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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:

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugpatrols.jpg
Mexican army anti-drug patrol
Thursday, September 10

Last Thursday morning, the body count for the year passed 5,000. Four people were killed in Guerrero, among them a rural law enforcement officer. Additionally, in Chiapas, a group of gunmen threw a fragmentation grenade at a municipal office. Several people were wounded and a vehicle parked outside was damaged.

Friday, September 11

In Tijuana, authorities reported a spike in drug prohibition-related violence. Nineteen people were killed in the first eight days of September. Authorities have reported 405 homicides in Tijuana from January 1st through September 11th. This is less than half of the 843 homicides reported in 2008, but 68 more than the 2007 total. The Baja California attorney general's office believes that much of the recent violence is due to reprisals against suspected informers following the arrest of several high-level traffickers.

Saturday, September 12

In the resort city of Acapulco, five bullet riddled bodies were found dumped in a landfill. According to Mexican authorities, police found a note near the bodies which was signed "the boss of bosses." It is unclear to whom the note refers.

In Sinaloa,a municipal police commander was killed when his car was ambushed by four vehicles carrying an estimated twenty armed men. His 13-year old son and a friend of his were wounded. Two innocent bystanders, aged 14 and 17, were killed by stray bullets as they sat under a tree near the road. Meanwhile, four charred corpses were found in a burning car on the Mexico City-Oaxaca highway. In Ciudad Juarez, 12 drug-related murders were reported.

Sunday, September 13

In Ciudad Juarez, Eight people were killed in just a few hours. The eight people who were killed died in six different incidents. Among the dead was Jose Robles Ortiz, who was riddled with bullets on September 11th. His death is being investigated by the state prosecutor's office for the state of Chihuahua.

Monday, September 14

At the El Paso border checkpoint, over $1 million in cash was seized over the period of a few days. The largest seizure took place on Friday afternoon, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials found $802,720 in an SUV that was headed towards Mexico. Two Mexican nationals, aged 33 and 34, were detained and remain in El Paso County Jail. Two other seizures made during the week totaled $206,000. El Paso is just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, and is a lucrative drug trafficking corridor for Mexican drug trafficking organizations. It is a federal offense to not declare currency over $10,000 dollars upon leaving or entering the US.

Tuesday, September 15

In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, 21 people were killed on Tuesday. In Tijuana, firefighters found six bodies inside a burning car. Four of the men were seated in the car, while two were found in the trunk. In Ciudad Juarez, five people-including two brothers-were gunned down at a car wash. Ten people were killed in other acts of violence in the city. Five people were killed when gunmen opened fire at a hardware store, and five men in a pickup truck were killed when they were ambushed.

Wednesday, September 16

In Ciudad Juarez, suspected drug cartel gunmen attacked a drug rehabilitation clinic, killing ten. This is the second such attack this month. Drug gangs have targeted rehab clinics in Ciudad Juarez, claiming that they are protecting members of rival trafficking organizations. A spokesman for the states attorney's office said that the dead included nine men and one woman.

Mexican independence day celebrations took place under extremely heavy security, due to fears of violence. Security was especially tight in Morelia, Michoacán, where a grenade attack by members of La Familia cartel killed eight people and wounded over 100 during last year's celebrations. In many cities, traditional children's parades and outdoor parties were canceled because of security concerns.

Body count for the year: 5,136
Body count for the week: 181

Read last week's Mexico drug war update here.

