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Mexico's "Caravan for Peace" Heads to Washington [FEATURE]

The Mexico-based Caravan for Peace and Justice and its American allies are now more than halfway through their 6,000-mile, 27-city journey to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. After beginning two weeks ago in San Diego, the caravan has now traversed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and miles and miles of Texas, and on Wednesday, was set to join with African-American and other activists to march over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama.

rally in El Paso
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an enduring symbol of the civil right struggles of the 1960s and was the scene of the Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capitol in Montgomery.

While on Wednesday, the theme of the day's events was to be "the new Jim Crow" and the mass criminalization and incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans through the war on drugs, that is only one of the themes the caravan is emphasizing in its bid to put the harms of the drug war on full view for the American public and its politicians.

Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, the caravan said it wants put faces on Mexico's drug war dead -- who are too often assumed to have been "bad" by virtue of having been killed.

"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."

vigil in Brownsville
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, 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.


visit to the Sacred Heart Convent, Houston
"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.

memorial representing victims of the Monterrey Casino Royale attack
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."

In Texas last week, the caravan traveled the breadth of the state, stopping in El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston before heading into the final half of the tour. In Austin, groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and local NORML affiliates joined the travelers.

El Paso
"I think what is important is the binational nature of this caravan," said Roberto Lovato, the founder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. "The drug war has been a fantastic failure here in the United States, if you look at more than 2 million people being incarcerated, families destroyed by that incarceration, a trillion of our tax dollars utterly wasted. So we have law enforcement officers who lost their brothers and their sisters in the law enforcement world, and people who have lost family members in Mexico."

"The drug problem isn’t just an American problem, and the harm that prohibition of drugs causes in the world is phenomenal," said LEAP member and Texas resident Terry Nelson, who spent more than three decades in federal law enforcement. "Hundreds of thousands are dying in the Western Hemisphere alone, it’s got to stop," he said. "The drug war is a war on people, it's not a war on drugs."

In Houston, state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) presented Sicilia with a non-binding resolution praising his efforts and criticizing the drug war.

Javier Sicilia with the LEAP van
"Although our nation spends in excess of $40 billion a year combating the drug trade, the United States remains the principal destination for drugs produced in and transported through Mexico," the resolution said. "Moreover, many of the firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico have been traced to sources in the United States; interdiction initiatives have not resulted in the decline of drug abuse."

Along the way, the caravan has touched on a number of intersecting issues. Javier Sicilia himself told Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to treat his prisoners better, and the caravan has visited immigrant detention centers to criticize US policies toward undocumented immigrants. Similarly, in Houston, group members purchased a pistol and an AK-47 at gunshow, then dismantled the rifle, transforming into a peace symbol in line with its calls on the US government to crack down on the flow of firearms south of the border. And above all, the call for the respect for human rights has been a constant on the caravan.

The caravan is set to arrive in Washington, DC, on September 10 for events scheduled the following day. So far, it is succeeding in its aim of bringing attention to the harms of the drug war on both sides of the border -- a Google news search for "caravan for peace" now shows 2,660 results. That number was at 145 when last we wrote about the caravan two weeks ago.

Many more photos are available on the Caravan's Flickr page.

Mexico President-Elect Wants Drug Legalization Talks

Mexico's likely president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, said in a PBS Newsmaker interview that aired Tuesday evening that Mexico should discuss legalizing drugs and regulating their sale, and that the US and other countries should be part of the discussion as well. But he also said that he wasn't calling for legalization and that he would continue using the military in Mexico's battle against its powerful drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels.

Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto (cddiputados.gob.mx)
While Peña Nieto is virtually certain to be Mexico's next president, it's not quite official yet. Mexico election officials are recounting half the ballot boxes because of inconsistencies in the tallies and expect to release final results Sunday. But with Peña Nieto holding a five-point lead over second place finisher Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recount is unlikely to change the outcome.

[Editor's Note: For our feature article on what Peña Nieto might mean for Mexico's future drug policy, published just as the PBS interview aired, go here.]

