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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 17,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 1,000 so far in 2010. 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:

Monday, February 22

A high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel was captured by federal police in his hometown of Santa Ana, Sonora. Jose Vasquez Villagrana, 40, is a former member of the US Army, in which he served for a year in 1990 before deserting to Mexico once he had obtained US citizenship. He is accused of overseeing the importation of Colombian cocaine to Mexico via Panama and other Central American countries. Once in Mexico, the cocaine was stored at his ranch before being smuggled into the United States.

Tuesday, February 23

Two people were killed in firefights between police and suspected drug traffickers in the state of Coahuila. Seven people were reported wounded in the fighting, which took place in the cities of Piedras Negras, La Laguna and Torreon. The violence began when police attempted to pull over a pickup truck in Piedras Negras, only to be fired at by automatic weapons. One of the gunmen was killed, while a second escaped. Four others were wounded in the shooting. Upon searching the truck, police found several weapons, including AK-47's, AR-15's, fragmentation grenades and a .50 caliber "Barrett" sniper rifle. In another incident, police shot dead a suspected drug-trafficker and wounded two others in La Laguna.

The mayor of the town of Mezquital, Durango was gunned down as he dined in a restaurant in the state capital of Durango. In Navolato, Sinaloa, a municipal police official was shot dead. Several minutes after his killing, gunmen returned to open fire on police and army personnel who had arrived at the scene to gather evidence. None were killed.

Additionally, in the coastal town of Bella Vista, two executed bodies were found lying on the beach. Two men were murdered in Culiacan, two others in Mazatlan, and another body was found in Navolato. During the same time period, eight people were killed in violence across the city. In one incident, gunmen forced the patrons of a business in the La Presa neighborhood to lay down before picking out their three targets, who were then shot. Also in Tijuana, police discovered a shipment of 5,000 unidentified "psychotropic pills" which had arrived on a flight from Guadalajara.

Wednesday, February 24

In Oaxaca, gunmen attacked a rural town, leaving 13 people dead. The attack, which took place in the small town of San Vicente Camalote, was carried out by an unknown number of masked men traveling in several vehicles. The attack began when 9 policemen were killed after the gunmen attacked their checkpoint. The gunmen then stormed a ranch, killing its owner and three of his sons. Although the exact motive is unclear, authorities believe the killings were related to the drug trade.

In other news, the US consulate in Monterrey advised American citizens to avoid travel to the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Nuevo Leon, and the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. Authorities in Tamaulipas fought gun battles against suspected cartel members in several cities, leaving at least 19 dead, including one police officer. Additionally, in the state of Guerrero, authorities discovered two severed arms and a threatening note inside a cooler, having being led to it by an anonymous tip.

In Sinaloa, a Mexican Air Force helicopter came under fire while searching for marijuana and poppy fields in a remote area. A 48-year pilot was wounded by the gunfire, and had to be taken to a hospital in the town of Los Mochis. No further details on the incident are available.

In the city of Chihuahua, gunmen shot a police official at the entrance to a primary school, in front of dozens of children who were present. The officer was dropping off his son at the school.

In Mexico City, two bodies were found in the trunk of an SUV parked in the upscale neighborhood of Bosques de las Lomas. One of the dead was male and one female. Their identities are unclear. Police also removed a mysterious package from the vehicle to be further inspected.

Total Body Count for the Week: 137

Total Body Count for the Year: 1,401

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 17,606

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Medical Marijuana: Measure Passes New York Senate Health Committee, Assembly Health Committee

The New York Senate Health Committee approved a medical marijuana bill, S 4041-B, on a 9-3 vote Tuesday. The measure now moves to the Senate Codes Committee. The Assembly version of the bill, A 9016, passed out the Assembly Health Committee last month and is now before the Assembly Codes Committee.

The Assembly approved medical marijuana bills in 2007 and 2008, but the measure had never gotten a Senate floor vote while Republicans controlled the state Senate until after the 2008 elections. Last year, the Senate Health Committee passed a bill, but it never got a floor vote as the Democratic leadership in the Senate imploded in bitter infighting.

