Mexican Drug War

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Mexico's Drug Prohibition War and U.S. business

Drug prohibition violence is beginning to affect multinationals -- and not only on the border. "It's Al Capone and Tony Soprano doing whatever they want with little or no actual police interference," says Tom Cseh, deputy director of Vance International, a security firm in Mexico City. Among the recent reported incidents: Caterpillar ordered 40 American employees with children home after a shootout at a school in Monterrey earlier this fall; oil-services giant Schlumberger (SLB) said prohibition violence in northern Mexico hurt third-quarter earnings; and Canadian mining company Goldcorp (GG) plans to build a landing strip to fly gold out of a mine instead of hauling it on unsafe highways.

Election 2010 and US Drug Policy in Latin America [FEATURE]

This month's election returns, which resulted in the Republican Party taking back control of the US House of Representatives, have serious, if cloudy, ramifications for progress on drug policy on the domestic front. Similarly, when we look south of the border, where a cash-strapped US has been throwing billions of dollars, mainly at the governments of Colombia and Mexico in a quixotic bid to thwart the drug trade, the Republican return to control in the House could mean a more unfriendly atmosphere for efforts to reform our Latin American drug policy.
Plan Merida funding on the line?
Or not. Analysts consulted by Drug War Chronicle this week said it was too soon to tell. They varied on the impact of the Tea Party movement on Republican drug policy positions, as well as reaching differing conclusions as to whether the Tea Party's much-touted allegiance to fiscal austerity will be trumped by mainstream Republican militarism, interventionism, and hostility to drug reform.

Since 2006, and including Fiscal Year 2011 budgets that have not actually been passed yet, the US has spent nearly $2.8 billion on military and police aid to Colombia, with that number increasing to roughly $7 billion if spending back to the beginning of Plan Colombia in 1999 is included. Likewise, since 2006, the US has dished out nearly $1.5 billion for the Mexican drug war, as well as smaller, but still significant amounts for other Latin American countries and multi-country regional initiatives. Overall, the US has spent $6.56 billion in military and police assistance to Latin America in the past five years, with the drug war used to justify almost all of it.

Even by its own metrics, the US drug war spending in Colombia has had, at best, limited success. It has helped stabilize the country's shaky democracy, it has helped weaken the leftist guerrillas of the FARC, and it has managed to marginally reduce coca and cocaine production in Colombia.

But those advances have come at very high price. Tens of thousands of Colombians have been killed in the violence in the past two decades, Colombia has the world's highest number of internal refugees, widespread aerial spraying of coca crops has led to environmental damage, and paramilitary death squads linked to the government continue to rampage. Some 38 labor leaders have been killed there so far this year.

The results of US anti-drug spending in Mexico have been even more meager. The $1.4 billion Plan Merida has beefed up the Mexican military and law enforcement, but the violence raging there has not been reduced at all. To the contrary, it has increased dramatically since, with US support, President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the cartels at the beginning of 2007. Around 30,000 people have been killed since then, gunfights are a near daily occurrence in cities just across the border from the US, and the flow of drugs into the US remains virtually unimpeded.

That is the reality confronting Republicans in the House, who will now take over. The shift in power in the House means that the chairmanship of key foreign affairs committees will shift from moderate Democrats to conservative Republicans. Current House Foreign Relations Committee chair Howard Berman (D-CA) will be replaced by anti-Castro zealot Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), while in the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Elliot Engel (D-NY) will be replaced by Connie Mack (R-FL).

Other Republicans on the subcommittee include hard-liners Dan Burton (R-IN) and Elton Gallegly (R-CA). But there will be one anti-drug war Republican on the committee, Ron Paul (R-TX).

"Ileana and her committee will try to stir things up more, but it's too early to say what that means for drug policy," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "She'll do anything she can to screw over the Castro brothers, and that is the lens through which she sees the world."

That could mean hearings designed to go after Castro ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who threw out the DEA several years ago, and whose country is cited each year by the State Department as not complying with US drug policy objectives. But beyond that is anybody's guess.

"I think you might see a change of tone," said Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. "You'll see Venezuela portrayed more and more as the drug bad guy, but neither Ros-Lehtinen or Mack can see much beyond Cuba," he said.

