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Southeast Asia: Thai Government in New Drug Crackdown

The government of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced a new anti-drug offensive last week aimed at a resurgent methamphetamine market and an enduring market in opium and heroin. Somchai said the new 90-day offensive could be seen as a continuation of the 2003 anti-drug campaign led by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
A Thai government commission investigating Thaksin's war "to make Thailand drug-free" found that nearly 3,000 people were killed, many of them not involved in the drug trade. While no criminal convictions have been handed down, it is widely assumed that most of those killed were executed by police anti-drug death squads.

Somchai said his government would take measures to prevent more killings, but like his predecessor, tried to pin the killings on "slayings among suspected drug dealers," not the extrajudicial execution of drug dealers. That isn't exactly building confidence among Thai drug users and sellers or among the human rights community, which strongly criticized Thailand over the 2003 murder spree.

"The prime minister says that this time around killings will not be tolerated, but the government said the same thing last time," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a Wednesday news release warning that more abuses could lie ahead. "Somchai's credibility is at stake here."

After Thaksin was deposed last year, the government of General Surayud Chulanont appointed a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon to investigate the extrajudicial killings that took place in 2003 as part of the "war on drugs." After five months of inquiries, the committee provided findings that 2,819 people had been killed between February-April 2003.

Many of those killed had been blacklisted by police or local authorities as suspected drug dealers. Police officers were suspected to have been involved in many of the attacks, particularly as many were killed soon after being summoned to police stations for questioning. For example, a 42-year-old grocery shop owner, Somjit Khayandee, was shot dead execution style in her house in Petchburi province on February 20, 2003, three days after she had been summoned to the police station. Local police told Somjit's relatives that her name was on their blacklist.

Police and other anti-drugs units in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct. The sense that officials will not be held accountable for their actions is so strong that abusive officials have sought promotion, fame, and financial rewards from the suffering of their victims.

"Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last 'war on drugs' remain in positions of authority," Adams said. "The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking the police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed."

While Thai authorities said they were going to concentrate on drug dealers, they also said drug users caught up in the net would participate in rehabilitation programs at military bases or be sent to prison. But given Thailand's poor record with respect to coerced drug treatment, that is not good news. Since 2003, thousands of people have been coerced into rehabilitation centers run by security forces without a clinical assessment that they are indeed drug dependent. Many have been held for extended periods of time -- usually 45 days -- in prison-based facilities, even if they are later referred to outpatient treatment. "Rehabilitation" is often provided by security personnel, with military drills a mainstay of the "treatment" provided.

Such coerced treatment has the effect of driving drug users away from seeking treatment or even government-sponsored health care services, Human Rights Watch said. With an estimated 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, this may keep drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment.

"Forcing drug users into badly designed rehabilitation programs is incompatible with international standards requiring fully informed consent to treatment," Adams said. "Furthermore, fear of prosecution and harsh treatment will drive them away from seeking health care services that are theirs by right and that could actually help them."

Thailand's latest war on drugs is looking a lot like a war on drug users. That's a shocker.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Latin America: Brazilian Cops Kill With Impunity, Moonlight as Drug Gang Executioners, UN Report Says

Brazilian police are responsible for a large number of the 48,000 murders committed in that country each year, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions said in a report issued late last month. Not only do police routinely resort to deadly violence in the course of their work, they also moonlight as death squad killers for a variety of entities, including drug gangs, said Special Rapporteur Philip Alston.

"In Rio de Janeiro, the police kill three people every day," Alston reported. "They are responsible for one out of five killings," he added in a Monday press statement.

Alston's report came after a fact-finding trip to Brazil last year. While there, Alston met with government officials, including police commanders and senior ministers, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and over 40 witnesses to human rights abuses.

Brazil's murder rate is among the world's highest, and police vigilantism has played a role for years. Police regularly engage in massive sweeps of poor slum neighborhoods, where drug gangs -- the notorious "commandos" -- often have strong influence or even outright control. Alston was particularly critical of the sweeps, or "mega-operations," which have grown increasingly frequent in Rio de Janeiro.

The report examined one such sweep, a June 2007 operation in Complexo do Alemão. In that sweep, more than 1,450 police attacked the slum, killing 19 people, with independent experts concluding that many of the dead had been executed. But for all the violence, police seized only two machine guns, six pistols, one sub-machine gun, and 300 kilos of drugs.

"Local officials claim that these impressive sounding mega-operations are protecting residents from drug gangs, but the operations have hurt ordinary people far more than they have hurt the drug gangs," Alston said.

The report said there has been little or no outcry over police violence in Brazil because people are skeptical that traditional law enforcement measures are working against the drug gangs. But police death squads have also been implicated in the killings of criminal suspects, the homeless, and even street children, with little outcry.

Police criminality in Brazil extends beyond the job, said Alson. "A remarkable number of police lead double lives. While on duty, they fight the drug gangs, but on their days off, they work as foot soldiers of organized crime," he said. "Clearly, the institutions for holding police accountable are broke, but they are not beyond repair. My hope is that the detailed recommendations in my report will provide a starting point for undertaking the necessary reforms."