The bill would allow patients with a doctor's recommendation and state registration or their caregivers to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of usable marijuana, but not to grow it. Marijuana cultivation would be done by registered producers, who would not provide the product to patients and caregivers, but would instead sell it to pharmacies, the state or local health departments, or nonprofit organizations registered as medical marijuana providers.

"We applaud the New York Senate Health Committee members for doing the right thing and taking this important step toward protecting sick and dying New Yorkers from arrest or jail," said Noah Mamber, legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project. "Let's hope New York legislators will follow the lead of New Jersey, the state next door, which is about to become the 14th state to implement an effective medical marijuana law."

Medical Marijuana: Bryan Epis Returned to Federal Prison, Must Serve Out 10-Year Sentence for Growing Pot for the Sick

Bryan Epis, the first California medical marijuana provider to be prosecuted and convicted for growing marijuana for patients, was sent back to federal prison Monday by a federal judge in Sacramento. Epis had served two years of his sentence before he was released in 2004 by an order of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Bryan Epis
The now more than 12-year-old case began in 1997, when Epis was arrested for growing at least 100 marijuana plants in the basement of his Chico home. During his trial, Epis testified that he was growing for himself and four other medical marijuana patients, with any excess marijuana going to a medical cannabis buyers' club.

But based on business plans Epis had sketched out to expand on his garden and prosecutors' allegations he was only in it for the money, a jury in Sacramento found him guilty in July 2002 of growing more than 100 plants and conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 plants. He received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, in part because his house was within 1,000 feet of a local high school.

Epis served two years in federal prison before winning a ruling from the 9th Circuit that he should be freed pending the resolution of the landmark Raich v. Gonzalez case. Unfortunately for Epis, the US Supreme Court ruled in that case that federal drug laws trump state medical marijuana laws.

Epis was resentenced to 10 years in 2007, but had been free on $500,000 bail pending appeal. But the 9th Circuit decided against him in August, the US Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, and the end came Monday.

Federal prosecutor Samuel Wong, who has been Epis' bête noir since the beginning of the case, didn't let up Monday. He continued to insist that the case had nothing to do with medical marijuana. "As the court knows, this is not a medical marijuana case. That term doesn't ever apply to cases of this scope," Wong charged. "Mr. Bryan Epis grew and distributed large amounts of marijuana even before the law changed in California," he added, although Epis was never charged with that.

Attorney John Balazs, who represented Epis, asked that he be given a surrender date so that he could explore other means of overturning the conviction and sentence. But US District Court Judge Frank Damrell was having none of it. "It's over, Mr. Epis."

Epis was then taken to a holding cell as his girlfriend and daughter wept. If nothing happens to change things, he won't be free again until around 2017.

Last year, the US Justice Department made it department policy not to persecute medical marijuana providers in compliance with state law. But it has yet to stop the prosecutions of medical marijuana providers arrested before then or move to provide relief for those imprisoned after being convicted under Clinton and Bush-era policies.

Legalization: So Say They Now -- US and Mexican Officials Say No to Debating It

Representatives of the US and Mexican governments meeting at the US-Mexico Bi-national Drug Demand Reduction Policy Meeting in Washington, DC, this week took pains to make clear that neither government is prepared to consider drug legalization. Although legalization wasn't on the meeting's agenda, both Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos felt impelled to denounce it.

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status quo at all costs (follow top link above for video)
"Legalization isn't a subject under discussion under the Obama administration under any circumstances," said Kerlikowske. Such proposals do not hold up "under the thinnest veil of scrutiny," he said. "The reasons for this are multiple: There is no evidence that legalization would reduce the violence or benefit the economy."

"In Mexico," said Villalobos, "and I want to emphasize this in a firm manner, there is a clear consensus to maintain the criminalization of the cultivation, transportation, possession, commerce, or use of substances identified as dangerous in the international conventions. We are convinced that the legalization of the use of drugs is not only dangerous and distant, but unviable in practical terms. Drugs aren't dangerous because they're illegal, they're illegal because they're dangerous," he added, stealing a hoary trope that is a favorite of UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa.

But the consensus of which Villalobos spoke is badly tattered. The rejection of drug legalization comes amidst a rising clamor for a rethink of prohibitionist drug policies. The calls for change are growing increasingly loud south of the border, where Mexican President Felipe Calderon's militarization of the drug war has led to growing public dismay with its bloody death toll, accusations of human rights abuses by the military, and the campaign's inability to have an noticeable impact on the so-called drug cartels.