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: Thursday, September 10 Last Thursday morning, the body count for the year passed 5,000. Four people were killed in Guerrero, among them a rural law enforcement officer. Additionally, in Chiapas, a group of gunmen threw a fragmentation grenade at a municipal office. Several people were wounded and a vehicle parked outside was damaged. Friday, September 11 In Tijuana, authorities reported a spike in drug prohibition-related violence. Nineteen people were killed in the first eight days of September. Authorities have reported 405 homicides in Tijuana from January 1st through September 11th. This is less than half of the 843 homicides reported in 2008, but 68 more than the 2007 total. The Baja California attorney general’s office believes that much of the recent violence is due to reprisals against suspected informers following the arrest of several high-level traffickers. Saturday, September 12 In the resort city of Acapulco, five bullet riddled bodies were found dumped in a landfill. According to Mexican authorities, police found a note near the bodies which was signed “the boss of bosses”. It is unclear to whom the note refers. In Sinaloa,a municipal police commander was killed when his car was ambushed by four vehicles carrying an estimated twenty armed men. His 13-year old son and a friend of his were wounded. Two innocent bystanders, aged 14 and 17, were killed by stray bullets as they sat under a tree near the road. Meanwhile, four charred corpses were found in a burning car on the Mexico City-Oaxaca highway. In Ciudad Juarez, 12 drug-related murders were reported. Sunday, September 13 In Ciudad Juarez, eight people were killed in just a few hours. The eight people who were killed died in six different incidents. Among the dead was Jose Robles Ortiz, who was riddled with bullets on September 11th. His death is being investigated by the state prosecutor’s office for the state of Chihuahua. Monday, September 14 At the El Paso border checkpoint, over $1 million in cash was seized over the period of a few days. The largest seizure took place on Friday afternoon, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials found $802,720 in an SUV that was headed towards Mexico. Two Mexican nationals, aged 33 and 34, were detained and remain in El Paso County Jail. Two other seizures made during the week totaled $206,000. El Paso is just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, and is a lucrative drug trafficking corridor for Mexican drug trafficking organizations. It is a federal offense to not declare currency over $10,000 dollars upon leaving or entering the US. Tuesday, September 15 In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, 21 people were killed on Tuesday. In Tijuana, firefighters found six bodies inside a burning car. Four of the men were seated in the car, while two were found in the trunk. In Ciudad Juarez, five people-including two brothers-were gunned down at a car wash. Ten people were killed in other acts of violence in the city. Five people were killed when gunmen opened fire at a hardware store, and five men in a pickup truck were killed when they were ambushed. Wednesday, September 16 In Ciudad Juarez, suspected drug cartel gunmen attacked a drug rehabilitation clinic, killing ten. This is the second such attack this month. Drug gangs have targeted rehab clinics in Ciudad Juarez, claiming that they are protecting members of rival trafficking organizations. A spokesman for the states attorney’s office said that the dead included nine men and one woman. Mexican independence day celebrations took place under extremely heavy security, due to fears of violence. Security was especially tight in Morelia, Michoacán, where a grenade attack by members of La Familia cartel killed eight people and wounded over 100 during last year’s celebrations. In many cities, traditional children’s parades and outdoor parties were canceled because of security concerns. Read last week's Mexico drug war update here.

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 4,000 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:

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/mexicandrugpatrols.jpg
Mexican anti-drug patrol
Friday, August 21:

- The mother and brother of the reputed head of the La Familia drug cartel were arrested by Mexican authorities. This came despite explicit threats on television last month by Servando Gomez, the cartel boss, that any action against his family would bring retaliation. Gomez's mother, Maria Teresa Martinez, was released two days after her arrest because of a lack of evidence. The brother, Luis Felipe Gomez Martinez, is still being held.

-43 Mexicans were indicted by federal courts in Chicago and Brooklyn. The indictments, unsealed Thursday , charge them with operating a coast-to-coast distribution network through which drugs and money have flowed for the last 20 years. The three most high profile suspects -- Joaquín Guzmán Loera, Ismael Zambada García and Arturo Beltrán Leyva -- are the current and former leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, although Beltran Leyva now operates his own, independent organization. 35 of the 43 suspects remain at large, while the other eight were arrested during the last week in Chicago and Atlanta.

Saturday, August 22:

-The Mexican government decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and meth. Under the new laws, people are now allowed to have 5 grams of marijuana, 50 mg of heroin, half a gram of cocaine, and 40 mg of meth. Mexican prosecutors believe that the new law will help in the war against drug cartels by allowing federal prosecutors to focus on combating large-scale traffickers and distributors rather than small-time users. This change in policy comes at a time when drug cartels are selling an increasingly large number of drugs domestically. A 2008 government study found that the number of drug addicts in Mexico had almost tripled in the past six years.

-In Ciudad Juarez gunmen killed a Mexican army officer and another man in a bowling alley. Gunmen entered the Bol-Bol bowling alley and gunned down Captain Alejandro Aranda and an unidentified companion late on Friday night. Aranda was an administrator of a dining hall in a Ciudad Juarez military facility. Also, in Tijuana, three police officers were wounded when their patrol cars came under fire from suspected cartel gunmen.

