legalization. "At this point, we know what some people -- the pro-drug lobby, for example -- would say: 'Legalize drugs and crime will disappear.' In other words, while facing an undeniably tough problem, we are invited to accept it, hide our head in the sand and make it legal."

In the face of decades of failed international drug control policies that rely on prohibition enforcement, demand reduction, and to a lesser degree, drug treatment and prevention, Costa called for more of the same, although he seemed to admit that the world could not enforce its way to total sobriety. "Until more resources are put into drug treatment and prevention as well as viable alternatives for illicit crops, narco-traffickers will continue to ply their lucrative and deadly trade across the Western hemisphere," Costa warned.

Travel Alert: Mexico Unsafe Thanks to War on Drugs

The drug war in Mexico is going so horribly wrong that the State Department is warning Americans who may be thinking about traveling there:

Travel Alert

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Bureau of Consular Affairs

This information is current as of today, document.write(Date()+".") Fri Oct 10 2008 19:36:27 GMT-0400 (EDT).

Mexico

April 14, 2008

This Travel Alert updates information for U.S. citizens on security situations in Mexico that may affect their activities while in that country.  This supersedes the Travel Alert for Mexico dated October 24, 2007, and expires on October 15, 2008.

Violence Along The U.S.-Mexico Border
-------------------------------------

Violent criminal activity fueled by a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade continues along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Attacks are aimed primarily at members of drug trafficking organizations, Mexican police forces, criminal justice officials, and journalists.  However, foreign visitors and residents, including Americans, have been among the victims of homicides and kidnappings in the border region.  In its effort to combat violence, the government of Mexico has deployed military troops in various parts of the country.  U.S. citizens are urged to cooperate with official checkpoints when traveling on Mexican highways.

What a disaster. If there were anything remotely effective about the war on drugs, don’t you think that trying this policy for several decades would have produced a better outcome than this? I mean, look at it. Seriously, just watch what’s happening. Is this the result you’d get from a drug policy that worked?

Ever since President Calderon took office a year and a half ago and began trying to crack down on drug trafficking, everything has gone to hell. It gets worse everyday because using war to attack the drug supply is a terrible policy that destroys everything except the drug supply. What other conclusion could you possibly reach given what’s taking place right before our eyes?

Latin America: Peruvian Coca Growers Push Into Indian Lands

Impelled by profits from the coca trade and crackdowns in other parts of the country, coca farmers in Peru's south-central Apurimac and Ene River Valleys (VRAE) region are pushing into indigenous lands in the country's Amazon jungle, according to a new report from the Inter Press Service news agency. The occupants of those territories are not pleased.

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith with VRAE cocalero leader Abdón Flores Huamán
Peru is the number two world coca producer behind Colombia and produced some 56,000 tons of coca leaves and about 180 tons of cocaine, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Just under half of all Peruvian coca cultivation occurs in the VRAE, where there are some 30,000 farmers who are coca union members. Only about 10,000 of those are registered with ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly that buys licit coca crops.

Although Peruvian authorities are undertaking crop eradication efforts in other parts of the country, such as the Huallaga Valley, such efforts are on hold in the VRAE, where authorities fear igniting the fuse on an explosive mixture of poverty, anti-government sentiment, drug gangs, and remnants of the Shining Path who have devolved into drug traffickers or protectors of traffickers.

The commissioner for peace and development in the central jungle region, Mario Jerí Kuriyama, told IPS that indigenous Asháninka people in the area have complained repeatedly about the incursions by would-be coca-growers. In mid-July, Asháninka communities along the Ene River agreed to oppose encroachments by outsiders and protect their territories.

"Many small farmers have come into the central jungle region in the last few years to plant coca because of the higher profit margins it offers. But local indigenous people are opposed to their arrival, as they don't want strangers on their land," said Jerí Kuriyama.

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
"The Asháninka people are opposed to the settlers, especially because they see them as having links to Sendero Luminoso, which killed their family members during the (1980-2000) armed conflict, and also because they associate them with drug traffickers. For them, these people will always be 'invaders'," anthropologist Óscar Espinosa, from Peru's Catholic University, told IPS.

One Asháninka community on the Ene, Shimpenshariato, has been particularly hard-hit, CARE technician Kilderd Rojas told IPS. After an all-day trek by automobile and boat to the remote village, Rojas reported large coca plantations near houses equipped with satellite dishes and other luxuries. "At least half of the community's land has been invaded, and of that proportion, 30 percent is planted in coca and the rest in other crops," Rojas said.

The coca growers' move into the indigenous lands is a predictable result of attempts to crackdown on coca growing and drug production in the region, said drugs and development expert Ricardo Soberón. "While the authorities celebrate their 'victories' against coca and drug production in other valleys, like the Huallaga valley, they are not noticing how the pendulum is swinging towards the central jungle, where the drug trafficking routes, armed terrorist groups, new areas of coca cultivation -- a series of factors that expose local indigenous people to the interests of the drug mafias -- are now concentrated," Soberón told IPS.