"I'm in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working," he told PBS's Margaret Warner in Mexico City. "I'm not saying we should legalize," he repeated. "But we should debate in Congress, in the hemisphere and especially the US should participate in this broad debate."

"So let the debate begin, but you're not taking a position yet?" Warner asked.

"That's right," he said.

Peña Nieto joins an ever growing list of Latin American leaders calling for frank discussions on alternatives to US-style drug war policies. The incipient rebellion has been brewing for years, but broke into the open on the hemispheric diplomatic this spring at the Organization of American States' Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

Although US media coverage of the summit was devoted almost entirely to the bright shiny object that was the Secret Service prostitution scandal, the summit saw Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Santos and Guatemalan President Perez Molina urge that formal discussions take place. And just days ago, Uruguayan President Mujica joined the ranks of the drug war dissenters, as his government put forth plans to establish a state monopoly on marijuana sales.

While Peña Nieto's comments on debating legalization won't be welcomed with open arms in Washington, his affirmation that he will largely continue the policies of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, will reassure politicians and policymakers worried that he was going to go soft on the cartels. While he would shift the focus from going after gang capos to reducing the violence, the Mexican state would continue to battle organized crime, he said.

"I know there is a concern around this issue, in terms of assuming this adjustment means not going after drug cartels involved in drug trafficking. No, absolutely not," he insisted.

"I will maintain the presence of a Mexican Army, and the Navy and police in the states of the Mexican Republic, where the problem of crime has increased," the telegenic former governor of Mexico state emphasized. "We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency, and to go back to the rule of law and enforce laws strictly in our country."

And while he said he wanted to intensify cooperation with the US, he made clear that he felt the US had failed to do enough to stop gun-running into Mexico. That has been a complaint of Calderon's as well.

"We have been insisting on getting the US more involved in arms control," Peña Nieto said bluntly. "Unfortunately, it has had no impact."

The cracks in the wall of global drug prohibition keep getting bigger, and that bleeding fissure opened up by Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence has created yet another stress point on the prohibitionist consensus. We may not be there quite yet, but the time when that wall finally collapses is coming.

Mexico City
Mexico

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

Chronicle Review Essay: Mexico's Drug Cartels

Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, by Sylvia Longmire (2011, Palgrave/Macmillan, 248 pp., $26.00 HB)

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo (2011, Bloomsbury Press, 301 pp., $27.00 HB)

Gangland: The Rise of Mexico's Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver (2012, Wiley, 276 pp., $22.95 PB)

I recall traveling by bus (one second-class standby was Flecha Amarilla -- the passengers used to joke that the rickety line's motto was "Better dead than late") through the southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca in the 1980s and being stopped regularly at military checkpoints replete with prominently displayed signs announcing they were part of the Mexican government's Permanent Campaign Against Drug Trafficking. The signs were bilingual, one supposes for the edification of any passing Americans, so that they would know Mexico was hard at work doing our government's bidding in the war on drugs.

The soldiers would order everyone off the bus, then randomly inspect luggage. Afterwards, everyone would trudge back onto the bus, and off we'd go, past a last sign proclaiming, "Thank you for your cooperation in the permanent campaign against drug trafficking." I never saw the soldiers actually find anything.

Funny thing about those checkpoints -- they never moved. Year after year, there they were in the same places. Of course, everyone in the area, including the dope growers up in the mountains and the traffickers who moved the weed, knew exactly where they were and simply went around them or paid the local military commander to look the other way when a load needed to pass.

But those checkpoints were there, and the Mexican government could point to them and say, "Look, we're doing our part." That Potemkin village-style "war on drugs" worked for Mexico for many years. In the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, observers would note sardonically that Mexico was not suppressing the drug trade so much as managing it.

Of course, it helped that Mexico was then under the venerable grip of "the perfect dictatorship," the one-party rule of the PRI that had governed the country more or less since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1919. The lines of authority were clear, PRI officialdom was happy to take traffickers' bribes and keep a semblance of order in the underworld, and those bundles of pot trickling down out of the mountains became a roaring river of reefer flowing to the insatiable north.