Monday, August 24:

-The Mexican Army announced on Monday that it has captured a leading member of the La Familia drug cartel in the Pacific coast city of Manzanillo. Luis Ricardo Magana, also known by the alias "19 1/2" (traffickers frequently use numerical codenames), is alleged to be responsible for the cartel's shipments of methamphetamine to the United States. He is one of Mexico's most wanted fugitives and is also thought to be involved in the planning of retaliatory attacks on federal police agents. Also on Monday, in the state of Sinaloa, a cooler containing four severed heads was found by the side of rural road. The headless bodies were found some 3 miles away.

-16 people were killed during a 24-hour period in Ciudad Juarez. Among the victims was a police officer who wanted to resign after having previously received unspecified threats. In a separate incident, a group of heavily armed gunmen shot and killed a 15-year-old boy outside his home. The 16 killed now bring the death toll in Ciudad Juarez for the year over 1,100 killed.

Tuesday, August 25:

-Another 29 people were killed in drug-related violence across Mexico during a 24-hour period. Among the victims were a police commander and two of his officers in Nayarit who were killed when the car in which they were traveling was attacked by gunmen wielding automatic weapons. In Gomez Palacio, Durango, two prison guards were found dead, while, in a separate incident, gunmen attacked a couple. The man died while the woman was left in serious condition. In Nogales, a cooler containing a dismembered human body was left at the entrance to a technical university. Additionally, six individuals were killed in Ciudad Juarez, three bodies were found at a ranch in Sonora, four people were murdered in Guerrero, and parts of nine human bodies were found across Sinaloa.

-Recent court documents examined by the Houston Chronicle detail an ultra high-tech communications network employed by a Mexican drug trafficking organization. The federal court documents detail the testimony of Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, 38, who is alleged to be a cartel communications expert. According to his testimony, his organization uses a string of hand-held radios on a network which stretches from Guatemala to the Mexico-Texas border. His team included an expert who specialized in installing radio towers and antennas, and another who researched new technology.

Total reported body count for the last week: 155

Total reported body count for the year: 4,587

Read last issue's Mexico drug war report here.)

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 4,000 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, August 21 - The mother and brother of the reputed head of the La Familia drug cartel were arrested by Mexican authorities. This came despite explicit threats on television last month by Servando Gomez, the cartel boss, that any action against his family would bring retaliation. Gomez’s mother, Maria Teresa Martinez, was released two days after her arrest because of a lack of evidence. The brother, Luis Felipe Gomez Martinez, is still being held. -43 Mexicans were indicted by federal courts in Chicago and Brooklyn. The indictments, unsealed Thursday , charge the 43 Mexicans with operating a coast-to-coast distribution network through which drugs and money have flowed for the last 20 years. The three most high profile suspects--Joaquín Guzmán Loera, Ismael Zambada García and Arturo Beltrán Leyva-- are the current and former leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, although Beltran Leyva now operates his own, independent organization. 35 of the 43 suspects remain at large, while the other eight were arrested during the last week in Chicago and Atlanta. Saturday, August 22 -The Mexican government decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and meth. Under the new laws, people are now allowed to have 5 grams of marijuana, 50 mg of heroin, half a gram of cocaine, and 40 mg of meth. Mexican prosecutors believe that the new law will help in the war against drug cartels by allowing federal prosecutors to focus on combating large-scale traffickers and distributors rather than small-time users. This change in policy comes at a time when drug cartels are selling an increasingly large number of drugs domestically. A 2008 government study found that the number of drug addicts in Mexico had almost tripled in the past six years. -In Ciudad Juarez gunmen killed a Mexican army officer and another man in a bowling alley. Gunmen entered the Bol-Bol bowling alley and gunned down Captain Alejandro Aranda and an unidentified companion late on Friday night. Aranda was an administrator of a dining hall in a Ciudad Juarez military facility. Also, in Tijuana, three police officers were wounded when their patrol cars came under fire from suspected cartel gunmen. Monday, August 24 -The Mexican Army announced on Monday that it captured a leading member of the La Familia drug cartel in the Pacific coast city of Manzanillo. Luis Ricardo Magana, also known by the alias “19 1/2” (traffickers frequently use numerical codenames), is alleged to be responsible for the cartels shipments of methamphetamine to the United States. He is one of Mexico’s most wanted fugitives and is also thought to be involved in the planning of retaliatory attacks on federal police agents. Also on Monday, in the state of Sinaloa, a cooler containing four severed heads was found by the side of rural road. The headless bodies were found some 3 miles away. -16 people were killed during a 24-hour period in Ciudad Juarez. Among the victims was a police officer who wanted to resign after having previously received unspecified threats. In a separate incident, a group of heavily armed gunmen shot and killed a 15-year-old boy outside his home. The 16 killed now bring the death toll in Ciudad Juarez for the year over 1,100 killed. Tuesday, August 25 -Another 29 people were killed in drug-related violence across Mexico during a 24-hour period. Among the victims were a police commander and two of his officers in Nayarit who were killed when the car in which they were traveling was attacked by gunmen wielding automatic weapons. In Gomez Palacio, Durango two prison guards were found dead, while, in a separate incident, gunmen attacked a couple. The man died while the woman was left in serious condition. In Nogales, a cooler containing a dismembered human body was left at the entrance to a technical university. Additionally, six individuals were killed in Ciudad Juarez, three bodies were found at a ranch in Sonora, four people were murdered in Guerrero, and parts of nine human bodies were found across Sinaloa. -Recent court documents examined by the Houston Chronicle detail an ultra high-tech communications network employed by a Mexican drug trafficking organization. The federal court documents detail the testimony of Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, 38, who is alleged to be a cartel communications expert. According to his testimony, his organization uses a string of hand-held radios on a network which stretches from Guatemala to the Mexico-Texas border. His team included an expert who specialized in installing radio towers and antennas, and another who researched new technology. Total reported body count for the last week: 155 Total reported body count for the year: 4,587

