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Latin America: Mexican Drug War Week in Review

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:
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
Wednesday, July 29

- In Veracruz, gunmen set fire to the home of a police commander, killing him, his wife, and his four children ranging in ages from 6 to 15. Jesus Antonio Romero, 39, was deputy operations coordinator for the Veracruz-Boca del Rio area. Initial reports indicate that the fire began after the gunmen hurled grenades at the house.

- In Acapulco, the body of Juan Daniel Martinez, 48, a newscaster for W radio, was found beaten, gagged and partially buried. Martinez covered a wide range of topics, including crime. Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 10 were killed in 2008. In a separate incident Wednesday, a federal agent who had been investigating the November killing of Armando Rodriguez -- another journalist -- was killed at his home in Ciudad Juarez.

Friday, July 31

- Six people were killed in Ciudad Juarez when six heavily armed gunmen burst into a pool-hall and opened fire. Five men and a woman were killed, while two others were seriously wounded.

- In total, at least 26 people were killed in drug-related violence in a 24-hour period. Among them were a police commander in Aguascalientes, two municipal police officers in Michoacan, and a city official in Mexico City. In Ciudad Juarez, the body of a suspected kidnapper was found with his head, hands, and feet cut off.

Monday, August 3

- In Chihuahua, three members of a Mennonite community were killed after being involved in a car accident with gunmen fleeing police. The four gunmen were killed instantly, and police at the scene recovered automatic weapons and grenades. Elsewhere across Mexico, four drug-related killings were reported in Guanajuato, Sinaloa and Guerrero. In Zacatecas, a firefight ensued after a botched kidnapping of three brothers.

Thursday, August 6

- Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has delayed the release of a report needed to free some $100 million in military aid to the Mexican government. Leahy cited human rights and accountability concerns. "The Congress provides 85% of the aid without conditions, but there needs to be evidence that the military is accountable to the rule of law. Those requirements have not been met, so it is premature to send the report to Congress," he said. Leahy went on to say that "as long as the demand for drugs in the United States and the flow of guns to Mexico continue at these levels, it will be difficult to neutralize the cartels."

Friday, August 7

- At least 25 people were killed in drug-related violence across the Mexican states of Hidalgo and Chihuahua, In Hidalgo, at least twelve people were killed in a gun battle between cartel gunmen and police, three of them police. The firefight began when police encountered three trucks with heavily armed men transporting three kilos of cocaine and $99,000. At least 13 people were killed in Chihuahua, with eight of those deaths occurring in Ciudad Juarez.

Saturday, August 8

- In Tijuana, Mexican police arrested a top Tijuana cartel official, nicknamed "El Jimmy." Manuel Ivanovich Zambrano is the third most wanted man on the DEA's Tijuana cartel list, and is thought to be part of a new generation of drug traffickers operating in the area under the command of Fernando Sanchez Arellano, also known as "El Ingeniero" (The Engineer).

Sunday, August 9

- In Monterrey, a Mexican lawyer who represented drug traffickers and had suffered at least four previous attempts on her life, was shot dead. Silvia Raquenel Villanueva, 55,was reportedly shot dead by three gunmen as she shopped on a city street in broad daylight.

Monday, August 10

- Federal police arrested a drug cartel member suspected of plotting to kill President Calderon, according to Ramon Pequeno, the head of Mexico's federal anti-drug unit. Dimas Diaz-the alleged chief financial operator of the Pacific cartel- was arrested on Sunday (August 9) in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The assassination plot is thought to be in retaliation to a 2007 drug bust in which 26 tons of cocaine arriving from Colombia were seized in the port city of Manzanillo.

- According to the AP, US oil refineries have bought millions of dollars worth of oil illegally siphoned from Mexican pipelines and smuggled into the United States, sometimes by drug trafficking organizations. At least one American oil executive has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a case that involved some $2 million in smuggled oil. In at least one instance, the Zetas organization is known to have used false import documents to smuggle loads of oil to American refineries. Earlier in the year, 149 bank accounts related to the Zetas side-business in oil were frozen.

- In another exclusive report, an AP investigation concluded that US law enforcement officers who are working along the US-Mexican border are being charged with criminal corruption in record numbers. The investigation found that over 80 US law enforcement personnel have been convicted on corruption-related charges since 2007.

- During his visit to Mexico, President Obama applauded Mexico's anti-drug efforts. "I have great confidence in President Calderon's administration," he said. For his part, President Calderon expressed concerns about the delay in US financial aid to the Mexican government and security forces.