On Monday, Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, once again called for debating legalization. "We need to end the war," he said. "It's time to debate legalizing drugs," he said, adding, "Then maybe we can separate violence from what is a health problem."

Similarly, at a conference in Mexico City this week, academics, attorneys, and activists joined former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in calling for drug legalization. (See related story here.)

The officials also took some flak from north of the border. "The only solution to the current crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Once again, Mexican and US officials are ignoring the fact that the cartels get 70% of their profits from marijuana. It's time to face the reality that the US's marijuana prohibition is fueling a bloodbath in Mexico and the United States."

Congress has approved a three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, and this year the Obama administration is seeking an additional $310 million in anti-drug aid for Mexico.

"It is illogical, at best, to continue throwing money at this failed policy," Houston said. "The government will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but it can put an end to the monopoly drug cartels currently hold on America's largest cash crop. Lifting marijuana prohibition would take away the cartels' largest source of income and the main reason for the horrifically brutal violence perpetrated by rival drug groups."

But if Washington and Mexico City just whistle loudly enough as they walk past the graveyard, perhaps they can continue to ignore the rising clamor just a while longer.

Europe: Heroin Maintenance Comes to Denmark

On Monday, Denmark opened its first heroin distribution clinic, two years after the Danish parliament passed a law legalizing the distribution of medicinal heroin. The opening was delayed until after the city of Copenhagen agreed to house the program.

Denmark thus joins Germany, the Netherland, and Switzerland, and to a lesser extent, Great Britain, as countries that allow for the provision of heroin to hard-core users who have proven unamenable to the traditional treatments, such as methadone maintenance. A pilot heroin maintenance program is also underway in Vancouver, Canada.

The Copenhagen clinic will serve about 120 of Denmark's 300 or so identified hard-core users. Only addicts who have been referred from a methadone treatment center will be accepted. While subjects will be prescribed heroin, they will have to consume it at the clinic.

"Our objective is not to cure heroin addicts, but to help those who are not satisfied by methadone by providing them with clean heroin, allowing them to avoid disease and the temptation of criminal acts to obtain the drug," a doctor and head of the clinic Inger Nielsen told Agence-France Presse. People in the program will get methadone for the first two weeks "so we can determine how much heroin to prescribe," she added.

The Danish User Association, a group that represents drug users, while supportive of heroin maintenance, criticized the program for requiring users to go to the clinic twice a day, seven days a week, to get their fixes. "This means living like a zombie, without being able to hold down a job or study or have hobbies," said head of the association Joergen Kjaer.

Europe: Belgian Trekt Uw Plant (Grow Your Plant) Activists Win Collective Garden Case

2008 Trekt Uw Plant action

The Belgian Court of Appeal in Antwerp Thursday acquitted a group of activists who had publicly planted marijuana seeds of "incitement to drug use." Board members of the group, calling itself "Trekt Uw Plant" (Grow Your Plant), had each planted one seed in a container in a May 2008 action in a bid to win the right to create a collective marijuana garden.

Instead they were arrested. They were convicted of "incitement to drug use" by the Antwerp Correctional Court in 2009, but the appeals court decision has now reversed that ruling.

In so doing, the appeals court accepted the group's argument that it was attempting to create legal space for the collective cultivation of marijuana for personal use. The group also argued before the court that accepting collective cultivation could reduce illegal cultivation and resort to the black market or Dutch coffee shops just across the border.

Under Belgian ministerial guidelines in effect since January 2005, authorities will not prosecute people possessing three grams of marijuana or less or one plant. Trekt Uw Plant used the action as a test case to push for collective gardens, as are allowed in Spain.