While government complicity kept the trade running smoothly -- with the occasional high-profile bust of a "kingpin" or two when the heat from Washington grew too intense -- a handful of what sophisticated Mexicans would consider country bumpkins from the mountainous western state of Sinaloa were creating the drug trafficking arrangements that evolved into the terrifying killing machines we today know as the cartels (although they are not really cartels in the normal sense of the word, as Ioan Grillo takes the time to explain, tracing the use back to descriptions of Colombian drug traffickers in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo was a fresh memory).

Back then, one man, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, was the undisputed godfather of the Mexican drug trade. To avoid unnecessary strife, he and his lieutenants divvied up the plazas, or franchises for a particular smuggling location, among themselves, creating the Tijuana cartel (the Arrellano Felix brothers), the Sinaloa cartel ("El Chapo" Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers), the Juarez cartel (Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies," and family), and the Gulf Cartel (Osiel Cardenas). Business was good. Profits from pot were plentiful, and in the 1980s, a new revenue stream, Colombian cocaine, only added to the permanent fiesta.

Yes, there were drug killings back then. You don't rise to the top of a ruthless Mexican drug trafficking outfit by being an overly nice guy. But the violence was minimal compared to the bloodletting that has gone on since 2008, when, under pressure from President Calderon's all-out offensive against them, the cartels turned on each other in a bloody fratricidal struggle, as well as going to war against the police and the military. The killing continues to this day, as does the flow of drugs north and cash and guns south.

And the alarm bells are ringing across the land, thus this spate of books. Former California state intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire, veteran British-born Latin America reporter Ioan Grillo, and Canadian journalist and author Jerry Langton all describe the evolution of the cartels from their humble Sinaloa roots to their positions today as hugely wealthy, murderously violent drug trafficking organizations with a global reach, although they all bring different perspectives into play.

There are three countries in North America, and it's as if each one gets a book here. Langton is Canadian, and Gangland has Canadian concerns and connections; in Cartel, Longmire seems to speak to and from the perspective of US law enforcement and national security; while, with El Narco, Grillo seems to be most in tune with the realities on the ground in Mexico. While all three have their strengths -- Langton, for example, follows the blow-by-blow of the cartel wars in a way that really helps you make sense of those occasional blips about gangland killings that appear in the American media -- if I had to choose only one, it would be Grillo and El Narco.

Grillo has spent years working in Mexico, and it shows. He feels more attuned to Mexican culture, although Langton provides some excellent historical background, and his book is the most interested in the broader social phenomena surrounding Mexico's drug wars. Grillo takes the reader into the world of the narcocorridos, the border ballads celebrating the exploits of the traffickers, and their singers, quite a few of whom have been killed for their efforts. He also explores Santa Muerte, the peculiarly Mexican church (or cult, depending on whom you ask), favored by the poor, the delinquent, and the dopers.

Our authors disagree on just exactly what the cartels are. For Langton, they are essentially just frighteningly overgrown criminal gangs; for Grillo, they are a "criminal insurgency;" for Longmire, she of the national security optics, they are closer to terrorists, of whom she cites Al Qaeda and Colombia's FARC in the same breath.

I don't know that I can buy either the criminal insurgency or the terrorist appellation, though. Both insurgency and terrorism imply political, or, more precisely, ideological goals. While the cartels can be said to have political goals, such as putting a paid-off politician in a powerful post, those goals are merely means to the cartels' real ends: making money. Unlike the FARC, who have a strong (if fraying at the edges) revolutionary socialist platform, or Al Qaeda types, with their Islamic fundamentalist credos, as far as anyone can tell, Shorty Guzman could care less about anything other than making money.

Which is not to say the cartels aren't scary as hell. They are an insurgency in so far as they represent a serious challenge to the Mexican state's monopoly on the use of force. And they do. These guys are heavily armed, thanks in part to "straw buyer" weapons purchased in the US, some of them have police or military training (the Zetas in particular have proven to be a paramilitarized menace even to the Mexican armed forces), and they are capable of acts of exemplary savagery. They are also known to roll through cities in convoys dozens of vehicles long, all full of heavily-armed men, in brazen displays of power.

