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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.

Editorial: How Much Does It Cost to Build an Air-Conditioned Drug Smuggling Tunnel?

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
Last year I attended a small lunch-time forum on the subject of immigration and the US-Mexico border. Seated at the table was a man in a military uniform, not one of the speakers, but clearly eager to say his piece. After the presentation was over, he put up his hand, told us he was an officer with Southcom -- the branch of the Armed Forces dealing with areas to the south of the United States -- and that his military education and experience told him that walls don't stop people. Walls just slow people down, he said -- you can go over a wall, you can through it, you can go around it, or you can go under it. And militarily he understood that a wall spanning our border would not slow people down enough to stop the kind of traffic that we have crossing the border -- not unless we simply shoot people to kill on sight, which he was unwilling to do.

Whatever one thinks about immigration, or attempts to block it at the border, the reasoning has clear implications for the so-far ineffective attempts at drug interdiction. If it is either impossible or at least difficult to stop people at the border -- and since we haven't managed to do it so far, it must at least be difficult -- how difficult must it be to stop the flow of drugs? After all, people have a certain height and width and depth, and they need oxygen and occasionally food and water and space to move. Drugs can be packaged in any shape or size, they don't require maintenance over the period of time involved in trafficking them, and a fairly small volume of certain drugs can be worth a small mint. It's fairly safe to say that drugs are not going to be kept out of this country, no matter how hard we try. It is simply not going to happen.

Since that time the issue has taken on a new degree of poignancy and urgency. Since Mexican President Calderon took office in 2006 and began his attempted crackdown against the cartels, more than 12,000 Mexicans have died in the surge of violence that followed. The 2009 death toll alone has passed 6,000. Because drugs are illegal, all the money people spend on them in the US goes into a criminal underground where violence is often the rule. The unabated flow of drugs across the US-Mexico border is powerful evidence of prohibition's failure.

The past week offered up a more visual form of evidence to make the point. Across the border from San Diego in Tijuana a partially-completed smuggling tunnel was found. They got almost as far as the border fence. It was found by the authorities before being finished, but not very long before. Military officials took a group of reporters to see it on Tuesday. The tunnel had been equipped with electricity and an air supply, according to the Associated Press.

The tunnel is neither a new nor unique development. Last year one was found in the Mexican state of Baja California. That one had an elevator and rail transport system. At least 75 have been found since the 1990s, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau (ICE). They're not limited to our southern border, either.

My two questions are: How many successful drug smuggling operations are needed in order to pay for constructing and maintaining such a tunnel -- might it only need to be used once? -- and how many more tunnels are there that have never been found? I have a feeling that there are many undiscovered smuggling tunnels, and that the cost of building one with air-conditioning and electric transportation is low compared with the likely rewards. Mexico offers a virtually unlimited labor pool. The proof that the cost is low is simply the fact that they keep building them over and over. They wouldn't keep building the tunnels if it weren't a cost-effective strategy.

Don't expect the drug trade to slow anytime soon, at least not because of law enforcement, and don't let the pictures of the latest tunnel or drug seizure fool you into thinking it might. Hope that something happens to stop the wave of violence terrorizing our southern neighbors and threatening our borders possibly too. But don't expect that finding another tunnel is what will do that.

Efforts to Stop Drugs at the Border Have Become a Joke

You know that border fence we've spent billions of dollars building? Yeah, it's not really helping so much:

SAN MIGUEL, Ariz. — A pickup truck in Mexico pulls up to the 5-foot vehicle barriers that make up part of the multibillion-dollar border fence. A retractable ramp is extended from the truck, forming a bridge up and over the barriers.

Then, a second pickup — this one loaded with a ton of marijuana — rolls over the bridge and into the U.S.

With gadgetry such as custom-built ramps as well as ultralight planes, false doors and good old-fashioned duct tape, smugglers have demonstrated unbounded creativity when it comes to sneaking drugs across the Mexican border. And the U.S. government acknowledges there is only so much it can do to stop the flow. [AP]

Unfortunately, our brave drug soldiers are convinced that expensive and futile interdiction efforts are better than nothing:

"We have to keep it at a manageable level so society can continue to operate," said Elizabeth Kempshall, agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's office in Arizona.

They're literally insisting that society will collapse if they don't keep doing this. It's awfully silly when you consider that almost all the drugs are already getting through anyway. If that stuff were going to destroy our society, it would have happened already.

