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Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

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sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy," by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy (2010, Harvard University Press, 256 pp., $28.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

For more than a decade, French researcher Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy has been cementing his reputation as one of the world's leading experts on opium and the opium trade, and now, with "Opium," he makes his work accessible to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, he reveals the long and fascinating history of the opium poppy and explores the dynamics behind the ever-mutating patterns of cultivation and distribution that mark the trade for the past century. He also explains why decades of aggressive anti-drug policies by the US and the United Nations have failed to suppress or even reduce illicit poppy production.

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Chouvy's knowledge of the trade is extensive -- he has spent years trudging around the backwaters of Asia, from Burma and Laos to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and his grasp of its motors and contours is impressive. As he traces the 20th Century evolution of the opium trade, he also shows how damnably difficult it is to suppress the pain-relieving poppy.

Chouvy takes the reader through China's (at least temporarily) successful opium ban of the 1950s and demonstrates how the ban stimulated production just south of the border in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Similarly, he shows how opium bans in Turkey and Iran around mid-century stimulated production in Pakistan and now Afghanistan.

Along the way, Chouvy reveals the futility of drug war approaches by unveiling the symbiotic relationship between drug economies and war economies. A trade that thrives on the poverty and underdevelopment created by violent conflict cannot be defeated militarily. Thus, the logic of the drug war is almost completely backwards, he argues.

It's not that opium bans or eradication can never work, Chouvy notes. They have worked, at least locally, whether through harsh repression, as in China in the 1950s or Burma in the 2000s, or in combination with economic development efforts, as in Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. But to reduce opium cultivation requires alternative livelihood programs and economic and social development programs that are well-constructed, adequately funded, and long-lived because "poverty and food insecurity are the main drivers of illicit opium production."

(One could argue that demand drives production, although opium is the sort of commodity that creates its own demand, or that artificially inflated prices due to the global prohibition regime drive production, but for Chouvy, the appetite for opium and the reality of drug prohibition are givens.)

That has not generally been the case, Chouvy rather convincingly chronicles. Especially in areas dominated by US and UN drug war paradigms, the approach has been ass-backwards, with eradication done before alternative development is in place and with development assistance tied to eradication. A key issue here is sequencing. Development must come before eradication or bans, or it is unlikely to work.

Similarly, the amount of resources devoted to alternative development programs has been so paltry in comparison to resources devoted to eradication and interdiction that most programs have been doomed to failure or, at best, limited local success.

A third problem with alternative development programs is that, until recently, they have been designed as "one size fits all" without taking into account differences in poppy cultivation patterns between countries and, especially, within countries. In Afghanistan, for example, poor farmers suffering from food insecurity will supplement their wheat crops with poppy, while wealthier farmers grow poppy not out of desperation but out of the desire to gain profits. Development programs must be targeted with acute specificity to fit local needs and conditions, Chouvy writes.

But reducing illicit opium cultivation faces even more fundamental challenges. "It is necessary to identify and address the causes of poverty and food insecurity, no matter how diverse they might be, if illegal poppy cultivation is to be reduced or suppressed," Chouvy writes. "Ultimately, since illicit opium production stems from the need of farmers to cope with poverty and food insecurity, what is required in order to achieve drug supply reduction is broad and equitable economic development, especially in rural areas."

That's a tall order for a country like Afghanistan or Burma, and it demands the kind of economic, social, and political changes that may be inimical to the interests of major donor nations like the US.

With "Opium," Chouvy has made a major contribution to the literature of the poppy trade. His book needs to be read by academics, activists, policy-makers, development NGOs, and anyone else with a serious interest in the opium trade and how to deal with it.

DEA Marijuana Seizures Nearly Double As Marijuana Production in Mexico Grows by 35%

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                     

March 3, 2010

DEA Marijuana Seizures Nearly Double As Marijuana Production in Mexico Grows by 35%

Officials continue to waste money on futile attempts to stem production and violence, ignoring the only solution: a regulated marijuana market

CONTACT: Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations …… 202-905-2009 or ahouston@mpp.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The total amount of marijuana seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration nearly doubled from 1,539 metric tons in 2008 to 2,980 metric tons in 2009, according to numbers disclosed by the DEA as part of their budget request for 2011.