Thursday's ruling marks the second time Trekt Uw Plant has been acquitted of a crime for its action. "This second acquittal encourages us to continue in the fight for a coherent and effective cannabis policy in Belgium," the group said.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's prison guards gone wild this week, with 16 going down in one Florida sting alone, and one in New York City busted with a half-pound of smack. A crooked Texas border town cop cops a plea, too. Let's get to it:

In Belle Glade, Florida, 16 Florida state prison guards were among 22 people arrested February 11 in a two-year FBI undercover sting targeting drug smuggling into two Florida prisons. Eleven of the guards worked at the Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade. They are charged with attempting to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. The arrests went down after FBI undercover agents told guards they were members of a drug trafficking group and the guards agreed to use their positions to help transport multi-kilo cocaine loads from warehouses in Miami to West Palm Beach. The guards were allegedly paid a total of $145,000 in bribes and transported cocaine on at least nine occasions. Five other guards at Glades and one from South Bay Correctional Facility are charged with bribery for smuggling non-drug contraband into the prisons.

In New York City, a New York City prison guard was arrested Monday after he was stopped for running a red light and police found eight ounces of heroin in his car. Although eight ounces of heroin is by no means a personal use amount, Marco Villacris, 46, is charged only with possession of a controlled substance and two traffic infractions. Villacris has been a guard at Rikers Island since joining the city's Department of Corrections in August 2008. He will be fired, the department said.

In Laredo, Texas, a Laredo police officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to escorting cars he believed were loaded with cocaine through the city. Pedro Martinez III pleaded guilty to one federal count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Martinez admitted meeting with an undercover FBI officer posing as a drug dealer and agreeing to escort two loads of cocaine through town, including one while he was in uniform and driving a marked police vehicle. He faces a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison and up to life. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

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 16,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 1,000 so far in 2010. 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:

Sunday, February 14

In Ciudad Juárez, hundreds of people participated in a protest against the government. The demonstration, organized by the National Front Against Repression, was protesting against both the drug-related violence in the city and the presence of the army, which is widely seen by locals as exacerbating the violence. (See related story here.)

Monday, February 15

In Guerrero, a a Mexican paratrooper assigned to the elite Presidential Guard in Mexico City was kidnapped and killed while on vacation. The body of the soldier -- Hermelindo Delgado Soto -- was found floating in the Balsas River. He had been kidnapped the previous Friday. It is unclear whether his death was related to his posting serving with the Presidential Guard.

Tuesday, February 16

In Sinaloa five decapitated heads were found next to a primary school in the town of Palmilla. Last week, three heads were found in the same location. Two of the bodies (to which the heads belonged) were found to have the letter Z carved into their back. This suggests that the killing had some relation to the Zetas organization, but it is unclear whether the men were killed by los Zetas or were members.

Wednesday, February 17

Five municipal police officials were among 30 people who were killed in drug-related violence across Mexico. Three of the police officials were murdered after being kidnapped by a group of heavily armed men in Sinaloa. The two other police officials were killed after gunmen attacked the home of a high-ranking police official where the two men stood guard. Another 25 people were killed in various parts of Mexico, seven of them in Ciudad Juárez. In another notable incident, three teenagers kidnapped in Sinaloa were found burned in a car.

In Chiapas 11 individuals were arrested in possession of weapons and drugs. The men were arrested after federal agents raided several locations across the state. They seized 351 grams of cocaine and 408 grams of marijuana, as well as several rifles and pistols, an SUV, $60,000 US dollars and 27,910 pesos (about $2,149). The rather small sums of money and drugs indicate that those captured were low-level operatives for drug-trafficking organizations.

President Calderon visited Ciudad Juárez for the second time in two weeks. He announced a change in strategy, although he said the army troops would remain. He also promised (without saying when) that specialists in solving kidnapping and extortion cases would be brought to the city, and encouraged citizens to pass information to authorities. Additionally, he announced that all cars in the city must have license plates (although technically this was already the law) and tinted windows would no longer be permitted. Several news agencies reported that there were some protests against his presence in the city.

Total Body Count for the Week: 111

Total Body Count for the Year: 1,264

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 17,469

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Medical Marijuana: Iowa Pharmacy Board Recommends State Legalize It for Therapeutic Use

The Iowa Board of Pharmacy voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that state lawmakers reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II controlled substance and set up a task force to study how to create a medical marijuana program. Medical marijuana bills have previously failed to move in the state legislature, but the board's action could help spur forward momentum.

