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Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

Michelle Obama's Awesome Plan for Winning the Drug War

When the First Lady speaks out about how to deal with the drug problem, you can bet she'll call for more of the same:

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (CNN) - The United States needs to do more to reduce demand for illegal drugs if it wants to help reduce the violence that has wracked its southern neighbor, Michelle Obama said Wednesday.

The first lady of the United States made that comment after meeting with her Mexican counterpart, Margarita Zavala de Calderon, whose "New Life Centers" help with prevention and education so that fewer young people will become addicted.

"We need to do more of the same," said Obama, who cited education and opportunity as key elements to any successful anti-drug campaign.

Wait, what!? Did she really say that? Ok, she's making a specific reference to a program she likes, but still. Prevention and education are not new strategies. They are more of them same, and they won't even dent the bloodly specter smoldering before us.

The war on drugs has never been as ugly and brutal as it is today. There truly exists no public policy failure so unambiguously catastrophic and hopeless as this. Yet our leaders discuss it like talking wind-up dolls, capable only of repeating the same stupid sentence. We can only hope that by the time they abandon their script, there will remain something worth saving.

Drug Cartel Assassins Caught on Camera

This video is freaking people out in Mexico. Most of the violence is occurring off-camera, but it's pretty effective at revealing how openly these guys operate. 8 people were killed in the vicinity of what you're seeing here:

But don't worry, the violence means we're winning the drug war. Soon, all the drug traffickers and innocent bystanders will be dead and then we can all go to Mexico for Spring Break and get wasted without worrying about getting shot by machine guns.

Latin America: 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 over 19,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 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, April 3

In Tamaulipas, at least 17 people were killed in several incidents in the cities of Reynosa and Tampico. In Reynosa, five gunmen were killed after a gun battle with the army. Another gunman was killed several hours later after shooting at an army patrol in a nearby part of the city. In Tampico, a shootout between rival groups of suspected drug traffickers in a night club left five men and two women dead. Tamaulipas has seen a drastic increase in violence in the last few weeks at the Zetas Organization battles their former employers, the Gulf Cartel.

In Sinaloa, at least nine people were killed in Navolato, Culiacan, Guasave and Mazatlan. One of the dead was a 19-year old prison inmate who was killed in his cell, where he was serving a sentence for murder. At least five young men were killed in drug-related violence in Guerrero, three in Mexico City, and three in Tijuana. In Chihuahua, police found three men shot dead execution style near the town of La Junta. In Ciudad Juarez, five young men were shot dead and the decapitated head of a woman was discovered. Additionally, three people were murdered in Michoacán, and gunmen stormed a house and killed a man in Durango.

In Torreon, Coahuila, gunmen shot six men dead in the Moderna neighborhood. A seventh man was seriously wounded and remains in intensive care. The men were discovered dead after police received reports of bodies lying in the street.

Sunday, April 4

In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, armed men stormed a prison and freed 13 inmates. This is the second major jailbreak in the state of Tamaulipas in less than two weeks. Three prisoners were also killed in the incident, although the circumstances are unclear. At least 31 prison guards and employees were detained for questioning. According to the Tamaulipas state government, the gunmen arrived in a ten-vehicle convoy and exchanged fire with the guards before freeing the prisoners.

Monday, April 5

In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon 105 police officers were fired for misconduct. The charges against the officers included extortion, robbery, and mistreating civilians. Several were also fired for disobeying superiors. The firings are part of a new "zero-tolerance" policy being instituted in Nuevo Leon, where local police are widely thought to be corrupt and, in many cases, in league with drug trafficking organizations.

In Nuevo Laredo two children were killed and five of their relatives were wounded after the vehicle in which they were traveling came under fire during a gun battle between gunmen and soldiers. At least two gunmen were also killed in the incident.

Tuesday, April 6

The Mexican newspaper Proceso published an extremely rare interview with one of Mexico's most notorious drug lords. In the interview, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, one of the heads of the Sinaloa Cartel, said that Mexico's drug war was bound to fail. Notably, Zambada told his interviewer, Mexican journalist Julio Scherer, that the capture of high-ranking cartel bosses would have little long term effect. "For all the bosses jailed, dead, or extradited, their replacements are already there," he said. He added that "at the end of the day we will all know that nothing has changed."