         Meanwhile, the cultivation of marijuana in Mexico rose 35% in 2009 to nearly 30,000 acres, according to a report released by the U.S. State Department. The report also revealed that between $8 and $25 billion in drug profits were laundered by Mexican drug lords during the same period.

         “When is the United States government going to realize that they will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but they can regulate its production?” said Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations. “These latest numbers confirm that the only thing an increase in the amount of marijuana seizures by the DEA will do is force more marijuana to be grown by gangs in Mexico, lining the pockets of drug cartels, and further fueling the bloodshed along our border and in our respective countries. The only real solution to this crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana.”

         These latest figures come just days after high-ranking officials from the U.S. and Mexico concluded a three-day conference meant to outline ways the two nations could reduce the illicit drug-trade-associated violence that continues to plague the U.S.-Mexican border. Unfortunately, the obvious and sensible strategy of taxing and regulating marijuana was not mentioned. The Obama administration instead opted to throw more money at the problem in the form of a $1.4 billion aid package to combat Mexican drug cartels. The Obama administration is also seeking $310 million in its 2011 budget for drug enforcement aid to Mexico. 

         With more than 124,000 members and supporters nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit mpp.org.

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Feature: CIA Misled Congress, Dragged Feet on Disciplining Employees in Killings of US Citizens in Peru Drug War Plane Shootdown

Nearly nine years ago, a Peruvian air force fighter guided by CIA employees in a spotter plane blew a civilian aircraft out of the sky over the Amazon, thinking it was shooting down drug smugglers. But the plane was not carrying drug smugglers; it was carrying American missionaries Jim and Veronica Bowers, their two children, and a civilian pilot. Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter were killed.

The ensuing uproar led to the ending of the US-sponsored program of shooting down suspected drug smuggling planes and heated calls from Congress to get to the bottom of the affair. That didn't happen. Instead, the CIA stonewalled Congress, promising an internal investigation.

This week, that investigation finally concluded. As ABC News reported, the investigation found that CIA operatives and Peruvian officials failed to follow their strict rules of engagement. The pilots failed to identify the plane by its tail number and did not order the plane to land. Tapes of the incident show the CIA spotters growing doubtful at the last moment that their target actually was a drug plane, but failing to act on their doubts in time to prevent the Peruvian fighter jet from firing on the plane.

On Wednesday, the CIA announced that its investigation had concluded that 16 CIA employees should be disciplined, including the CIA agent then in charge of counternarcotics. But many of those employees no longer work for the CIA, and for some who still do, the discipline consists of nothing more than a letter of reprimand inserted in their personnel files.

That was too much for Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. The Bowers were his constituents, and from the beginning, Hoekstra had demanded answers about what happened over the Amazon that day and who was responsible.

"If there's ever an example of justice delayed, justice denied, this is it," Hoekstra told ABC. "The [intelligence] community's performance in terms of accountability has been unacceptable. These were Americans that were killed with the help of their government, the community covered it up, they delayed investigating."

While the Intelligence Committee held hearings on the incident, it didn't get very far. The State Department reported in 2001 that the shoot-downs occurred only after "exhausting international procedures for interception." The Department of Justice declined to prosecute anyone in 2005.

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Veronica Bowers and daughter Charity, in their family's houseboat on the Amazon (photo by Joe Sherman, via flickr.com)
Then the CIA Office of the Inspector General delivered its report, "Procedures Used in Narcotics Airbridge Denial in Peru, 1995-2001," in 2008, seven years after the fact. That report found that at least 15 planes were shot down under the Narcotics Airbridge Denial Program beginning in 1995 and that in most of the downings, pilots fired on aircraft "without being properly identified, without being given the required warnings to land, and without being given time to respond to such warnings as were given to land." (Many of those planes crashed in the jungle and have never been reached, leaving open the question of whether they were carrying drugs.) The report also said that the CIA withheld from the National Security Council, Congress, and the Justice Department the results of investigations that showed continuing and serious violations of procedures designed to prevent the shooting down of innocent aircraft.

