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Texas Trooper Cleared in Chopper Drug War Killings

A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who opened fire from a helicopter on a fleeing pickup carrying what he thought was a drug load near the US-Mexico border, killing two Guatemalan immigrants, will not face criminal charges. A grand jury in Edinburg declined Tuesday to indict him in the deaths.

Hidalgo County prosecutors had presented the case to a grand jury after the killing stirred outrage not only from the Guatemalan government, but also among people concerned about lax rules for law enforcement use of deadly force from the air.

In the October 2012 incident, Trooper Miguel Avila was aboard the Department of Public Safety (DPS) chopper as it participated in the pursuit of the pickup. DPS said Avila believed the truck, whose bed was covered with a cloth, was carrying drugs, and that he opened fire to disable it because the fleeing vehicle was headed toward a school zone. (The shooting took place on an unpaved rural road.)

The truck crashed after being fired upon. Police found no drugs, but instead found nine Guatemalan immigrants and a teenage driver. Six of the Guatemalans were in the bed of the pickup covered by a cloth. Two of them, Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, were fatally wounded by Avila's gunfire.

While the two men's killer escaped criminal charges, the killing did force DPS to revise its policies on the use of force from the sky. Since February, troopers have been prohibited from shooting from the sky unless they are facing deadly force.

"A firearms discharge from an aircraft is authorized only when an officer reasonably believes that the suspect has used or is about to use deadly force by use of a deadly weapon against the air crew, ground officers or innocent third parties," the revised policy says. Reckless or aggressive driving doesn't count as use of a deadly weapon, the policy states.

Edinburg, TX
United States

Chronicle Book Review: Smuggler Nation

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas (2013, Oxford University Press, 454 pp., $29.95 HB)

Wow. With Smuggler Nation, Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas has hit the ball out of the park -- or over the border. This book should be required reading for not only for people interested in we got to our current mess in the war on drugs, but also for anyone interested in American history in general, and the twinned growth of illicit commerce and the ever-increasing policing resources designed to thwart it in particular.

What makes Smuggler Nation so essential for people primarily interested in drug policy is the manner in which it situates drug prohibition and efforts to suppress the drug trade within the larger historical context of state efforts to control -- or prohibit -- trade. The war on drugs (or at least its interdiction component) didn't drop on us out of the sky, but was built upon already existing national-level efforts to enforce proscriptions on free trade, dating back to Jefferson's abortive ban on US ships trading with any foreign nations, the more successful, but still long-lasting and highly contentious effort to ban the slave trade, and Prohibition-era border enforcement.

Andreas shows that, going back to colonial times, smuggling and illicit commerce played a crucial role in the creation and expansion of the American economy, and, indeed, in the anti-British sentiment that led the way to the American Revolution in the first place. Whether it was enriching Providence and Boston merchants in the triangular slave trade, stealing intellectual property from England at the start of the Industrial Age, selling American cattle to hungry British troops stationed in Canada during the War of 1812, allying with the smuggler-pirate Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans in that same war, selling contraband whiskey to Indians, smuggling guns into Mexico (in the 1840s, in addition to now) -- the list goes on and on -- smuggling and illicit commerce was, and continues to be, part and parcel of the American story.

Andreas also show that those efforts to control unsanctioned commerce led directly -- and continue to lead directly -- to ever larger, more expansive, more expensive, and  more unintended consequence-generating law enforcement efforts to suppress it. We saw it with the early growth of the US Navy to combat tax evading smugglers, and how those efforts rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade. We saw it with the expansion of drug war interdiction efforts in the 1980s, where blockading the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade, and helped provoke the metastasis of what had been largely low-key, local Mexican smuggling networks into the Frankenstein monster drug cartels of today.

We can see that at work today in the current debate over the immigration reform bill working its way through Congress. House Majority Leader Boehner thought he could sell the bill to his conservative caucus by agreeing to expansive provisions to "regain control of the border" or "secure the border" by spending billions of dollars and adding 20,000 more federal agents along the Mexican border. (Nevermind that even that's not likely to be enough to satisfy Boehner's caucus, some of whom might support the bill but others of which have charmingly compared Mexican immigrants to dogs and asserted that those DREAM Act kids are mostly drug mules.)