Wednesday, April 7

In the state of Nayarit, police discovered the bodies of 12 people who had been murdered. At least eight of the victims were partially burned. The eight burned bodies were discovered in the bed of a pickup truck, and the other four were found nearby. Police also discovered at least 10 abandoned vehicles with weapons inside. The bodies were found near the town of Xalisco, which is well known to Mexican and US law enforcement as being a center for the production of black tar heroin.

In the town of Frontera Comalapa, on the Guatemalan-Mexican border, an innocent bystander was killed during a firefight between gunmen and federal police after the gunmen attacked a building owned by the federal government.

Total Body Count for the Week: 275

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,721

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 19,032

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Latin America: 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 over 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 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:
Ciudad Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Friday, March 26

Near the town of General Trevino, Nuevo Leon, the decapitated body of a local police chief was found inside a car alongside the body of his brother. Heriberto Cerda was the police chief of the nearby town of Agualeguas. His killers left his head on his lap. The two men had been reported missing on Thursday. The windshield and drivers windows had the letters "C.D.G" written in blood, indicating that the killings were the work of the Gulf Cartel. The incident comes one day after Mexican Marines were involved in a large firefight in another Nuevo Laredo town, Cerralvo. That incident occurred after Marines ordered gunmen in a six-vehicle convoy to stop and were answered by gunfire, leading to the deaths of six suspected drug traffickers.

In Sonora, the police chief of the border city of Nogales was ambushed and killed by gunmen armed with AK-47's. Additionally on Friday, gunmen in Ciudad Juarez attacked a hotel used by federal police officials, killing one and wounding two others. Earlier that day, a police investigator was gunned down in a residential area of the city.

Saturday, March 27

In Morelia, Michoacan, two police officers were shot dead at a gas station. Two other unidentified men were found dead at the scene as well. One of the officers had previously been suspended from duty, and the other was apparently off duty. The two men had apparently gone to a gas station to purchase beer when they were attacked. Additionally, in Acapulco, a man whose hands were bound was found shot to death in a car.

Monday, March 29

In Durango, gunmen killed ten young people at a roadblock in the "golden triangle" region where the states of Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa intersect. The ten individuals, ranging in ages from 8 to 21, were killed by gunfire and grenade blasts as they tried to speed through an improvised roadblock. In other news, Mexican authorities arrested a member of Los Aztecas gang in connection with the March killings of three people linked to the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

Around the town of Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon several people were reported killed in various incidents. Among the dead were two people gunned down in a motel along the highway to Saltillo, and a police officer found dead in a burning patrol car. In another incident, a group of gunmen attacked an army convoy in an attempt to free a prisoner who had been detained Saturday with 13 kilos of cocaine. The gunmen were traveling in a five-vehicle convoy and were heavily armed with automatic weapons and grenades. In the twenty-minute firefight that ensued, two soldiers and two civilians were wounded. After the incident, the army detained six individuals who were disguised as members of the municipal police.

In Sinaloa, six people, including a police agent, were found dead. In one incident, gunmen barged into a hospital in the town of Los Mochis and shot dead a young man who had been wounded in an earlier incident. In another part of Sinaloa, a decapitated body was found along the road from Pericos to the small town of Badiguarato, which is known as the "cradle of capos" for the large number of high-level drug traffickers which were raised in the area, most notably Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

In other parts of Mexico, three policemen were killed in Chihuahua, two people were killed in Quinta Carolinas, five in the Ciudad Juarez area, two in Tamochi, three in Chilpancingo, one in Acapulco, four in the state of Mexico, and one in Jalisco.

Monday, March 29

In Morelos, four decapitated bodies were discovered alongside a road stretching from Cuernavaca to Acapulco. A note was left at the scene threatening American-born drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal. This indicates that the killings are somehow related to the ongoing power struggle between Villareal and Hector Beltran-Leyva for leadership of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, which was left without a leader after the December killing of Arturo Beltran-Leyva by Mexican naval commandos. Additionally, two brothers were found shot dead in a house in the town of Ahuatepec, near Cuernavaca.