When the Inspector General handed that report over to then CIA director Michael Hayden, he assembled an Agency Accountability Board, which insisted it found no evidence of a cover-up, that "reasonable suspicion" was established in every shoot-down except that of the Bowers' plane, and that no CIA officer acted inappropriately. Instead, 16 people were to be sanctioned for "shortcomings in reporting and supervision."

Speaking to Michigan's WOOD-TV Wednesday evening, Hoekstra was outraged. "This is one where the bureaucracy protected itself. Immediately after the shooting in 2001, Congress was misled. Some would say the CIA lied to us about exactly what happened, then dragged this out for years," he said.

"They were brutally murdered, and the US government was complicit in making that happen," Hoekstra continued. "The CIA was reckless, they made serious mistakes that resulted in the deaths of two Americans. This is also about accountability. The CIA has some of the most tremendous powers, and we need to make sure that there is accountability, that CIA operates within the boundaries we set for it, and when they don't, they are held accountable. Tragically, as we close this chapter, I don't think those things are going to happen."

"They wouldn't testify when it happened, they stonewalled this from the get-go, when Hoekstra was demanding they testify," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies and long-time student of US-Latin American relations. "I recall Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) demanding to know who was in charge. Was it Southcom, was it CIA, was it the US Embassy? And all the witnesses just pointed fingers at each other. It now seems that had more to do with embarrassment than protecting national security."

When asked about what the whole affair said about CIA accountability, Tree just laughed.

Coincidentally, Hoesktra's remarks came the same day US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the House Intelligence Committee the government has the right to kill Americans abroad if they present a direct threat to US security. "We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community," Blair told lawmakers at the hearing. "If that direct action -- we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."

Blair said he made the admission to reassure Americans. "We're not careless about endangering American lives as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country," he said.

On Wednesday, the CIA claimed it was not careless in the killing of Veronica Bowers and her daughter, either. In a statement issued Wednesday evening, the CIA said the program to shoot down suspected drug planes had ended in 2001 and was run by a foreign government.

"CIA personnel had no authority either to direct or prohibit actions by that government. CIA officers did not shoot down any airplane. In the case of the tragic downing of April 21st, 2001, [sic] CIA personnel protested the identification of the missionary plane as a suspect drug trafficker," the statement said. (The incident actually occurred April 20, 2001.)

In fact, the shoot-down was the result of an ongoing operation in which the CIA and the Peruvian government worked as partners to blow suspected drug planes out of the sky. Video and audiotapes of the incident show the CIA employees deciding not to check the plane's tail numbers for risk it might flee, and those tapes show that the CIA employees did not express doubts about the identity of the craft until moments before it was shot down.

"This was a tragic episode that the Agency has dealt with in a professional and thorough manner," continued the statement. "Unfortunately, some have been willing to twist facts to imply otherwise. In so doing, they do a tremendous disservice to CIA officers, serving and retired, who have risked their lives for America's national security."

"One of the problems here is that these intelligence services are given a sort of thankless task of operating on the margins of our assumptions about what a society should be about," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "This produces an environment where you get these scandalous things taking place and there is not an adequate corrective procedure, so there is no warning shot across the bow for CIA and other clandestine services. They always seem to assume they can act outside the law because their mission is so important, and one administration after another is willing to look the other way."

"This is all being done in the name of these countries doing domestic law enforcement," Tree noted. "Since we were not at war, what kind of law enforcement allows the policeman to be judge, jury, and executioner? This wasn't law enforcement -- this was extrajudicial killing."

"I don't know why we're surprised about this," said Birns. "It's almost built into the dynamics of the situation. If the government wants them to engage in irregular warfare and take risks with the rules of the game and they know that in the past they have usually been exonerated, of course they are going to bend the rules. It is disenchanting when you reflect on how many incidents there have been where the CIA has compromised itself," said Birns. "We can be outraged that the values we insist on domestically go un-honored in our international behavior, but we shouldn't be surprised because we have put such great value on achieving those policy goals."

