Mexican Drug War

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Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Friday, March 19

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

Saturday, March 20

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

Sunday, March 21

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

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

Monday, March 22

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

Tuesday, March 23

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

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

Wednesday, March 24

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

Thursday, March 25

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

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

Total Body Count for the Week: 251

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,323

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,528

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Feature: SSDP Does San Francisco -- The 11th Annual National Conference

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

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

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

On Saturday, it was just like being back at college as students spent the day in numerous panels around the theme "Drug War Education." Acting SSDP executive director Matt Palevsky opened the session with optimism, challenging the students to seize the day.

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El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke, Mexico session
"This is our biggest conference to date," he said. "Now we have as many chapters in California as we do in the Northeast" where the group had its genesis, he noted. "We're really a national organization now, more than 200 chapters large. The power we feel in this room is the power of a movement. And for the first time since SSDP was founded, we can really feel the wind at our backs," he said to loud applause.

Palevsky was followed by NORML policy analyst Paul Armentano, who urged students to get out and talk to people one-to-one about ending pot prohibition. "Talk to family, friends, faculties, neighbors, school advisors, people who know you, and with whom you have credibility," he advised. "Then start talking to people who can shape public opinion, and then become an opinion-shaper yourself. Become the editor of your newspaper, run for the student council, run for the city council. We want this failed drug policy to end before you fuck over another generation of young people like you fucked over our generation," Armentano said to loud applause, presumably aiming his latter remarks at prohibitionist politicians and opinion-makers.

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exhibitor hallway
Linking with the previous day's medical marijuana tourism, one of the Saturday panels was on what the medical marijuana movement and business looks like. With panelists including Steve DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center, Robert Jacob of Sebastopol's Peace in Medicine, Debby Goldsberry of the Berkeley Patients Group, and Aundre Speciale of the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley, students got a well-informed earful. The panel was also a sign of an evolving symbiotic relationship between the medical marijuana movement and SSDP. The medical marijuana community's support for SSDP was evident by its heavy participation in the conference -- both in panels and at the vendors' booths -- and it has, in turn, become a career opportunity for more than one former SSDPer.

One of the most popular panels of the day Saturday was the one on psychedelics. It was headlined by Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who described the group's work researching the therapeutic uses of ecstasy (MDMA) and fighting for the ability of researchers to grow their own marijuana. It gave attendees a good enough sense of the group's work to ensure that at least some of them will show up for MAPS' upcoming conference Psychedelic Research in the 21st Century, set for April 15 -18 just down the road from San Francisco in San Jose.

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students and others wish Ethan Nadelmann a happy birthday -- also on panel: Steph Shere (ASA), Paul Armentano (NORML), Aaron Smith (MPP)
Saturday also saw panels on the Mexican drug war, what legalization could look like when it happens, and on the drug war's impact on women, communities of color, and the poor. For the SSDP activists, many of whom were attending their first national conference, Saturday was a definite eye-opener.

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

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

"Bill Clinton was shit on this issue," he said. "He put out that edict that doctor's couldn't prescribe it," referring to the Clinton administration's effort to try to intimidate doctors by threatening to jerk their DEA licenses to prescribe drugs if they recommended medical marijuana to patients. "That's not an adult way to deal with an issue, and it's certainly not a statesman-like way." The would-be censors lost in the Supreme Court.

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Cliff Thornton of the Hartford, CT, based group Efficacy wants inner-city communities who have become dependent on the illicit economy created by drug prohibition to be indemnified from the economic effects of the job losses that will accompany legalization.
Ammiano was a bit kinder to the current White House occupant. "In terms of Obama," he said, "the messaging is good, but it's sometimes contradictory. Still, history isn't always linear. But I'm here to tell you this movement has never been stronger; we've never been on the cusp in such a pronounced way."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 18,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 2,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

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Ciudad Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Saturday, March 13

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

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

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

Monday, March 15

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 17

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

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

Total Body Count for the Week: 296

Total Body Count for the Year: 2,072

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 18,277

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 17,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 1,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