Feature: Beyond 2008 -- Global Civil Society Tells the UN It's Time to Fix International Drug Policy

Last week, some 300 delegates representing organizations from across the drug policy spectrum met in Vienna for the Beyond 2008 NGO Forum, an effort to provide civil society input on global drug policy. Building on a series of regional meetings last year, the forum was part of an ongoing campaign to reshape the United Nations' drug policy agenda as the world organization grapples with its next 10-year plan.
UN building housing the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Vienna (interior shot)
In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs issued a declaration outlining its 10-year strategy to "eliminate or significantly reduce" the cultivation of marijuana, coca, and opium poppies. "A drug-free world -- we can do it!" was the motto adopted by UNGASS a decade ago. Now, with the 10-year review bumped back to next March, it is clear that the global anti-drug bureaucracy cannot claim to have achieved its goals, and civil society is taking the opportunity to intervene in search of a new, more pragmatic and humane direction in global drug policy.

The NGO meeting, which included drug treatment, prevention, education, and policy reform groups, harm reduction groups, and human rights groups from around the world, resulted in a resolution that will be presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) at its meeting next March. At that meeting, the CND will draft the next UN 10-year global drug strategy.

Of the nine regions of the world, only North America sent two delegations. The first, which had met in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January, deliberately excluding harm reduction and drug reform groups, was the "official" delegation, representing hard-line prohibitionist organizations aligned with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, such as the Drug-Free America Foundation and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), the California Narcotics Officers Association, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The second North American grouping, which had held its regional meeting in Vancouver in February, included dozens of organizations in drug reform and harm reduction, as well as treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation groups. Among the organizations from the Vancouver meeting that went to Vienna were the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Virginians Against Drug Violence, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Harm Reduction Coalition, Break The Chains, and the Institute for Policy Studies.

In many ways, the three-day meeting in Vienna was a debate among North Americans, with the NGOs of the other eight regions having largely agreed on a reformist and harm reduction approach. And strikingly, for the first time at a UN event, the prohibitionists found themselves in a distinct minority.

After three days of sometimes heated discussion, the unanimous declaration of the NGOs at Beyond 2008 called for:

  • Recognition of "the human rights abuses against people who use drugs";
  • "Evidence-based" drug policy focused on "mitigation of short-term and long-term harms" and "full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms";
  • The UN to report on the collateral consequences of the current criminal justice-based approach to drugs and to provide an "analysis of the unintended consequences of the drug control system";
  • Comprehensive "reviews of the application of criminal sanctions as a drug control measure";
  • Recognition of harm reduction as a necessary and worthwhile response to drug abuse;
  • A shift in primary emphasis from interdiction to treatment and prevention;
  • Alternatives to incarceration;
  • The provision of development aid to farmers before eradication of coca or opium crops;
  • Acknowledging that young people represent a significant proportion of drug users worldwide, are disproportionately affected by drugs and drug policy, and should be actively involved in the setting of global drug policy.

"We achieved a set of declarations of what the people of the world think drug policy ought to look like," said Graham Boyd of the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project. "We reached a consensus on a set of policies that is really different from what we've seen so far. It's a shift away from interdiction, arrests, and imprisonment, and toward including concepts like human rights and harm reduction."
Fayzal Sulliman (Sub-Saharan African Harm Reduction Network, Stijn Goossens (International Network Of People Who Use Drugs), Kris Krane (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)
"We hammered out a pretty amazing set of suggestions as to where the UNODC and CND should go in the next decade," said Jack Cole, executive director of LEAP. "I thought it was wonderful. This is a consensus document," Cole noted. "While that means anything that everybody couldn't agree on didn't get in, it also means that every single person there agreed with what did get in. That's why I'm so pleased with this. At the end, we were able to agree on some really, really good things."

"I think we accomplished a lot," said Lennice Werth of Virginians Against Drug Violence. "What was really important was where the rest of the world stood, and it was clear from the regional meetings that everyone else mentioned harm reduction and the decriminalization of drug use as goals. By the end of the meetings, the whole world was sitting back and watching as two US factions slugged it out. It became evident that the whole world is seeing the light except for these hard-liners in the States."

"This was a really good reality check for the US prohibitionists," said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. "They've never been forced to sit in a room with so many people who have evolved so far beyond them. A real wake-up call. And we even got some of them to engage us, and found we had a lot in common. That leaves the hardliners way out in the cold."

"The NGO community is united in insisting that the UN and member states respect the human rights of people who use drugs, and that all drug strategies must be drafted in the spirit of human rights declarations," said Kris Krane, executive director of SSDP. "If adopted by the United Nations, this could have a profound impact in many parts of the world where drug users are routinely treated as subhuman, and subjected to treatment that would be unthinkable even in the context of repressive United States drug policy."

"We achieved some important gains," said Frederick Polak, speaking as a member of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies. "But the central issue for ENCOD and its 150 organizations is to get alternative drug control policies on the agenda of CND and of individual countries. It is no longer acceptable that alternative policies are simply not discussed by governments, and not at the UN, at least not at the level of policymakers."

