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Thu, 09/13/2007 - 8:00pm - 9:00pm
United States

drug war killings

One of the articles we published in the Chronicle this morning is a newsbrief about investigations starting in Thailand about the 2,500 extra-judicial drug war killings. User "eco" has posted a couple of pictures in the comment section at the bottom of the page, with a link to a web site that has more. If you have the heart for it, you can see them here.

Southeast Asia: Probe into Thai Drug War Killings Getting Underway

In early 2003, then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared that he would wipe out drugs in Thailand by spring's end. That didn't happen, but some 2,500 alleged drug users and traffickers were killed by shadowy death squads as part of the Thaksin government's drug war that year alone.
2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
With Thaksin overthrown by a military coup some months ago, the new Thai government has said it would investigate the killings. This week, the investigation took a step forward with the naming of former Attorney General Khanit Nakhon to lead an independent committee looking into the killings.

Justice Ministry permanent secretary Jarun Pukditanakul told theBangkok Post Saturday the commission will ask the Department of Special Investigation to provide information to help bring guilty officials to justice. ''The government has to give priority to this issue," he said. "Those who had a hand in the extra-judicial killings must be held responsible for their acts."

That sounded good to Somchai Homlaor, head of the Foundation for Human Rights and Development, who said the murders involved people from low-level policemen all the way up to former Prime Minister Thaksin. ''This is a big issue. The government should be serious about it,'' said the human rights activist.

Thaksin acted amidst growing concern over the rapid increase in the use of methamphetamine in Thailand early this decade. Known in Thailand as "ya ba," or "crazy medicine," the drug has been popular among workers, students, and night-clubbers. Thaksin's bloody offensive to wipe out drugs failed, of course, and methamphetamines are still widely available in Thailand, but 2,500 are dead. Now they just might get some justice.

Editorial: The drug war's poisonous legacy

The Nation (Thailand)

Thailand to set up new probe of killings in Thaksin's drugs war

The Anatolian Times (Turkey)

Feature: UN Releases Annual Drug Report, Countries Mark International Day Against Drugs With Bonfires, Propaganda Exercises, Death Sentences

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued its 2007 World Drug Report Tuesday, the same day as it marked its annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. While the UNODC claimed it was making substantial progress in the fight against drugs by "stabilizing" global drug use levels, critics pointed out that that was a far cry from UNODC's mission of substantially eradicating all drug crops by next year and that "stability" meant only the continuation of the repressive status quo.
drug burning in China marking the UN's International Anti-Drugs Day
Part of that status quo is UNODC's annual anti-drug day. While it appears to have been pretty well ignored in Europe and North America -- either no events took place or they were deemed unworthy of coverage by the media -- anti-drug day is an occasion for public meetings, ceremonial drug burnings, and sometimes, worse, in those parts of the world with the stiffest anti-drug postures, particularly the Middle East and Asia.

And so it was this year, with ceremonial drug burnings to mark anti-drug day taking place in Mozambique, Myanmar, Thailand, and Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile, authorities in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania,
the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam marked anti-drug day with public assemblies, educational events, and special ceremonies. In Vietnam, authorities celebrated anti-drug day by ordering a crackdown until September 26.

But once again, it was actions by China that were the most dramatic and drew the most concern from drug reform, harm reduction, and human rights activists. In past years, China celebrated anti-drug day with executions of drug trafficking offenders -- as many as 460 in recent years, according to press reports compiled by the US-based Harm Reduction Coalition.

This year, there were no anti-drug day executions reported in China. But Chinese authorities did announce death sentences for seven drug traffickers on anti-drug day eve and announced one more on anti-drug day itself.

"We have observed a declining resort to the death penalty in both the US and China," said Richard Dieter, head of Death Penalty Information Center. "Although China uses it much more than the US, they have agreed to be more discerning and review more cases in their high courts. I think we will see a decline in the death penalty in China," he predicted.

"We don't want to see drug offenders executed," said Allan Clear, head of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "But we also don't want the UN to set up this day without drugs and then have member states run out and execute people as a show of good faith. We want the UN to step up and say that is not what they intended. UN Secretary-General Moon has made comments to the effect that it should be up to member states, and we think that is appalling," Clear said.