Feature: Hit List -- US Targets 50 Taliban-Linked Drug Traffickers to Capture or Kill

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/afghan-cache1.jpg
hidden drug cache, Afghanistan 2008 (from nato.int)
A congressional study released Tuesday reveals that US military forces occupying Afghanistan have placed 50 drug traffickers on a "capture or kill" list. The list of those targeted for arrest or assassination had previously been reserved for leaders of the insurgency aimed at driving Western forces from Afghanistan and restoring Taliban rule. The addition of drug traffickers to the hit list means the US military will now be capturing or killing criminal -- not political or military -- foes without benefit of warrant or trial.

The policy was announced earlier this year, when the US persuaded reluctant NATO allies to come on board as it began shifting its Afghan drug policy from eradication of peasant poppy fields to trying to interdict opium and heroin in transit out from the country. But it is receiving renewed attention as the fight heats up this summer, and the release of the report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has brought the policy under the spotlight.

The report, Afghanistan's Narco War: Breaking the Link between Drug Traffickers and Insurgents, includes the following highlights:

  • Senior military and civilian officials now believe the Taliban cannot be defeated and good government in Afghanistan cannot be established without cutting off the money generated by Afghanistan's opium industry, which supplies more than 90 percent of the world's heroin and generates an estimated $3 billion a year in profits.
  • As part of the US military expansion in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has assigned US troops a lead role in trying to stop the flow of illicit drug profits that are bankrolling the Taliban and fueling the corruption that undermines the Afghan government. Simultaneously, the United States has set up an intelligence center to analyze the flow of drug money to the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials, and a task force combining military, intelligence and law enforcement resources from several countries to pursue drug networks linked to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan awaits formal approval.
  • On the civilian side, the administration is dramatically shifting gears on counternarcotics by phasing out eradication efforts in favor of promoting alternative crops and agriculture development. For the first time, the United States will have an agriculture strategy for Afghanistan. While this new strategy is still being finalized, it will focus on efforts to increase agricultural productivity, regenerate the agribusiness sector, rehabilitate watersheds and irrigation systems, and build capacity in the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock.

While it didn't make the highlights, the following passage bluntly spells out the lengths to which the military is prepared to go to complete its new anti-drug mission: "In a dramatic illustration of the new policy, major drug traffickers who help finance the insurgency are likely to find themselves in the crosshairs of the military. Some 50 of them are now officially on the target list to be killed or captured."

Or, as one US military officer told the committee staff: "We have a list of 367 'kill or capture' targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and insurgency."

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/afghan-cache2.jpg
burning of captured Afghanistan hashish cache, world record size, 2008 (from nato.int)
US military commanders argue that the killing of civilian drug trafficking suspects is legal under their rules of engagement and the international law. While the exact rules of engagement are classified, the generals said "the ROE and the internationally recognized Law of War have been interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritized target list."