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

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

Monday, March 1

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

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

Tuesday, March 2

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

Wednesday, March 3

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

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

Thursday , March 4

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

Friday , March 5

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

Saturday , March 6

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

Monday , March 8

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

Tuesday , March 9

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

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

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

Total body count for last two weeks: 375

Total body count for the year: 1,776

Total body count for 2009: 7,724

Total body count since Calderon took office: 17,981

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Legalization: So Say They Now -- US and Mexican Officials Say No to Debating It

Representatives of the US and Mexican governments meeting at the US-Mexico Bi-national Drug Demand Reduction Policy Meeting in Washington, DC, this week took pains to make clear that neither government is prepared to consider drug legalization. Although legalization wasn't on the meeting's agenda, both Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos felt impelled to denounce it.

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status quo at all costs (follow top link above for video)
"Legalization isn't a subject under discussion under the Obama administration under any circumstances," said Kerlikowske. Such proposals do not hold up "under the thinnest veil of scrutiny," he said. "The reasons for this are multiple: There is no evidence that legalization would reduce the violence or benefit the economy."

"In Mexico," said Villalobos, "and I want to emphasize this in a firm manner, there is a clear consensus to maintain the criminalization of the cultivation, transportation, possession, commerce, or use of substances identified as dangerous in the international conventions. We are convinced that the legalization of the use of drugs is not only dangerous and distant, but unviable in practical terms. Drugs aren't dangerous because they're illegal, they're illegal because they're dangerous," he added, stealing a hoary trope that is a favorite of UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa.

But the consensus of which Villalobos spoke is badly tattered. The rejection of drug legalization comes amidst a rising clamor for a rethink of prohibitionist drug policies. The calls for change are growing increasingly loud south of the border, where Mexican President Felipe Calderon's militarization of the drug war has led to growing public dismay with its bloody death toll, accusations of human rights abuses by the military, and the campaign's inability to have an noticeable impact on the so-called drug cartels.

On Monday, Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, once again called for debating legalization. "We need to end the war," he said. "It's time to debate legalizing drugs," he said, adding, "Then maybe we can separate violence from what is a health problem."

Similarly, at a conference in Mexico City this week, academics, attorneys, and activists joined former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in calling for drug legalization. (See related story here.)

The officials also took some flak from north of the border. "The only solution to the current crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Once again, Mexican and US officials are ignoring the fact that the cartels get 70% of their profits from marijuana. It's time to face the reality that the US's marijuana prohibition is fueling a bloodbath in Mexico and the United States."

Congress has approved a three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, and this year the Obama administration is seeking an additional $310 million in anti-drug aid for Mexico.

"It is illogical, at best, to continue throwing money at this failed policy," Houston said. "The government will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but it can put an end to the monopoly drug cartels currently hold on America's largest cash crop. Lifting marijuana prohibition would take away the cartels' largest source of income and the main reason for the horrifically brutal violence perpetrated by rival drug groups."

But if Washington and Mexico City just whistle loudly enough as they walk past the graveyard, perhaps they can continue to ignore the rising clamor just a while longer.

Feature: Mexico Conference Calls for New Direction in Drug Policy, Says Prohibition Has Failed

On Monday and Tuesday in Mexico City, political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists from at least six countries came together for the Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World conference sponsored by the Mexico City-based Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy (CUPHID). Coming as Mexico's war on drugs turns bloodier by the day, the conference unsurprisingly concluded that current prohibitionist policies are a disaster.

"The principal conclusion is that we need a more integrated drug policy based on prevention, scientific evidence, and full respect for human rights," summarized CUPHID president Jorge Hernandez Tinajero. "It remains clear that, yes, there exist alternatives to the current strategy."

