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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 16,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and almost 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:

Saturday, January 30

In Ciudad Juárez, police discovered two severed heads near bodies which were wrapped in blankets. In total, 15 people were killed during a 24-hour period. In one incident, gunmen opened fire on a family in a truck, killing one man and one woman and wounding a 5-month old child. In another incident, a man was killed and a pregnant woman was wounded after being attacked by gunmen.

In Michoacán, six headless bodies were found, and a group of at least 12 gunmen ambushed a police convoy, killing five officers.

Sunday, January 31

In one of the most high-profile incidents in Mexico's drug war, at least 16 people, most of them teenagers, were killed when gunmen stormed a house party in Ciudad Juárez. While accounts of the incident vary, it appears that between 15 and 25 gunmen blocked off a street and entered the house, herded the youngsters into a back room and opened fire. Mexican authorities have taken one man into custody in connection with the incident. The suspect, Jose Dolores Arroyo Chavarria, has said that he acted as a lookout for the gunmen, who were apparently enforcers for the Juárez Cartel. They had apparently received information that rival drug traffickers were to be in attendance at the party, and were ordered to kill everyone there. Parents of the victims have denied that anyone attending the party was involved in criminal activity. Chavarria was taken into custody after troops apparently interrupted the planned assassination of a rival. Another suspected drug trafficker, who is said to have overseen the killings, was killed in a shootout with Mexican soldiers.

Monday, February 1

In the port city of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacán, a group of at least 20 armed men attacked several law enforcement facilities with gunfire and grenades. One police officer and two civilians were killed, and two police officers and six civilians were wounded. The gunmen were later chased through the streets of the city, and several exchanges of gunfire were reported. At least four police patrol cars were destroyed in the attacks.

In total, 45 people were killed in prohibition-related violence across the country. Sixteen were killed in Chihuahua, 11 in Coahuila, 5 in Sinaloa, 7 in Michoacán, two each in Sonora and Guerrero, one in Durango, and one in the state of Mexico.

Tuesday, February 2

Eight people were killed during a gun battle in the city of Torreon, Coahuila. Seven of the dead were suspected cartel gunmen and one was a federal police officer. The firefight occurred after federal police went to a shopping mall where a kidnapping attempt was reported. When they arrived they were met with gunfire. The officers then chased the suspects onto a highway, where the bulk of the shooting occurred. One suspect, three police officers, and two kidnapping victims were wounded in the incident. It appears the gunmen were members of the Zetas organization, which is thought to control drug trafficking in Coahuila.

In the state of Michoacán, members of the La Familia organization put up a dozen banners urging citizens to form a "resistance front" against the Zetas. The signs, which were put up in the capital of Morelia and in the town of Apatzingan, were quickly taken down by the authorities.

Wednesday, February 3

In La Paz, Baja California, two police officers were killed and another was wounded after gunmen opened fire on a house. In a 12-hour period, eight people were killed in Sinaloa, a corpse showing signs of torture was found in San Luis Potosi, and a decapitated body was found on a ranch near Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.

Body Count for the Week: 378

Body Count for the Year: 980

Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Body Count since Calderon took office (December, 2006): 17,185

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Methamphetamine: Cold Sufferers Caught in the Crosshairs

Meth lab busts nationwide were up 27% last year over the previous year, according to the DEA, and state legislatures, prodded by law enforcement, are responding with a new batch of bills to ban pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in home-cooked meth, but also a key ingredient in widely used cold remedies such as Sudafed and Claritin-B.

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In at least three states -- California, Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri -- bills to make products containing pseudoephedrine available by prescription only have been or will be filed. Meanwhile, Mississippi this week became the first state this year to pass such a law, and only the second in the nation. Oregon passed such a law in 2006 and saw a dramatic reduction in meth lab busts.

In Mississippi, Gov. Hailey Barbour (R) is poised to sign HB 512, which would make ephedrine and pseudoephedrine Schedule III controlled substances available only by prescription. The measure passed the House 45-4 late last month and passed the Senate 45-4 on Tuesday.