Total reported body count for the last two weeks: 266

Total reported body count for the year: 4,213

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

Hemp: Oregon Governor Signs Farming Bill Into Law

Oregon became the 17th state to pass legislation favorable to hemp farming and the ninth state to remove legal barriers to farming the potentially lucrative crop as Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) last week signed into law SB 676, an industrial hemp act sponsored by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D). The bill removes all state legal obstacles to growing hemp for food, fiber, and other industrial purposes. Industrial hemp production remains prohibited under federal law.
hemp plants (Luke Zigovitz for
The bill passed the House by a vote of 46-11 and the Senate by an overwhelming margin of 27-2. It sets up a state-regulated program for farmers to grow hemp.

"I am glad that Oregon has joined the other states that have agreed that American farmers should have the right to reintroduce industrial hemp as an agricultural crop," said Prozanski. "By signing SB 676 into law, which passed the Oregon Legislature with strong bi-partisan support, Governor Kulongoski has taken a proactive position allowing our farmers the right to grow industrial hemp, to provide American manufacturers with domestically-grown hemp, and to profit from that effort."

"Oregon's federal delegation can now take this law to the US Congress and call for a fix to this problem, so American companies will no longer need to import hemp and American farmers will no longer be denied a profitable new crop," said Patrick Goggin, director of the industry lobbying group Vote Hemp. "Under current federal policy, industrial hemp can be imported, but it cannot be grown by American farmers. Hemp is an environmentally-friendly crop that has not been grown commercially in the US for over fifty years because of a politicized and misguided interpretation of the nation's drug laws by the DEA."

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, but is distinguished from smokeable marijuana by its low THC content and its lanky, fibrous appearance. The Oregon law specifies that industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC. So does pending federal legislation, HR 1866, sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), which would remove low-THC hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and thus the DEA's domain.

According to the industry trade group the Hemp Industries Association, annual retail sales for hemp products in the last year were approximately $360 million. Because of the DEA ban on domestic hemp production, every ounce of hemp used in those products had to be imported.

The eight other states that have removed barriers to hemp production or research are Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia. Oregon joins North Dakota as the only states that do not require farmers to obtain federal permits from the DEA to grow hemp.

Salvia Divinorum: North Carolina Latest State to Ban or Regulate Sally D

The Tarheel State is about to become the latest to ban salvia divinorum, the potent but fast-acting hallucinogen that has become increasingly popular among young drug experimenters in recent years. A bill that would do that, SB 138, now sits on the desk of Gov. Beverly Perdue, who is expected to sign it. Last week, the House approved the measure by a vote of 94-15. It earlier passed the Senate on a unanimous 45-0 vote.
salvia leaves (photo courtesy
The bill makes possession of salvia an infraction, a minor crime punishable by a maximum $25 fine. A third possession offense would be charged as a misdemeanor. The bill has no separate provisions for charging manufacturing or sales offenses.

The bill includes two exemptions. The first is for ornamental gardening; the second is for university-affiliated researchers.

North Carolina will join 14 other states and a handful of towns and cities that have banned or regulated salvia in recent years, the most recent being the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland, earlier this month. Salvia is not a prohibited controlled substance under federal law, although the DEA is evaluating whether it should be, a process that has gone on for more than five years now.

Marijuana: California Gubernatorial Candidates Not High on Legalization

With three marijuana legalization initiatives filed so far (another one was filed last week) and a marijuana legalization bill pending in Sacramento, California is the epicenter of the ever-louder national debate about freeing the weed. But despite all the noise, despite siren calls from proponents that legalization could earn the state billions in taxable revenues, despite recent polling showing a majority of Californians supporting legalization, not one of the major party candidates in the race to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is currently willing to go on record supporting it.
California State Capitol, Sacramento
On Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle asked the leading candidates where they stood on marijuana legalization, a move that would once again cement California's vanguard status on liberalizing repressive marijuana laws. In 1975, then Gov. Jerry Brown (now attorney general and candidate for the Democratic Party nomination) signed one of the country's first marijuana decriminalization bills. Thirteen years ago, California again led the way, this time with the nation's first successful statewide medical marijuana initiative.

But Brown is singing a different tune these days, and when it comes to the current crop of gubernatorial candidates, he's just part of a one-note chorus.