"If you bought the premise that the drug war was an extension of the Cold War, you could have a brand new Cold War framework here," said Isaacson. "They won't be able to buy a lot of Blackhawks, but they can use it as another way to beat up on the Obama administration."

"I think not much is going to change," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "To the extent the need is to cut money, Republicans might want less funding for these programs, but that's a big if. But this is a different sort of Republican, and so there may be the possibility of a left-right coalition to quit funding Plan Colombia. I'm not sure the Republicans can keep their people in line on Mexico and Colombia."

"Obama has been unyielding when it comes to maintaining the status quo on hemispheric drug policy," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "He hasn't come up with any new programs or expressed any sympathy for the progressive drug policy initiatives coming out of Latin America. He is not going to allow himself to be accused of being soft on drugs. All hope for reform is gone, and there is little likelihood that the administration will come up with any drug-related initiative that will cost more money than we're spending now or that would challenge the pro-drug war lobby that now exists. I don't think we will see much activity on this front," he predicted.

Nor did Birns look to Tea Party-style incoming Republicans to break with drug war orthodoxy. He cited campaign season attacks from Tea Party candidates that Washington was "soft on drugs" and suggested that despite the occasional articulation of anti-drug war themes from some candidates, "the decision makers in the Tea Party are not going to sanction a softening on drugs in any way."

"I'm not aware of a single reference to the prospective drug policy of the new class of representatives," said Birns. "It seems to have become desaparicido when it comes to hemispheric policy."

"The Tea Partiers are very vague on foreign policy in general, and we're seeing things like John McCain coming out and attacking Rand Paul for not being interventionist enough," noted Tree.

Despite calls from conservatives for vigorous budget cutting, Tree was skeptical that the Latin American drug war budget would be cut. "In the Heritage Foundation budget cut report, for example, they killed ONDCP's funding and foreign assistance, but nothing from the military budget," he noted. "Maybe they can find some common ground on the drug war, but I'm not holding my breath."

"We haven’t heard them say too much yet," said Isaacson, disagreeing with Tree. "But they don't have any money. The Tea party wants to cut the budget and the foreign aid budget is most vulnerable. Even the Merida Initiative could be in play," he said.

But, Isaacson said, the old-school hard-liners are already at work. He cited a Wednesday conference on Capitol Hill called Danger in the Andes, which explores the "threat" from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba.

"A lot of these new guys went," he said. "John Walters, Roger Noriega, and Otto Reich were there. Good to see some new faces," he laughed painfully.

"We still don't know much about the Tea Party when it comes to foreign policy," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "Whether these guys will follow their budget-cutting instincts and look to reduce foreign aid and the military presence abroad, or whether they will follow the neoconservative wing of the party that believes in empire and strong defense and pursuing interventionist policies all over the world is the question," he said.

"I expect more of the same under the Republicans," said Hidalgo. "I don't foresee big changes. This Tea Party is going to play conservative when it comes to the war on drugs," he predicted. "But I haven't seen a single Tea Partier say what they believe on this issue. We have to give them six months to a year to show their colors."

Mexican Marines being trained by US Marines
The Tea Party movement has already shown conflicting tendencies within it when it comes to foreign policy in general and US drug policy in Latin America in particular, Hidalgo argued. "Some part of it is militaristic and interventionist, like Sarah Palin. On the other hand, there are people link Rand Paul, who stands for a non-interventionist foreign policy and who thinks drug policy should be reassessed," he said. "We don't know how that is going to play out."

But Hidalgo strongly suggested he thought that it wasn't going to be in a reformist direction. "Even though the Tea Partiers believe in smaller government, the movement has been hijacked by the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party," he said. "Its biggest names are Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both of whom are ultraconservative Republicans. I would be pleasantly surprised to see Tea Party representatives come into office and say the war on drugs is a failure, a big waste of money that has failed miserably. They claim they will look at every single budget item, and what better way to cut spending? I'll believe it when I see it," he said.