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

There's No Economic Crisis for the Drug Cartels

No matter how many people are captured, killed, or incarcerated, the drugs just keep flowing. You could fill a room with academics who take turns explaining how complex the problem is, but it's actually really, really simple:

Though estimates vary, many federal law enforcement agencies and analysts believe that $25 billion in drug proceeds are smuggled out of the U.S. each year.

This compares to just $61 million seized over the past year — the $3 million blocked in banks through the Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act and another $58 million seized by border inspectors. That means authorities are halting just 25 cents of every $100 in cartel profits. [AP]

It's hard to believe that anyone is still confused about why the drug war isn’t getting us anywhere. And no, the solution is not to tell police to take more money from people's cars or pass new laws making it easier to do that. Innocent people have already suffered enough for our failure contain this mess.

The solution is to appoint more responsible people to distribute the drugs.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

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anti-drug patrol by Mexican soldiers
Friday, November 27

Twenty-three people were killed in drug-related violence in the state of Chihuahua. Eight of these killings occurred in the capital city of Chihuahua, and 12 occurred in Ciudad Juárez. In Chihuahua, four men and a teenager were killed when the vehicle in which they were traveling was ambushed by a group of gunmen. In another part of the city, an eight-year old boy was killed after being hit by a stray bullet. Among the dead in Ciudad Juárez was a woman who was badly burned after an explosive device went off in the brothel in which she was thought to work.

Saturday, November 28

An army officer and six gunmen were killed in two separate gun battles in Zacatecas and Michoacan. In Zacatecas, the army repelled an attack by gunmen, killing five and capturing eight. They also seized five vehicles, weapons, clothing and food. In Michoacan, an army officer was killed after a military convoy was ambushed by gunmen in a hillside community. Two other people were killed in drug-related violence in Michoacan, six in Ciudad Juárez, and one in the greater Mexico City area.

Sunday, November 29

At the Calexico, CA border crossing, authorities seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana hidden in a shipment of door knobs. Dogs alerted officers to the truck in which more than 458 wrapped packages of marijuana were found. A 30-year old Mexican national was taken into custody.

In Tijuana, three men were shot and killed by suspected cartel gunmen wielding AK-47s. The killings came just hours after a firefight between soldiers and drug traffickers at a gas station left one soldier wounded in the foot. In another part of Baja California, six men were arrested on suspicion of being tied to a known drug trafficker, Raydel Lopez Uriarte, aka "El Muletas" ("crutches").

Seven people were killed in Chihuahua, six of whom were killed in Ciudad Juárez. One of the murders occurred just feet from soldiers that were guarding the city's main plaza, where national security officials were meeting to analyze drug-related violence. In Chiapas, an anti-mining organizer was killed by a gunman on a motorcycle. Mariano Abarca was head of the Mexican Network of Communities Affected by Mining.

In Reynosa, police rescued a US citizen who had been kidnapped a week earlier in McAllen, Texas. Raul Alvarado, 36, was forced into a vehicle at gunpoint and taken to a safehouse in Reynosa, where he was bound and beaten. His abductors demanded a ransom of $30,000 and two luxury cars. It is unclear if any ransom was paid. There has been an increase in kidnappings on the US side of the border, most of them linked to illegal activity.

Tuesday, December 1

In Mexico City, a protected state witness was gunned down in a Starbucks. Edgar Enrique Bayardo, a former federal policeman, was killed by two gunmen wearing dark suits. His bodyguard was seriously injured in the attack, and a customer at a nearby table was also wounded. Bayardo was arrested last year on suspicion of being employed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Bayardo, whose lavish lifestyle raised suspicion, was made a state witness under the protection of the attorney general's office. He had apparently been followed by gunmen for several days, and it is unclear why he was not better protected or out in public.

Wednesday, December 2

In the Ciudad Juárez area, nine suspected assassins were arrested in an operation carried out by the army. The men are all suspected of working for El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.

