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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: The Lebanese Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEA Facing Fallout from Deadly Honduras Raid

In the Honduran village where four residents were killed last week by gunfire from a helicopter on a US-backed anti-drug operation complete with DEA agents on board the chopper, feelings continue to run high. On Monday, they told the Associated Press that DEA agents also accompanied Honduran commandos who stormed into homes and mistreated residents after the raid, but the agency denies that.

In the predawn hours of May 11, Honduran National Police and DEA agents were searching for a boat supposedly carrying a load of cocaine when they said they came under fire from the river. The Hondurans opened fire, but the boat they attacked was a small fishing vessel, not a smuggling craft, and the attack left two pregnant women and two others dead and four other people wounded.

The helicopter is owned by the US State Department and was one of four being used in the operation, which had already resulted in the seizure of cocaine from the banks of the river. Police on the ground and the door-gunner for one helicopter opened up on the boat.

The DEA said its agents did not open fire and did not participate in heavy-handed raids in the immediate aftermath. But villagers in the town of Ahuas said masked agents then landed in their community and broke down doors, looking for a trafficker they called "El Renco." The witnesses referred to some of the agents as "gringos" and said they were speaking English.

After the commandos left, angry villagers formed a machete-wielding mob and burned government installations and four homes belonging to families associated with El Renco. Police Chief Filiberto Pravia Rodriguez said he tried to stop the mob, but had to run for his life.

The incident comes as the US is ramping up its support of Honduran anti-drug efforts. The Obama administration is increasing the amount of anti-drug assistance and is working with the Honduran military to create forward operating bases to fight the cocaine traffic from Colombia en route to North America.

Human Rights watch has called for an investigation into the killings.

"It is critical that both Honduran and US authorities ensure that the killings are thoroughly investigated to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the group. "If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable."

At least one congressman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) is calling for a review of US military assistance to Honduras, where the Honduran military took part in a coup in 2009 and where continuing human rights violations are alleged to be taking place.

"I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring US security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations," he told National Public Radio last week. "The problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review all the more urgent."

Local leaders aren't waiting for investigations or reviews. They want the DEA out now.

"For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory," the leaders of five indigenous groups said in a press statement last week picked up by the AP.

Ahuas
Honduras

Obama's 2012 Drug Strategy: The Same Old Same Old [FEATURE]

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, and while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

Drug war spending continues to exceed treatment and prevention spending (ONDCP)
"We will continue to pursue a balanced approach… in a national effort to improve public health and safety," wrote Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head Gil Kerlikowske in the introduction to the strategy. "We will work to prevent illicit drug use and addiction before their onset and bring more Americans in need of treatment into contact with the appropriate level of care. We will continue to build on the administration’s progress in reforming the justice system, ensuring that laws are applied fairly and effectively -- protecting public safety while also ensuring that drug-involved offenders have the opportunity to end their drug use and rebuild their lives."

But that's only one half of the administration's approach. The other half, as Kerlikowske makes clear, it continued adherence to classic war on drugs strategies.

"We will continue to counter drug produc­tion and trafficking within the United States and will implement new strategies to secure our borders against illicit drug flows," the drug czar wrote. "And we will work with international partners to reduce drug production and trafficking and strengthen rule of law, democratic institutions, citizen security, and respect for human rights around the world."

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug control under the proposed budget, nearly half a billion dollars more than this year. And despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years. In fact, the 58.8% of the proposed budget that would go to drug war programs is exactly the same percentage as George Bush's 2008 budget and even higher than the 56.8% in Bush's 2005 budget.

ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske
In the 2013 drug budget, treatment and early intervention programs would be funded at $9.2 billion, an increase of more than $400 billion over this year, but most of that increase is for treatment covered under the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Grant programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including Access to Recovery, early screening and referral, and drug courts are all reduced under the 2013 budget, although drug courts would see an increase in funding under the Department of Justice's Problem Solving Justice Program.

One area where treatment funding is unequivocally increased is among the prison population. Federal Bureau of Prisons treatment spending would jump to $109 million, up 17% over this year, while the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program for state prisoners would be funded at $21 million, up nearly 50% over this year.

