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Feature: In Mexico, Now It's Calderon's Drug War

Newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December after a razor-thin victory over his leftist rival, Andres Lopez Obrador, last summer, and in the few weeks since he has been in power, Calderon has moved quickly and aggressively against the country's powerful, wealthy, and ruthless drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. But while Calderon's bold moves have won him kudos from Mexicans hungry for law and order and from the Bush administration, Mexico analysts are skeptical they will mean anything in the long run, especially without fundamental reforms of the country's police, military, and judicial systems.
Mexican anti-drug patrol
With cartel violence reaching record levels, Calderon moved quickly and dramatically, sending 6,000 soldiers and police into his home state of Michoacan, where disputes among the cartels have led to horrendous violence. A week later, he sent 3,000 more into the border city of Tijuana and disarmed the city police, who are widely believed to be thoroughly infiltrated by the cartels. At the same time, Calderon sent even more soldiers and police into Acapulco, the Pacific resort city that up until last year had been far removed from cartel violence. That changed when heavy gun-battles featuring submachine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers broke out in the tourist destination last summer.

Late last Friday night, Calderon made another dramatic move, when he agreed to extradite 10 top drug traffickers to the United States, most prominent among them Osiel Cardenas, who ran the Gulf cartel from a prison cell since his arrest in 2003. Also extradited was Hector Palma, reputed to be Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's right hand man. Guzman would have made the list himself, but he escaped from prison in 2001. Calderon also extradited brothers Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, top henchmen in the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel.

"We are determined not to tolerate any defiance to the authority of the state," Calderon said last Friday.

Calderon's deeds and words won quick praise from the Bush administration. "The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance," US Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement Saturday. "Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country."

But despite thousands of searches, hundreds of arrests, and the seizure or eradication of large quantities of marijuana, there may be less to Calderon's offensive than meets the eye. "Calderon has achieved in creating a public image that he is going to be serious about organized crime from the beginning," said Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America associate for Mexico and Central America. "The high level of operations is a clear signal, as was the extradition of cartel members to the United States," she told Drug War Chronicle. "But in terms of long-term results, that remains to be seen. We haven't seen many reports about eradication totals that are greater than normal," she noted.

"This campaign is really aimed at Washington as much as it is at Mexico City," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "It's a kind of shock and awe breakaway by Calderon to announce his presidency," Birns told the Chronicle. "Calderon has been worried that his defeated rival, Lopez Obrador, has outshone him with his political shenanigans, and he can use this anti-drug campaign as a piece of drama to overshadow his rival. The only problem is that the idea that Mexico will ever solve its drug problem is largely an illusion."

If Mexico wants to come to grips with the cartels, it's going to take more than high-profile raids and military operations, the analysts said. "The steps Mexico should be taking are more structural reforms of the judicial system so there is more transparency in the process, better investigations, and more mechanisms for accountability and oversight within the military and the police," said WOLA's Meyer. "If you don't accompany these big anti-drug operations with reforms in the judiciary, law enforcement, and the military, you will probably see the same results you saw in the past."

Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, led a similar aggressive campaign against the cartels early in his administration, but without the reforms Meyer mentioned, his war on the cartels led not to a decrease but an increase in violence. As Fox managed to disrupt or decapitate various drug trafficking organizations, the remaining cartels and cartel leaders fought with each other in order to secure the lucrative "plaza" or "franchise" from corrupt law enforcement officials in various cities, leading to steadily increasing death tolls among the traffickers and the police who either fought them or were allied with them.

By last year, the violence had reached record levels, with more than 2,000 killed in the cartel wars. That's more than the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq during the same period. The violence also reached new levels of horror, or, more precisely, exemplary terror, with policemen decapitated in Acapulco and the heads of murdered traffickers thrown onto the middle of a night club dance floor in Michoacan, among other atrocities.

It is likely that instead of reducing the violence of the cartels, Calderon's offensive will, like Fox's before it, only lead to more violence as the traffickers try to reestablish themselves after the hits they've taken. "The tendency has been for the government to target the higher levels of the cartels, then there is a struggle for power among them, as well as within the cartels as mid-level leaders struggle for supremacy. We will most likely see more inter-cartel and intra-cartel power struggles now," said Meyer.

With illicit drug revenues estimated at $142 billion in US and Canada each year, and Mexican traffickers pocketing a significant fraction of them, the cartels have every reason to battle each other for supremacy. And while they have traditionally refrained from open warfare on the national government, there are fears that Calderon's pressure and especially his okaying of the extradition of leading traffickers will lead Mexican cartels to follow the lead of the Colombian confreres, who in the early 1980s unleashed a war on the Colombian state when threatened with extradition to the US.