Tuesday, March 30

In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, soldiers clashed with gunmen in at least five city neighborhoods. At least six people were killed in the fighting, and twelve people were taken into custody. At least two of the dead were civilians caught in the crossfire, and two were soldiers. During clashes in the Loma Linda sector of the city, several grenade detonations were reported. In Tampico, Tamaulipas, three men were reported killed in an exchange of gunfire between two rival groups. Tamaulipas has recently seen a drastic increase in violence as the Zetas Organization battle their former masters, the Gulf Cartel.

Thursday, April 1

In the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, gunmen mounted seven large, coordinated attacks on seven locations, including two army bases. Eighteen people were reported killed in the fighting. In a rare frontal attack, the gunmen attacked in military style unit-formations with armored trucks, automatic weapons, and fragmentation grenades. In several locations, gunmen reportedly parked trucks and SUV's outside military bases and streets in an effort to block the movement of troops to and from garrisons. One soldier was lightly injured in the fighting.

During the fighting, soldiers captured 54 assault rifles, 61 grenades, RPG's, eight homemade IED's, and six bulletproof vehicles.

Total Body Count for the Week: 123

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,446

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,757

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

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 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 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:

Friday, March 19

In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon armed men blocked highways leading out of the city with buses and trucks they commandeered in an apparent attempt to disrupt military operations in the area. The incidents began on Thursday, when armed men began pulling drivers out of vehicles and parking them across the highways. The tires of several vehicles were slashed to make them more difficult to move. At least 31 separate roadblocks were set up.

Saturday, March 20

In Acapulco, a wedding ended in disaster after a ferocious firefight broke out between a group of men attending the party and a group of armed men who arrived in a pickup truck. Five men, all between the ages of 25 and 33, were killed, and four were wounded. In another part of the city, a clash between groups of rival gunmen left one dead. In another incident, two policemen and two gunmen were killed after a gunfight broke out on the Iguala-Ciudad Altamirano highway.

Sunday, March 21

In Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon, gunmen attacked a convoy in which the local public security chief, Rene Castillo Sanchez, was traveling. In the gun battle that ensued, two bodyguards were killed and several people were wounded. The assault was apparently an attempt to rescue two prisoners who had been taken into custody earlier in the day and were also traveling in the convoy. One of the two men was wounded in the clash.

After the shootout, the two prisoners were taken to Castillo's office, where they were transferred into the custody of Mexican marines, who took the two men to a local hospital by helicopter. One of the men, who was unscathed in the attack on the convoy, was later found dead wrapped in a blanket and tossed on the side of a road. The second suspect is now also reported missing. It is unclear exactly what happened, but many fear that the men were executed by the Mexican military.

Monday, March 22

In Chilpancingo, Guerrero, the dismembered bodies of two police officers were discovered outside police headquarters. Notes from the killers were left at the scene, but police have refused to disclose their content. One of the dead was a regional police commander, and the other a state police official. Nearby, in Acapulco, another two mutilated bodies and a note were left outside the home of a former deputy traffic police chief.

Tuesday, March 23

In Ciudad Juárez, several aircraft carrying an additional 450 federal police agents landed in the city. This brings the total number of federal police personnel in the city to 3,500, where they operate alongside local and state police forces and elements of the Mexican Army. So far this year, some 500 people have been killed in Ciudad Juárez.

In Mexico City, Hillary Clinton arrived with a delegation of high ranking officials to meet with Mexican officials, including President Calderon and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. Among the other individuals in attendance were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. The subject of the meetings was US-Mexico cooperation on issues related to drug and weapons trafficking and the fight against drug cartels. Clinton's arrival came 10 days after three individuals with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez were gunned down by men thought to be tied to the Juárez Cartel.

Wednesday, March 24

In Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, nine people were killed in a series of incidents involving a group of gunmen. The killings began when individuals traveling in two vehicles shot four men dead in a motorcycle repair shop. A fifth person was killed as the men made their escape. Soon after, the gunmen ran into a Mexican army convoy, and shot dead two soldiers. Following the clash, the gunmen fled into a pizza shop, where another two men were shot dead.