In a press release after the conference, CUPHID emphasized the following points:

  • The so-called war on drugs has failed and, without doubt, we need "winds of change" to advance toward alternative policies to address the problematic of drugs across the globe.
  • The prohibitionist paradigm has been ineffective, and furthermore, for the majority of countries it has implied grave violations of human rights and individual guarantees, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as an escalation of violence that grows day by day, ever broadening the scope of impunity for organized crime.
  • Drugs are never going to disappear. Thus, a more realistic drug policy should focus on minimizing the harms associated with drug use -- overdoses, blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS, and violence. This concept is known as "harm reduction," and must be the backbone of any drug policy.

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Colombia Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia, on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
The conference opened Monday morning by putting its star power on display. In its opening session, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who, as a member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy coauthored a report a year ago with former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo denouncing drug prohibition as a failed policy, returned to the theme. Noting that as president of Colombia in the 1990s, he had been a firm supporter of prohibition, Gaviria said he had changed his tune.

"With the passing of time, prohibitionism, in which I believed, has demonstrated itself a failure," he told an attentive crowd jammed into a conference room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in upscale Colonia Napoles. The attendant human rights abuses were a big reason why, he said.

"You have to be very careful in the matter of human rights," Gaviria said. "The issue of militarization is so risky because militarization of the struggle against the drug trade, even though it may seem necessary and imperative at a given time, almost always veers into violations of human rights."

Militarization is an especially prickly issue in Mexico, where President Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers in the war against drug trafficking organizations. While the military has failed to stop the so-called cartels or reduce the violence -- it has, in fact, increased dramatically since the military was deployed three years ago -- it has generated an increasing number of human rights complaints. According to the official National Commission on Human Rights, more than 1,900 complaints alleging abuses by the military -- ranging from harassment, theft, and illegal entry to torture, murder, and disappearances -- were filed in Mexico last year.

Referring specifically to the Mexican situation, Gaviria added: "In the long run, one of the things that most delegitimizes public policies against drugs is when human rights are violated."

Gaviria's comments sparked a quick reply from Deputy Carolina Viggiano of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who called Calderon's decision to send in the military "the worst mistake" of his administration and one that was likely to ruin the prestige of the Mexican military by the time his term ends in three years.

While arguing that organized crime must sometimes be fought with extreme measures, such as anti-mafia laws and integrated counterintelligence operations, Gaviria also said that at some point, governments have to bring the traffickers in from the cold, perhaps by agreeing to let them plead guilty to offenses with short prison sentences. "Not 40 or 50 years in prison, but maybe eight or 10, and then the person can say, 'I'm done with this, I confess my crimes, I'll do my time, and that's that.' That is a solution with the justice system, not through militarization," he said.

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Jorge Castañeda
If Gaviria was looking for reconciliation with the traffickers, his co-panelist former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was a bit more provocative. He suggested that Mexico needs to go back to the "good old days" of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking organizations.

The PRI, of course, ruled Mexico in a virtual one-party state for 70 years before being defeated by Vicente Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 elections. It was widely (and correctly) seen as not fighting the drug trade so much as managing it.

Given the bloody mess that is the Mexican drug war today, perhaps it is time to return to a quiet arrangement with the cartels, Castañeda suggested. "How do we construct a modus vivendi?" he asked. "The Americans have a modus vivendi in Afghanistan," he noted pointedly. "They don't care if Afghanistan exports heroin to the rest of the world; they are at war with Al Qaeda."

Castenada's comments on Afghanistan rang especially true this week, as American soldiers push through poppy fields in their offensive on Marja. The US has made an explicit decision to arrive at a modus vivendi with poppy farmers, although it still fights the trade by interdiction and going after traffickers -- or at least those linked to the Taliban.

Casteneda also came up with another provocative example, especially for Mexican leftists in the audience. "We had a modus vivendi with the Zapatistas in Chiapas," he noted. "We also pretended they were real guerrillas with their wooden rifles. We created a liberated zone, and the army respected it, and it's still there. But it is a simulation -- the army could eliminate it in 90 seconds."