Grillo notes a key turning point: the effort to arrest Gulf cartel head Osiel Cardenas in 2004, a couple of years after he formed the Zetas out of former US-trained elite anti-drug troops. In the good old days of Mexico's "war on drugs," the occasional arrest was understood as part of the game and took place in an almost gentlemanly fashion, at least at the top. But Cardenas didn't go down like that. Instead, his Zetas engaged the military in a day-long running gun battle, viciously defending their chief against the odds until his capture, and continuing to attack even as the military fled with its captive to a local airport and then back to Mexico City. Now, that's what you call a challenge to the state's monopoly on force.

And that was just the beginning. Now, you can go to web sites like El Blog del Narco and read about almost daily pitched battles between narcos and soldiers. And narcos and police. And narcos and narcos. And police and soldiers. And federal police and state police. There is truly multi-sided mayhem going on.

So, what is to be done about it all? None of the authors are very optimistic that anything will turn this around anytime soon. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be unanimity among them that reforming the hopelessly corrupt, complicit, and outgunned Mexican police forces is high on the agenda. A single national police force may be an answer, but that will take years, if it ever happens at all.

Longmire in particular argues for smarter and more law enforcement on both sides of the border, but concedes that it's unlikely to make much difference. In the end, even she suggests that maybe we should think about legalizing marijuana. Grillo suggests that, too, noting that the cartels are making billions a year on Mexican brick weed. All of them note the utter futility of trying to eradicate the trade.

But while Longmire and Grillo talk about legalizing weed, Langton correctly points out that that's a long shot, and even if you legalize marijuana, that still leaves cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy for the cartels to traffic and grow rich off of.

None of them directly confront the fundamental root cause of the problem: drug prohibition. The cartels are the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition, created by the mad policymakers of Washington and their hunch-backed global anti-drug bureaucracy assistants in Vienna ("Yeesssss, master") and energized by an unending flow of black market dollars. Langton is right -- legalizing marijuana isn't going to do the job by itself, even if it does attack one cartel revenue stream (though that is not an argument against legalizing it).

At this point, even legalizing everything will not make the cartels vanish. They are now too wealthy, too well-established. They've diversified into extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes. They own businesses. They are integrating. Still, ending drug prohibition would take substantial wind out of their sails, much as ending alcohol Prohibition severely weakened, but did not kill off, the US mob. That may be the best we can hope for.

Or, barring that, Langton mentions another possibility, one not spoken much of aloud these days, but one that is being quietly murmured as the PRI appears set to retake the presidency after the July elections. Mexico can either continue down the path of the drug wars and hope the violence subsides, as with the crack epidemic in the US in the 1980s, he writes, "or they can go back to collaborating with the cartels, allowing them to keep the peace in their own way."

Mexico

Mexico's Symbol of Drug War Resistance Says It's Our Fight, Too [FEATURE]

At the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles last weekend, one of the more heart-wrenching sessions focused on the prohibition-related violence in Mexico, where somewhere north of 40,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to wage war on the cartels in December 2006. A panel of Mexican politicians, activists, and journalists led by poet Javier Sicilia -- and El Paso City Councilwoman Susie Byrd -- examined the roots and consequences of Mexico's war on drugs and called eloquently on Americans to take action to stop the carnage.

Javier Sicilia addressing conference, with translator Ana Paula Hernandez (photo courtesy HCLU, drogriporter.hu/en)
Mexican journalist Diego Osorno, author of a book on the Sinaloa Cartel, explained how Calderon took power amidst mass mobilizations and turmoil after a closely contested election in which his foe refused to accept defeat. "Calderon took power amidst political and social crisis," Osorno explained. "He began the militarization using the pretext of drugs," he said.