In that regard, said Polak, Beyond 2008 did not go far enough. "We made very little progress on actually getting legalization and regulation on the agenda, and only in the sense that most people are aware now that the issue 'hangs in the air' in Vienna," he said.

The haggling between the prohibitionist fringe and the rest of the NGOs not only prevented the adoption of more overtly anti-prohibitionist language, Polak said, it also prevented discussion of additional proposals for alternative drug control policies, including one advanced by ENCOD.

But it is a ways from passing a civil society resolution to seeing it adopted by the global anti-drug bureacracy. Now that Beyond 2008 has crafted its resolutions, the goal is to see that it has some impact on the deliberations of the UN drug bodies next year. That involves not only showing up in Vienna, but also impressing upon national governments that they need to heed what civil society is telling them.

"This was the first quarter in a game that has three quarters left," said Boyd. "But we did well in the sense that until this conference, NGOs didn't really have a place at the table when it came to discussing international drug policy. What this means is that when the nations convene and reassess international drug policy in coming months, they will know that NGOs from all of their countries have really called on them to reassess the direction they're going," he continued.

"This is going to provide traction for reform of the international drug control system, and the fact that it was a consensus document make it even more powerful," said Tree. "The prohibitionists were so marginalized, they had to consent. Some even opened their ears and listened. We have opened the door for drug policy approaches like harm reduction, public health, regulation, and ending the folly of blaming other countries for our demand."

"Now we need to make sure our voices are heard," said Boyd. "Part of that is just showing up in Vienna, but part of that is speaking to our national government representatives and making sure they're really representing us. In our case, our national government hasn't shown much empathy for the positions we've taken, but we're a democratic society, so I hope they will include our views."

Reformers must also continue to make the case against drug prohibition, said ENCOD's Polak. "The theory of prohibition is that it will diminish drug production, supply and use. Yet in reality it has achieved the exact opposite, and has additionally created violence, corruption and chaos that is now destroying millions of lives. It's safe to say that prohibition theory has been proven false," he said.

"In any other field of policy, alternative methods would be explored, but in international drug policy, consideration of alternative policies is taboo," Polak continued. "With this argument, drug policy activists should try to convince public opinion and politicians in their country that there is an urgent need for a thorough and rational study of alternative drug control policies."

"This could be an exercise in futility," said Werth, acknowledging the slow pace of change at the UN and the uncertainty over whether change will occur at all. "But it doesn't seem like it. The UN moves at a glacial pace, but they know they didn't achieve a drug-free world, and when they move, it will undercut the gang in charge of drug policy in this country."

ACLU Statement to the United Nations: Adopting a Human Rights-Based Global Drug Policy