And in yet another provocative comment on the theme, Casteneda suggested that somebody may already have arrived at a modus vivendi with the Sinaloa Cartel -- a suggestion that is getting big play in Mexican newspapers these days. "Why is it that of the 70,000 drug war prisoners in Mexico, only 800 are Chapo Guzman's men?" he asked. "Many people think the government has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know if it's true."

The Mexican government was forced Wednesday to deny such claims, a clear sign they are getting wide circulation.

Peruvian drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon told the conference that while Latin America has been a loyal follower of the UN's and the US's prohibitionist drug policy discourses, it was time for something new. "The UN anti-drug paradigm is broken," he said. "We have to change the paradigm. We have to offer something other than prohibition and the criminal justice system, but what? A regulated market? What does that mean? What we need in any case are policies that are fundamentally based on human rights and deal with it from a public health viewpoint."

Human rights and the drug war remained a key theme of the conference on its second day, with Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of the Federal District (Mexico City) Commission on Human Rights, and Monte Alejandro Rubido, Subsecretary for Human Rights for the Secretariat of Public Security, speaking and being grilled by the audience.

"The violent and militaristic policy against drugs generates more violence and has produced more dead," said Placencia. "We have to consider whether this anti-drug policy has become counterproductive," he added.

But Rubido, a federal functionary, stood fast, saying the Calderon government remained firm in its commitment to keep drugs criminalized. Far from being a failure, the strategy is working, he said, to hoots and groans from the crowd. "It is achieving good results," he said.

During a question and answer session that followed the pair, Rubido was raked over the coals by questioner after questioner, but remained stolidly unshakable in his support for current policy.

"How many people has marijuana killed and how many has the policy of repression killed?" asked one conference-goer, but Rubido just smirked in silence.

"People have consumed drugs forever," said Haydee Rosovsky, the former head of Mexico's national commission on addiction, from the floor, as she called out the bureaucrats. "You functionaries have to come out like Gaviria and Zedillo, and not wait until you are ex-functionaries."

National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) researcher Luis Astorga presented graphs showing which party governs which Mexican states and which coastal and border municipalities and how they appear to be affiliated with different blocs of cartels. "The PRI governed states on the Gulf Coast are where the cocaine flows," he said, "and the PRI controls most border municipalities."

That is the province of a bloc of cartels consisting of the Gulf (los Zetas) and Juarez cartels and the Beltra Leyva breakaway from the Sinaloa cartel, Astorga suggested, while taking pains to say his research is only "a work in progress." On the other hand, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) controls the northwest states of Baja California, Sonora, and Sinaloa, playground to the Sinaloa, and La Familia cartels, and breakaway factions of the Tijuana cartel. Echoing Casteneda, Astorga suggested it might be time for a "pax mafioso," although he admitted it would be difficult to find political cover for such a move.

Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance briefed the crowd on the US medical marijuana experience at event organizers' request, although he expressed bemusement at the issue's relevance to Mexico and its drug war and labored to make a useful connection.

"Medical marijuana provided the angle of attack that broke the marijuana policy logjam in the United States," he noted. "What Mexico needs is to find some sort of similar issue, some sort of similar angle. Perhaps the best approach is to argue that by legalizing marijuana we can deprive the cartels of a significant income stream," he suggested.

The Mexico City conference this week is just one more indication that the cracks in the wall of drug prohibition in Latin America are spreading. But while the drug reform movement in the hemisphere has some big names behind it, it is still going to take on the ground, grass roots organizing in countries across the hemisphere to move forward. The conference in Mexico City helped lay the groundwork for that, at least in Mexico.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 17,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 1,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Monday, February 22

A high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel was captured by federal police in his hometown of Santa Ana, Sonora. Jose Vasquez Villagrana, 40, is a former member of the US Army, in which he served for a year in 1990 before deserting to Mexico once he had obtained US citizenship. He is accused of overseeing the importation of Colombian cocaine to Mexico via Panama and other Central American countries. Once in Mexico, the cocaine was stored at his ranch before being smuggled into the United States.