There are also fears that the corruption that has enveloped various Mexican police forces will engulf the military as it is pulled into Calderon's drug war. "Members of the military aren't immune to corruption," WOLA's Meyer noted, pointing to the rise of the Zetas, a group of US-trained former military anti-drug personnel who switched sides to join forces with the Gulf Cartel and who are blamed for some of the most horrendous violence.

"When you have a police officer or a military officer paid one-fiftieth of what he could make working for the narcos, the odds are really against you," said Birns. "That's why you see the subversion of the security forces and the periodic firing of all the police."

As long as the underlying reality of America's insatiable appetite for illegal drugs remains, Birns said, the latest Mexican anti-drug crusade is little more than theater. "This is more decorative than anything," he said. "It's the semblance of doing something. With all that money involved, how are you ever going to turn off the spigot? One is going to have to think the unthinkable and investigate the politics and economics of drug legalization."

In an as yet unpublished editorial written as Calderon was about to assume power, Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann was eerily prescient about events in Mexico. "The new president will vow to crack down on the drug traffickers and do whatever he can to reassure Washington on that score," Nadelmann wrote. "He'll appoint new people to key military and criminal justice positions and tell them to do whatever they can to reduce the drug violence. Some of the most notorious traffickers will land up in prison or dead. The violence will quiet. Media on both sides of the border will cheer the new resolve. And then… It will all start up again. The drug trafficking gangs will re-group with new leaders and new connections. Previously incorruptible officials will be corrupted. Police of all ranks, and all shades of probity, will tremble in fear of assassins' bullets. And Mexicans will once again wonder why the cycle never really stops."

And so it goes in the Mexican front of our drug war.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Jail and prison guards gone bad! Evidence gone missing! Narcs gone to prison! Just another week on the corrupt cop front. Let's get to it:

In Laurel, Mississippi, three former members of the Southeast Mississippi Drug Task Force have been sentenced following guilty pleas in a drug corruption scandal. The task force commander, Roger Williams, and agents Randall Parker and Chris Smith pleaded guilty in August to a variety of crimes including conspiracy to falsely and maliciously arrest another, simple assault, obstruction of justice, and embezzlement. Those charges emerged from a 2006 investigation that led to drug charges being dropped in at least 34 cases. Williams got 15 months, Smith got 12 months, and Parker got house arrest because he was the first to come forward and cooperated with authorities.

In Schenectady, New York, 85 rocks of crack have gone missing from the police department evidence room. Police believe the crack was taken and not mislabeled. The missing rocks came to light after a state judge dismissed felony charges against a Schenectady man when the crack couldn't be produced for his trial. Police are now trying to determine if the drugs were stolen or mistakenly thrown away. While they're at it, they're checking to see if anything else is missing. The investigation could take a week or more, police said.

In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, an investigation is underway into drugs missing from the police department evidence room. The opioid pain reliever hydrocodone and methamphetamine seized in a June 2006 raid in Bartlesville turned up missing in January, when prosecutors prepared to prosecute the case (although police officials maintain they told prosecutors about the missing drugs in September). Prosecutors brought in the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look around, but the bureau says the investigation could take months. The department is also undertaking an investigation. The Bartlesville Fraternal Order of Police said bravely in a statement last week it welcomed the investigations.

In Texarkana, Texas, a guard at the Bowie County Correctional Center was arrested Sunday after being caught trying to smuggle marijuana, tobacco, and cigars into the jail. James Porter, 18, was a four-month employee of Civigenics, a private company that operates the jail. His supervisor saw him acting nervously as he entered the jail, searched him, and found the contraband items wrapped in three bundles. He faces state charges of bringing prohibited substances into a correctional facility. He was also fired.

In DeKalb, Georgia, a county sheriff's office jail guard was arrested on January 19 for allegedly sneaking drugs and tobacco into the jail for an inmate. Raymond Green is charged with violation of oath by a public officer and drug trafficking by bringing contraband into a correctional facility. He faces up to five years in prison. He was arrested and fired after a three week investigation by the Sheriff's Office of Professional Standards.

In Miami, a Miami-Dade Correction and Rehabilitation officer was arrested on bribery charges for accepting gifts from an accused drug dealer and allowing him to escape. Shynita Townsend, 43, is accused of accepting diamond earrings, video games, and more than $5,000 cash from an accused dealer who was supposed to be wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. As a result, the feds say, the dealer was able to continue dealing and, ultimately, able to flee. He remains a fugitive. Townsend is looking at up to 10 years in federal prison.

In Clovis, New Mexico, a former Curry County jail guard was convicted January 18 of smuggling drugs into the jail. Damian Pardue, 30, got into trouble after an inmate told Clovis Police detectives Pardue was delivering drugs to inmates. The drugs would be left in a crumpled bag near Pardue's vehicle, and Pardue would pick them up, take them into the jail, and then deliver them to inmates. Pardue was convicted of conspiracy to commit trafficking by distribution and bringing contraband into the jail. He will be sentenced in March, when he could get up to 18 months on the other side of the bars.