There were 3,000 border agents in the early 1990s, 7,000 by the late 1990s, and there are 20,000 right now. The immigration bill would double that number again. As Andreas, relying on the historical record, notes, that is unlikely to stop drug smuggling or people-smuggling (there are much deeper driving forces to such phenomenon than law enforcement), but merely to divert it or reroute it, to corrupt enforcers, and to inspire the smugglers to come up with new technologies to get around it and gain entrée into Fortress America.

Andreas also makes an important point about "the threat" of transnational organized crime. That's pretty much just a fancy way of saying smuggling, he asserts, and it is nothing new. As he shows throughout Smuggler Nation, trade in contraband has been part of global trade since, well, forever. And now, given the rapid expansion of global commerce in recent decades, it would be surprising if contraband trade isn't expanding, too. It is, he argues, but possibly at a slower rate than the expansion of licit global trade. All of the hulaballoo over "the menace" of illicit trade is overdone, he dares to suggest.

Andreas is an academic who specialized in the US-Mexico border in his early career, and his publisher, Oxford University Press, is an academic press, but his writing is quite accessible to the lay reader. Smuggler Nation is chock full of great lost stories from American history, stories that hold serious lessons for us today as we struggle against the behemoth that our prohibition industry has become. Smuggler Nation will help explain how we got here, and you'll learn plenty and have lots of fun along the way.  This book needs to be on your bookshelf, and well-worn at that.

Grassley Immigration Bill Amendment Affects Real and Imagined Drug Offenders

US Capitol, Senate side
An amendment to the Senate immigration reform bill by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) would affect real and imagined drug offenders. SA 1570, amendment to S. 744 (and the same as Grassley's SA 1299 calls for deportation of immigrant gang members and barring them from become legalized immigrants. Among the types of crimes included are felony drug offenses. But according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), the amendment doesn't require proof, it creates guilt by association, and there's no process for challenging evidence used under the amendment in a proceeding.

The ILRC alert includes some examples of people caught up in the Kafkaesque situation these kinds of laws have created:

Ronny (not his real name), a 35-year old green card holder, was brought to the United States at the age of 2. Ruben's parents are US citizens and he is engaged to a US citizen. In 2003, Ronny was arrested for marijuana sale in Illinois. He pled guilty to this sentence and received a sentence to 18 days in jail and 2 years of probation, which he successfully completed. This was Ronny's last criminal offense. In July of 2012, immigration officers, in a joint operation with local authorities in DuPage County, Illinois, arrived at Ronny's home to arrest him and put him in deportation proceedings. Ronny discovered he was on a gang list, compiled by DuPage law enforcement. Ronny has never been in a gang, nor engaged in any gang-related activities, though he did grow up in a neighborhood where gang activity was prevalent and had friends who were associated with gangs. Ronny could be considered a gang member and a danger to society.
 

Julia (not her real name) lives in California. She has applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Although Julia has never been involved with a gang, she has friends who were gang members and was arrested twice as a juvenile for offenses that were dismissed by the Prosecutor. It is likely that Julia would be considered to be an active gang member and a danger to the community.

Call (888) 891-3271 for the Congressional Switchboard and ask to speak to each of your two Senators in turn. Also, tweet your Senator with #NOonGrassley1570. Visit http://www.govsm.com/w/Senate to find Twitter information for US Senators.

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Supreme Court Rules No Automatic Deportation for Minor Marijuana Possession

A 26-year-old Jamaican who has resided in the US since he was three should not automatically be deported for being caught with a small amount of marijuana, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. The case was Moncrieffe v. Holder.

In that case, Adrien Moncrieffe was caught with 1.3 grams of marijuana when police in Georgia pulled him over for a traffic stop. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute in a plea bargain in which the state of Georgia agreed to expunge the charges after he served five years' probation.

But a federal immigration judge ruled that the plea bargain made Moncrieffe deportable as an "aggravated felon." While federal law considers possession of small amounts of weed a misdemeanor, federal officials argued that his plea was to an offense analogous to a federal felony and thus calling for automatic deportation under federal immigration law. With the lesser offense, Moncrieffe might potentially face deportation, but the government would not have to seek it and Moncrieffe could make his case before a judge if it did.

The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the immigration judge's ruling, but the Supreme Court accepted the case for review last year. On Tuesday, seven justices agreed that Moncrieffe's conviction did not rise to the level of a drug trafficking offense that triggered the aggravated felony classification for deportation under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

"Moncrieffe's conviction could correspond to either the CSA [Controlled Substances Act] felony or the CSA misdemeanor," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. "Ambiguity on this point means that the conviction did not 'necessarily' involve facts that correspond to an offense punishable as a felony under the CSA. Under the categorical approach, then, Moncrieffe was not convicted of an aggravated felony."