The drug strategy's rhetorical emphasis on prevention is not reflected in the 2013 budget, which calls for a 1% decrease in funding. SAMHSA prevention grants and Drug Free Communities funding would decrease slightly, while the administration seeks $20 million to restart the much maligned and congressionally zeroed-out Youth Drug Prevention Media Campaign.

On the drug war side of the ledger, domestic anti-drug law enforcement spending would increase by more than $61 million to $9.4 billion, with the DEA's Diversion Control Program (prescription drugs) and paying for federal drug war prisoners showing the biggest increases. The administration anticipates shelling out more than $4.5 billion to imprison drug offenders.

But domestic law enforcement is only part of the drug war picture. The budget also allocates $3.7 billion for interdiction, a 2.5% increase over the 2012 budget, and another $2 billion for international anti-drug program, including assistance to the governments of Central America, Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

Critics of the continued reliance on prohibition and repression were quick to attack the new drug strategy and budget as just more of the same.

"The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it's just that: talk," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "Instead of continuing to fund the same old 'drug war' approaches that are proven not to work, the president needs to put his money where his mouth is."

"This budget is appalling. The drug czar is trying to resurrect those stupid TV ads, like the one where a teenager gets his fist stuck in his mouth," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "The budget intentionally undercounts the federal government's expenditures on incarcerating drug offenders, who comprise more than half of the federal prison population. And the budget dangerously proposes a massive escalation in using the military to fight drugs domestically. Congress should just ignore this budget and start from scratch. Specifically, Congress should not provide the Obama administration with any money to go after nonviolent marijuana users, growers, or distributors."

In the 2013 drug strategy, the administration is highlighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing attacking the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

For Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, the 2012 drug strategy was all too familiar.

"This strategy is nearly identical to previous national drug strategies," he said. "While the rhetoric is new -- reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure -- the substance of the actual policies is the same. In reality, the administration is prioritizing low-level drug arrests, trampling on state medical marijuana laws, and expanding supply-side interdiction approaches -- while not doing enough to actually reduce the harms of drug addiction and misuse, such as the escalating overdose epidemic."

The release of the drug budget comes just days after President Obama returned from the Summit of the Americas meeting, where he was pressed to open up a debate on legalizing and regulating drugs by sitting Latin American presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala. And it comes as marijuana legalization is at the cusp of majority support and trending upward.

It is past time to keep making minor adjustments -- a slight funding increase here, a decrease there, a shift of emphasis over there -- in what is fundamentally a flawed and failed policy, said LEAP's Franklin.

"The chorus of voices calling for a real debate on ending prohibition is growing louder all the time," said Franklin. "President Obama keeps saying he is open to a discussion but he never seems willing to actually have that discussion. The time for real change is now. This prohibition strategy hasn't worked in the past and it cannot work in the future. Latin American leaders know it, and President Obama must know it. Let's stop the charade and begin to bring drugs under control through legalization."

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Releases 2012 National Drug Control Strategy

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, but while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug law enforcement under the proposed budget, and despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years.

The administration is high-lighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

This year's drug strategy looks like last year's drug strategy, which looked like Bush administration drug strategies, which looked like Clinton administration drug strategies. When it comes to the federal drug war, it's more of the same old same old.

Look for an expanded version of this news brief Thursday afternoon, with deeper analysis and commentary from drug war observers.

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Addresses Drug Legalization at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

Responding to a growing clamor from his Latin America colleagues at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, last weekend, US President Barack Obama broached the subject of drug legalization, if only to dismiss it. But other hemispheric heads of state want this weekend's summit to be the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

Pres. Obama with Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, Brazilian Pres. Dilma Rouseff, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews (whitehouse.gov)
Pressures that have been building for a decade or more have only intensified in recent months, with Latin American leaders including Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and even Mexican President Felipe Calderon calling for a frank and open discussion of alternatives to US-style war on drugs.