The next panelist, former Mexican congressman Victor Quintana of Chihuahua (where Ciudad Juarez is located) looked at what Mexico's drug wars had done to his home state. "In Chihuahua, we had 407 people killed in 2007," he said. "In 2010, that number was 5,200. If the US had the same murder rate, that would be 400,000 dead in one year," he said.

"There has been an authentic genocide committed in our state," Quintana continued. "We have 10,000 drug war orphans and 230,000 people internally displaced. We face not only the violence of organized crime, but the violence of the state."

A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch makes clear just what Quintana was talking about when it comes to the violence of the state. The 212-page report, Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico's "War on Drugs," portrays systematic human rights abuses committed by Mexican government forces, including dozens of documented killings.

Human Rights Watch officials visited Mexico this week to deliver copies of the report to Calderon, members of the Mexican Congress, the Supreme Court, and civil society groups.

"Instead of reducing violence, Mexico's 'war on drugs' has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country, said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the organization.

Like other panelists at the conference in Los Angeles, Quintana took pains to make clear that Mexico's tragedy was tied to the US and the way we deal with the drugs we love to hate (or hate to love). "This is a bi-national war," he said. "America sends the guns and money, and Mexico gets the deaths."

Prohibition is a godsend to the cartels, said El Paso city councilwoman Byrd, who explained how a pound of marijuana sells for $25 in Mexico's pot-growing areas but $525 in Chicago. "Legalizing marijuana is the best way to take it to the cartels," she said.

Ciudad Juarez is "the epicenter of pain and tragedy, but also the epicenter of resistance," said Zulma Mendez, a bi-national El Paso university professor and Ciudad Juarez activist. The resistance has an agenda calling for demilitarization, justice and truth, and re-founding the city in a more human form, she said.

Zuma, too, called on Americans to act. "The bloodshed here is related to Plan Merida," she said. "US taxpayers are funding this to the tune of $2.5 billion. People in the US should demand an end to Plan Merida. US citizens can demand drug reform and revision of weapons policies and immigration and asylum policies," she challenged.

But it was gruff-voiced, cowboy hat-wearing Javier Sicilia who proved most powerful. A poet and journalist who became the voice of resistance after his son and five others were murdered in Cuernavaca earlier this year, Sicilia has led caravans of protestors across Mexico to demand truth and justice and an end to the violence.

"Who is being held accountable?" he asked, complaining of a culture of impunity, and not just in Mexico. "Where is the money being laundered, and not just the drug money, but the money from other crimes? Money is the blood of the poor. We have 50,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared. The word to describe this would be 'demonic.' We are all responsible for these crimes against humanity because they are done by our governments," he said.

"If we were to put a human face on the suffering, it would be something we could not bear," Sicilia continued. "This is the image of our country: A six-year-old orphaned boy waiting for us on the road, holding a photo of his father, who had been killed and returned in a blanket. The face of that orphan is the face of our country. In a century when we talk of human rights, that is the tragedy."

The Mexico session wasn't the only place Sicilia made his voice heard. He also appeared before the crowd at a boisterous anti-drug war demonstration in MacArthur Park Thursday night and at the final plenary session of the conference. Then it was back to Mexico and the quest for peace and justice.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Plan Merida Focus to Shift to Border Region [FEATURE]

US officials said this week in El Paso that the Merida Initiative to help Mexico strengthen its security forces and judicial system in their ongoing battle with criminal drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- will shift its focus to Mexico's border states. Other officials defended the "Fast and Furious" Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) gun-running scheme that resulted in weapons from the US being transferred to cartel members.

The remarks came at the eighth annual Border Security Conference at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP), just across the Rio Grande River from Ciudad Juarez, one of the most deadly cities in the world in recent years because of prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico. The conference is a joint undertaking of UTEP and US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), a former El Paso sector Border Patrol head.

Somewhere around 40,000 people -- there are no official figures -- have been killed in the violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops and federal police in December 2006 to confront the increasingly brazen cartels head on. Despite the killing or arrest of dozens of high-profile cartel leaders, the flow of drugs north and guns and cash south has continued largely unabated.