One thing that managed to win reluctant Democratic votes for funding the drug wars in Colombia and Mexico was human rights conditionality, meaning that -- in theory, at least -- US assistance could be pared back if those countries did not address identified human rights concerns. With tens of thousands dead in both Mexico and Colombia in the drug war, with widespread allegations of torture and abuses in both countries, the issue should be on the front burner.

In reality, human rights concerns always took a back seat to the imperatives of realpolitik. That's likely to be even more the case with Republicans in control of the House.

"There is not going to be much sympathy to human rights as a driver of US policy," said Birns. "The Republicans initially used human rights as an anti-communist vehicle; it was never meant to be used against rightists. Given that the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent on Latin America, human rights, like drug policy reform, is an issue that has largely disappeared from the public debate. If anything, the noise level of things to come on drug policy will be significantly lowered. Whatever was in the air about new approaches has pretty much been put to bed for the winter."

"On Plan Merida, the Democrats attached human rights conditions because of concerns the Mexican army was committing human rights abuses," said Hidalgo. "It's an open question whether a Republican House will be less concerned about human rights when it comes to helping Mexico, or will they say we should cut spending there?"

For Hidalgo, the big election news in 2010 was not the change in the House of Representatives, but the defeat of Proposition 19 in California.

"Before the vote, several Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Santos, said that if it were to pass, that would force Colombia to reconsider its drug policy and the war on drugs and bring this issue to international forums like the United Nations," he said. "That gave many of us hope that Colombia would precipitate an international discussion on whether to continue the current approach or to adopt a more sensible approach like Portugal or the Netherlands," he said. "Now, that is not going to happen."

Washington, DC
United States

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling 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 more than 30,000 people -- as of this week more than 9,000 this year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of 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:

Ciudad Juarez
Tuesday, November 2

In Ciudad Juarez, 14 people were killed in the city. In one incident, two females and three males allegedly on their way to collect extortion money were intercepted by gunmen traveling in at least five vehicles and killed. Police recovered two grenades from their car. In another incident, a 30-year old man who was recently discharged from a rehab facility was shot outside his home. In another, two men were chased by gunmen and shot.

Friday, November 5

In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a powerful Gulf Cartel leader was killed during a prolonged gun battle with the Mexican military. Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, 48, also known as Tony Tormenta, was the second most important figure in the Gulf Cartel, and the brother of the former boss, Osiel. Two members of Mexico's naval commando unit were killed in the fighting, as was a Matamoros crime reporter. At one point cartel gunmen launched a counter-attack in an effort to break through army lines to rescue Cardenas. At least 55 people were killed in gun battles throughout the city, although some Mexican news sources report figures of at least 100.

Saturday, November 6

In Ciudad Juarez, 18 people were murdered in several incidents across the city. In one incident, seven people were gunned down after gunmen stormed a family party.

Sunday, November 7

In Ciudad Juarez, gunmen shot dead five people inside a bar just after midnight. During the attack, gunmen are said to have formed a perimeter around the bar before attacking. The gunmen, who were heavily armed, were led by an unidentified female.

Monday, November 8

In Denver, 35 people were indicted for being part of a Sinaloa-cartel affiliated drug trafficking organization which trafficked cocaine from the Ciudad Juarez area. Among the accused are a retired firefight and an assistant college baseball coach. The group is accused of supplying the Denver area with over 40 kilograms of cocaine a week.

Tuesday, November 9

In Veracruz, the mayor-elect of the small town and two companions were kidnapped and murdered. Gregorio Barradas Miravete, who had recently been elected in the municipality of Juan Rodriguez Clara, was forced into a Hummer, and then allegedly driven to Oaxaca, where he and the two other men were killed.

Thursday, November 11

In Acapulco, gunmen attacked the offices of El Sur newspaper. The offices were sprayed with automatic gunfire, but nobody was wounded. El Sur has been extremely criticial of the government of the state of Guerrero, in which Acapulco is located.

Friday, November 12

In Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, hundreds of people fled the city after gunmen burned vehicles and businesses. At least 300 people left left town and headed for the nearby city of Miguel Aleman. It is unclear which organization's gunmen were involved in the incident, but the area is currently being fought over by the Gulf Cartel and Zetas.