[Courtesy of ACLU] A decade ago the United Nations (U.N.) issued a declaration outlining its 10-year global strategy to “eliminate or significantly reduce” all illicit coca, marijuana, and opium plants from the earth under the motto, “A drug free world – we can do it!” This week, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) will measure progress in this global “war on drugs” at a meeting in Vienna, Austria. The American Civil Liberties Union will join a diverse coalition of civil and human rights organizations participating in the “Beyond 2008 Forum,” an unprecedented opportunity to review the past decade of international drug policy and to shape its future course. The U.N. convened this forum to provide the non-governmental organization community the opportunity to contribute to the development of future policy, practice, and strategy. For the first time, the international drug strategy will be informed by outside voices – a sensible approach that is commonplace for other issues, but has long been taboo on issues of drug policy. The ACLU seeks an end to punitive drug policies that cause widespread constitutional and human rights violations, as well as unprecedented levels of incarceration. U.S. government insistence on incarceration as a catch-all solution to the misuse of illicit drugs has failed to reduce drug-related harm both at home and abroad, while defying the basic tenets of the U.N.’s Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The global experience of the past 10 years demonstrates that current drug policies have exacerbated – not abated – violence, health epidemics, and civil and human rights violations: * The U.N.’s 2008 World Drug Report announced that illicit coca and opium production are at an all time high. * A 2008 World Health Organization study found that America has higher rates of both cocaine and marijuana use than countries with less punitive drug laws. * The U.S. imprisons 10 times as many people for drug offenses as does the European Union, which has 200 million more inhabitants. * In the U.S., the world’s wealthiest nation, drug overdose rates have tripled since 1990, and drug treatment remains unavailable to over 20 million people in need. * The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in the U.S. injection drug use accounts for 60% of all new cases of hepatitis C, and approximately one-fourth of all new HIV/AIDS cases. * Worldwide, drugs remain the largest source of income for organized crime, and drug-related violence is visibly spiraling out of control in Mexico, Afghanistan, West Africa, and elsewhere. The time has come for the U.S. and the international community to come to terms with the clear limitations of a drug policy principally devoted to supply-side enforcement and incarceration. Some members of the international community have long acknowledged the failure of U.S.-style drug prohibition as a model for global drug policy and have turned toward health-based approaches more in line with the U.N.’s health and human rights mandates. Beyond decriminalizing some adult drug use, several nations like Canada and the Netherlands have begun to experiment with a range of promising harm reduction approaches, such as providing people with drug addictions clean needles and counseling rather than imposing lengthy prison sentences. Such policies recognize that a drug free world is presently beyond reach and focus on minimizing the dangers faced by at risk individuals and society at large. This approach has proven both effective and better aligned with international human rights and public safety mandates. Even within the U.S., support for the global “war on drugs” is waning. The foundational American values of liberty, privacy and limited government power have been severely undermined by drug war tactics. One in 100 adults in the U.S. are behind bars, largely due to drug laws, giving the U.S. the dubious distinction as the world’s leading jailer. With drug use, production and availability remaining steady, the American public is waking up to the reality that over-reliance on enforcement and incarceration is neither good for public safety nor economically sustainable. National public opinion polls bear this out, finding a sizable majority of Americans favor treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. With this week’s meeting, the U.N. has the opportunity to move away from the counterproductive policies that have dominated U.S. and, in turn, international drug policy for the past decade. U.N. drug policy has been left to operate in a lonely silo, apparently exempt from the tenets of transparency and accountability that guide other U.N. policy-making bodies. Sadly, where the international drug control regime has conflicted with human rights, systematic discrimination, abusive law enforcement practices, mass incarceration and easily avoidable health epidemics have prevailed. The U.N., and specifically the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), have the power to take a step in the right direction by adopting resolutions acknowledging the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ centrality to all of the U.N.’s work, and mandating that the U.N.’s drug control bodies adopt a human rights-based approach in accordance with U.N. human rights law. For this step to be effective, however, member states must also make specific resolutions mandating that U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law. Directives from the U.N. General Assembly to conduct drug control efforts in compliance with human rights norms have been ignored in the past. The CND – the U.N.’s inter-state body that directs international drug policy – has never adopted a resolution with any operational human rights obligations. Meanwhile, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the monitoring body for the U.N. drug control conventions, has openly stated that it will not address human rights. Application of international human rights laws can address many of the flaws and inequalities of the current drug control system. As mandated in the U.N.’s Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other treaties, human rights standards hold a greater position of legal authority than drug control treaties. For the U.N.’s drug control system to be consistent with the requirements of its own Charter, human rights must be the starting point, not an after-thought. A human rights-based approach to global drug policy would principally (1) prioritize prevention and treatment of negative health consequences of drug misuse over criminal justice responses and supply-side reduction measures, and (2) require that U.N. bodies measure effectiveness by assessing indicators of drug-related harm, rather than relying solely on drug use and interdiction statistics. Drug-related “harm” includes overdose rates, disease transmission rates, negative drug enforcement consequences as well as individual and communal criminal justice system-related consequences. To succeed, U.N. drug policy bodies must work closely with the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, a joint program of the U.N., to adopt effective strategies for reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The following specific policy proposals should be implemented in order to align U.N. drug policy with its health and human rights mandates: 1) Reform of the International Narcotics Control Board • Regular, independent evaluations of the INCB must be administered to guarantee accountability. • The INCB must clarify its position on harm reduction and human rights in relation to the U.N.’s overall goals. • The INCB must acknowledge the authority of less rigid interpretations of the drug control treaties. • The INCB must function more openly, and involve civil society in its operations. • The INCB must improve the availability of treatment for chemical dependence, and develop greater expertise on HIV, public health, and human rights. 2) Emphasis on Human Rights from the Committee on Narcotic Drugs • The CND should adopt a resolution acknowledging the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s relevance to all of its work. • Member states must make specific resolutions mandating the U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law and with the aim of furthering human rights protections. • The CND should adopt a resolution that mandates that all drug control arms of the U.N. adopt a human rights-based approach to their work in accordance with the aims of the U.N. Charter and human rights treaties. 3) Focus on Drug Control-Related Human Rights Violations from U.N. Human Rights Bodies • The U.N. Human Rights Council and other human rights treaty bodies should emphasize in their work greater focus on human rights violations caused by drug control efforts. People and governments throughout the world are increasingly recognizing that the global “war on drugs” does more harm than good. The U.N. must acknowledge this reality and set a new direction in drug policy that respects and upholds the health and human rights of all people. In 1998, at the last U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs then-ACLU executive director Ira Glasser joined former U.N. Chief Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Nobel Laureate and ex-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, economist Milton Friedman, current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and over 500 prominent academics, scientists, and political leaders, in a letter to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stating: “We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures… Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies – one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights.” Ten years later, following the pleas of diverse segments of civil society, that “open and honest dialogue” is finally beginning. But without the U.N.’s adoption of the preceding recommendations, common sense, public health and safety, and, above all, human rights will remain hostage to ineffective and counterproductive drug policies. Universal human rights and global safety from drug-related harm are not mutually exclusive. An honest examination by the U.N. of the past 10 years, informed by diverse voices, and, most importantly, by its own voice within its Charter and human rights mandates, can yield an evolved international strategy recognizing human freedom and dignity as the ultimate goals – not enemies – of global drug policy.