Thursday, March 25

In Michoacan, a high-level heroin trafficker was arrested by police. Jose Antonio Medina, 36, is thought to have run a network that transported 440 pounds of black tar heroin a month into Southern California. Medina's network was independent, but he was known to cooperate closely with La Familia Michoacana, the primary drug trafficking organization in the state of Michoacan.

In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 41 prisoners escaped from a local prison. Two guards are also reported missing. All but three of the prisoners were charged with federal crimes, rather than state crimes. In the past, many local leaders have complained that the federal government overburdens their prison with federal prisoners, who are often more dangerous and violent, and often tied to drug trafficking groups.

Total Body Count for the Week: 251

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,323

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,528

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Feds: National Drug Intelligence Center Predicts Continued Failure in Drug War

In a report released Thursday, the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) said that overall, the availability of illegal drugs is increasing and that "the overall threat posed by illicit drugs will not diminish in the near term." The announcement comes after more than four decades of harsh state and federal policies designed to curb the supply of illicit drugs.

The report, the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, also once again identified Mexico's so-called drug cartels as the "single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States." It blamed the cartels, or DTOs (drug trafficking organizations), as it more accurately but less catchily refers to them, for much of the increase in illegal drug availability.

The NDIC noted that the prevalence of four out of five of the major drugs of concern -- heroin, marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy), and methamphetamine -- was "widespread and increasing in some areas." Only cocaine availability was down, with NDIC reporting persistent shortages.

Heroin availability was up, and NDIC said that was "partly attributable to increased production in Mexico," where opium production more than doubled between 2007 and 2008. Meth availability was up "as the result of higher production in Mexico," and "sustained" US domestic production. Also, "marijuana production increased in Mexico." Only with MDMA did NDIC point the finger at anyone else -- in this case, Asian DTOs who produce it in Canada.

"Mexican DTOs, already the predominant wholesale suppliers of illicit drugs in the United States, are gaining even greater strength in eastern drug markets where Colombian DTO strength is diminishing," NDIC said as it pronounced them the greatest drug trafficking threat. It included the following bullet points making the case:

  • Mexican DTOs were the only DTOs operating in every region of the country.
  • Mexican DTOs increased their cooperation with US-based street and prison gangs to distribute drugs. In many areas, these gangs were using their alliances with Mexican DTOs to facilitate an expansion of their midlevel and retail drug distribution operations into more rural and suburban areas.
  • In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities.
  • Mexican DTOs increased the flow of severaldrugs (heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana) into the United States, primarily because they increased production of those drugs in Mexico.
  • Drugs smuggled into the United States by Mexican DTOs usually are transported in private or commercial vehicles; however, Mexican DTOs also use cross-border tunnels, subterranean passageways, and low-flying small or ultra-light aircraft to move drugs from Mexico into the United States.
  • Mexican DTOs smuggled bulk cash drug proceeds totaling tens of billions of dollars from the United States through the Southwest Border and into Mexico. Much of the bulk cash (millions each week) was consolidated by the DTOs in several key areas, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina, where it was prepared for transport to the US-Mexico border and then smuggled into Mexico.
  • According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Mexican DTO members or associates acquire thousands of weapons each year in Arizona, California, and Texas and smuggle them across the border to Mexico.

The report came as a senior US delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returns from Mexico City, where it spent two days in talks with Mexican officials about increasing cooperation in their joint struggle against the drug traffic.

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 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 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:
Ciudad Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Saturday, March 13

In Ciudad Juárez, three people with ties to the US consulate in the city were murdered in two different incidents. In the first incident, a Mexican man, Jorge Alberto Sancido Ceniceros was shot dead by gunmen. Ten minutes later, a US consulate worker, Lesley Enriquez, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, were chased down and killed by gunmen just blocks from the border. Two children were wounded in the first incident, and the seven-month old daughter of the couple was left unharmed in the second incident.

Initial reports suggest that the killings were carried out by the Aztecas gang, which is tied to La Linea, the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel. Although reports have been conflicting, it appears as though the killings may have been a case of mistaken identity. Additionally, the killings prompted another visit to Ciudad Juárez by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and more angry demonstrations against his policies.

Soon after the murders, the State Department urged Americans to delay all non-essential travel to parts of large swathes of Northern Mexico.