Total Body Count for the Week: 144
Total Body Count for the Year: 6,882

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update--December 2

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr. Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war: Friday, November 27 Twenty-three people were killed in drug-related violence in the state of Chihuahua. Eight of these killings occurred in the capital city of Chihuahua, and 12 occurred in Ciudad Juarez. In Chihuahua, four men and a teenager were killed when the vehicle in which they were traveling was ambushed by a group of gunmen. In another part of the city, an eight-year old boy was killed after being hit by a stray bullet. Among the dead in Ciudad Juarez was a woman who was badly burned after an explosive device went off in the brothel in which she was thought to work. Saturday, November 28 An army officer and six gunmen were killed in two separate gun battles in Zacatecas and Michoacan. In Zacatecas, the army repelled an attack by gunmen, killing five and capturing eight. They also seized five vehicles, weapons, clothing and food. In Michoacan, an army officer was killed after a military convoy was ambushed by gunmen in a hillside community. Two other people were killed in drug-related violence in Michoacan, six in Ciudad Juarez, and one in the greater Mexico City area. Sunday, November 29 At the Calexico, CA border crossing, authorities seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana hidden in a shipment of door knobs. Dogs alerted officers to the truck in which more than 458 wrapped packages of marijuana were found. A 30-year old Mexican national was taken into custody. In Tijuana, three men were shot and killed by suspected cartel gunmen wielding AK-47s. The killings came just hours after a firefight between soldiers and drug traffickers at a gas station left one soldier wounded in the foot. In another part of Baja California, six men were arrested on suspicion of being tied to a known drug trafficker, Raydel Lopez Uriarte, aka “El Muletas” (“crutches”). Seven people were killed in Chihuahua , six of whom were killed in Ciudad Juarez. One of the murders occurred just feet from soldiers that were guarding the city’s main plaza, where national security officials were meeting to analyze drug-related violence. In Chiapas, an anti-mining organizer was killed by a gunman on a motorcycle. Mariano Abarca was head of the Mexican Network of Communities Affected by Mining. In Reynosa, police rescued a US citizen that had been kidnapped a week earlier in McAllen, Texas. Raul Alvarado, 36, was forced into a vehicle at gunpoint and taken to a safehouse in Reynosa, where he was bound and beaten. His abductors demanded a ransom of $30,000 and two luxury cars. It is unclear is any ransom was paid. There has been an increase in kidnappings on the US side of the border, most of them linked to illegal activity. Tuesday, December 1 In Mexico City, a protected state witness was gunned down in a Starbucks. Edgar Enrique Bayardo, a former federal policeman, was killed by two gunmen wearing dark suits. His bodyguard was seriously injured in the attack, and a customer at a nearby table was also wounded. Bayardo was arrested last year on suspicion of being employed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Bayardo, whose lavish lifestyle raised suspicion, was made a state witness under the protection of the attorney general’s office. He had apparently been followed by gunmen for several days, and it is unclear why he was not better protected or out in public. Wednesday, December 2 In the Ciudad Juarez area, nine suspected assassins were arrested in an operation carried out by the army. The men are all suspected of working for El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and it’s enforcement arm, La Linea. Total Body Count for the Week: 144 Total Body Count for the Year: 6,882

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debussman Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,800 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

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Ciuded Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Thursday, October 29

In Guerrero, a body was found hanging from a highway overpass. The unidentified man had been shot in the head, and left with two notes with messages from "La Familia." In Ciudad Juárez, a high-ranking police intelligence official was killed when he was attacked by heavily armed gunmen as he ate in a restaurant. One policeman was killed, and the official and two bodyguards were wounded. A sign was later found taking responsibility for the attack, which was apparently ordered by "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Federation. Additionally, nine other murders were reported in Ciudad Juárez, four in Sinaloa, one in Tijuana, and four bodies found in the trunk bed of a truck in Michoacán.

Saturday, October 31

In Sonora, a well known union leader was killed along with 14 others, including four children. Margarita Montes Parra, 56, was ambushed by gunmen armed with AK-47's. It is unclear whether his death was ordered by drug traffickers or as a result of his union work. One of his sons, Adrian, was killed two years ago in what is thought to be a drug-related murder. Parra made headlines by publicly accusing the governor of Sonora of protecting his son's killers. He also accused the Veracruz state government of being complicit in drug trafficking.