In fact, the Harm Reduction Coalition wrote a letter to Moon last month urging him to take action. The letter called on Moon to "condemn China's use of executions and death sentences to commemorate International Day Against Drugs as severe human rights violations and to make a public call to halt this practice. Progress against the problem of drugs and related issues, including the HIV epidemic, must be founded upon a solid respect and enforcement of human rights for all," the letter stated.

"It's good that there have been no reported executions," said Clear, "but I don't think we can actually claim a victory if they are still using the day as a reason to sentence people to death."

Clear said that a number of regional human rights and harm reduction groups joined the Harm Reduction Coalition in sending letters to the UN urging it to intervene against states using the death penalty to mark anti-drug day. But a number of other groups decided to wait.

While there is some dissension in the harm reduction and human rights ranks about how best to go after the use of the death penalty in drug cases, an international movement against it is forming. The International Harm Reduction Association and Human Rights Watch are spearheading a campaign centered on October 10, the international day against the death penalty.

"We've agreed to work with all the regional networks in an effort coordinated by Human Rights Watch and IHRA," said Clear. "That will happen later this year."

If the excesses of the international anti-drug day are drawing criticism, so is UNODC's annual report, with critics calling it everything from rose-tinted to meaningless. UNODC claimed that coca production was down in the Andes, a claim undercut by US figures released just weeks earlier that showed an increase. Similarly, UNODC claimed success in eradicating opium production in Laos, which pales in significance compared to the massive increase in production in Afghanistan, which accounts for nearly 95% of the global supply.

"The methods of estimating global drug use and drug production are very imprecise and notoriously unstandardized," said Dutch drug policy researcher Peter Cohen. "The text will say what is needed at the moment. It is tailored to cater to global moods and UN funding needs. All of these UN drug reports are political expressions, and the UNODC's trick is to somehow make people believe their Politburo reports have some significance," he argued. "It's best to ignore them."

The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) was similarly scathing, noting that while UNODC claimed overall stability, "repression is rising." Stability means the status quo, ENCOD complained: "Stability in this case means that current drug policies place the heaviest burden among those who are already among the most marginalized in the first place… Stability means an escalation of law enforcement and repression… Stability means a war against minorities," the group continued, mentioning both Laos, where the internal resettlement of indigenous ethnic communities that formerly grew opium has pushed mortality rates through the roof, and the United States, where racial minorities are much more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges.

The UNODC looks at global drug supplies and consumption and claims victory by running hard just to stay in the same place. The harm reduction, human rights, and drug reform community looks at the same data and sees the latest installment of a disastrous global drug prohibition regime.

(Click here for commentary by David Borden on this issue.)

Feature: Is Mexico's Drug War "Calderón's Iraq"?

Almost as soon as he took office late last year, incoming Mexican President Felipe Calderón tried to win public support by sending out the military to take on the country's violent and powerful drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. Now, six months into Calderón's anti-drug offensive, more than 24,000 soldiers and police are operating in a number of Mexican states and cities, but the death toll keeps rising, the drugs keep flowing, and Mexicans are starting to ask if it's all worth it.

According to Mexican press estimates, more than 2,000 people died in prohibition-related violence last year. With about 1,000 killed already this year, 2007 is on track to be the bloodiest year yet in Mexico's drug war.
George Bush and Felipe Calderón (photo from
Most of the victims are members of the competing trafficking gangs -- the Juárez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel -- or their enforcers, like the ex-elite soldiers who switched sides and morphed into the Zetas or the former Guatemalan soldiers and gangsters known as the Kaibiles, or a new and shadowy presence on the scene, the Gente Nueva (The New People), a group supposedly formed of former police officers to take on the Zetas.

The violence among the battling cartels, factions, and enforcers has risen to horrific levels, with bloody beheadings taped on video and released to web sites like YouTube, heads being thrown on night club dance floors, and tortured bodies left on roadsides as exemplary warnings to others. On one day last month, at least 30 people died in prohibition-related violence.

But it's not only cartel soldiers dying. Hardly a day goes by without a police officer being gunned down somewhere in Mexico. Sometimes the attacks are spectacular, as when cartel gunmen attacked Acapulco police headquarters with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers, or when assassins killed the new head of the attorney general's national crime intelligence center in a brazen shooting in the upscale Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán last month.