Monday, March 15

In the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, 17 people were killed in clashes over the weekend. At least four of the dead were found decapitated, two of them found near a busy strip of nightclubs and bars. In another incident, six police officers were killed when their patrol was ambushed in the outskirts of the city.

In a separate incident in the state of Guerrero (of which Acapulco is part), 11 people were killed in a ferocious gun battle between soldiers and gunmen. The incident began when soldiers knocking on the door of a home in the town of Ajuchtitlan del Progreso were met with gunfire, sparking the battle, which took place in broad daylight in the center of town. Of the 11 killed, one was a soldier and 10 were suspected drug traffickers.

In Nuevo Leon, eight men were killed in running gun battles between Mexican Navy commandos and suspected members of the Gulf Cartel. The incident began after the gunmen tried flee in several vehicles after detecting the presence of helicopters and the commandos. No sailors were reported wounded or killed in the battle.

In the town of Creel, Chihuahua, seven people were killed by suspected drug traffickers. The killings were carried out by a large group of gunmen traveling in at least 15 separate vehicles. Three of the dead were found outside a home, while the other four were found on a highway leading away from the city, after presumably being dumped there by the gunmen. In November 2008, Creel was the scene of a particularly violence incident in which 13 people, including one child, were killed after being attacked by gunmen.

Wednesday, March 17

In the state of Tamaulipas, across the border from south Texas, 10 people were murdered in several incidents. In one, a vehicle abandoned near the town of Llera was found to contain four bodies. Near the town of Jimenez, three gunmen were killed after a firefight with the army.

In other parts of Mexico, six people were killed in Sinaloa, three in Sonora, and three in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. In Nuevo Leon, a man was gunned down after attempting to flee from soldiers.

Total Body Count for the Week: 296

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,072

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,277

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Feature: SSDP Does San Francisco -- The 11th Annual National Conference
plenary session
Some 500 student drug policy reform activists flooded into San Francisco last weekend for the 11th annual Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) national conference, "This is Your Brain on Drug Policy Reform." In a sign of growing momentum for drug reform, this was the largest SSDP conference yet.

There couldn't have been a more inviting place for it. The San Francisco Bay area is the epicenter of marijuana and medical marijuana activism, as well as being a counterculture mecca for decades. The students did their best to take advantage of the advantageous locale.

Friday was mainly a day of tourism and networking for the student activists from around the country and the planet. Hundreds of them signed up to head across San Francisco Bay to tour Oaksterdam University and Oakland's Oaksterdam neighborhood downtown. Many then headed to the nearby Harborside Health Center, a state of the art medical marijuana dispensary. The day of medical marijuana tourism gave students at up-close look at medical marijuana as it should be done -- and as it could be done in their home states.

On Saturday, it was just like being back at college as students spent the day in numerous panels around the theme "Drug War Education." Acting SSDP executive director Matt Palevsky opened the session with optimism, challenging the students to seize the day.
El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke, Mexico session
"This is our biggest conference to date," he said. "Now we have as many chapters in California as we do in the Northeast" where the group had its genesis, he noted. "We're really a national organization now, more than 200 chapters large. The power we feel in this room is the power of a movement. And for the first time since SSDP was founded, we can really feel the wind at our backs," he said to loud applause.

Palevsky was followed by NORML policy analyst Paul Armentano, who urged students to get out and talk to people one-to-one about ending pot prohibition. "Talk to family, friends, faculties, neighbors, school advisors, people who know you, and with whom you have credibility," he advised. "Then start talking to people who can shape public opinion, and then become an opinion-shaper yourself. Become the editor of your newspaper, run for the student council, run for the city council. We want this failed drug policy to end before you fuck over another generation of young people like you fucked over our generation," Armentano said to loud applause, presumably aiming his latter remarks at prohibitionist politicians and opinion-makers.
exhibitor hallway
Linking with the previous day's medical marijuana tourism, one of the Saturday panels was on what the medical marijuana movement and business looks like. With panelists including Steve DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center, Robert Jacob of Sebastopol's Peace in Medicine, Debby Goldsberry of the Berkeley Patients Group, and Aundre Speciale of the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley, students got a well-informed earful. The panel was also a sign of an evolving symbiotic relationship between the medical marijuana movement and SSDP. The medical marijuana community's support for SSDP was evident by its heavy participation in the conference -- both in panels and at the vendors' booths -- and it has, in turn, become a career opportunity for more than one former SSDPer.