In Morelos, police arrested a 12-year old boy who is alleged to be a well-known assassin for the Cartel del Pacifico Sur, which is allied to the Zetas organization. Pedro Luis Benitez, also known as El Ponchis, is known for slitting the throats of his victims as part of a unit which also includes several of his sisters. He has appeared in internet videos slitting the throat of one man and posing with several weapons, including an AK-47. Mexican media sources later reported that he was mistakenly released by the army, and is currently being searched for again.

Saturday, November 13

In the city of Chihuahua, a former high-level prison official was killed and his son was wounded after being ambushed by gunmen. Gerardo Torres had been sacked from his post last year for allegedly helping facilitate the escape of several prisoners.

Monday, November 15

In Ciudad Juarez, at least ten people were killed in the city. In one incident, a woman riding a bus to her factory job was killed by a stray bullet from an armed robbery of a gas station. In another incident, two women thought to be involved in car theft were gunned down by men armed with automatic rifles.

Tuesday, November 16

In Tabasco, two young men were shot and killed by soldiers after an incident at an army roadblock. One of the men was 21 and the other was 23. The army is claiming they tried to avoid the roadblock, but the families of the men say they had nothing to hide.

In Culiacan, a high-ranking police official was found dead. Ramon Abel Duarte Navaratte was a member of the police protective service. His predecessor had been assassinated along with three bodyguards.

Total Body Count since the last update: 293

Total Body Count for the year: 9,082

Read the previous Mexico Drug War Update here.


Mexico’s Regional Newspapers Limit Reporting of Drug Trafficking Organizations’ Role in Prohibition Violence

Mexico's regional newspapers are failing to report many of the murders, attacks on police and other violence linked to the nation's drug prohibition war, a new analysis shows. Regional journalists said they routinely do not report the role of the traffickers in the mounting violence. They said that with the central government unable to protect prosecutors and police, they feel forced to chose between personal safety and professional ethics.
ProPublica (NY)

Hundreds of Mexicans Seek Shelter Near Border from Drug Prohibition War

Eleven blocks from the Texas border, hundreds of destitute Mexicans are gathered in a shelter, escaping what they fear is certain death.
The Texas Tribune (TX)

Report: Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Spreading to Other Countries

New government reports indicate Mexican drug trafficking organizations -- seemingly undeterred by the drug prohibition war they are currently engaged in -- are making a bigger push to organize their black market activities in the United States, Europe and neighboring Latin American countries.
All Headline News (FL)

Gunmen in Mexico's Drug Prohibition War Getting Younger

Mexican police detained a minor accused of working as a gunman for a drug trafficking organization after shocking videos and photos surfaced online of fresh-faced boys mugging for the camera with guns and corpses. One video, briefly posted on YouTube, showed a youth, apparently in his teens, confessing to working for a branch of the Beltran Leyva organization. "When we don't find the rivals, we kill innocent people, maybe a construction worker or a taxi driver," the youth said.
The Associated Press

Drug Prohibition War Forces Flight from Mexican Town

Ciudad Mier, TAM
Around 300 people have abandoned the town of Ciudad Mier, fleeing drug prohibition violence from traffickers who were threatening residents. The town, one of numerous cities on borderlands believed to be in dispute by two rival organizations, is a stone's throw from the border of Texas. More than 60 people have been killed in the town of about 6,000 people this year.
The Wall Street Journal (NY)

Drug Trafficking Organization Interferes with Boulder Rescue Squad

Boulder, CO
United States
Life-saving equipment, including a special extraction device, is now sitting on the floor inside the Boulder Emergency Squad because delivery to Mexico faces setbacks due to drug traffickers. The items were supposed to be delivered to Mante, Mexico, one of Boulder’s sister cities where the need for the gear is great. Delivery is impossible at the moment as the squad is being told that the traffickers have taken over many of the roads between the border and the city.

Mexico Drug Prohibition Violence Costs $350K Daily in Natgas Losses

Prohibition-caused threats and violence by drug trafficking organizations are preventing some government oil workers from reaching installations in northern Mexico and costing state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos about $350,000 every day in lost production. That amounts to about $10.5 million per month, or about 2.3 percent of Mexico's $450 million per month average in monthly natural gas revenues.
ABC News (US)

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