Not everyone agrees that killing civilian drug traffickers in a foreign country is legal. The UN General Assembly has called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In a 2007 report, the International Harm Reduction Association identified the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses as a violation of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

"What was striking about the news coverage of this this week was that the culture of US impunity is so entrenched that nobody questioned or even mentioned the fact that extrajudicial murder is illegal under international law, and presumably under US law as well," said Steve Rolles of the British drug reform group Transform. "The UK government could never get away with an assassination list like this, and even when countries like Israel do it, there is widespread condemnation. Imagine the uproar if the Afghans had produced a list of US assassination targets on the basis that US forces in Afghanistan were responsible for thousands of civilian casualties."

Rolles noted that while international law condemns the death penalty for drug offenses, the US policy of "capture or kill" doesn't even necessarily contemplate trying offenders before executing them. "This hit list is something different," he argued. "They are specifically calling for executions without any recourse to trial, prosecution, or legal norms. Whilst a 'war' can arguably create exceptions in terms of targeting 'enemy combatants,' the war on terror and war on drugs are amorphous concepts apparently being used to create a blanket exemption under which almost any actions are justified, whether conventionally viewed as legal or not -- as recent controversies over torture have all too clearly demonstrated."

But observers on this side of the water were more sanguine. "This is arguably no different from US forces trying to capture or kill Taliban leaders," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs, security, and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution. "As long as you are in a war context and part of your policy is to immobilize the insurgency, this is no different," she said.

"This supposedly focuses on major traffickers closely aligned to the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy analyst for the Cato Institute. "That at least is preferable to going around destroying the opium crops of Afghan farmers, but it is still a questionable strategy," he said.

But even if they can live with hit-listing drug traffickers, both analysts said the success of the policy would depend on how it is implemented. "The major weakness of this new initiative is that it is subject to manipulation -- it creates a huge incentive for rival traffickers or people who simply have a quarrel with someone to finger that person and get US and NATO forces to take him out," said Carpenter, noting that Western forces had been similarly played in the recent past in Afghanistan. "You'll no doubt be amazed by the number of traffickers who are going to be identified as Taliban-linked. Other traffickers will have a vested interest in eliminating the competition."

"This is better than eradication," agreed Felbab-Brown, "but how effective it will be depends to a large extent on how it's implemented. There are potential pitfalls. One is that you send a signal that the best way to be a drug trafficker is to be part of the government. There needs to be a parallel effort to go after traffickers aligned with the government," she said.

"A second pitfall is with deciding the purpose of interdiction," Felbab-Brown continued. "This is being billed as a way to bankrupt the Taliban, but I am skeptical about that, and there is the danger that expectations will not be met. Perhaps this should be focused on limiting the traffickers' power to corrupt and coerce the state."

Another danger, said Felbab-Brown, is if the policy is implemented too broadly. "If the policy targets low-level traders even if they are aligned with the Taliban or targets extensive networks of trafficking organizations and ends up arresting thousands of people, its disruptive effects may be indistinguishable from eradication at the local level. That would be economically hurting populations the international community is trying to court."

Felbab-Brown pointed to the Colombian and Mexican examples to highlight another potential pitfall for the policy of targeting Taliban-linked traffickers. "Such operations could end up allowing the Taliban to take more control over trafficking, as in Colombia after the Medellin and Cali cartels were destroyed, where the FARC and the paramilitaries ended up becoming major players," she warned. "Or like Mexico, where the traffickers have responded by fighting back against the state. This could add another dimension to the conflict and increase the levels of violence."

The level of violence is already at its highest level since the US invasion and occupation nearly eight years ago. Last month was the bloodiest month of the war for Western troops, with 76 US and NATO soldiers killed. As of Wednesday, another 28 have been killed this month.

How Bush's Drug Czar Fooled the Media and the American People


Remember back in 2007 when Bush's drug czar John Walters announced that cocaine prices were spiking and proceeded to do a proud drug war victory dance in newspapers nationwide? It was the high-water mark of his tenure in terms of positive press for the national drug strategy he'd championed shamelessly since taking office in late 2001. If drug prices were increasing, his argument claimed, then our campaign to rid the nation of drugs must be on the right track and our arsenal of brutal drug war tactics was being vindicated for all to see.