One of the most popular panels of the day Saturday was the one on psychedelics. It was headlined by Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who described the group's work researching the therapeutic uses of ecstasy (MDMA) and fighting for the ability of researchers to grow their own marijuana. It gave attendees a good enough sense of the group's work to ensure that at least some of them will show up for MAPS' upcoming conference Psychedelic Research in the 21st Century, set for April 15 -18 just down the road from San Francisco in San Jose.
students and others wish Ethan Nadelmann a happy birthday -- also on panel: Steph Shere (ASA), Paul Armentano (NORML), Aaron Smith (MPP)
Saturday also saw panels on the Mexican drug war, what legalization could look like when it happens, and on the drug war's impact on women, communities of color, and the poor. For the SSDP activists, many of whom were attending their first national conference, Saturday was a definite eye-opener.

"It's really been exciting," said Melissa Beadle, attending her first conference as head of a brand new SSDP chapter at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "I've been learning so much."

One of the highlights of the day was the session-closing presentation by California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), the author of California's marijuana legalization bill. Ammiano is not just a serious guy, he's a seriously funny guy, and his comedic talent was on full display Saturday afternoon. Mixing earthy language and humor, the openly gay Ammiano sketched the intertwined history of gay activism, the AIDS crisis, and medical marijuana in the Bay Area, and he didn't let party loyalty get in the way of telling it like it was.

"Bill Clinton was shit on this issue," he said. "He put out that edict that doctor's couldn't prescribe it," referring to the Clinton administration's effort to try to intimidate doctors by threatening to jerk their DEA licenses to prescribe drugs if they recommended medical marijuana to patients. "That's not an adult way to deal with an issue, and it's certainly not a statesman-like way." The would-be censors lost in the Supreme Court.
Cliff Thornton of the Hartford, CT, based group Efficacy wants inner-city communities who have become dependent on the illicit economy created by drug prohibition to be indemnified from the economic effects of the job losses that will accompany legalization.
Ammiano was a bit kinder to the current White House occupant. "In terms of Obama," he said, "the messaging is good, but it's sometimes contradictory. Still, history isn't always linear. But I'm here to tell you this movement has never been stronger; we've never been on the cusp in such a pronounced way."

Mentioning the Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative that will in all likelihood be on the California ballot in November, Ammiano said he was working closely with initiative organizers and that their efforts were not competitive, but complementary. He also unleashed a bit of pot humor, noting that 57 people had signed initiative petitions twice.

"You can imagine what they were doing just before that," he said before switching into a stoner voice. "Dude, let me sign this again to make sure it passes," he role-played to gales of laughter.

Regarding his bill's prospects in Sacramento, the dapper and diminutive Ammiano reported that there is a lot of sympathy, even among conservatives, but many are still afraid to say so out loud or to vote yes for the record. "If we voted in the capitol hallways, we'd be home free," he said, before engaging in a replay of dialogues he's had with other lawmakers.

"They come up to me and say, 'Man, I used to smoke that shit in college, let's tax the hell out of it.' And I'd say, 'Are you with me then?' and they'd say, 'Oh, no, man, I can't do that.'"

Ammiano also mentioned Barney Frank's federal decriminalization bill. "I guess it's a queer thing," he said, mincing mightily and pretending to swoon over Frank.

"You guys ought to get married," someone yelled from the audience to more laughter.

And then he was gone, leaving an appreciative audience reinvigorated and still laughing.

On Saturday night, SSDP announced new board members and honored well-performing chapters, then celebrated by rocking out to live music from Panda Conspiracy and Roots of Creation. On Sunday, it was up early despite the shift to Daylight Savings Time for a day of serious activist how-to panels. Then on Monday, it was back home to put the information and lessons learned to work on campuses across the country. Students departed San Francisco feeling like they were riding the crest of a reform wave, and maybe, just maybe, they were right. We'll have to check back next year.