Latin America: Human Rights a Casualty in Chihuahua's Drug War

Three months after Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent thousands of troops into Ciudad Juárez and other Chihuahua cities and towns to fight drug traffickers in Operation Chihuahua Together, the number of complaints of human rights abuses is increasing and becoming a political issue, according to New Mexico State University's Frontera Norte/Sur (FNS) news service, which monitors Mexican and border press.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
By the middle of June, some 50 legal complaints had been filed with the attorney general's Ciudad Juárez office, FNS reported. The complaints accuse the army of committing abuses of authority, carrying out illegal detentions, forcibly disappearing citizens, conducting improper searches, and inflicting bodily injuries and damages.

The official Chihuahua's State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) reported an additional 28 complaints about the army in May and 32 more so far this month, mainly from the border town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Big Bend National Park in remote West Texas.

CEDH investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson said many of the victims of abuses were small-time dealers and addicts who have been beaten and subject to various forms of torture, including electric shocks, simulated suffocations with plastic bags and razor cuts at army installations. It was a "dangerous pattern," he said, drawing a comparison with Mexico's 1970s Dirty War, when the security forces tortured and disappeared dissidents and suspected leftist guerrillas.

In an incident that stirred outrage, soldiers shot three men to death June 8 at a checkpoint near the town of Cuauhtémoc in the center of the state. While details are unclear, the soldiers reportedly opened fire after the victims' vehicle struck and injured a soldier. One reporter on the scene was forced to the ground by soldiers, while the head of the state human rights commission showed up at the scene but was denied access by the military.

According to FNS, the Juárez Valley, just outside the city of the same name, has been a hot spot in recent weeks. Long the domain of drug traffickers and other criminals, the area has been the target of numerous army raids lately. The soldiers have netted arrests and loads of drugs, but they are also garnering an ever-lengthening list of complaints about their behavior.

Last Saturday, angry valley residents staged protests outside the office of the Mexican attorney general in downtown Juarez. A woman from the town of Guadalupe Bravo, Josefina Reyes, complained that soldiers raided her house and destroyed property before stealing her cell phone and other goods. "On that day, there were around 25 more searches in which they made off with various people," Reyes said.

While neither the military nor the attorney general's office has responded publicly to the complaints, local elected officials are beginning to. The state congress earlier this month passed a resolution urging the army to punish soldiers involved in abuses, and the head of the congress, Jorge Alberto Gutiérrez Casas has urged the military to open up about the Cuauhtémoc checkpoint killings.

"We are going to demand from the legislative branch that human rights not be violated in a struggle that is focused on organized crime, because what happened at the checkpoint doesn't justify the response of the army members." Gutiérrez said. "The army is one of the institutions which has more prestige and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, and because of this we must not permit isolated situations to end up discrediting the confidence that society has in them."

Allegations of human rights abuses by the military as it pursues its war on drug traffickers are by no means
limited to Chihuahua. In fact, they seem to follow the military wherever it is deployed as law enforcers. In February, we reported on human rights violations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and last month, we reported on human rights violations in Sinaloa.

The issue of human rights threatens to scuttle the Bush administration's Mérida Initiative anti-drug assistance package for Mexican and the Central American countries. Some congressional Democrats want to tie the $1.4 billion aid package to human rights and other conditions, a move firmly opposed by Mexico, which is extremely sensitive about its sovereignty when it comes to its northern neighbor. On Monday, President Bush appealed to lawmakers to approve the package "without many conditions."

Meanwhile, the toll from prohibition-related violence continues to soar in Mexico. Since Calderón unleashed the military at the beginning of last year, about 4,000 people have been killed, including nearly 500 police and soldiers. Even in Ciudad Juárez, where the military has been deployed since March, the killing continues to escalate. From January 1 to March 31, 210 people were murdered. Between April one and now, another 276 have been killed.

Latin America: US House Approves Mexico Anti-Drug Aid Bill, But Mexico Balks at Senate Human Rights Conditions

The US House of Representatives Tuesday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan aimed at helping Mexico and Central American countries fight the region's powerful drug trafficking organizations, but the package is now in doubt after the Mexican government voiced strong objections to provisions in the Senate version of the bill that tie the aid to human rights measures. The version of the bill in the Senate has yet to be approved.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
The vote came amidst rising levels of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. Some 4,000 people -- including more than 450 police and soldiers -- have been killed in the drug war since President Felipe Calderón escalated it at the beginning of last year by sending some 25,000 troops and federal police into drug trafficker strongholds. The traffickers have taken time off from fighting among themselves to strike back at government forces, recently assassinating several top federal and municipal police commanders. Last week, traffickers in Culiacán ambushed and killed eight police in one day.

The bill, passed by the House 311-106, would begin to implement the Mérida Initiative, named after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials sat down last year to hammer out an assistance package. Under that plan, the US funds would go for equipping and training security forces in Mexico and Central America and for improving justice systems in the region. Mexico would get $1.1 billion, while Central American and Caribbean countries would get roughly $400 million. Another $74 million would go to trying to slow the flow of illicit weapons from the US to Mexico.