The calls come against a backdrop of decades of drug war in Colombia, where tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a US-backed and -financed war on drugs that morphed into a counterinsurgency campaign after the 911 attacks more than a decade ago. The $7 billion or so the US has spent since implementing Plan Colombia under President Clinton has succeeded in reducing Colombian cocaine production, but only to see production increase in Peru and Bolivia, and only at a high cost in terms of human rights and rule of law in Colombia.

Similarly, the Mexican drug wars, which have left a toll of more than 50,000 dead in less than five years and revealed extensive and corrosive corruption, as well as human rights abuses, within Mexican law enforcement and the military, have in recent years begun bleeding into Central America. The northern tier of Central American countries -- Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- now have some of the world highest murder rates, and leaders of three of those countries attended a meeting on the theme of alternatives to the drug war last month hosted by Guatemalan President Perez.

Those pressures led US officials, including inveterate drug warrior Vice-President Joe Biden, to make an historic concession in the past few weeks: Drug legalization and other drug law reforms are indeed a legitimate arena of discussion, the Obama administration grudgingly allowed in response.

The pressure continued even before the summit officially got underway Saturday. On Friday, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, told the BBC that current drug war policies were unworkable.

"We call for a responsible, serious dialogue in which we scientifically analyze what is happening with the war on
drugs," the former general said.

Perez Molina elaborated in an interview with Agence-France Presse on Saturday.

"The war we have waged over the past 40 years has not yielded results. It's a war which, to speak frankly, we are losing," he said. "Meanwhile, the black market continues to exist and dollars and weapons continue to flow in from the United States. The way we are fighting this war, we cannot win," he added.

Perez Molina downplayed Obama's dismissal of legalization, noting that he "will not innovate" while facing reelection, but adding that there is "growing awareness among (US) officials, which they have not expressed but that we know they have discussed in think tanks, non-governmental organizations, academic circles, that it is necessary to seek other alternatives" to the war on drugs. We are beginning to see that Washington is ready to begin a dialogue, although not on decriminalization of drugs," Perez said.

Also on Saturday, in remarks reported by CNN, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos added to the pressure, saying that continuing current prohibitionist policies was like riding a "stationary bike": working hard, but making little forward progress.

"I think the time has come to simply analyze if what we are doing is the best we could be doing, or if we can find an alternative that would be more effective and less costly to society. One extreme can be to put all users in prison; on the other extreme, legalization. In the middle there may be more practical policies, such as decriminalizing consumption but putting all the efforts into interdiction," he said.

"This is a topic of extreme political sensitivity," Santos added.

On Saturday, in remarks reported by USA Today, President Obama responded at some length, first in a meeting with business leaders that also included Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Colombian President Santos, and later at the opening session of the summit.

"I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places," Obama said at the meeting of business leaders. "I personally, and my administration's position is, that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo," he said.

Obama elaborated at the opening session. "Unfortunately, the drug trade is integrated, and we can't look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States," Obama said. "I think the American people understand that the toll of narco-trafficking on the societies of Central America, Caribbean, and parts of South America are brutal, and undermining the capacity of those countries to protect their citizens, and eroding institutions and corrupting institutions in ways that are ultimately bad for everybody," he said.

"So this is part of the reason why we've invested... about $30 billion in prevention programs, drug treatment programs looking at the drug issue not just from a law enforcement and interdiction issue, but also from a public health perspective. This is why we've worked in unprecedented fashion in cooperation with countries like Mexico on not just drugs coming north, but also guns and cash going south."

"This is one of the reasons why we have continued to invest in programs like Plan Colombia, but also now are working with Colombia, given their best practices around issues of citizen security, to have not just the United States but Colombia provide technical assistance and training to countries in Central America and the Caribbean in finding ways that they can duplicate some of the success that we've seen in Colombia. So we're mindful of our responsibilities on this issue."

While Obama reiterated that legalization is a legitimate topic of debate, he also reiterated that "the United States will not be going in this direction." (See the link above for full video and a transcript.)

Instead, it appears inexorably wedded to doing more of the same old same old. Obama announced at that summit that the way the US would address the concerns raised by the Latin American leaders would be to throw more money at them. He announced an increase to more than $130 million of funding designed to provide assistance to regional police and military forces to tackle the drug traffickers the Central American gangs that are increasingly allied with them.