Although federal prosecutors had argued that any marijuana distribution conviction (even intending to distribute one gram) is "presumptively" a felony, Sotomayor and the other six justices weren't buying that.

"That is simply incorrect, and the government's argument collapses as a result," Sotomayor wrote. "Marijuana distribution is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor until we know whether the conditions in paragraph (4) attach."

That paragraph lists exceptions to the offense of marijuana distribution that allow defendants to be considered misdemeanor "simple drug possessors."

To follow prosecutors' logic, Sotomayor argued, "would render even an undisputed misdemeanor an aggravated felony. Recognizing that its approach leads to consequences Congress could not have intended, the government hedges its argument by proposing a remedy: Non-citizens should be given an opportunity during immigration proceedings to demonstrate that their predicate marijuana distribution convictions involved only a small amount of marijuana and no remuneration, just as a federal criminal defendant could do at sentencing," she wrote.

But that approach was "entirely inconsistent with both the INA's text and the categorical approach," Sotomayor stressed. "The government cites no statutory authority for such case-specific fact finding in immigration court, and none is apparent in the INA. Indeed, the government's main categorical argument would seem to preclude this inquiry: If the government were correct that 'the fact of a marijuana-distribution conviction alone constitutes a CSA felony,' then all marijuana distribution convictions would categorically be convictions of the drug trafficking aggravated felony, mandatory deportation would follow under the statute, and there would be no room for the government's follow-on fact finding procedure. The government cannot have it both ways."

And the government's approach would lead to a litany of "absurd consequences that would flow from" immigration investigations into such offenses. "That the only cure is worse than the disease suggests the government is simply wrong," she wrote.

Only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, with Thomas arguing that since Georgia punished Moncrieffe's offense as a felony, he should be deportable under the CSA, and Alito warning that the majority had just given a free ride to "drug traffickers in about half the states."

"In those states," Alito wrote in his dissent, "even if an alien is convicted of possessing tons of marijuana with the intent to distribute, the alien is eligible to remain in this country. Large-scale marijuana distribution is a major source of income for some of the world's most dangerous drug cartels, but the court now holds that an alien convicted of participating in such activity may petition to remain in this country."

Of course, Moncrieffe was not convicted of "large-scale marijuana trafficking" and was not a member of one of "the world's most dangerous drug cartels;" he was a guy busted with a couple of joints worth of weed. And the government may still be able to deport people in Moncrieffe's situation, but now they will have to make the case for deportation before a judge.

Washington, DC
United States

Texas Trooper Fires on Fleeing Truck, "Drug Load," Two Dead

A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper in a helicopter opened fire on a fleeing pick-up truck suspected of carrying a "drug load" last Thursday, but the truck wasn't carrying drugs -- it was instead carrying undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, and two of them were killed in the shooting. Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar become the 54th and 55th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, Department of Public Safety (DPS) spokesman Tom Vinger said the incident began when Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens attempted to pull over the truck, which they thought was hauling drugs. When the driver refused to stop, the game wardens called DPS for help.

"During the pursuit, the vehicle appeared to have a typical 'covered' drug load in the bed of the truck," Vinger said. "DPS aircraft joined the pursuit of the suspected drug load, which was traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public. A DPS trooper discharged his firearm from the helicopter to disable the vehicle."

The truck swerved, then came to halt after a tire was punctured. No drugs were found in it, but it was carrying nine Guatemalan nationals, one of whom was wounded by gunfire in addition to the two who were killed.

Guatemalan consul in McAllen, Texas, Alba Caceres said all the men had traveled together from the city of San Martin Jilotepeque in Chimaltenango, paying $2,000 each to get to the US-Mexico border and another $3,000 to be transported to the interior US. Most were headed to New Jersey. The group had crossed the Rio Grande River Thursday morning and walked six hours through the scrub before meeting up with the pick-up truck, Caceres said.

"We need a serious and big investigation into this case because I cannot understand why DPS made the decision to shoot them," she said. "I have never seen something similar to this."

After talking with survivors, Caceres later told the Associated Press the men told her the tarp covering them in the bed of the pick-up blew off the truck during the chase, leaving them clearly visible from the air.