The Tuesday vote came as about 50 uniformed members of Mississippi law enforcement looked on from the gallery. Mississippi law enforcement had been the primary force behind the bill.

As the cops looked on, supporters of the bill fended off amendments to the bill that would allow patients to be charged lower than normal fees when going to a physician to get a prescription. Opponents of the bill had argued that it would place a burden on Mississippi residents who would now be saddled with having to pay for a doctor's visit and a co-pay for their now prescription drug.

"I look forward to signing House Bill 512, which will make it more difficult to obtain the ingredients for this drug that tears families apart and harms many of our communities," Barbour said in a statement.

Barbour and the cops may have been happy, but the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents over-the-counter medicine makers, was not. The bill will be a burden on residents and will raise health care costs in the state, the group said.

"We are disappointed that the Mississippi Senate chose to overlook consumer sentiment and passed a bill today that will significantly impact how cold and allergy sufferers access some of their medicines," said association spokeswoman Linda Suydam. "While well-intentioned, this bill will impose an unnecessary burden on Mississippians, despite there being a better and more effective solution to address the state's meth production problem."

The association said that electronic tracking of over-the-counter medications containing pseudoephedrine was a "more effective, less-costly alternative, and one that eight states have adopted to fight domestic methamphetamine production while maintaining consumer access to these medicines."

Indiana is also moving to restrict pseudoephedrine, but not to make it prescription-only. The state Senate voted 46-4 Tuesday to approve SB 383, which limits customers to 3.6 grams of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in one day and nine grams of the drugs in one month. That bill now heads to the House.

Drug Testing: Missouri Senate Committee Passes Bill to Drug Test Welfare Recipients

A Missouri state Senate committee voted Tuesday to approve a bill that would require welfare recipients and applicants to pass a drug test in order to receive government aid. The bill, SB 607, passed the Senate Health, Mental Health, Seniors, and Families Committee on a 5-3 vote.

The bill attempts to get around constitutional problems with other mandatory drug testing bills by limiting drug testing to those whom case workers have identified as creating "a reasonable suspicion" they are using drugs. Persons who are then drug tested and test positive would have an administrative hearing and after that hearing, could be declared ineligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for three years. Dependent children of people thrown off the rolls would not lose their benefits; instead, they would be provided through a payee for the children.

The bill also provides that the Department of Mental Health would refer people who test positive to drug treatment, although it doesn't specify who would pay for it. Nor does the bill have any provision for returning someone to the rolls after successfully completing treatment.

The vote came despite a fiscal impact analysis that found the measure would cost the state more than $2.5 million in 2011 and around $3.5 million in 2012 and 2013. While the state would save some money from paying out fewer benefits, those savings would be swamped by the costs of drug testing, hearings for people who appealed the loss of benefits, and the cost of drug treatment.

Missouri is one of a handful of states where similar bills are moving this year. Similar bills have been filed or pre-filed in Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Medical Marijuana: Colorado Bill to Rein-In Booming Scene Passes Senate

Stunned at the rapid increase in the number of registered medical marijuana patients in the state, the Colorado Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday to impose new restrictions on physicians who make medical marijuana recommendations. The Senate voted 34-1 to pass SB 109. Sponsored by Sens. Chris Romer (D-Denver) and Nancy Spence (R-Centennial), the bill would require physicians who make medical marijuana recommendations to have a "bona fide" relationship with patients, including treating a patient before he applies for medical marijuana, conducting a thorough physical exam, and providing follow-up care. The bill would also bar doctors from being paid by dispensaries to write recommendations and require that they not have any restrictions on their medical licenses. Doctors would have to keep records of all medical marijuana recommendations and provide them to state health agencies seeking to investigate doctors for violating state laws. The bill would also require persons between 18 and 21 to get recommended by two different physicians. Colorado began registering medical marijuana patients in June 2001 after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing its use. For years, the number of patients hovered around 2,000, but after state courts last year threw out a regulation limiting the number of patients caregivers could provide for to five and the Obama administration signaled that it was not going to interfere in medical marijuana states, the numbers exploded. By last September, there were more than 17,000 registered patients, and now the number is near 40,000. A similar boom has gone on with dispensaries, with Colorado now second only to California in their numbers. The bill was supported by Colorado law enforcement and the Colorado Medical Association, but was opposed by most medical marijuana patients and providers. "This is the beginning of the end of the Wild West" for the state's booming medical-marijuana industry, said bill sponsor Sen. Chris Romer. "This bill is an unprecedented assault on the doctor-patient privilege that would hold medical marijuana doctors to a higher standard than any other doctor," medical marijuana attorney Robert Correy told lawmakers. "This would cause human suffering. The most sick and the most poor would be disproportionately harmed. You're going to see the Board of Medical Examiners conducting witch hunts against medical marijuana providers." The bill now moves to the House.
Location: 
Denver, CO
United States