Poll Shows Strong Support in Mexico for Drug Legalization

A BBC World Service poll released Monday found Mexicans evenly divided on the question of whether drug legalization should be considered as a solution to the nation’s problem with drug war violence. 44% of respondents agreed that legalization of drugs should be considered, while 46% disagreed. Additionally, a full 80% believed that "the government should consider seeking other alternatives to end the problem."

These results reflect widespread frustration with the increased drug trade violence triggered by President Calderon’s efforts at cracking down on traffickers. Police are being killed at alarming rates, with some even fleeing to the U.S. in search of asylum. Civilians are being massacred in shootings by police and grenade attacks by drug traffickers. Bloody botched police raids and gratuitous human rights violations by the Mexican army have terrorized the population. Affluent Mexicans are having microchips implanted in their flesh in case of kidnappings and the traffickers are driving modified James Bond-style getaway vehicles.

These are the inevitable consequences of a brutal civil war that continues to enrich powerful drug lords at the perpetual expense of peace and social order. Anyone living on the front lines of Mexico’s expansive drug war battlefield can plainly observe the contributions of Calderon’s crackdown towards increasing the bloodshed. Things didn’t get better, they got worse. That’s how this works, always.

Calderon’s drug war troop surge has now elevated the lessons of prohibition within the public consciousness. He has created an interactive national exhibit of the drug war’s horrific futility. And each passing day brings more news of destruction and death, more opportunities for the drug war faithful to finally reject the great hoax that has infected their democracy and now consumes their environment.

The drug war is not going to start working one day, so it’s no surprise that Mexicans are ready to begin discussing alternatives. Their numbers will only continue to grow. And you can bet that this conversation scares the great drug lords far more than Calderon’s corrupted drug war army ever will.

Don't Worry, It's Just a Grenade Attack in Your Neighborhood

Frightening headlines documenting Mexico’s surging drug trade violence can be found on a daily basis, and they tell the true story of drug prohibition about as succinctly as anyone could ask for:

Mexican grenade attack shows no one is safe

MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — The message was clear when two explosions ripped through crowds of Mexican Independence Day revelers: Anyone, anywhere, is fair game when it comes to Mexico's intensifying violence.



Most killings have been drug-related, prompting [President] Calderon to send more than 25,000 soldiers to cartel strongholds across the country. Gangs have only responded with more violence: buying police protection, killing those who can't be bought or forcing entire units to resign in fear.

Calderon, though, has refused to back down. After Monday night's attacks, he urged Mexicans to not be afraid. [AP]

What part of "Mexican grenade attack shows no one is safe" doesn’t he understand? Let’s review:

Option 1 - Drug Prohibition:
No one is safe. You could get blown up anywhere, anytime and you won’t even see it coming.

Option 2 - No Drug Prohibition: Everyone is safe, as long as they don’t voluntarily poison themselves.

Isn’t the better choice obvious?

Latin America: Mexico's PRD May Call for Legalization

According to Mexican press reports this week, Mexico's Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD -- Democratic Revolution Party) is preparing to consider legalization of the drug trade as a response to the wave of narco-violence that has swept the country in the last year and a half. Around 5,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderón escalated Mexico's long-running drug war by enlisting the military in the fight in December 2006.

PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency in 2006, and the party remains the second strongest political force in the country, behind the ruling Partido Acción Nacional (PAN -- National Action Party). But because of party infighting since that election, the PRD may drop into third place after this year's midterm elections, behind both the PAN and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI -- Revolutionary Institutional Party).

According to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, the PRD's national council is calling on the party's legislators to begin discussing legalization as part of a "grand national accord" to deal with violence and insecurity in the country. The proposal came from the PRD's New Left faction, led by Jesús Zambrano, and was approved unanimously by the national council.

In an interview with Mexico's Televisa TV network, the PRD coordinator in the lower house, Javier González Garza, upped the ante, saying legalization should be considered not only in Mexico, but also in the US. "We can't continue thinking that we are going to combat the problem of drug trafficking without more radical measures, and one of them has to be the legalization of drugs in the United States," he said. "After the United States will we continue with Mexico? Of course, or both at the same time... This war, the way it is outlined, is going to be lost, we're all going to lose, it makes no sense and there need to be some changes."

Some 25,000 Mexican army troops are fighting drug traffickers along the border and in a number of major cities and drug-growing areas. Many observers blame the spike in violence -- more people have been killed already this year than in all of last year -- on the aggressive stance of the Calderón government. But the US government is pleased; it recently passed a $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico, most of which will go to beefing up military and police capabilities.

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