The Merida Initiative, unveiled in 2008, allocated $1.5 billion in US aid to fight the drug traffic. Some of that money was destined for Central America, where Mexican cartels are increasingly encroaching, but the bulk of it is going to Mexico. Much of the Mexico funding has gone to the military and different law enforcement agencies, but given that both the military and the Mexican police are deeply compromised by cartel corruption, it is questionable whether throwing more money at them will accomplish much.

Now, said US Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs assistant secretary William Brownfield in remarks reported by the El Paso Times, the emphasis will shift to Mexico's border states and their state and local police forces. That would be the best way advancing the goals of the initiative's four pillar strategy of disrupting the ability of the cartels to operate, enhancing Mexico's capacity to sustain the rule of law, creating a modern border infrastructure, and building resilient communities, he said.

The US-Mexico border. Drugs flow north, and cash, guns, and violence flow south. (Image via Wikimedia)
"This is where most of the cartels have focused their activities," Brownfield said Tuesday, adding that Plan Merida will continue no matter who wins next year's Mexican presidential election. "I want to make this clear, it does not matter if it is the PAN, the PRI or another party that wins the elections, the initiative will continue working, even if it undergoes some minor adjustments," he said. "We will proceed and we will succeed. We have no choice," he said.

Dallas ATF special agent in charge Robert Champion traced today's horrifying levels of violence not to Calderon's deployment of the troops at the end of 2006, but to conflicts that broke out when the Zetas, former Mexican special forces soldiers turned enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, turned on the Gulf Cartel.

"That's the genesis of where the violence began," said Champion.

Since then, Champion said, gun running has evolved from being a solely a border issue to being an issue as far north of the border as Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Atlanta.

"We now have organized arms trafficking rings," he said, adding that some of them use teenagers to smuggle weapons with the serial numbers erased.

Noting that the number of high powered rifles being smuggled into Mexico has increased dramatically in recent years, Champion felt compelled to defend ATF's Operation Fast and Furious, which has excited tremendous anger in Congress after it was found that guns smuggled in the operation ended up being used to kill a US Border Patrol agent and in at least two other killings in the US, as well as countless murders in Mexico. The operation was designed to track the weapons, which would lead to the cartels, but ATF lost track of many of them, effectively acting as an arms supplier for the cartels.

"We (ATF) were criticized because we only focused our efforts on attacking the suppliers of these weapons and when we wanted to expand our efforts and attack the criminal organizations, it worked out badly," Champion said by way of explanation.

Despite the determined optimism of US officials, others at the conference warned that the situation was deteriorating. Mexico is unable to retain effective control of parts of its national territory, they said.

The situation in Mexico "is starting to look like a civil war," said UTEP political science Professor Charles Boehmer. "Juarez is one of the hottest battlegrounds," he added.

Nearly 9,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Ciudad Juarez in the past two and a half years.

Mexicans are dying to supply the insatiable appetite for drugs north of the border, said Mexican officials. The easy availability of firearms isn't helping either, they said.

"That is what has brought about the violence -- the fight for control of US drug distribution," said Alejandro Poire, technical secretary to the Mexican National Security Council. "It's an unprecedented business opportunity for cartels in Mexico." The availability of weapons from the US has created a cartel "arms race," he added.

The conference featured lots of happy talk about how to win the Mexican drug war, but largely ignored the most radical option for doing so: legalizing the drug supply and sucking out the oxygen on which the cartels rely. That would not mortally wound the cartels, which are now morphing into all-around criminal enterprises, but it would cut off their main source of income. Maybe next year.