Southeast Asia: Human Rights Watch Charges Torture, Rape, Illegal Detentions at Cambodian Drug "Rehab" Centers, Demands Shutdown

In a scathing 93-page report released today, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Cambodian drug detention centers of torturing and raping detainees, imprisoning children and the mentally ill, and illegally detaining and imprisoning drug users. The centers are beyond reform and should be closed, the group said.

"Individuals in these centers are not being treated or rehabilitated, they are being illegally detained and often tortured," said Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at HRW. "These centers do not need to be revamped or modified; they need to be shut down."

The report cited detailed testimonies from detainees who were raped by center staff, beaten with electric cables, shocked with cattle prods, and forced to give blood. It also found that drug users were "cured" of their conditions by being forced to undergo rigorous military-style drills to sweat the drugs out of their systems.

"[After arrest] the police search my body, they take my money, they also keep my drugs... They say, 'If you don't have money, why don't you go for a walk with me?... [The police] drove me to a guest house.... How can you refuse to give him sex? You must do it. There were two officers. [I had sex with] each one time. After that they let me go home," said Minea, a woman in her mid-20's who uses drugs, explaining how she was raped by two police officers.

"[A staff member] would use the cable to beat people... On each whip the person's skin would come off and stick on the cable," said M'noh, age 16, describing whippings he witnessed in the Social Affairs "Youth Rehabilitation Center" in Choam Chao. The title of the HRW report is "Skin on the Cable."

More than 2,300 people were detained in Cambodia's 11 drug detention centers in 2008. That is 40% more than in 2007.

"The government of Cambodia must stop the torture occurring in these centers," said Amon. "Drug dependency can be addressed through expanded voluntary, community-based, outpatient treatment that respects human rights and is consistent with international standards."

Cambodian officials from the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Interior Ministry, the National Police, and the Social Welfare Ministry all declined to comment when queried by the Associated Press. But Cambodian Brig. Gen. Roth Srieng, commander of the military police in Banteay Meanchy province, denied torture at his center, while adding that some detainees were forced to stand in the sun or "walk like monkeys" as punishment for trying to escape.

Children as young as 10, prostitutes, beggars, the homeless, and the mentally ill are frequently detained and taken to the drug detention centers, the report found. About one-quarter of those detained were minors. Most were not told why they were being detained. The report also said police sometimes demanded sexual favors or money for release and told some detainees they would not be beaten or could leave early if they donated blood.

The report relied on testimony from 74 people, most of them drug users, who had been detained between February and July 2009.

South Pacific: Leading Tahiti Political Figure Says Legalize Weed and Sell It to Tourists

Former French Polynesia President Oscar Temaru has said Tahiti should legalize marijuana to sell to European tourists and provide jobs for unemployed youth. Legalization could bring in tens of millions of dollars a year in revenues, he said in an interview with local television station TNTV.

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Oscar Temaru (courtesy Jason Brown, Avaiki Nius Agency, via Wikimedia)
Tahiti is the biggest island in French Polynesia, whose foreign affairs, defense, and legal system are governed from Paris. But the islands' lawmakers can change drug laws without permission from the French government.

Temaru is a leading figure in Tahitian politics. As head of the five-party coalition Union for Democracy, he has served as president four times since 2004, being repeatedly ousted by parliamentary foes and then reinstalled in new elections. He is currently a member of parliament and said he plans to introduce legalization legislation later this year.