But as the summit ended Sunday afternoon, President Obama seemed to take pains to indicate that his administration is open to further discussions on the theme.

"I think it is wholly appropriate to address this issue," he said in response to a question at the final press conference. "The smaller Central American and Caribbean countries are feeling overwhelmed, and there is the violence in Mexico. It wouldn't make sense not to examine what works and what doesn't and to constantly try to ask ourselves if there is something we can do to prevent violence, to weaken these drug traffickers, to make sure they're not peddling this stuff to our kids and perpetrating violence in the region. I'm not somebody who believes legalization is a path toward solving this problem," he underlined, "but there are additional steps we can take to be more creative and ways we can combine law enforcement and interdiction approaches with the public health approach that I think is important back home. I'm looking forward to continuing to have that conversation."

"This is one of many issues that some countries want to put on the table," said President Santos, seeming to scold the press for placing such an emphasis on the drug issue. "This was one of the issues we discussed. We heard positions from the US and other countries; they were all laid out on the table, and this is a positive step."

The Cartagena summit is now history. The drug war rolls on, but the US is now on notice from its neighbors that the drug war status quo is not tolerable, and the US has indicated that it is open to further exploration of the issue. The Obama administration has not taken the great leap of embracing drug legalization, but it has now gone further than any previous US administration is admitting there may be alternatives to perpetual drug war.

Cartagena
Colombia

Another Dumb Drug War Idea: Banning Hidden Compartments in Cars

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/carsearch.jpg

Frequent visitors to this site should know by now that there is no idea so absurd, no strategy so stupid, as to be rendered ineligible for introduction into the War on Drugs. There is nothing these people won't try, and by nothing I mean that literally, as in every bad idea that the human mind can possibly produce will eventually be attempted by amped-up narc-mongering nutjobs hellbent on bending our legal system to hell.

The latest news in this ongoing crusade to arrest everyone for everything is Ohio's preposterous plan to start busting and jailing people for having hidden compartments in their cars:

A hidden compartment in your vehicle, with or without drugs, could mean big trouble as Ohio officials get serious about slowing down drug-smuggling.

A proposed state law, advocated by Gov. John Kasich, would make it a fourth-degree felony to own a vehicle equipped with secret compartments. A conviction would mean up to 18 months in jail and a potential $5,000 fine. [Columbus Dispatch]

Right out of the gate, I've got three good reasons why this is insane:

1. It's already illegal to have drugs. Is Ohio having a hard figuring out what to charge people with when they find a kilo of coke in a car? I have an idea: coke. That ought to get the job done. You can make all the laws you want about where people can and cannot store enormous amount of highly-illegal contraband, they're still not gonna keep it in a turkey bag and balance it on their head. Anyway, since when does the highway patrol hate ripping cars apart?

2. How am I supposed to know if I have a hidden compartment in my car? It's hidden. There's a multi-billion dollar industry of people smuggling this and that from here to there, and those cars get resold like crazy. Heck, the number one reseller of shady smuggler cars is the cops. Any used car on the road could have a stash spot in there somewhere, and excuse me for not preemptively cutting every inch of my crappy car open with a metal saw to make sure. You're gonna put me in jail for possession of empty space that I failed to notice?

3. I should be allowed to hide random crap in my car. Right? It should go without saying that I have every right to hide my stuff in my car any way I want. Maybe I'm hiding candy from my kids or porno from my wife, or whatever from whoever else. It's my damn car. Why is the government telling me I can't have a compartment full of candy and porno in my car if my lifestyle calls for that? The fact that some other dude keeps a kilo of coke in his compartment has nothing whatsoever to do with me. Leave me the hell alone.

It remains to be seen whether any of this will occur to anyone before this stupid new idea becomes a stupid new law. But you can bet that the people smuggling drugs through Ohio really couldn't care any less what the law says about where you aren't allowed to store the marijuana, meth, cocaine, and heroin that you aren’t allowed to have in the first place.