John Walters
Well, it looks like the truth finally caught up with him. Ryan Grim has a fascinating piece at Reason laying out the plotline behind Walters's victory parade and it's really a remarkable window into the epic dishonesty that characterizes not only John Walters, but the foundations of the drug war itself.

I recommend reading Grim's account to understand how badly Walters manipulated the data to make his case, but what I find most troubling in all of this is the role of the press in enabling such a transparent and self-serving deception. This is the story of a man who had already jettisoned all credibility through an endless series of similarly dubious pronouncements. ONDCP's bogus theatrics were sufficiently notorious by this point that even the conservative Washington Times balked at the opportunity to break the story of the Bush Administration's self-proclaimed surprise victory in the war on drugs.

It was Donna Leinwand at USA Today who gave Walters a podium from which to deceive the American public about the success of his policies. Drug policy was – and remains – Leinwand's beat at USA Today, thus she could easily have included a counterpoint in her coverage from one of the many experts that would gladly take her call. Instead, she uncritically passed along the claims of a notoriously deceitful propagandist to the American public, igniting a firestorm of press coverage that fraudulently propped up the drug czar's political agenda.

If there's a lesson to be learned from all this, it seems not to have sunk in yet. Only a month ago, Leinwand was still promoting misleading claims about the success of the war on cocaine. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate to quote the leaders of the worldwide war on drugs as they endeavor desperately and predictably to highlight any and all miniscule data points that favor their fixations. But that should only be half the story. If you base an entire news report on something a drug war cheerleader told you, then your story won’t be true and the public that relies upon you for drug policy news will end up understanding less about the issue than if they'd never read your article to begin with.

Ironically, widespread disgust with John Walters and the entrenched drug warrior mentality he represented has likely helped set the stage for the present political climate in which the drug policy debate has finally gone mainstream. The case for reform is at long last embraced and amplified by the same media that once ignored it at every turn. Prominent journalists themselves are speaking out and saying things that used to be off-limits.

Still, all those who rejoice at the impending collapse of the great drug war juggernaut should not lose sight of the fact that only 2 years ago, a single man was able to freeze time with a simple lie.

Afghanistan: The DEA Is on the Way

The Obama administration has shifted gears in Afghanistan, rejecting the Bush administration's emphasis on opium poppy eradication in favor of attacking Taliban-linked drug trafficking networks as it increases the number of US military personnel in the country to nearly 70,000. Along with that increase in American servicemen and women in Afghanistan, the administration is also ramping up the DEA presence in the country.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/poppy2.jpg
opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
The number of DEA agents in the country will increase five-fold this year, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. The agency currently has 13 agents in Afghanistan; that number will jump to 68 by September and 81 by 2010. An unspecified number of additional agents are also being sent to Pakistan, through which a large portion of the Afghan drug trade flows.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium poppy supply, from which heroin is derived. One province now in the sights of a 4,000 strong US Marine expeditionary force, Helmand province, by itself produces more than half of all Afghan opium and if it were its own country, would be the world's largest opium supplier.

While all factions in Afghanistan have their fingers in the poppy pie, including numerous officials and warlords linked to the Karzai government, the US and NATO are especially interested in disrupting those portions of the drug trade that help finance the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from taxing poppy crops, acting as armed escorts for drug caravans, and running international drug trafficking operations.

In the past, the Taliban has benefitted from eradication campaigns in at least two ways. First, to the extent such campaigns are successful, they drive up the price of opium, which the Taliban has abundantly stockpiled. Second, the eradication campaigns have proven a fertile recruiting tool for the Taliban as farmers angry at seeing their livelihoods destroyed look to join those who ostensibly oppose eradication.

Latin America: Washington, Bogota on Verge of Deal to Make Colombian Military Air Base Regional Hub for Counter-Narcotics, More

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that US and Colombian negotiators are nearing agreement on a plan to expand the US military presence in Colombia by allowing the US to base hundreds of Americans at a Colombian Air Force Base in the Magdalena River valley to support US anti-drug interdiction missions. A fifth and final round of talks later this month could seal the deal.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/colombiaposter.jpg
anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The base would take up the drug war slack left by the ending of interdiction operations from the international airport at Manta, Ecuador, which is set for this week. The Manta base had been home for some 220 Americans supporting E-C AWACS and P-3 Orion surveillance planes scouring northern South America and the eastern Pacific for vessels and planes they suspect are carrying drugs. But Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa refused to renew the US lease, saying the US military mission there violated his country's sovereignty.