Tuesday, February 23

Two people were killed in firefights between police and suspected drug traffickers in the state of Coahuila. Seven people were reported wounded in the fighting, which took place in the cities of Piedras Negras, La Laguna and Torreon. The violence began when police attempted to pull over a pickup truck in Piedras Negras, only to be fired at by automatic weapons. One of the gunmen was killed, while a second escaped. Four others were wounded in the shooting. Upon searching the truck, police found several weapons, including AK-47's, AR-15's, fragmentation grenades and a .50 caliber "Barrett" sniper rifle. In another incident, police shot dead a suspected drug-trafficker and wounded two others in La Laguna.

The mayor of the town of Mezquital, Durango was gunned down as he dined in a restaurant in the state capital of Durango. In Navolato, Sinaloa, a municipal police official was shot dead. Several minutes after his killing, gunmen returned to open fire on police and army personnel who had arrived at the scene to gather evidence. None were killed.

Additionally, in the coastal town of Bella Vista, two executed bodies were found lying on the beach. Two men were murdered in Culiacan, two others in Mazatlan, and another body was found in Navolato. During the same time period, eight people were killed in violence across the city. In one incident, gunmen forced the patrons of a business in the La Presa neighborhood to lay down before picking out their three targets, who were then shot. Also in Tijuana, police discovered a shipment of 5,000 unidentified "psychotropic pills" which had arrived on a flight from Guadalajara.

Wednesday, February 24

In Oaxaca, gunmen attacked a rural town, leaving 13 people dead. The attack, which took place in the small town of San Vicente Camalote, was carried out by an unknown number of masked men traveling in several vehicles. The attack began when 9 policemen were killed after the gunmen attacked their checkpoint. The gunmen then stormed a ranch, killing its owner and three of his sons. Although the exact motive is unclear, authorities believe the killings were related to the drug trade.

In other news, the US consulate in Monterrey advised American citizens to avoid travel to the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Nuevo Leon, and the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. Authorities in Tamaulipas fought gun battles against suspected cartel members in several cities, leaving at least 19 dead, including one police officer. Additionally, in the state of Guerrero, authorities discovered two severed arms and a threatening note inside a cooler, having being led to it by an anonymous tip.

In Sinaloa, a Mexican Air Force helicopter came under fire while searching for marijuana and poppy fields in a remote area. A 48-year pilot was wounded by the gunfire, and had to be taken to a hospital in the town of Los Mochis. No further details on the incident are available.

In the city of Chihuahua, gunmen shot a police official at the entrance to a primary school, in front of dozens of children who were present. The officer was dropping off his son at the school.

In Mexico City, two bodies were found in the trunk of an SUV parked in the upscale neighborhood of Bosques de las Lomas. One of the dead was male and one female. Their identities are unclear. Police also removed a mysterious package from the vehicle to be further inspected.

Total Body Count for the Week: 137

Total Body Count for the Year: 1,401

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 17,606

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Is it Time for Mexico to Cut a Deal With the Drug Cartels? Jorge Castaneda Wonders If It Hasn't Happened Already

The Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World opened yesterday in Colonia Napoles, a ritzy area of Mexico City. I would have blogged about it yesterday, but I was in the conference all day long, and in the evening, I attended a related event where they plied us with wine, so I never got around to it. Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda got it all started in fine provocative form. He suggested during the opening session that Mexico needs to go back to the "good old days" of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking organizations. The PRI, of course, ruled Mexico in a virtual one-party state for 70 years before being defeated by Vicente Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 elections. It was widely (and correctly) seen as not fighting the drug trade so much as managing it. Fox, under whom Castaneda served, started to move against the cartels, and his successor, Calderon, accelerated the offensive by bringing in the military in a big way. The result has been a bloody disaster, with Mexico being wracked by an ever mounting death toll as the army and federal police wage war on the so-called cartels, the cartels wage war on the police and the army, and when they're not busy killing cops and soldiers, turn their guns on each other. And the drugs keep flowing north and the guns and cash keep flowing south. Perhaps it is time to return to a quiet arrangement with the cartels, Castaneda suggested. "How do we construct a modus vivendi?" he asked. "The Americans have a modus vivendi in Afghanistan," he noted pointedly. "They don't care if Afghanistan exports heroin to the rest of the world; they are at war with Al Qaeda." Castenada's comments on Afghanistan rang especially true this week, as American soldiers push through poppy fields in their offensive on Marja. The US has made an explicit decision to arrive at a modus vivendi with poppy farmers, although it still fights the trade by interdiction and going after traffickers—or at least those linked to the Taliban. President Karzai's buddies, not so much. Casteneda also came up with another provocative example, especially for Mexican leftists in the audience. "We had a modus vivendi with the Zapatistas in Chiapas," he noted. "We also pretended they were real guerrillas with their wooden rifles. We created a liberated zone, and the army respected it, and it's still there. But it is a simulation—the army could eliminate it in 90 seconds." And in yet another provocative comment on the theme, Casteneda suggested that somebody may already have arrived at a modus vivendi with the Sinaloa Cartel—a suggestion that is getting big play in Mexican newspapers these days. "Why is it that of the 70,000 drug war prisoners in Mexico, only 800 are Chapo Guzman's men?" he asked. "Many people think the government has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know if it's true." This isn't the first time Castaneda has made provocative statements in recent months. At the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque in November, he said bluntly that the Mexican military is committing extrajudicial executions of drug gang members and blithely repeated the charge when called on it. All of the Mexicans I've been talking to think Castaneda has political ambitions. Perhaps he's angling for a cabinet appointment in the next presidency or perhaps he's getting ready to run for political office himself. In any case, he certainly has no problem stirring things up when it comes to making allegations about what's going on beneath the surface in Mexico's drug war. Stay tuned for some more blog posts about the conference, which ended just a couple of hours ago. Now that it's done, I have some time to write about it.
Location: 
Mexico City
Mexico

Do You Think the Drug War Isn't a Big Deal in Mexico? Check This Out

I flew into Mexico City last night to attend the Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World conference on Monday and Tuesday. I'll be blogging about and reporting on that next week. But today, I want to provide you with one example of how much the narco-violence and the Mexican government's response to it dominates the political discourse in Mexico these days. In today's print edition of the well-respected, slightly left-leaning Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, we have the following headlines on the front page and adjoining main news section: The front page is mainly a come-on for the rest of the paper. The big headline is "In Cancun, [Bolivian President] Evo [Morales] Announces a New OAS Without Canada or the United States." Then there is a half-page photo of the secretary of defense and two generals with a bikini-clad woman facing them, her upturned bottom getting plenty of space. The generals are announcing a pay raise for the troops. I have no idea what the bikini-clad woman was doing there. Then there are some teasers... Page 2--letters to the editor Page 3--The politics page. A story about Cuban-Mexican relations. Page 4--"The PAN [ruling party] 'Unauthorizes' Criticisms by [PAN Sen. Manuel] Clouthier [of Sinaloa]. Clouthier had accused the federal government of coddling "a state government that colludes with delinquency [the narcos]." Clouthier is talking about the state government of his own state, home of the Sinaloa Cartel. Page 5--"Secretary of Defense: It is Inconvenient and Undesirable to Make Permanent the Military Fight Against the Narco." On the same page, a cartoon with the defense secretary saying, "We need a legal framework for the drug war," and President Calderon replying, "Yes, a law that prohibits persecuting El Chapo [Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel], for example." Page 6--"The Defense Department Reinforces Security at its Headquarters Fearing Possible Attacks From the Hampa (Narcos). The subhead reads: "The Navy is Also Taking Measures After the Death of [cartel head] Arturo Beltran Leyva," who was gunned down by Naval Marines a few weeks ago." Also on page 6: "Complaints Against the Army Increase 400%, Says the National Commission on Human Rights.' Page 7--"It's Not the Army's Role to Fight the Narcos, Say Senators of the PRD, PRI, and PT." Those, of course, are the opposition parties. Also on page 7: "Initiatives Over Military Participation" about a legal framework for the military's role in the drug war. Also on page 7: "Colin Powell Singles Out the Work of Intelligence Against the Cartels" at a speech in Monterrey. The subhead reads: "He Recognizes the Role of the US in the Growth of Violence Here." Page 8--"The Federal Government Will Inaugurate an Office in Ciudad Juarez to Make Social Programs More Responsive." Also on page 8: "Yesterday's Wave of Violence Leaves 31 Executed, 11 of the Victims in Chihuahua." It is only by page 9 that La Jornada gets around to rest of the national news. The violence in Mexico may get the occasional 30-second treatment on the US networks and the occasional story in the US press, but down here it is a very big deal, all day and every day.
Location: 
Mexico City
Mexico