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

Meet Obama's Proposed 2013 Federal Drug Budget [FEATURE]

The Obama administration this week released its Fiscal Year 2013 National Drug Control Budget, and it wants to spend nearly $26 billion on federal anti-drug programs. Despite all the talk about the staggering federal debt problem and current budget deficits, the administration found nothing to cut here. Instead, the proposed budget increases federal anti-drug funding by 1.6% over fiscal year 2012.

Drug War Autopilot and Co-Autopilot: ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
The proposed budget is remarkable for how closely it hews to previous years, especially in regard to the allocation of resources for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) versus those for supply reduction (domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction). The roughly 40:60 ratio that has been in place for years has shifted, but only incrementally. The 2013 budget allocates 41.2% for treatment and prevention and 58.2% for law enforcement.

"This is very much the same drug budget we've been seeing for years," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The Obama drug budget is the Bush drug budget, which was the Clinton drug budget. Little has changed."

"It's really just more of the same," said Sean Dunagan, a former DEA intelligence analyst whose last assignment in northeastern Mexico between 2008 and 2010, a when prohibition-related violence there was soaring, helped change his perspective. Dunagan quit the DEA and is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"There are very minor adjustments in how the drug spending is allocated and bit more money for treatment, but there's a significant increase in interdiction, as well as a $61 million increase for domestic law enforcement," Dunagan noted. "They're trying to argue that they're abandoning the drug war and shifting the focus, but the numbers don't really back that up."

The proposed budget also demonstrates the breadth of the federal drug spending largesse among the bureaucratic fiefdoms in Washington. Departments that catch a ride on the drug war gravy train include Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, and Veterans' Affairs, as well as the federal judiciary, District of Columbia courts, the Small Business Administration, and, of course, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

"It's just the same old programs being funded through the same old stove-pipes," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "In a way, it's ironic. When Congress passed the legislation creating the drug czar's office in 1988, the idea was for the drug czar to look at all the federal anti-drug spending and come in and say he was going to take the funds from one program and shift them to a more effective program. I think many in Congress hoped he would shift resources from law enforcement to treatment and prevention because there was evidence that those sorts of programs were more effective and a better use of resources. That didn't happen," he said.

"The people who run the bureaucratic fiefdoms at Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, State and Treasury have outmuscled the drug czar, and now the drug czar's budget announcements are reduced to public relations and spin," Sterling continued. "They take some $15 or $20 million program and bullet-point it as significant, but that's almost nothing when it comes to federal drug dollars."

The Justice Department alone would get $7.85 billion, up almost $400 million from FY 2012, with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the DEA among those Justice components seeing funding increases. BOP spending would increase by about 8%, while the DEA budget would increase from $2.35 billion to $2.38 billion. On the other hand, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which lost its congressional patron with the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), has been zeroed out.
 

"The hundreds of millions of dollar increases in funding requested for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is particularly outrageous," said Sterling. "There are too many people doing too much time they don't need to be doing. Obama has the power to save hundreds of millions of dollars by commuting excessively long sentences. He could reduce the deficit and increase the amount of justice in America.

"He could tell the BOP he was ordering a cap on the federal prison population that now has a sentenced population of 198,000, Sterling continued, on a roll. "He could order them that whenever a new prisoner arrives, they have to send him the names of prisoners who may have served enough time for their crimes for him to consider for immediate release from prison. He could ask all the federal judges to send him the names of people they have sentenced to longer terms than they think are just. If he had the heart to reach out to those prisoners who are serving decades for minor roles and their suffering families, if he had the brains to put in place the means to achieve those cost-serving measures, and if he had the guts to actually use the constitutional power he has to do it, that would be great."

"That increase in incarceration spending really jumps out at me, too" said Dunagan. "To make their claim that they're not going to be locking up small-time dealers and users is pretty disingenuous."

Pentagon spending on interdiction and other anti-drug activities would decline somewhat, with the budget proposing $1.725 billion for 2013, a decline of $200 million from the 2012 budget. But interdiction spending goes up elsewhere, as Dunagan noted.

And State Department drug spending would take a hit. Spending would decline by just more than $100 million to $687 million, but most of that decrease would come from reduced funding for alternative development assistance, while State's other drug-related program, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), would see only a $6 million decrease.