"If the whole society starts getting stoned, we're going to be even less competitive. And we're going to have more broken families and more angry husbands and wives," said Brown. "As far as telling everybody to -- what did Timothy Leary say, 'Tune in, turn on, and drop out'? - that will not be the recommendation of the attorney general."

Republican candidate Tom Campbell, a former US congressman who has been harshly critical of the war on drugs in the past, disappointingly had also changed his tune when it came to marijuana legalization. He opposes it because law enforcement sources told him legalization could benefit Mexican drug cartels, which control both marijuana and methamphetamine imports, he said. "If you legalize the one, you run the risk of creating a distribution mechanism for the other," he reasoned.

Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, another powerful Republican contender, flat out opposes legalizing pot. "I am absolutely against legalizing marijuana for any reason. We have enough challenges in our society without heading down the path of drug legalization," she said.

The third major Republican contender, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, stands opposed, too, his spokesman said. "The idea of legalizing drugs is one more bad idea from a bygone era," said Jarrod Agen. "Nor can California smoke its way out of the structural budget deficit. Only those who are smoking something think tax increases will lead to economic growth," he added.

The only contender whose opposition to legalization appears even slightly mushy is San Francisco's Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom is willing to call the drug war "an abject failure" that consumes "precious, limited, public safety dollars" by treating nonviolent drug offenders like violent felons. But when pressed directly on the issue of marijuana legalization, Gavin spokesman Nathan Ballard would say only that Newsom doesn't think it's a "responsible way to balance the state's budget."

Well, that leaves all the major contenders competing for the 44% of California voters who don't want to see marijuana legalized. One could be forgiven for thinking, however, that someone is eventually going to realize that he will gain more votes than he loses by courting the 56% who do want it legalized.

(This article was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Racial Profiling: Illinois Annual Traffic Stop Report Reprises Same Old Story

In response to complaints about racial profiling by police, law enforcement agencies in Illinois have been required to report on traffic stops since 2004. Every year, the report has found that minority drivers are asked to consent to unwarranted searches at a higher rate than whites, but that police are actually more likely to find contraband in consent searches with white drivers than minorities. The 2008 Traffic Stop Study annual report, released earlier this month, is no different.
enter at peril of profiling
The study found that minority drivers were 13% more likely to be stopped than whites, with blacks slightly more likely than Hispanics to be stopped. Blacks were three times more likely to be asked to consent to a search than whites; for Hispanics, that figure was 2.4 times. But contraband was found in only 15.4% of searches of minority-driven vehicles, compared to 24.7% of those with white drivers.

"The fact is every single year we see these same numbers," Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune. "There is just a predisposition to believe minorities have contraband... The data and the indisputable nature of this is exactly what the president was talking about the other night."

Yohnka was referring to President Obama's remarks on the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week. As a state senator, Obama led the push for the racial profiling reports. On Wednesday night, he alluded to that work in his remarks on the Gates arrest.

One thing that is different is that the number of consent searches is on the decline. The 2008 figure of 25,471 consent searches (out of 2.5 million traffic stops) is a 33% reduction since 2004.

That's a step in the right direction, but only a small step as far as the ACLU and other civil libertarians and civil rights activists are concerned. They want the state to end the use of consent searches altogether, as has been done by the California Highway Patrol.

Marijuana: Decrim a Done Deal in Cook County

Last Friday, Drug War Chronicle reported that the Cook County (greater Chicago) Board had passed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance Tuesday, but that there were mixed signals from Board President Todd Stroger about whether he would sign it or veto it. After equivocating for a couple of days, however, Stroger has told the Chicago Tribune that he will not veto decriminalization.

The measure will go into effect in unincorporated areas of Cook County in 60 days. It will not automatically go into effect in towns and cities in the county, but it will give those municipalities the option of adopting it. Under the ordinance, police officers will have the option of issuing $200 tickets for people caught in possession of 10 grams or less instead of arresting and booking them.

The move has caused some controversy in Illinois, with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who once supported decriminalization, ridiculing it, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) offering tepid semi-support. Five years ago, Daley supported decrim as a revenue enhancement measure and because "it's decriminalized now... they throw all the cases out."

But Daley was singing a different tune this week. "People say you cannot smoke... They said, 'Please don't smoke.' Now, everybody's saying, 'Let's all smoke marijuana.' After a while, you wonder where America is going," the mayor said. "Pretty soon, the headline [will be], 'Let's bring cigarettes back. It makes people feel calmer, quieter, relaxing.'… We said you cannot smoke cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is bad for you. Now all the sudden, marijuana smoking is good for you. Can we take Lucky Strikes, mix 'em together and say, 'Smoking is coming back in the United States?'"