But while Mexico had been eager to win the aid package, it is balking at the conditions in the Senate bill, which include human rights reviews, judicial reforms, and other issues. The conditions mark a return to "certification," where the US unilaterally determined whether nations where complying with US drug objectives, complained Mexican assistant attorney general for international affairs José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.
Ríodoce (newspaper) cover -- Sinaloa keeps bleeding. Why more (soldiers)?
"Why don't we tell the Americans to use those [funds] for their own interdiction forces or interception forces... and stop the flow of weapons," Santiago Vasconcelos said in a radio interview cited by the Dallas Morning News. "Rather than giving them to Mexico, they can be used by the Americans to reinforce their Customs service, their Border Patrol, and stop the arms trafficking to our country."

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said last week that President Calderón is waiting to see the final version of the bill before making a decision. "The president will very carefully consider what is finally approved, and defending the best interests of Mexico, will make the correct decision, of that we can be sure," he said.

"I think one way or another, it's dead," political commentator Ricardo Alemán told the Morning News. "Mr. Vasconcelos is a very high-ranking police official and has support from the government," Alemán said, adding that Mexican pride is at stake. "Mexicans are very unyielding on this," he said. "First you reduce the amount, and then you put on conditions, so why don't you just keep your money."

A delegation of US senators flew last weekend to Monterrey, Mexico, to meet with Mexican officials in an effort to assuage their concerns, and there are signs they will seek to remove the offensive language from the Senate bill.

"We heard from everyone here the common message that this language has got to be changed," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), one of 11 US legislators attending the two-day meeting. "Our friends in Mexico needed to vent and explain how this issue was not handled well," the senator added. "Anything that smacks of certification is a nonstarter."

Now it's time to see if the US Senate will sacrifice Mexican human rights on the altar of the drug war.

Feature: Battling Military Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

Lawmakers in the United States this week took the first steps toward approving a $1.6 billion dollar, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico that is heavily weighted toward aid for the Mexican military. The Mexican army needs all the help it can get as, with 30,000 troops deployed against violent drug traffickers by President Felipe Calderón, it wages war against the so-called cartels, say supporters of the package.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
But even as the aid package, known as Plan Mérida after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials hammered out details, was being crafted, the Mexican military was once again demonstrating the risks of using soldiers for law enforcement. On the evening of March 26, near the town of Santiago de los Caballeros in the municipality of Badiraguato in the mountains of the state of Sinaloa, a five-man military patrol opened fire on a white Hummer driven by a local man back from the US. When the smoke cleared, four people in the vehicle were dead, two were wounded -- and there was no sign of any weapons.

It was the second time in less than a year that soldiers in Badiraguato had opened fire, killing multiple innocent civilians. Last June, three school teachers and two of their young children were killed when soldiers at a checkpoint perforated their vehicle with bullets. That case went away after the military paid their families $1,600 each.

Seeing yet another unjustified killing by the military was enough for Mercedes Murillo, head of the independent human rights organization the Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front). The veteran activist saw her brother assassinated in September after discussing the June killings on his radio program, but that didn't stop her from filing a lawsuit designed to end what is in effect impunity for soldiers who commit human rights offenses against civilians.

Under Mexican law -- the result of a post-revolutionary political settlement designed to keep the military out of politics -- members of the military do not face trial in the civilian courts, but in special military courts. This martial fuero -- a privileged judicial instance whenever the military are on trial -- results in soldiers charged with human rights abuses being judged by members of their own institution, and all too frequently, being absolved of any wrongdoing no matter what the facts are.
Mercedes Murillo with legal assistant
Now, Murillo and her legal team, acting on behalf of the widow of the Hummer driver, have filed suit in Sinaloa district court in Mazatlán, challenging the fuero system. She doesn't expect immediate success, she said.

"This is the first case presented in Mexico against the actions the army has taken," said Murillo. "We know that when we present this in Mazatlán, the judges will give us nothing. Then we must take it to the Supreme Court of Mexico, and there might be people there who will study what we are presenting."

But Murillo isn't counting on the Mexican courts; her vision goes beyond that. "I don't think we can win here, but even if the Supreme Court says the military can do what it wants, that will lay the groundwork for going to the Inter-American Court. Military impunity violates international treaties that Mexico has signed," she argued.

The Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights are autonomous institutions charged by the hemispheric organization with interpreting and applying the American Treaty on Human Rights and ensuring governments' compliance with it. Mexico is a signatory to that treaty.

"Using the military for drug enforcement in Mexico is a serious problem," agreed Ana Paula Hernández of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountains in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. In addition to being one of the most impoverished areas of the country, the mountains of Guerrero have long been home to poppy and marijuana farmers, as well as the occasional leftist guerrilla band over the decades. The military has been deployed there for years.