French Polynesia attracts just under 20,000 foreign visitors a year, and they bring their drug habits with them. Temaru said Tahiti should capitalize on that with pakalolo, the local term for pot.

"Foreigners often arrive at out hotels and ask for paka," Temaru said. "We know there are countries in Europe that have legalized it, like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, so doing the same thing here could be a way of creating jobs for young people, by allowing them to sell it to foreigners," he told TNTV.

Pakalolo is already a major -- albeit subterranean -- player in the French Polynesian economy, where it thrives in the tropical climate. Police there said they seize over $110 million worth of the herb every year, but believe that represents only a "small fraction" of the trade.

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 over 7,000 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, January 22

At the Otay Mesa border crossing near San Diego Border Patrol officers seized 708 pounds of marijuana hidden under a truckload of white sea bass. A 34-year old Mexican national was taken into custody.

In Sinaloa, police discovered the body of a man who had been tortured and strangled. The letter "H" had been carved into his chest with a knife. It is unknown to what or whom this refers. Police believe this may be related to an incident which occurred last week, in which three dead bodies were arranged to form the letter "H". At least five other drug-related homicides occurred in other parts of Sinaloa, and one in Queretaro.

In Durango, a federal police official was shot dead and another was wounded after being ambushed by gunmen. Four people were killed in Ciudad Juarez, and one police officer was wounded after attempting to stop an assault.

Saturday, January 23

In Chihuahua, a gunfight ensued after a Cessna aircraft flown by drug traffickers was forced to land by a police helicopter. After being forced to land, several men who were in the Cessna opened fire on the helicopter, wounding the pilot, who managed to safely land the helicopter. The men who were on board the Cessna managed to escape. 200 kilograms of marijuana were found in the Cessna, and the pilot and passengers on board the police helicopter were later rescued by elements of the Mexican Army. The incident took place in a remote area of the state where there are no roads, and which is known for the cultivation of marijuana and poppy plants.

In other incidents, 12 people were killed in Chihuahua, seven of them in Ciudad Juarez. Eight people were killed in Baja California, and another eight were killed in Sinaloa. A minor was killed in Durango.

Monday, January 25

In the town of Doctor Arroyo, in Nuevo Leon, six people were killed in a gun battle between soldiers and suspected cartel gunmen. Two of the dead were soldiers, and the other four were gunmen. The firefight began when an army patrol came under fire. Three of the gunmen were killed inside a home and the fourth was killed in a vehicle. Additionally, in Veracruz, the body of a court official that had been missing was found dead. A note was left with the corpse, which is indicative of a drug-related murder.

Tuesday, January 26

In Tijuana, four men were killed in various incidents in different parts of the city. In the first incident, 41-year old Cipriano Medina was shot dead by gunmen wielding assault rifles. At least 33 spent shell-casings were found on the scene. In another incident, two men, aged 22 and 30, were gunned down with automatic weapons. At least 90 people have been murdered in Tijuana so far this year.

Total Body Count for the Week: 162

Total Body Count for the Year: 602

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office (December, 2006): 16,807

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Law Enforcement: Maryland Bill Would Ban SWAT Teams for Misdemeanors

Maryland state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince Georges) has filed a bill, SB 30, that would prohibit Maryland police forces from conducting SWAT team raids on homes where the only suspected offense is a misdemeanor. The bill also requires county prosecutors to sign off on SWAT team search warrant applications before they are submitted to judges.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
The bill is only the latest fallout from a July 2008 raid by the Prince Georges County Sheriff's Department SWAT team at the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo. The SWAT team was after a marijuana-filled box that had been delivered to that address, but subsequent investigation revealed that the mayor and his family were victimized in a smuggling scheme that used Fedex to ship drugs and knew nothing about the box, which had already been intercepted by police before being left on the family's porch. Mayor Calvo and his mother-in-law were cuffed and detained, and the two family dogs were shot and killed by SWAT team members.

Last year, the raid -- and the Prince Georges Sheriff's Department's refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing -- led Sen. Muse to file the first bill in the nation to try to rein in aggressive SWAT teams. That bill, which required extensive reporting requirements on SWAT team deployments and results, passed into law and took effect January 1.