Colombian officials told the AP the plan was to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations. The current draft of the plan, they said, would allow more frequent visits by US aircraft and warships to two naval bases and three air bases in Colombia, with the Palanquero air base being the centerpiece of the plan. Palanquero had been off limits to US forces until April for human rights reasons -- a Colombian military helicopter operating from Palanquero had killed 17 civilians in 1998.

But that's ancient history now. A bill already passed by the House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for new construction at the base, which is home to the Colombian Air Force's main fighter wing. That funding would be released 15 days after an agreement is reached.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one of America's few remaining staunch allies in the region, and acceptance of the base deal could further stress already strained relations between Colombia and its more left-leaning neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. It's also certain to raise concerns about Latin Americans wary of US interventions in the region.

Such concerns are not helped by Pentagon planning documents that suggest that beyond its anti-drug mission, Palanquero could be a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed." In other words, a jumping off point for US military expeditionary forces.

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coca eradication
The US has pumped several billion dollars of primarily military and police assistance into Colombia since Plan Colombia began in 1999. Originally defined as a purely anti-drug program, under the Bush administration, it took on the additional burden of counter-insurgency, defining the rebel FARC guerrillas as narco-terrorists who must be defeated.

Despite all those billions of dollars in anti-drug aid, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. Neighboring Peru is second, and Bolivia is third. Bolivia under President Evo Morales also forms part of the emerging left-leaning bloc in Latin America.

Former Colombian defense minister Rafael Pardo, who is running for president in the May 2010 elections, told the AP that the radar and communications interception ability of US surveillance planes extends well beyond Colombia's borders and could cause problems with its neighbors.

"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said.

Latin America: Obama Administration Declines to Restore Bolivian Trade Preferences, Cites Government's Acceptance of Coca Production

President Barack Obama has declined to restore trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference Act to Bolivia, citing the Bolivian government's acceptance of coca growing. The decision came in a Tuesday report from the office of the US Trade Representative.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare area of Bolivia
The report also complained about Bolivian nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector and increases in tariffs, but it was the pro-coca policies of the government of President Evo Morales that drew the sharpest language. Even while acknowledging that the Bolivian government continues to undertake significant interdiction efforts against the cocaine trade, the report criticized Bolivia for failing to adhere to US demands to decrease coca cultivation and for expelling the DEA from the country last fall.

Since assuming the presidency, Morales has dramatically changed Bolivian drug policy from "zero coca" to "zero cocaine, not zero coca." Coca production has seen slight annual increases under Morales, but Bolivia remains only the third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

"The current challenges include the explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government; government tolerance of and attractive income from increased and unconstrained coca cultivation in both the Yungas and Chapare regions; and increased and uncontrolled sale of coca to drug traffickers," the report scolded. "The efficiency and success of eradication efforts have significantly declined in the past few years."

Tensions between La Paz and Washington have been high in recent years as Morales has defended the use and cultivation of coca and expelled US diplomats after accusing them of intervening in Bolivian internal affairs. Bolivia's close relationship with Venezuela under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez hasn't helped, either.

And this won't help, either. President Morales reacted angrily Wednesday, saying the move contradicted Obama's vow to treat Latin America countries as equals. "President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners," he told reporters. The report, he added, used "pure lies and insults" to justify its decision.

Feature: US Gives Up on Eradicating Afghan Opium Poppies, Will Target Traffickers Instead

Thousands of US Marines poured into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province this week to take the battle against the Taliban to the foe's stronghold. But in a startling departure from decades of US anti-drug policy, eradicating Helmand's massive opium poppy crop will not be part of their larger mission.

US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations Saturday that attempting to quash the opium and heroin trade through eradication was counterproductive and bad policy. Instead, the US would concentrate on alternative development, security, and targeting drug labs and traffickers.

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Afghan anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul
"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke told the Associated Press during a break in the G-8 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban, so we're going to phase out eradication," he said.

"The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living. It's the drug system," Holbrooke continued. "So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, which generates multiple streams of income for them. Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers in areas under their control, provide security for drug convoys, and sell opium and heroin through smuggling networks that reach around the globe.