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:
Ciudad Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Sunday, February 28

In Ciudad Juárez, a eight people were killed in drug-related violence in various parts of the city. Among the dead was a three-year old boy who was killed when gunmen attacked a party at a ranch just outside the city. In another incident, a couple was gunned down outside their home. As of February 28, 380 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Ciudad Juárez in 2010. 2,635 were killed in the city of 1.5 million in 2009.

Monday, March 1

Mexican police announced that a Mexican journalist who has been missing since 2007 was murdered by drug traffickers. Rodolfo Rincon, 54, was a journalist for the newspaper Tabasco Hoy, and was last seen on January 20, 2007. Authorities say that a recently arrested member of the Zetas organization admitted to participating in the kidnapping and killing, and claimed that Rincon's body was dissolved in acid after being murdered.

In Sinaloa, four men were killed in the northern part of the state. In once incident, a man was shot dead after being involved in a high-speed car chase on a highway near Los Mochis. In another incident, a group of policemen were ambushed by a group of armed men near the town of Choix, leaving a municipal police official and one of his officers wounded.

Tuesday, March 2

In the state of Chihuahua, seven people were killed in several incidents throughout the state. In the city of Chihuahua, the brother of a local police official was shot and killed in his car, along with his girlfriend. After the car was riddled with bullets, both were apparently executed at close-range with shots to the head. In other parts of Mexico, seven people were killed in Sinaloa, and two men were killed after being ambushed on a highway in Guerrero.

Wednesday, March 3

In Guasave, Sinaloa, four young men were killed as they left a party. This brings to 15 the number of people killed in the small town of Guasave over the last 10 days, all of them between 15 and 26 years of age.

In other parts of Mexico, armed men killed three members of a trucking company in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, and one person was killed in a shootout between the Mexican army and suspected drug traffickers in Michoacan. Four men were killed outside a secondary school in Ciudad Juárez, and five people were killed in Guerrero, including a police official. One drug-related murder was reported in Queretaro.

Thursday , March 4

In Ciudad Juárez, a woman and her nine-month old daughter were killed after the vehicle in which they were traveling was ambushed by gunmen. A 23-year old man, the father of the child, was left unscathed by the attack. Following the incident, police discovered a handgun in his possession and detained him.

Friday , March 5

In Michoacan, a group of heavily armed men ambushed a police convoy. Two officers were killed and three were wounded in the attack, which took place near the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. Meanwhile, in Altar, Sonora, 28,000 kilograms of marijuana were seized by Mexican authorities, as well as 18 weapons and seven unspecified vehicles.

Saturday , March 6

Police officers held a protest in the Monterrey suburb of San Nicolas de los Garza after three officers were killed in an ambush by suspected drug traffickers. The policemen gathered outside police stations and demanded improved weapons, equipment and life insurance. A fourth officer was wounded and remains in serious condition.

Monday , March 8

In the Xochimilco area of Mexico City, four men were found murdered with a note beside the bodies which made references to drug trafficking groups. The four men had all been shot and left in a local parking lot. The note made reference to the ongoing struggle for leadership of the Beltran-Leyva organization which ensued after its leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva , was killed in a raid by naval commandos on December 16th.

Tuesday , March 9

Police in Sonora discovered five partially buried bodies in an area near the border with Chihuahua. One of the dead was identified as being a municipal police officer. The men had been kidnapped the previous Sunday in a nearby area. In other violence across Mexico, a 13-year old boy was killed in the crossfire between two groups of armed men in the city of Nogales.

In Mazatlan, three police officers were killed after being ambushed near the home of a local police commander, who was among the dead. Three other drug-related murders were reported in Mazatlan, as well as one in Culiacan. In Sinaloa's main prison, two prisoners were assassinated by rivals in the gymnasium.

Five men were killed in a Chihuahua prison after a gun battle broke out between groups of rival inmates. Prison officials have stated that the battle was between two gangs, La Linea and the Mexicles. Both these groups provide enforcers to drug cartels. La Linea is considered by many to be the armed wing of the Juárez cartel, and the Mexicles are known to provide foot soldiers to the Sinaloa Cartel for its offensive in Ciudad Juárez.

Total body count for last two weeks: 375

Total body count for the year: 1,776

Total body count for 2009: 7,724

Total body count since Calderon took office: 17,981

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

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