Monday, November 2

Officials identified four bodies that had been found executed in an SUV in Mexico City. Three of the men had the word "kidnappers" handwritten on their body with marker, and a sign was found in the vehicle which read "for kidnapping, the boss of bosses". This is the nickname of Beltran-Levy cartel boss Arturo Beltran-Levy. There has been an increase of violence against kidnappers and petty criminals in recent months on the part of vigilantes working with drug traffickers and elements of the police. Additionally, in Tijuana, 13 suspected cartel gunmen were captured after a firefight that wounded one soldier and one gunman.

Tuesday, November 3

In the town of San Pedro Garza Garcia, near Monterrey, the mayor announced the death of a drug trafficker hours before the body was actually found. After being sworn in, Mayor Mauricio Fernandez was quoted as saying that "Black Saldana, who is apparently the one asking for my head, was found dead today in Mexico City." His announcement came 3 ½ hours before the blindfolded corpse of "Black Saldana" (otherwise identified only by his first name, Hector) was found. While at first he evaded questions about his prior knowledge of the incident, Fernandez later claimed that he had been tipped off by US officials that he was going to be targeted, and then found out about Black Saldana's death through unspecified means.

In Durango, a journalist who specialized in police matters was found dead after being kidnapped by armed men on his way to work. Alongside the body was found a note, whose contents were not revealed to the public. Vladimir Antenna Garcia, who wrote for El Tempo de Durango, is the third journalist killed in Durango this year, and the eighth journalist killed in Mexico.

In Chihuahua, 18 people were killed in a 48 hour period. Nine of these murders occurred in Ciudad Juárez. Among them was a municipal police officer who was gunned down in a hair salon where he was accompanying his wife. Additionally, in the state of Veracruz, a high-ranking member of the Zetas organization, nicknamed "El Gonzo" or "Z-20" was killed after being shot by Mexican naval personnel. Four people were arrested during the operation.

Wednesday, November 4

In the city of Chihuahua, police and soldiers shot dead a federal policeman who was driving one of three cars that failed to stop for them. The police and troops were on a joint patrol when they attempted to stop the suspicious vehicles. The three vehicles ignored orders to stop, sparking off a gun battle that left the federal agent and left another unidentified man wounded.

In Ciudad Juárez, six people were gunned down in a bar. Among them was off-duty US Air Force Staff Sgt. David Booher, who was based at Holloman Air Force base outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The motive for the attack was unclear, but it bore all the hallmarks of a drug-related murder in Ciudad Juárez. The incident brings the number of deaths in Ciudad Juárez to 30 over the last four days. Additionally, in Garcia, Nuevo Leon, a recently appointed police chief was killed along with four of his bodyguards when they were ambushed by an unknown known of heavily armed gunmen.

Body count for the week: 111
Body count for the year: 6,286
Body count since December 2006: 15,000+

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

The Border: US Begins Turning Busted Smugglers Over to Mexico for Prosecution

For years, getting caught trying to smuggle drugs across the US-Mexican border meant being handed over to US authorities for prosecution. Problem was, US Attorneys on the border were so swamped with marijuana smuggling cases, the general rule was they wouldn't prosecute for less than 500 pounds. Instead, local prosecutors got those cases, but they were swamped, too. As a result, thousands of Mexican marijuana smugglers never faced prosecution in the US -- they were simply deported back over the border to Mexico.

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Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
But now, according to the New York Times, under an agreement reached last month, US authorities have begun returning captured Mexican pot smugglers to Mexico for prosecution by Mexican authorities. Late last month, Sonora, Mexico, resident Eleazar Gonzalez-Sanchez won the dubious distinction of being the first person turned over to Mexican authorities after he was popped with 44 pounds by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Nogales, Arizona, border crossing.

The border agreement is a sign of "our effort to enhance cooperation between the US and Mexico on prosecuting drug trafficking cases," said Arizona US Attorney Dennis Burke.

There is plenty of work to do. In the past year, ICE opened 646 smuggling cases out of busts at the Nogales port of entry. In the fiscal year ending in October 2008, ICE busted 71,000 pounds of pot on the Arizona border.

The program is a pilot program currently operating in Arizona. US officials will be monitoring the cases returned to Mexico, and if satisfied with the results, may extend it all along the border.

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