But don't bother trying to explain that to the drug warriors, because they're too busy thinking of new ways to waste money in an attempt to "win" something:

"This is a war of technology, and I believe that the only way we are going to win it is if our technology is better than theirs," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

The fact that our approach to substance abuse has evolved into a "war of technology" is just ridiculous. We'll never get anywhere with this nonsense no matter how many times we double down on our investment. It's plainly absurd to suggest that we can outspend our opponents when the game makes them obscenely rich while costing us billions.

It's like arguing that the secret to winning with scratch-off tickets is to constantly buy more and more of them.

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 -- the body count passing 6,000 for 2009 so far this week. 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)
Friday , October 16

In Michoacan, three bodies were found, all with messages attached. The messages were directed at the Zetas organization, and appear to have been from La Familia. La Familia was once part of the Zetas organization, but the two groups have been fierce rivals since the group split from the Gulf Cartel (and the Zetas) in 2006. In other parts of Mexico, two men were assassinated in Tijuana, and a boy who was jogging was killed after being caught in a firefight between gunmen and the army in Tamaulipas. Five people were murdered in Culiacan, Sinaloa, three in Hermosillo, Sonora, one in Durango, and six in the Ciudad Juárez area.

Saturday , October 17

In Tijuana, the nude, mutilated body of a man was found hanging from an expressway overpass. It is the second such discovery found in the last two weeks. Local news outlets reported that the man's tongue had been cut out, which suggests that drug traffickers suspected he was an informant. Additionally, a gun battle between police and drug traffickers left one police officer dead and two wounded. A suspected cartel member was also killed in the incident. Police recovered five assault rifles and vests with federal insignia from several vehicles used by the gunmen. The day before, the the decapitated body of a woman whose hands and feet had been bound were found in a different part of the city.

Monday , October 19

Two people were killed after being ambushed by a group of heavily armed gunmen in Guerrero. One of the dead was a policeman, and the other was a civilian who was riding a bus that was caught in the crossfire. Additionally, five bodies showing signs of torture were recovered from various parts of Acapulco. Attached to each of them were notes threatening "kidnappers, thieves and traitors" and signed by Arturo Beltran-Leyva, the boss of the Beltran-Leyva cartel. 18 people were killed in drug-related killings in Ciudad Juárez. At least 21 other drug-related homicides were reported in Mexico, including nine beheaded bodies found in Tierra Caliente.

Tuesday , October 20

In Guerrero, at least three banners were found which threatened police and Genaro Garcia Luna, the Secretary of Public Safety. The signs were signed by what appears to be a new, Guerrero branch of the "La Familia" cartel which is based in Michoacan. The signs also accused Garcia Luna of protecting the Beltran-Leyva cartel and the allied Zetas organization. In another part of Guerrero, the body of a bus driver was found by the side of the road, and showed signs of torture. A second body was found near Acapulco.

Near the city of Ciudad Mante, police arrested a man who had 107 kilos of marijuana in a hidden compartment of his pick-up truck.

Wednesday , October 21

A suspected member of the Juárez Cartel was added to the FBI's ten most wanted list. Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo, 41, is allegedly a high-ranking member of the Barrio Azteca gang. In exchange for a steady supply of narcotics, Barrio Azteca performs enforcement tasks for the cartel on both sides of the border, and can effectively be considered part of the Jurez cartel which operates on American soil. Ravelo is suspected of ordering the killing of another high-ranking gang member, David "Chicho" Meraz, during an internal power struggle. Meraz was killed in Ciudad Jurez last year. Ravelo is reportedly hiding in Juárez under the protection of the cartel.

Earlier in the week, another man with suspected cartel connections was also added to the FBI's ten most wanted list. Jose Luis Saenz, of Los Angeles, is suspected of killing at least four people (including his girlfriend) and is allegedly an enforcer for an unnamed Mexican drug trafficking organization. In October 2008 he shot and killed another gang member in LA County who apparently owed $620,000 to the cartel.

Across Mexico, 40 drug-related homicides were reported in a 24-hour period, bringing the 2009 total to over 6,000. Thirteen of these were in Chihuahua, and of these, nine were in Ciudad Juárez. According to a running tally by El Universal, 1,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the last 40 days. The previous 1,000 had been killed over 41 days, and the 1,000 before that in 44 days. Since August 1st, an average of 24 homicides were reported daily, approximately one every hour. One out of every three drug-related homicides was in Ciudad Juárez. Much of the violence is due to the conflict being fought by the Sinaloa Federation and the Juárez cartel over control of the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso drug trafficking corridor.