Latin America: Mexico's Drug War Stirs Opposition in the Streets and from the Bishops

As the death toll tops 17,000 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the so-called drug cartels in December 2006, and with no end to the killing in sight, demonstrators took to the streets of bloody Ciudad Juárez Sunday to denounce the killing and the government's approach. The next day, Calderon's drug policies came under attack from an entirely different direction: the Catholic Church in Mexico.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mexico-bishops.jpg
Council of Bishops event releasing report
In Juárez, where more than 2,600 people were killed in prohibition-related violence last year and 15 teenagers were gunned down last week in an incident that shocked the nation, more than a thousand people took to the streets Sunday in a "March of Anger" against the drug violence, with some leaders saying the presence of 6,000 federal troops is only making things worse.

"The army's presence is anti-constitutional and violates citizens' rights. That's why we're asking them to withdraw," National Front Against Repression leader Javier Contreras told the crowd.

Human rights and civil society groups in Juárez and, more broadly, across Mexico, have charged that Mexican law enforcement and armed forces have harassed, tortured, kidnapped, "disappeared," and killed innocent people in overzealous prosecution of the drug war. That won't work, said Contreras.

"You can't fight violence with more violence and breaking the laws," he said.

The protest came just days after President Calderon visited Ciudad Juárez in a bid to placate angry and frightened citizens. He apologized to the families of the massacred teenagers for initially blaming their deaths on gang warfare, said he was sending in 400 more federal police, and vowed to seek community cooperation in setting a new strategy against crime and violence. Still, he was booed by crowds during that visit. He returned again this week, touting a new security plan.

If Calderon is having a hard time placating angry Juárez residents, he's not having much better luck with the Catholic Church. The day after the Juárez protest, the Mexican Church's Council of Bishops issued a report critical of Calderon's drug policies.

In the report, the bishops said that using thousands of army troops to police Mexican cities raises severe human rights concerns. The bishops also pointed at a corrupt judicial system. They said many suspects are paraded before the media in "perp walks" even before being charged with any crime and called on the government to speed up police reforms so the troops can return to their barracks.

The bishops conceded that Calderon's deployment of the military initially had broad public support, but warned it was eroding. "As time passed, the participation of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime has created uncertainty in the population," the report said. "The armed forces have the obligation to respect human rights."

The bishops also harshly criticized the criminal justice system, saying few criminals are brought to justice because of corruption and inefficiency, while at the same time, innocent people are too often jailed because of police tactics. They noted that many of those people arrested and paraded before the media end up being released or charged with much lesser crimes than those announced at the time of their arrest.

The "perp walks" should stop, the bishops said. Authorities must "respect the judicial principle that someone is innocent until proven otherwise, because now we see that detainees are exhibited before the media before they are brought before judicial authorities."

More than halfway through his six-year term, President Calderon faces the threat of seeing his presidency defined by the bloody drug wars his policies have not only failed to stop, but have exacerbated. He seems to have no response except more of the same.

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