"These statements taken from the survivors leave me outraged," she said. "I can't conceive how a police officer fires at unarmed humans. These are people from humble origins that even at first glance do not look like hardened criminals."

Caceres wasn't alone in demanding an investigation. Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas also joined the call.

"What we know so far raises disturbing questions," Burke said. "Why is a state game warden involved in enforcement of federal immigration law? Why is a game warden in dangerous high-speed pursuit of people who were suspected of nothing more than a civil offense? And where's the 'public safety' when a trooper in a helicopter opens fire on unarmed persons in a vehicle on a public road?"

Earlier this year, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the use of armed sharpshooters on helicopters patrolling the border region was necessary to secure the safety of law enforcement.

"That's what our aerial assets are doing, and we need to protect those aerial assets and in doing so, we put a sniper on those," he said of armed helicopter agents. "And we're really not apologetic about it. We've got an obligation to protect our men and women when we're trying to protect Texas."

According to DPS policy, lethal force is can be used when the officer or someone else is at "substantial risk of death or bodily injury." Troopers can shoot at vehicles either when deadly force is justified or when it is "for the sole purpose and intent of disabling a vehicle." When shooting at a vehicle, the policy warns, "there may be a risk of harm to occupants of the suspect vehicle who may not be involved, or involved to a lesser extent, with the actions of the suspect creating the threat."

Police use of force experts were stunned by the DPS policies. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits at departments across the country said he'd "never heard of" law enforcement agencies allowing officers to shoot at vehicles from helicopters.

"There's a trend to restrict officers from shooting at vehicles at all," Alpert said. "It's not an efficient or effective policy to let officers shoot from vehicles, and certainly not from a helicopter."

Manuel Zamora of the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University said some departments had begun training in the use of special weapons in situations where criminals could  kill or injure others. If a trooper "can see someone would be fatally injured or wounded, then they would probably be justified in using deadly force," Zamora said.

But in the Thursday killing, the truck was traveling down an unpaved road surrounded by grass fields in a sparsely populated area. The only people fatally injured or wounded were those who came under fire from the as yet unnamed trooper.

La Joya, TX
United States

US-Mexican Caravan for (Drug War) Peace Gets Underway [FEATURE]

Last Sunday, dozens of Mexican activists led by poet Javier Sicilia crossed into the US at San Diego to begin a weeks-long Caravan for Peace and Justice that will take them more than 6,000 miles through 27 cities in a bid to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. They were met there by representatives of the more than 100 US organizations that are joining and supporting the Caravan as it makes its way toward Washington, DC.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, and not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the “prepaid/stored value cards” loophole.

US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life.


The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

On last Sunday, Sicilia and the Caravan were met in San Diego by about 100 supporters from national groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Global Exchange, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the NAACP, the Washington Office on Latin America, and, as will be the case across the country, local immigrant rights, civil rights, religious, and drug reform groups.

"This movement brings together activists from both of our countries to shed light on the policies that have failed our families, neighbors, and nations," said Sicilia. "United, we will raise our voices to call for an end to a war on drugs that allows entire communities to become casualties, and we will demand a shift in attention to poverty and the lack of economic opportunity that helps breed the criminality."

"What we are trying to do is raise the level of conversation around this topic," said Global Exchange's Ted Lewis, one of the caravan's organizers. "We're trying to have a bi-national conversation and impact."

Javier Sicilia and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (caravanforpeace.org)
By last Friday, the Caravan had reached Las Cruces, New Mexico, after first stopping in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson. In Los Angeles, the Caravan wooed Hollywood, seeking support from the film community as it seeks to shift public opinion against prohibitionist drug policies that wreak havoc in both countries.

"What unites us is grief for what Mexico has lost, which is peace," said Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Oscar-nominated director of "Biutiful" and "Babel," who was among the Hollywood stars greeting the Caravan.

In Phoenix on Thursday, Sicilia and the Caravan had an unexpected encounter with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as they trekked to one of Arpaio's jails to see what the drug war looks like on the US side of the border. The feisty sheriff, who is notorious for his treatment of prisoners and anti-immigrant politics, got an earful from Sicilia, but didn't exactly roll over.

Sicilia chided Arpaio over the flow of American weapons into Mexico and the hands of the cartels and asked him to do a better job controlling the traffic, to which Arpaio retorted, "Control the flow of drugs."