But while most attention these days is focused on the military's deployment to fight the cartels in major cities, Hernández cited the military's more traditional drug war role: manual illicit crop eradication. "It's an almost impossible and useless task since illicit crop cultivation is an issue of survival in the mountain region, as in other parts of the country," she said. "In these regions, farmers have two options -- either they grow illicit crops or they migrate, so of course they will continue to find ways to grow illicit crops. It will never end unless the social and structural reasons for it are addressed."
Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front) office, hippie shop next-door
But instead, successive Mexican governments have sent in the military to root out the poppy and pot fields. At least, that is their stated purpose, but Hernández isn't sure they're serious. "This is the excuse for deploying the military in many rural and indigenous regions, but in many cases it's more about a counterinsurgency strategy than a crop eradication strategy," she said.

The military presence in such regions is "an intimidating and threatening" one, said Hernández. "They set up camp wherever they like, often destroying licit crops and harvests in the process, stealing the water from the community, entering people's homes to take their food, stopping people on the roads to interrogate them, and so on. Worse yet, the military has become one of the main perpetrators of human rights abuses in the region, committing violations as serious as sexual rape for example," Hernández said. "This is something that is very common but that is rarely denounced."

Tlachinollan has documented some 80 cases of human rights violations carried out by members of the military in the region in recent years, including the rape of two women, Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández, by soldiers in 2002, said Hernández. But because of the military court system, nobody has been punished.

"Justice has not been carried out in a single case," she said. "It is very difficult, almost impossible, to obtain justice in cases where the military is involved. They remain untouchable to a certain degree and without a doubt, absolutely unaccountable to society for their actions."

As for Cantú and Fernández, they have given up on Mexican justice and are now seeking redress before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Their case is pending after a hearing last October.

While Mexican citizens and activists struggle to rein in the military, some US experts wonder whether involving soldiers in drug law enforcement does any good anyway.
"We don't think it's a problem that can be solved militarily," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The use of the military in the drug war is not a new thing -- they continually bring in the military because the police are either too weak or too corrupt to deal with the traffickers -- but the question is whether it can deal with the challenge at hand, and we don't think so," she said.

But even if the military is unable to stop drug production and trafficking, it will continue to be the backstop for hard-pressed Mexican politicians unless real reforms take place, Olson said. "We need to be talking about significant police reform. Until that happens, the military will be used over and over again without solving the problem."

Murillo agreed that police reforms were necessary, and vowed never to give up the fight for justice. "They killed my brother because he criticized the army," she said, "but we are so used to the soldiers now that we are not scared. I have nothing to lose. My sons and daughters are married, my husband is 82. If they kill me, I don't care. That's the only way to work. You can't be afraid."

In Mexico, Opposition to Plan Merida Emerges

This week, high-level US and Mexican officials spoke out in favor of Plan Mérida, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug package designed to assist the Mexican government in its ongoing battle with violent drug trafficking organizations. But at the same time officials like Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were visiting Latin America to seek support for the plan, at a forum on drug policy in Culiacán, Sinaloa, home of one of the most feared of the drug trafficking groups, the Sinaloa Cartel, there was little but criticism of the proposed aid package.
Ríodoce cover -- Sinaloa keeps bleeding. Why more (soldiers)?
Since he took office at the beginning of last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed some 30,000 Mexican army troops in the fight against the so-called cartels, which provide much of the cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana coming into the United States. US officials have praised Mexican President Felipe Calderón for his aggressive efforts against the cartels and seek to reward his government -- and especially the Mexican military -- by providing high-tech equipment, training, and other goods to the Mexican armed forces.

But despite the massive military deployments in border cities from Tijuana in the west to Reynosa and Matamoros in the east, as well as in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, and Sinaloa -- all traditional drug-producing areas -- and the high praise from Washington, Calderon's drug war has not gone well. Roughly 2,000 people were killed in Mexico's drug war last year, and with this year's toll already approaching 1,000, 2008 looks to be even bloodier. Yet the flow of drugs north and guns and cash south continues unimpeded.

Bush administration and Mexican officials met over a period of months last year and early this year to craft a joint response that would see $500 million a year in assistance to Mexico, primarily in the form of helicopters and surveillance aircraft. Known as Plan Mérida, after the Mexican city in which it took final form, the assistance package is now before the US Congress.

Congressional failure to fund the package would be "a real slap at Mexico," Secretary of Defense Gates said in Mexico City Tuesday as he met with General Guillermo Galván, the Mexican defense minister, Government Secretary Juan Mouriño, and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. "It clearly would make it more difficult for us to help Mexican armed forces and their civilian agencies deal with this difficult problem," he told reporters.

The same day, Attorney General Mukasey was in San José, Costa Rica, where in a speech to justice ministers from across the hemisphere, he, too, urged Congress to approve the aid package. Drugs, gangs, and violent crime on the border are "a joint problem -- and we must face it jointly," he said. "By working together, we can strengthen the rule of law and the administration of justice, and we can combat transnational criminal threats," Mukasey said.

That is what the Mexican government wants to hear. It negotiated the aid package, and although President Calderón's ruling National Action Party (PAN) does not hold a majority in the Mexican congress, it can count on the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on the aid deal. Of the three major parties in the Mexican congress, only the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) is raising concerns about the package, but the PRD is not strong enough in the congress to block it.