Thursday, October 22

In the United States, over 300 people were arrested, in what is being called the largest single-blow against Mexican drug cartels operating in the country. The arrests targeted the US operations of the La Familia cartel, which is based in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Law enforcement officials said arrests were made or charges were files in multiple states, including California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennesee, Texas, and Washington State. Many of the charges filed were directed against those involved with the cartels methamphetamine smuggling network in the US, with other charges being directed at those involved in cocaine and marijuana trafficking for the organization. Additionally, a New York grand jury has indicted Servando Gomez-Martinez, who is linked to the July murder of twelve federal police officers who were found dead by the side of a roadway.

Total body count for the week: 203
Total body count for the year: 6,018

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Update--October 22

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: Friday , October 16 In Michoacan, three bodies were found , all with messages attached. The messages were directed at the Zetas organization, and appear to have been from La Familia. La Familia was once part of the Zetas organization, but the two groups have been fierce rivals since the group split from the Gulf Cartel (and the Zetas) in 2006. In other parts of Mexico, two men were assassinated in Tijuana, and a boy who was jogging was killed after being caught in a firefight between gunmen and the army in Tamaulipas. Five people were murdered in Culiacan, Sinaloa, three in Hermosillo, Sonora, one in Durango, and six in the Ciudad Juarez area. Saturday , October 17 In Tijuana, the nude, mutilated body of a man was found hanging from an expressway overpass. It is the second such discovery found in the last two weeks. Local news outlets reported that the man’s tongue had been cut out, which suggests that drug traffickers suspected he was an informant. Additionally, a gun battle between police and drug traffickers left one police officer dead and two wounded. A suspected cartel member was also killed in the incident. Police recovered five assault rifles and vests with federal insignia from several vehicles used by the gunmen. The day before, the the decapitated body of a woman whose hands and feet had been bound were found in a different part of the city. Monday , October 19 Two people were killed after being ambushed by a group of heavily armed gunmen in Guerrero. One of the dead was a policeman, and the other was a civilian who was riding a bus that was caught in the crossfire. Additionally, five bodies showing signs of torture were recovered from various parts of Acapulco. Attached to each of them were notes threatening “kidnappers, thieves and traitors” and signed by Arturo Beltran-Leyva, the boss of the Beltran-Leyva cartel. 18 people were killed in drug-related killings in Ciudad Juarez. At least 21 other drug-related homicides were reported in Mexico, including nine beheaded bodies found in Tierra Caliente. Tuesday , October 20 In Guerrero, at least three banners were found which threatened police and Genaro Garcia Luna, the Secretary of Public Safety. The signs were signed by what appears to be a new, Guerrero branch of the “La Familia” cartel which is based in Michoacan. The signs also accused Garcia Luna of protecting the Beltran-Leyva cartel and the allied Zetas organization. In another part of Guerrero, the body of a bus driver was found by the side of the road, and showed signs of torture. A second body was found near Acapulco. Near the city of Ciudad Mante, police arrested a man who had 107 kilos of marijuana in a hidden compartment of his pick-up truck. Wednesday , October 21 A suspected member of the Juarez Cartel was added to the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo, 41, is allegedly a high-ranking member of the Barrio Azteca gang. In exchange for a steady supply of narcotics, Barrio Azteca performs enforcement tasks for the cartel on both sides of the border, and can effectively be considered part of the Juarez cartel which operates on American soil. Ravelo is suspected of ordering the killing of another high-ranking gang member, David "Chicho" Meraz, during an internal power struggle. Meraz was killed in Ciudad Juarez last year. Ravelo is reportedly hiding in Juarez under the protection of the cartel. Earlier in the week, another man with suspected cartel connections was also added to the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Jose Luis Saenz, of Los Angeles, is suspected of killing at least four people (including his girlfriend) and is allegedly an enforcer for an unnamed Mexican drug trafficking organization. In October 2008 he shot and killed another gang member in LA County who apparently owed $620,000 to the cartel. Across Mexico, 40 drug-related homicides were reported in a 24-hour period, bringing the 2009 total to over 6,000. Thirteen of these were in Chihuahua, and of these, nine were in Ciudad Juarez. According to a running tally by El Universal, 1,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the last 40 days. The previous 1,000 had been killed over 41 days, and the 1,000 before that in 44 days. Since August 1st, an average of 24 homicides were reported daily, approximately one every hour. One out of every three drug-related homicides was in Ciudad Juarez. Much of the violence is due to the conflict being fought by the Sinaloa Federation and the Juarez cartel over control of the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso drug trafficking corridor. Total body count for the week: 113 Total body count for the year: 5,928 Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

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