As late as last year, US policymakers supported intensifying eradication efforts, with some even arguing for the aerial spraying of herbicides, as has been done with limited success, but severe political and environmental consequences in Colombia. That notion was opposed by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, as well as by the US's NATO partners, particularly Britain, which supports expanded manual eradication of the poppy fields.

On Sunday, Afghan counternarcotics minister General Khodaidad disputed Holbrooke's claims that eradication was a failure, telling the Canadian Press that Afghanistan had achieved "lots of success" with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields. Still, he said he was open to the new American strategy. "Whatever program or strategy would be to the benefit of Afghanistan, we welcome it," Khodaidad said. "We are happy with our policy... so I'm not seeing any pause or what do you call it, deficiency, in our strategy. Our strategy's perfect. Our strategy's good."

Britain and US are at odds over opium field eradication plans. According to the London newspaper The Independent, British officials said Sunday they would continue to fund manual eradication in areas under their control. Those officials downplayed any dispute, however, saying details remained to be worked out.

But eradication has met with extremely limited success. According to the UN Office on Crime and Drugs, eradication peaked in 2003, while the Taliban were in retreat, with more than 51,000 acres destroyed. By 2007, that figure had declined to 47,000 acres, and last year, it was a measly 13,500 acres. Similarly, a survey of villages that had participated in eradication last year found that nearly half of them were growing poppy again this year.

The shift in US policy drew praise from observers across the ideological spectrum. It also aroused speculation that it could be emulated elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.

"The new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan which scales down eradication and emphasizes rural development and interdiction is exactly right," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs, development, and security expert with the Brookings Institution. "Under the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, eradication has been not only ineffective; it has been counterproductive because it strengthens the bond between the rural population dependent on the illicit economy and the Taliban. Backing away from counterproductive eradication is not only a right analysis, it is also a courageous break on the part of the Obama administration with decades of failed counternarcotics strategy worldwide that centers on premature and unsustainable eradication," she added.

"This is clearly a positive, pragmatic step," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It seems that the Obama administration is so deeply invested in succeeding in Afghanistan that they're actually willing to pursue a pragmatic drug policy. This is an intelligent move," he added. "It is an implicit recognition that you are not going to eradicate opium production in this world so long as there is a market for it. Given that Afghanistan is the dominant opium producer right now, the pragmatic strategy is to figure out how to manage that production rather than to pursue a politically destructive and ineffective crop eradication strategy."

"This administration is finally showing some pragmatism," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We are beginning to understand that our policies are affecting the policy outcomes we want. We didn't see this under the previous administration, so this is definitely very promising," she added.

But it doesn't necessarily mean there is light at the end of the tunnel, she was quick to add. "Sadly, this doesn't make me more optimistic about our prospects," she said. "This will win us more hearts and minds on the ground, but it also has to be linked to fewer targeted killings, fewer airstrikes that generate civilian casualties, or any good will is likely to be canceled out," she said.

Similarly, Felbab-Brown cautioned that the Obama administration must be prepared to defend the shift at home. "It is imperative that the administration lay down the political groundwork and inform Congress, the public, and the international community that it is unlikely that the new policy will result in a substantial reduction of cultivation or of the dependence on the illegal economy any time soon since rural development is a long-term process dependent on security," she said. "Setting the right expectations now is necessary so that accomplishments of the new strategy in two or three years are not interpreted as failures since the numbers of hectares cultivated with poppy has not dramatically decreased."

Nadelmann suggested that the new strategy is not likely to significantly impact the drug trade. "With the alternative measures they're proposing, such as the focus on traffickers, there's not much reason to think it will have any significant impact on Afghan opium and heroin exports, but it will enable the US, NATO, and the Afghan government to pursue a more discriminating and productive strategy, at least at the political level," he said.

"The really potentially interesting implication of this is for Latin America," said Nadelmann. "It makes one wonder if the Obama administration might come to realize that the same strategy they are pursuing for opium in Afghanistan makes sense in Latin America for coca cultivation in the Andes."

That may be premature. With analysts predicting no decrease in the poppy crop and little impact on the drug trade, in the medium term, the only political selling point for the move away from eradication will be success in defeating or significantly weakening the Taliban insurgency. That will be a difficult task, one whose success is by no means guaranteed.

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