That's not all. In May alone, five Mexican soldiers, including a colonel, died in an ambush in Calderón's home state of Michoacán; the body of an Army captain was found near the highway from Mexico City to Acapulco, and an admiral narrowly escaped assassination in Ixtapa. Earlier this year, Calderon admitted that even he had received death threats from the cartels.

But wait, there's more. Also in May, dozens of cartel gunmen invaded the town of Cananea, Sonora, not far from the Arizona border, kidnapped seven police and four civilians, triggering a battle that left 20 people dead. The director of the Coahuila state police kidnapping and organized crime unit was himself kidnapped, a corpse found in Monterrey carried a note threatening the life of the Nuevo Leon state attorney general, and four bodyguards for the governor of Mexico state were gunned down. A note left with a severed head appeared to tie their deaths to angry cartels.

But wait, there's still more. Last Tuesday, in the northern city of Monterrey, a congressman from Nuevo León, the 44-year old Mario Ríos, was assassinated while driving on a downtown street by gunmen firing at him from at least two cars, according to Wednesday's Seattle Times.

While the Mexican government claims the offensive is working, pointing to nearly a thousand arrests and numerous drug shipment seizures, the chorus is critics is growing. The popular left-leaning news weekly Proceso recently called the campaign "Calderón's Iraq." It isn't alone, on either side of the border.

"I don't think it's working at all," said Alex Sanchez, a Mexico analyst for the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The problem is the way the cartels are structured. Taking out one guy, even a top leader, just leaves a vacuum that others fight to fill. There is a perpetual cycle of violence unless they can take down every single member of a cartel, from the top capos to the lowest drug runners," he said.

"Calderón says Mexico is winning, but his policies are just perpetuating all of this," said Sanchez. "It hasn't affected the flow of drugs from Mexico, so nothing has changed in that sense. What has changed is that the violence has reached a new level; there is essentially a civil war going on between the cartels and the government."

"The problem with this sort of strategy is that when you detain these capos, like Osiel Cárdenas of the Gulf Cartel, you get a power void inside the cartel and you see new violence as members of the cartel fight to replace him at the top," said Maureen Meyer, Washington Office on Latin America associate for Mexico and Central America. "You need a different strategy," Meyer argued. "They need to put a lot more emphasis on police reform, and there needs to be a lot more transparency and oversight," she said.

"There was a need to have a very strong response, given the level of violence that had been accumulating," said Meyer. "But it seems at least in the short term that it has not produced the results people wanted. What is Plan B?"

"It's just a big circus," said Mercedes Murillo, head of the state of Sinaloa's independent human rights organization, the Frente Cívico Sinaloense. "The US comes in and says 'Bravo! Look what he's doing!' but he isn't achieving anything," she said. "They began doing this without any investigations, and that's a big, big problem. They don't know where the traffickers are, they haven't really caught anyone important, but now they have soldiers and tanks in downtown, they have checkpoints with a hundred soldiers at the same time parents are taking their children to school. The soldiers break down doors and search homes without warrants, they break things and steal things, and sometimes they rape the women."

And sometimes they kill innocent people. That's what happened June 2 at a military checkpoint in Sinaloa when troops opened fire on a vehicle they claimed failed to stop and opened fire on them. But it wasn't drug traffickers, nobody fired on them, and five people were killed, including school teacher Griselda Galaviz Barraza, 25, and her three young children. The Mexican military has arrested three officers and 16 soldiers in the case, but that has done little to assuage concerns about human rights violations by the military.

"And now they are killing people," Murillo said. "Instead of bringing out the military, they should be investigating where the money comes from. We don't have any real industry here, but you ought to see all the luxury cars, the luxury homes, the boats, the jewelry. Why can't they figure out where the money is coming from?"

Popular newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento, writing in Reforma, said the Sinaloa incident showed that innocents were being killed in the drug war. "The idea that drug dealers and the people close to them are the only people caught up in the violence we are living in Mexico is a silly lie made up to keep the population calm," Sarmiento wrote. "We are in the midst of war... a struggle in which two sides face off without any concern or thought about the civilian population."

The official Mexican National Commission on Human Rights has criticized the government for using the military in domestic law enforcement. The non-governmental national human rights organization the Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez" is also raising the alarm about widespread military searches and detentions in Michoacan. American analysts are also raising concerns about the use of the military.