Sicilia also urged Arpaio, who is under Justice Department investigation over his treatment of prisoners and illegal immigrants, to "be more human" in the way he handles people under his control. "We don't come in war but in peace to tell you that you have half of the responsibility for the war that there is in Mexico," he said. "I ask you whether treating migrants like dogs is a correct policy."

"I don't run the jails," Arpaio replied. [Ed: As noted above, Arpaio does run jails, and is being investigated for how prisoners are treated in them.]

Sicilia urged Arpaio to visit Mexico, but Arpaio demurred, saying that the cartels had a price on his head.

The Caravan for Peace is now less nearly two weeks into its journey across the county to Washington, DC. Organizers have not said yet whether they will seek a meeting with President Obama, but are planning on meetings on Capitol Hill. Between now and then, they hope the Caravan will succeed in raising consciousness among Americans about the toll of the drug war on both sides of the border. Whether policymakers will listen is an open question, but the media is certainly listening. Google lists 145 news articles about the Caravan so far. That's a good start.

US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City
Mexico

Looming Dutch Khat Ban Draws Criticism, Complaints

The Dutch conservative coalition government has signaled since January that it intended to prohibit khat, the mild stimulant plant from the Horn of Africa, and now, indications are that the ban will happen soon. But the move is drawing heat from critics who charge it is based more on political considerations than hard science.

Yemeni chewing khat, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
The proposed khat ban is of a piece with the center-right government's moves to restrict access to Holland's famed cannabis coffee shops -- it plans to ban foreigners from some border coffee shops as early as next month -- and its decision to treat hashish as a hard drug.

In Holland, which has seen increasing tension around issues of immigration and assimilation, khat is used almost exclusively by the Somali immigrant community. The center-right government has argued that khat use impedes Somalis' integration into Dutch society and that 10% of the Somali community is addicted to it.

A proposal to prohibit khat awaits only a discussion -- no vote needed -- in parliament before it becomes law. While drug policy is typically handled by the Dutch justice and health ministries, the khat ban is the initiative of migration and asylum affairs Minister Gerd Leers.

"I'm involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community," he told Dutch radio in January. "They are lethargic and refuse to cooperate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families."

But according to the United Arab Emirates newspaper the National, scientists disagree with Leers about khat's impact and danger, and the Somali community, while cognizant of problems associated with khat use, sees the move as immigrant bashing.

"There is a sense that it may be more symbolic for political reasons rather than aimed at improving our situation," said Mohamed Elmi of FSAN, the umbrella organization of Somali associations. "You can regulate or register or you can handle the problems with distribution in another way," he said. "The Somali community has many problems that need to be tackled and I don't see them doing anything about those."

Elmi scoffed at the government's assertion that 10% of the 25,000 Somalis in the country have a khat problem, saying the number of khat users is half that and "only a handful" are problem users.

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Mental Health and Addiction backed Elmi's stand. They studied khat use for the government and reported the number of problem khat users as several hundred, but added that in many of those cases, in was khat in combination with hard drugs or alcohol to blame.

"We made very different recommendations based on our study," said study coauthor Clary van der Veen. "The large group of social users is not a problem. You may need to inform them better and point out the long-term effect, just like with smoking and drinking," she said. She also questioned whether a ban on khat would truly help the integration of Somali immigrants. "In countries where khat has been banned, the integration of Somalis is not faring better," she said.

The government's ban is also drawing criticism from the former head of the Dutch police union, Hans van Duijn, who has become a prominent critic of both the Dutch government's "lurch to the right" and the war on drugs. That the idea of the ban is to help integrate Somalis was "nonsense," he said, as were government claims it was responding to pressure from other European countries where khat is illegal.

"They are using a lot of misleading arguments, such as recently when the center-right argued for a ban on the sale of hashish because it was said to benefit North-African criminal gangs and the Taliban. As if by banning the sale of hashish in Dutch coffee shops this would end," he said.

And prohibition never works, anyway, van Duijn noted. "The dealers will try hard to find a solution because they now stand to make more money, which will not benefit the user. It is a mystery to me what the benefits are."

Netherlands

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

High-Ranking RI Lawmaker Faces Drug Charge

Location: 
RI
United States
State Rep. Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), the House Minority Leader, who criticized the Legislature by invoking the image of pot-smoking immigrants is facing drug charges in Connecticut.
Publication/Source: 
The Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hQZTY6cZDqZGZoIuK0j-liVXqnNw?docId=752ae20652cb4175b982874a8adfb094

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