While funding for prevention and treatment would increase by 4.6% under the proposed budget, some treatment and grant programs are seeing cuts, while criminal justice system-based approaches are getting more money.

"I'm concerned that the budget seems to be emphasizing drug courts and criminal justice-based drug treatment," said Piper. "They're cutting SAMHSA, which funds a lot of treatment, but increasing spending for prison-based treatment."

The $364 million earmarked for SAMHSA's treatment programs is a $61 million reduction from FY 2012, while drug courts saw a $17 million increase to $52 million and BOP drug treatment programs saw a $16 million increase to $109 million.

The new drug budget also resurrects the drug czar's widely criticized National Youth Media Campaign, dropped last year when Congress failed to fund it.

"I'm also disappointed that they put back in funding for the drug czar's failed youth media campaign, which Congress eliminated last year," said Piper. "It's only $20 million, and you can hardly do a national media campaign with that, but still."

This is only the administration's budget proposal, of course, and Congress will have plenty of opportunities to try to cut (or increase) portions of it. Still, the proposed budget is a window on the thinking of administration that has talked the talk about how we are no longer in a war on drugs, but has taken only stumblingly tiny steps toward walking the walk. And drug reformers aren't liking what they're seeing.

"LEAP thinks this is misguided," said Dunagan. "The only thing that's different is the rhetoric used to spin it, and even that is a sort of tacit acknowledgment by the administration that people don't really like the drug war, but substantively, there's very little different from the past."

"Between the drug budgets and his war on medical marijuana, we're very disappointed in Obama," said DPA's Piper.

"We should be disappointed in the Obama administration," said Sterling. "There was supposed to be change. This was the University of Chicago law professor, the Harvard-trained lawyer, who was going to bring in his own people and make real change. I'm very disappointed in his drug policies and criminal justice policies. My disappointment with his policy failures don't have anything to do with the economic crisis or the geostrategic situation he inherited.

Washington, DC
United States

Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Ricardo Soberon, the reformist head of DEVIDA, the Peruvian drug agency, has been fired and replaced, the Peruvian government announced Tuesday. Soberon made waves last August when he implemented a temporary ban on forced eradication of coca plants, taking the US Embassy by surprise, but that was soon reversed on the orders of his boss, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes.

statues of coca leaves adorn a small town plaza in Peru (photo by author)
Relations between Soberon and Valdes never warmed, and he "resigned" on Tuesday after just five months in office. Soberon also found himself increasingly at odds with President Ollanta Humala, who had campaigned on a pledge to not aggressively pursue eradication, but who has shifted to the right on this and other issues since taking power.

Soberon had taken that same message to coca growers, with whom he had forged relationships after years of work in the field. His departure could mean an uptick in conflict in the already contentious relationship between coca grower unions and the government.

"Soberon's exit was a matter of time," Peruvian drug policy expert Jaime Antezana told the Washington Post. "There was no chance that Oscar Valdes would keep him in the job."

Soberon had been working on a five-year national drug strategy that would have called for vigorous pursuit of cocaine traffickers and money launderers and interdiction of incoming precursor chemicals and outgoing cocaine, but de-emphasized punishing the peasants who grow coca outside the government coca monopoly, ENACO. That strategy was never approved.

Peru is now arguably the world's largest producer of cocaine, having surpassed Colombia despite the latter country's having more acreage of coca planted, according to US officials. Peru's coca fields are higher-yielding because they are more mature, and the country had the potential to produce 325 metric tons of cocaine last year, compared to 270 tons in Colombia.

Peru eradicated about 15% of the crop last year, but at the political price of alienating thousands of coca growing farm families. Now, it appears ready to deepen that divide.

Lima
Peru

Fixing Our Drug Policy Will Require a Hatchet, Not a Scalpel

I have a new piece at Huffington Post discussing recent claims from the Drug Czar's office that the Obama Administration is working hard to "reform" our drug policy. We've reached an interesting moment in the debate when both sides are wrapping themselves in the flag of reform. 

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