Muse's current bill had a hearing Tuesday in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Law enforcement officials from across the state showed up to complain that the bill would add unnecessary steps to the warrant review process and threaten the safety of SWAT team officers. No vote was taken.

Latin America: Mexico Proposes Banning Narcocorridos (Drug Ballads)

Los Tucanes de Tijuana performing "The People's Doctor." The good doctor who has the medicine to cure his patients' ills sends his "Greetings to all my patients in Texas and Colorado, and also Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Chicago, and California and Arizona, and Nevada, my biggest market."

Under a bill presented to Mexico's congress last week by the ruling National Action Party (PAN), musicians could be sent to prison for playing songs that glorify the drug trade. People who produce or perform songs or films that glamorize criminality could be imprisoned for up to three years, according to the proposed legislation.

The bill is aimed squarely at narcocorridos, the norteño musical form typically featuring men in cowboy hats playing guitars, accordions, and drums, and singing about the exploits, trials, and tribulations of people in the drug trade. Corridos have been a border musical form for more than a century, but in the past, their themes tended to romance, revolution, and banditry.

These days, narcocorridos are popular on both sides of the border, with groups like Los Tigres del Norte or Los Tucanes de Tijuana pulling in crowds of tens of thousands in Tucson and Torreon, Austin and Aguascalientes. But as with gangsta rap in the US, politicians, law enforcement officials, and moral entrepreneurs have denounced the form for glorifying Mexico's wealthy, violent drug trade.

Traffickers have been known to pipe taunting or threatening messages accompanied by narcocorridos into police radio networks after some killings. And while narcocorridos often lament personal disasters in the drug trade, they also extol successes, lionize leading traffickers, and ridicule security forces.

And now the government of President Felipe Calderon, who has presided over an explosion of prohibition-related violence since taking office in December 2006 and calling out the army to take on the traffickers, is going after the singers. "Society sees drug ballads as nice, pleasant, inconsequential and harmless -- but they are the opposite," Oscar Martin Arce, a PAN MP, told the Associated Press.

The bill was also aimed at low-budget films glorifying traffickers, Martin said. "We cannot accept it as normal. We cannot exalt these people because they themselves are distributing these materials among youths to lead them into a lifestyle where the bad guy wins," Martin said. The intent was not to limit free speech, but to prevent the incitement to crime, he said.

That didn't sit well with Elijah Wald, author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas." Wald told the AP politicians were trying to censor artists instead of addressing Mexico's real problems. "It is very hard to stop the drug trafficking," he added. "It is very easy to get your name in the papers by attacking famous musicians."

Prohibition: Ban on Spice, BZP Passes Kansas Senate

The Kansas Senate has approved a bill that would ban three synthetic drugs that have effects similar to marijuana and ecstasy. In a 36-1 vote on January 21, the Senate voted to ban a pair of synthetic compounds called JW-018 and JW-073, which are part of a legal smoking blend marketed under names such as Spice or K2, and to ban BZP (benzylpiperazine), a stimulant which is already a Schedule I controlled substance under US federal law.

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''spice'' packet (courtesy wikimedia.org)
A similar measure is working its way through the Kansas House.

The move to criminalize the synthetic drugs came at the behest of Kansas law enforcement, which worried that teenagers were using the substances. But while Spice is sold in Kansas shops, there is little evidence of widespread teen use and even less evidence of any harmful results from it.

Only state Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) voted against the bill. He accused his colleagues of "political posturing" and responding to "hysteria for what is by and large a benign substance." Banning relatively safe substances like Spice could be a fool's errand, he said: "As our youth and others continue to search for legal ways to expand their flights of fancy I fear they will encounter more dangerous ways than what we ban here."

But legislators were unswayed by Haley's logic, preferring instead that of state Sen. Jim Barnett (R-Emporia). "It's an imitation drug, but it's still a drug," he said, explaining his vote.

While the synthetic compounds in Spice are arguably legal under US federal law, they have been banned in Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Sweden. In addition to being banned under US federal law, BZP has been criminalized in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

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