But while official Mexico may want passage of the package, a number of Mexican intellectuals, academics, political figures, and former military officers attacked the plan to beef up the Mexican military for US drug war aims at a forum this week at the International Forum on Illicit Drugs hosted by the Culiacán weekly newsmagazine Ríodoce.

"The US wants to fight drugs, crime, and terrorism. Bush and Calderón have been talking about a new Plan Colombia, but the anti-drug policies pursued so far have been a failure," said Ríodoce managing editor Ismael Bojórquez, as he opened the conference. "The phenomenon of drug trafficking is very complex and reaches deeply into the fabric of our society. The system benefits from the drug trade; the profits from it enter into our economy and have benefited many businesses. Few sectors have been able to resist the easy money. In a country that has not been able to improve conditions for poor Mexicans, the drug trade is an attractive alternative," he explained.

"Our government has authorized the use of federal police and even soldiers to attack the drug trade, but this strategy is mistaken and the government has wasted million of dollars that could have gone to productive ends," Bojórquez added.

"Our foreign policy has been subordinated to that of the Americans, the policemen of the world," said Mexican political figure Jorge Ángel Pescador Osuna, the former Mexican consul general in Los Angeles. "Fortunately, this Plan Mérida initiative has yet to be approved by the US Congress, and hopefully, the voice of Mexico will be heard in this debate. We think there are real solutions that are within the grasp of the government and civil society," he said.

"They want to spend $500 million the first year, half of which will go to buy military equipment and advanced technologies," said Pescador Osuna. "My first response is how nice. But then I have to ask why we should use the military in areas that are outside its competence. What we need here is to strengthen our democracy, and we will not accomplish that by using the military for civilian law enforcement."

"These kinds of anti-drug policies that focus on policing are overwhelmingly simplistic," concurred Colombian economist Francisco Thoumi, director of the Center for Drug and Crime Studies at the University of Rosario in Bogota. "They do not attack the problem at the base," he argued. "The drug trade is a capitalist industry, and it accepts the losses of interdiction and eradication as a cost of doing business. This kind of enforcement looks good on TV and makes politicians and police happy, but the industry goes on, and this doesn't solve the problem."

"The idea with this is to give power to the armed forces," said Luis Astorga, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and head of a UNESCO program devoted to understanding the ramifications of the international drug trade. "Calderon is doing nothing more or less than reconfiguring the anti-drug struggle in Mexico by putting it in the hands of the military. One question is how long this will last," he noted.

General Francisco Gallardo, a leading advocate of human rights within the Mexican armed forces, was also critical. "The context for Plan Mérida is this new world order where the US struggle for hegemony with China and the European Union," he argued. "The US has militarized its foreign policy, and it wants us to militarize our drug enforcement. But the function of the army is to defend the sovereignty of the state, not to fight crime. That is the job of the police," he said.

"Involving the military under the auspices of Plan Mérida does not respond to Mexican interests," Gallardo said. "It has a bad effect on the institutional and judicial order of the nation. The soldiers who kill innocents are absolved; they have impunity," he said, citing the cases of several mass killings by soldiers in Sinaloa, including an incident in Santiago de Caballero in the mountains above Culiacán in late March, in which four unarmed young men in a Hummer were killed by soldiers on an anti-drug mission. "The drug trade is a matter for police and the justice system, not the military," Gallardo concluded.

While the Bush and Calderón administrations are seeking to steamroll opposition to the proposed aid package, it is clear that Plan Mérida is drawing heated criticism in Mexico. What is less clear is whether that opposition can successfully block the initiative on the Mexican side. Right now, the best prospects for that appear to lie in the US Congress.

Asia: Beijing Police Begin Pre-Olympics Drug Crackdown

Public security officials in Beijing, the Chinese capital and host city for this year's summer Olympics, announced a pre-Olympic drug crackdown Wednesday, according to Chinese state media. Beijing police will secretly search bars for drug traffickers and "addicts" in the run-up to the games, officials declared in a statement.

The two-month campaign will apparently target bars and clubs popular with young people and foreigners, which police complain are becoming a popular venue for drug use and trafficking. If bar-goers or owners are found to be involved in drug-related activities, they will be investigated, said Zhao Wenzhong, head of the Beijing Municipal Security Bureau's drug control department.

The Chinese aim to create a "drug-free" environment for the August Olympics, Zhao said.

The crackdown has been underway for some time, but is being ramped up for the Olympics. According to Fu Zhenghua, deputy head of the bureau, more than 20 Beijing bars and clubs have been closed after being found to be involved in drug use or trafficking.

Less than two weeks ago, Beijing police raided two bars in the Sanlitun night-life district, detaining scores of young people, including numerous foreigners, covering their heads with bags, and taking them to police stations for drug tests. That led to complaints by the foreigners' parents of "Chinese torturing foreign teens in drugs bust." Chinese authorities reported they had arrested 20 people, including eight foreigners, for possession of drugs including ecstasy, marijuana, and unspecified "other drugs."

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