The mayor continued to confuse lessening the penalties for pot possession with advocating its widespread use in his remarkably incoherent remarks. "The issue is really clouded. It's a health issue. We're worried about health care for everyone and, all of the sudden, we think marijuana smoking is the best thing if someone drives down the expressway, someone's driving a cab, someone's driving a bus, someone's flying a plane. After a while, where do you go?" the mayor said.

Gov. Quinn, for his part, suggested that he is open to local decriminalization ordinances, but declined to actually endorse the Cook County Board vote. "I think it's important that counties assess what their law enforcement priorities are," he told Chicago Public Radio. "Crimes that are not grievous crimes against persons need to be looked at," he added.

Latin America: Five Killed, Six Wounded, Six Missing in Attack on Colombian Soldiers, Coca Eradicators

Three Colombian soldiers and two civilian members of a coca eradication squad were killed Monday when the boat in which they were riding came under rifle and grenade attack. Six more were wounded and six others were still missing Wednesday evening. The attack occurred in western Choco state, where leftist FARC guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries are both active.
coca eradication (courtesy
Early reports from the scene quoted witnesses blaming members of the FARC's 34th Front, with a local ombudsman telling Radio Caracol the group had been attacked on its way to eradicate coca fields. But another local official told the Associated Press that drug gangs and rightist paramilitaries also operate in the area.

In the past three months, eradication teams have destroyed nearly half of the estimated 1,500 hectares of coca plants in the area. But as Monday's incident demonstrates, those efforts are not always appreciated. At least 26 of the 6,000 eradication workers employed by the Colombian government have been killed in the last three years.

Manual eradication of coca is far outweighed by aerial eradication using herbicide. But despite spraying or uprooting hundreds of thousands of acres of coca plants each year, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2009 World Drug Report, last year Colombia produced 81,000 hectares of coca, down from 2007's 99,000 hectares. Colombian coca production was at 80,000 hectares in 1997, then ballooned to 163,000 hectares in 2000, before declining and reaching an apparent plateau at around 80,000 hectares since mid-decade.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Week in Review

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 nearly 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:
cash carefully stacked for camera following bust last March by DEA and Mexican authorities
Thursday, July 23:

In Tijuana, 17 teenagers -- most of them accused of being cartel hit men -- escaped from a juvenile detention center near the US border in Baja California after digging a hole through an outer wall and striking a correctional officer with a metal rod.

There have been more than 20 jail breaks in Mexico this year alone. Notably, in May, gunmen dressed as police officers arrived in a convoy and rescued 53 cartel members held in a prison in Zacatecas.

On the American side of the Baja California/California border, Robert Rosas, a US Border Patrol agent, was shot and killed. Five men have been detained by Mexican authorities in relation to the killing, all thought to be people-smugglers or members of drug gangs.

Saturday, July 26/Sunday, July 27:

At least 20 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez and its environs over the weekend in separate incidents. The wave of killings began late Friday night when a man was shot dead by unidentified assailants. Two other men were killed Friday night in separate incidents.

Six men were killed Saturday, while a seventh died from wounds inflicted after an incident in which men dressed as members of the army tried capture him after he attempted to rob a service station. Another five men were shot dead on Sunday. Among the dead from the weekend violence was a woman who had apparently been stoned to death.

In Chihuahua, the capital of the state of Chihuahua, which includes Ciudad Juarez, three adults were killed and a seven-year old girl was wounded when gunmen opened fire on their car.

Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in Mexico. Unofficial reports indicate that at least 200 people have been killed so far in the month of July, and over 1,000 have been killed since the beginning of 2009, even with the presence of 8,500 military and police personnel.

Also on July 26, the office of Mexico's attorney general released a statement that an alleged cartel assassin, Alfredo Araujo Avila -- known as "El Popeye" -- has been sentenced to 11 years in prison on weapons-related charges. This prosecution is notable because Arujo has been implicated in the high-profile 1993 killing of Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo, which caused widespread outrage in Mexico. Ocampo was killed on May 24, 1993, under unclear circumstances. Some claim he was caught in the crossfire between rival drug gangs, while others claim he was killed in a case of mistaken identity. Araujo is the only person implicated in the murder -- which also claimed the lives of the cardinal's driver and five gunmen -- who has been prosecuted.