"The very strong military presence in these operations concerns us," said Meyer. "While it is understandable, we hope that reforming the police would effect a transfer from the military to the police in these operations. We are now seeing some of the unfortunate results of relying on the military to do law enforcement. What happened in Sinaloa is a very clear example of the risk of using the military trained for combat as opposed to a police force trained to use the least force possible."

"Soldiers are soldiers, they're not supposed to be used as a domestic police force, they're trained to fight an enemy," said Sanchez. "They're scaring the whole population, but they're just being themselves. The Mexican police are not capable of battling the cartels, but if you bring in the military, that will mean human rights violations."

"Mexico is at the greatest risk of any country in Latin America, warned COHA executive director Larry Birns. "You have the convergence of endemic and systematic corruption -- the corruption of the security forces is approaching Iraqi standards -- mated to a fragile political system with an unpopular president, and the near unraveling of civil society. For the average Mexican on the average day, law and order doesn't exist," he told the Chronicle.

Mexico blames the cartel problem on the demand for drugs in the US. "I have argued that this is a shared problem between the United States and Mexico," Calderon said last week. "The principal cause... is the use of drugs. And the US is the prime consumer in the world."

The prohibition-related violence in Mexico could also have an impact on US domestic politics. "This is becoming a real security problem for the US as we approach the latter phases of NAFTA," COHA's Birns argued. "The truck inspections will be more minimal, and the situation will compromise drug policy all along the border. It will also provide rhetorical weapons for those skeptical of any kind of open borders or amnesty program for undocumented workers. Open borders would mean near unrestricted infiltration of drugs and traffickers into the United States."

With neither government willing to address the root cause of the problem -- drug prohibition -- this year's drug war in Mexico is going to look a lot like next year's and the year after that. The only difference appears to be ever-escalating levels of violence, gruesomeness, and brutality.

House Dems push for big shift in Colombia aid

Washington, DC
United States
San Francisco Chronicle

5 killed in Mexican drug war

The Gazette (Canada)

Southeast Asia: More Death Sentences for Drug Offenses

Southeast Asia continues its macabre response to drug trafficking and manufacturing, with nine people being sentenced to death in Indonesia this week for manufacturing ecstasy and three more sentenced to death in Vietnam for manufacturing and trafficking in methamphetamines. Another four people were sentenced to death for heroin trafficking in Vietnam the same day. The region, along with China, is responsible for most drug offense death sentences.
Chinese anti-drug poster
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Supreme Court Tuesday pronounced death sentences on a French man, a Dutch man, two Indonesians, and five Chinese men. The Europeans were the manufacturing experts, the Indonesians ran day-to-day manufacturing, and the Chinese funded the whole venture, which produced millions of ecstasy tablets.

"The Supreme Court considers the Frenchman and Dutchman experts," said Justice Djoko Sarwoko. "If we let them be, they would be able to produce in other place, or teach others their skills. This is a threat to the next generation." [Ed: The judge's statement is Orwellian -- even if one were to agree that the defendants should be prevented from manufacturing drugs in the future, that could be accomplished by methods other than execution.]

That same day, the People's Court of Ho Chi Minh City pronounced death sentences on three men and a woman for buying methamphetamine powder in neighboring Cambodia, pressing it into pills of various colors and shapes, and selling them to customers in the city. One other man was sentenced to life in prison, while 17 other codefendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 18 years.

"They produced and sold 24,000 pills weighing up to 6 kilograms in the period between 2003 and March 2005, when the ring was busted," said presiding Judge Vu Phi Long said. "This is one of the largest non-heroin drug cases so far."

Meanwhile, in the People's Court of Son La province imposed the death sentence Tuesday on three men for trafficking in less than 35 pounds of heroin. A woman in the case was sentenced to life in prison.

Under Vietnamese sentencing guidelines, possession, distributing, manufacturing, or smuggling more than 600 grams (approximately 1.25 pounds) of heroin or 2500 grams (a little more than five pounds) of synthetic drugs is punishable by death. Vietnam has now sentenced 22 drug offenders to death this year.

Vietnam and the nine other member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand) have vowed to create a drug-free region by 2015.

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