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Carl Olsen
Similarly to the federal Controlled Substances Act, Iowa law currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no proven medical use and a high potential for abuse. By recommending that marijuana be rescheduled to Schedule II -- a potential for abuse, but with accepted medical use -- the board acknowledged the herb's medical efficacy.

Given the board's initial reluctance to take up the issue, the unanimous vote comes as something as a pleasant surprise to advocates. In May 2008, Iowans for Medical Marijuana founder Carl Olsen petitioned the board to reschedule marijuana, arguing that the evidence did not support its classification as Schedule I.

The board rejected that request, and Olsen, three plaintiffs, and the ACLU of Iowa sued to force it to reconsider. (See the filings in the case here). Last year, a Polk County judge ordered the board to take another look at the matter. The board again declined to reclassify marijuana, but did agree to a series of four public hearings.

It was after those hearings, which were packed with medical marijuana supporters, and after a scientific review of the literature, that the board acted this week. In doing so, it becomes the first state pharmacy board in the nation to take such a step before voters or lawmakers have legalized medical marijuana.

The board's action also puts it squarely in line with popular sentiment in the Hawkeye State. According to an Iowa Poll released Tuesday, 64% of Iowans want medical marijuana to be legal. Now, if only the legislature will act on the recommendation of the board and the will of the voters.

Latin America: Mexico's Drug War Stirs Opposition in the Streets and from the Bishops

As the death toll tops 17,000 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the so-called drug cartels in December 2006, and with no end to the killing in sight, demonstrators took to the streets of bloody Ciudad Juárez Sunday to denounce the killing and the government's approach. The next day, Calderon's drug policies came under attack from an entirely different direction: the Catholic Church in Mexico.

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Council of Bishops event releasing report
In Juárez, where more than 2,600 people were killed in prohibition-related violence last year and 15 teenagers were gunned down last week in an incident that shocked the nation, more than a thousand people took to the streets Sunday in a "March of Anger" against the drug violence, with some leaders saying the presence of 6,000 federal troops is only making things worse.

"The army's presence is anti-constitutional and violates citizens' rights. That's why we're asking them to withdraw," National Front Against Repression leader Javier Contreras told the crowd.

Human rights and civil society groups in Juárez and, more broadly, across Mexico, have charged that Mexican law enforcement and armed forces have harassed, tortured, kidnapped, "disappeared," and killed innocent people in overzealous prosecution of the drug war. That won't work, said Contreras.

"You can't fight violence with more violence and breaking the laws," he said.

The protest came just days after President Calderon visited Ciudad Juárez in a bid to placate angry and frightened citizens. He apologized to the families of the massacred teenagers for initially blaming their deaths on gang warfare, said he was sending in 400 more federal police, and vowed to seek community cooperation in setting a new strategy against crime and violence. Still, he was booed by crowds during that visit. He returned again this week, touting a new security plan.

If Calderon is having a hard time placating angry Juárez residents, he's not having much better luck with the Catholic Church. The day after the Juárez protest, the Mexican Church's Council of Bishops issued a report critical of Calderon's drug policies.

In the report, the bishops said that using thousands of army troops to police Mexican cities raises severe human rights concerns. The bishops also pointed at a corrupt judicial system. They said many suspects are paraded before the media in "perp walks" even before being charged with any crime and called on the government to speed up police reforms so the troops can return to their barracks.

The bishops conceded that Calderon's deployment of the military initially had broad public support, but warned it was eroding. "As time passed, the participation of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime has created uncertainty in the population," the report said. "The armed forces have the obligation to respect human rights."

The bishops also harshly criticized the criminal justice system, saying few criminals are brought to justice because of corruption and inefficiency, while at the same time, innocent people are too often jailed because of police tactics. They noted that many of those people arrested and paraded before the media end up being released or charged with much lesser crimes than those announced at the time of their arrest.

The "perp walks" should stop, the bishops said. Authorities must "respect the judicial principle that someone is innocent until proven otherwise, because now we see that detainees are exhibited before the media before they are brought before judicial authorities."

More than halfway through his six-year term, President Calderon faces the threat of seeing his presidency defined by the bloody drug wars his policies have not only failed to stop, but have exacerbated. He seems to have no response except more of the same.

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