El Paso, TX
United States

Chronicle Reviews: Two Books on Mexican Drug War, One on Border

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: Ruben Aguilar and Jorge Castaneda, "El Narco: La Guerra Fallida [The Failed War] (2009, Punto de lectura, 140 pp., $10.00 PB); George W. Grayson, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" (2010, Transaction Publishers, 339 pp., $35.95 HB); Tim Grayson, "Midnight on the Line: The Secret Life of the US-Mexico Border (2010, St. Martin's Press, 304 pp., $25.95 HB)

On the streets of Mexican cities, a deadly, multi-sided war, complete with horrific exemplary violence -- among competing drug cartels, between the cartels and the Mexican state, and sometimes between different elements of the Mexican state -- rages on, the body count rising by the day, if not the hour. The cartels -- Frankenstein monsters birthed by drug prohibition, swollen with profits from supplying our insatiable demand for their forbidden goods -- not only fight the Mexican state, but also insinuate their way into it, and into Mexican society at large, buying with their immense wealth what they cannot command with their bullets.

This is commanding attention not only in Mexico, but also here north of the border, where the drugs are consumed and the cash handed over, where the fear looms that the violence will leak across the border. Despite the hyperventilating cries of some paranoid nativists, that has mostly not been the case, but if the violence hasn't arrived it's not because the cartels haven't extended their tentacles into Gringolandia. They are here, from San Antonio to Sacramento to Sioux Falls, doing business, and business is -- as always -- good.

Throw in some festering anti-immigrant (read: Mexican) sentiment, Congress's failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform, and some zealotry from the land of Sheriff Joe, and Mexico and the border are commanding a lot of attention. That's being reflected in the publishing world. Over the past two or three years, I've reviewed a handful of titles about Mexico and the border (and read more), and now we have three more contributions -- one an academic study of the cartels by a leading American Mexicanist; one a polemic against President Calderon's drug war by a Mexican journalist and a former Mexican foreign minister; and one a journalist's look at the world of smuggling, of both drugs and people, and counter-smuggling along the 1,700 mile border.

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George Grayson's "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" is an extremely thorough and comprehensive history and analysis of the rise of the cartels in the context of the weaknesses of the Mexican state. If you can't tell your Carillo Fuentes from your Arellano Felix, if you're not sure if it's the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, if you keep getting "La Barbie" mixed up with "El Chapo," Grayson will save you. He's got all the cartel players and all their nicknames -- and they all have them -- he's got all the busts and the shootouts, he's got what is so far the definitive history of the cartels and Mexico's response to them.

But Grayson is a political scientist, and that means we also get a history lesson on Mexican politics and culture, which for Grayson is largely a history of authoritarian institutions (the Catholic Church, the "perfect dictatorship" of the PRI), which the cartels imitate in their internal structures. Under the PRI, which ruled until Vicente Fox's PAN won the presidency in 2000, drug cartels existed, but in a modus vivendi with elements of the state. It was the political earthquake that shook loose the PRI that also unleashed the cartel wars, as old arrangements no longer served and new ones had to be forged. The ramping up of the drug war, first under Fox, and then under his successor, has only worsened the situation.

Grayson doesn't see any easy way out. It is "extremely difficult -- probably impossible," he writes, to eradicate the cartels, even with heightened law enforcement measures on both sides of the border. Raking in billions of dollars a year and employing nearly half a million Mexicans (and no doubt, some Americans, too), the cartels may just be, in a phrase, too big to fail. Just like the Mexican state, in Grayson's opinion. It may be corrupted, it may be suborned, but it goes on.

Although Grayson certainly plays it close to the vest, in the end he denounces the drug war. "Few public policies have compromised public health and undermined fundamental civil liberties for so long and to such a degree as the war on drugs," he writes.

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One gets the feeling that Jorge Castaneda, coauthor along with Ruben Aguilar of "Narco: La Guerra Fallida" (sorry, it's only available in Spanish), would like to be part of that Mexican state again. The former foreign minister has for years publicly suggested that it is time to talk about drug legalization, and "Narco" feels like part of a campaign to position himself for a run at office in 2012 or a post in whatever government emerges after elections that year. It is a polemic aimed directly at President Calderon's drug policies.