Monday, July 27

The Associated Press (AP) has reported that Jose Daniel Gonzalez Galeana, a Mexican national and Juarez Cartel lieutenant who was shot dead outside his home in El Paso, was working for US officials as a confidential informant. The AP cites information from two federal and one local official who said that Gonzalez was handing over information on cartel operations to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While police have no official motive, law enforcement is working on the assumption that he was murdered because the cartel discovered his activities. Gonzalez was shot eight times at close range outside his home on May 15th.

Mexico announced a pilot program to have special drug courts handle cases in which drug addicts committed crimes while under the influence of drugs. The focus of these courts is to be on rehabilitation, rather than punitive prison terms. One third of funds seized from drug traffickers are to go towards the establishment of new rehabilitation centers. The program was immediately praised by US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.

Mexico's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, criticized US measures to stamp out the marijuana trade. "We frequently see insufficient resources and infrastructure to prosecute those who carry out small-scale or fragmented marijuana trafficking in the United States," he said at a joint news conference with US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske in Mexico City. Medina Mora added that the issue would be further discussed next month when Mexican President Felipe Calderon meets with US president Barack Obama.

Tuesday, July 28

Off the coast of San Diego, three teenagers aboard a 22-foot boat were arrested by US Customs and Border Enforcement officers. Hidden underneath the deck was 1,060 pounds of marijuana. The three teenagers, one aged 18 and two aged 19, claimed that they were returning from a fishing trip in Ensenada, Mexico.

Total reported body count for the week: 20

Total reported body count for the year: 3,947

Medical Marijuana: Maine Activist Headed for Prison

Longtime Maine marijuana and medical marijuana advocate Donald Christen is headed for prison. The Maine Supreme Court Tuesday rejected his appeal and he will have to report for an eight-month sentence soon. Christen was sentenced to 14 months, but six months were suspended. After he does his time, he will serve two more years on probation.
Don Christen
Christen was arrested after a November 2004 raid on his home in Madison in which police seized 13 marijuana plants and 22 ounces of marijuana. He was charged with two counts of aggravated trafficking in marijuana and one count of aggravated cultivation, but ultimately convicted only of the cultivation offense.

Christen had argued he "was growing marijuana legally as a designated caregiver for several people who qualified as eligible patients pursuant to Maine's medical marijuana statute." A Somerset County jury disagreed.

Christen appealed, arguing that the trial judge had improperly instructed the jury regarding the applicability of an affirmative defense for medical marijuana. But in its decision, the Supreme Court held that the judge's instructions were correct.

Drug Treatment: California's Prop. 36 Funding Takes Massive Hit

With California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and the state legislature desperate to eliminate a $26 billion budget deficit, the state's voter-approved Proposition 36, which mandates that low-level drug offenders be ordered to treatment instead of jail, is not immune from the budget axe. Under the budget agreement just hammered out, Prop. 36 funding will take a massive 83% cut in funding, from $108 million last year to just $18 million next year.

That means thousands of California drug offenders will get neither jail nor treatment. State law forbids jailing them, and there will be nowhere near enough money to treat them.

"The courts are still obligated to push the people into treatment, knowing that the funds, the programs, the services aren't there," said Haven Fearn, director of the Contra Costa County Health Services Department's Alcohol and Other Drug Services Division. "That's the craziness that everyone is having to deal with. What's the answer to that?" she told the Oakland Tribune.

"It's sort of silly, it's awfully close to having just eliminated the program. You get down to such a core level that it's of very little use to most people," said Gary Spicer, management services director at the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services Agency. "What you wind up with is a treatment delivery system that's monopolized by judicial referrals and no longer available at the community level," he said. "It's a harm that keeps on hurting," he told the Tribune.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the slashed funding will result in "very long waiting lists" and drug offenders walking free while waiting for treatment.

Under Proposition 36, which was approved by 61% of voters in 2000, first- and second-time drug offenders must be sent to treatment, not jail. A UCLA study found that every dollar spent on Prop. 36 drug treatment would save the state between $2.50 and $4. The study estimated the program needs about $230 million a year to meet the judicially-referred treatment demand.

Prop. 36 mandated $120 million a year in state funding through the 2005-06 fiscal year, but since then the program has had to compete for funding with other state priorities. The legislature increased funding to $145 million in 2006-07, then cut it to $120 million in 2007-08, and cut it again to $108 million last year.

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