In Cape Coral, Florida, a guard at the Charlotte Correctional Institution was arrested January 19 for allegedly trying to sell two ounces of marijuana to an undercover sheriff's deputy. Sabrina Rose Brownlee, 24, and her roommate arranged to meet the Lee County Sheriff's Department narc at BA Hustler's Bar and sold him 58 grams of weed in the parking lot for $245. The two were arrested shortly afterward. Brownlee is charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and selling marijuana within a thousand feet of a school. She posted a $13,000 bond last Friday morning.

In Des Moines, Iowa, a former state prison guard was sentenced last week to nearly six years in federal prison for cooking and selling methamphetamine. Milton Ringgenberg, 50, pleaded guilty to charges of manufacturing five grams or more of meth and conspiracy to manufacture and distribute five grams or more of meth in October. He admitted that he and his wife, Brenda, cooked and sold meth in the Webster County area. Brenda was sentenced earlier to five years in prison. There is no indication the Ringgenbergs sold their speed inside the prison at Fort Dodge, where he had been employed.

More drug violence expected after 15 extradited to U.S.

McAllen, TX
United States
The Monitor (TX)

Mexican official plans more extraditions to U.S.

Mexico City
The Mercury News (CA)

Op-Ed: It's time to end pointless war on drugs

United States
Zanesville Times Recorder (OH)

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A relatively slow week this week. We've got a Garden State cop whose choice of boyfriends wasn't too wise, and the requisite pair of crooked jail guards. Let's get to it:

In Newark, New Jersey, a former Newark police officer was sentenced to seven years in prison last Friday for selling cocaine and helping her drug-dealing boyfriend elude police. Brandy Johnson, 30, a five-year veteran who was fired after she was arrested in July 2004, admitted that she sold 11 grams of cocaine for $400 dollars for her boyfriend and lied to police about the boyfriend's whereabouts after she was arrested. The boyfriend was found hiding in her attic the following month. Johnson pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution and official misconduct last September.

In Hernando, Mississippi, a a DeSoto County jail guard was fired Sunday after a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics investigation into drug sales at the jail. Guard John Thomas, 29, had worked the night shift at the jail since September. Local officials said the results of the investigation would be turned over to the DEA, and that Thomas would be arrested once he is indicted.

In Chicago, a Cook County jail guard was arrested January 8 after authorities saw him buying two kilograms of cocaine from an informant. The value of the coke was set at $25,000. Guard Frederick Burton had been under surveillance for several months before being arrested, according to the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. Burton is in jail with bail set at $750,000 and a trial date set for January 31.

The Fine Line Between Forfeiture And Extortion

Via Rogier van Bakel, here's another example of gratuitous malfeasance courtesy of the war on drugs.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The Milwaukee Police Department is accused of taking possession of a Mercedes-Benz convertible from a drug-addicted local businessman in return for agreeing not to prosecute him for cocaine possession.

"In brief, the family claims Beck did this only because it was threatened that the fact he had been arrested would be affirmatively disclosed to his former wife's attorney to be used against Mr. Beck in a child custody matter."

Again and again, we discover our public servants perverting justice and jettisoning any remote appearance of caring about the law. The complete moral bankruptcy of the drug war becomes particularly vivid when police start offering to drop charges in exchange for luxury sports cars.

Of course no such incident would be complete without the obligatory nonsensical rationalization from the local prosecutor:

"The drug violation in this case, . . . possession of cocaine, is among those violations for which a vehicle is not subject to forfeiture," [Milwaukee County district attorney, E. Michael McCann] wrote. "We believe the officers acted in good faith under this creative interpretation in justifying securing Mr. Beck's car, but it cannot stand up as a matter of law."

Ok, if something "doesn't stand up as a matter of law" that means it's illegal. It's not a "creative interpretation" of some otherwise appropriate sanction, and police shouldn't be administering punishments anyway. Of course Mr. Beck ultimately wasn't punished, because the police department accepted a bribe instead. That's called extortion.

Equally preposterous is McCann's casual determination that the officers acted in good faith. The "good faith" doctrine forgives police for actions they believed to be legal (i.e. executing a flawed warrant), but it requires some vague pretense of reasonableness. Calling something like this "good faith" is an extremely generous, but obnoxiously typical, prosecutorial response to police misconduct.

As long as prosecutors persist in redefining misconduct as "creative" or "good faith" policing, we should expect plenty more of it.
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Former Narcs Say Drug War is Futile

United States
Fox News

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