Castaneda and Aguilar set out to systematically demolish the reasons cited for ramping up the drug war, and do a pretty thorough job of it. (Although not everyone agrees with them. I saw Castaneda roundly berated at a Mexico City conference earlier this year for arguing that drug use in Mexico was not a significant problem, one of the central claims in the book.) Guns coming into Mexico from the US are not the cause of the violence, they also argue, and a full-blown confrontation with the cartels is not the way to go.

Instead, they propose increasing public security and reducing the "collateral damage" from drug prohibition and the drug wars by concentrating police on street crime and selectively targeting the most egregious drug offenders. The others? Perhaps a modus vivendi can be reached, if not at the national level, perhaps at the state or local level, as long appeared to be the case in Sinaloa. Decriminalization is another response, although not without the US joining in at the same time, lest Mexico become a drug tourism destination. And harm reduction measures should be applied. But "Narco" is ultimately a call for ending drug prohibition -- and a marker for Castaneda in forthcoming political moves.

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Of course, all those Mexican-controlled drugs have to get here somehow, which means they have to cross the US-Mexican border, and Reuters reporter Tim Gaynor's "Midnight on the Line" has got that covered. This is a fast-paced, entertaining, and insightful look at the contraband traffic -- both drugs and people -- across the border and the people who try to stop it. Gaynor works both sides of the border, talking to coyotes in Tijuana, showing up in a dusty Sonora border town and following the illegal immigrant's harrowing journey through the searing deserts of Arizona, and interviewing all kinds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol folks, as well as other officials on this side.

Gaynor demonstrates with some verve the continuous, perpetual struggle between contrabandistas and the US authorities (or, like the Minutemen he interviews, volunteers) who struggle to choke off that traffic. He tracks for sign with Indian scouts on an Arizona reservation that has in recent years become a smuggling hotspot, he rides horseback and in a Blackhawk helicopter with the Border Patrol and tags along with one of its SWAT teams, he learns about the drones patrolling high overhead and the tunnels being bored far beneath the ground. And he introduces us to the people involved on both sides.

Gaynor concludes arguing -- no doubt much to the consternation of the "secure the border" crowd -- that the border is tighter than ever, and that the steady increase in federal officers there this decade has had an impact. But, he notes, this success has perverse results. Tightening the border has been "a market maker for ruthless and profit-hungry coyotes and drug traffickers, for whom smuggling has never been more profitable," he writes. And so it goes.

Gaynor's book is no doubt the easiest read, Castaneda's is more a marker of a political position than anything, and Grayson's belongs in the library as a desk reference for anyone really serious about following the cartels and Mexican politics. Happy reading.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling 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 19,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 3,000 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:

Saturday, May 1

In Miguel Aleman, Tamaulipas, three people, including a man and woman were found dead in a car on a rural highway outside the city. The incident came just hours after two grenade attacks occurred in Reynosa's red light district. One of the grenades exploded near a police station in Reynosa's "zone of tolerance," where prostitution and retail-level drug trafficking are allowed to flourish. Earlier in the week, police closed a bridge to allow them to clear explosives that had been left there.

Sunday, May 2

In Chihuahua, 24 people were murdered over the weekend in various parts of the state. Eight of the killings occurred in Ciudad Juarez, ten occurred in the city of Chihuahua, five in Cuauhtémoc, one in the town of Parral. The five men killed in Cuauhtémoc were killed after gunmen entered a bar and opened fire. All the dead were young males between the ages of 18 and 25. According to Chihuahua State attorney general spokesman Carlos Gonzalez, most of the killings are believed to be related to the ongoing struggle between the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels for control of the Juarez drug trafficking corridor.

Monday, May 3

In Acapulco, gunmen shot and killed eight men as they played soccer in the early afternoon. The gunmen, who arrived in a convoy of 14 vehicles, were reportedly opening fire throughout the neighborhood for some 40 minutes, terrorizing the local population. In addition to the five men who were left dead on the soccer field, three of the bodies were picked up and taken away by the gunmen. The Acapulco area has seen an upswing in violence over the last few months as rival factions of the Beltran-Leyva cartel fight each other for the leadership of the organization.

In Nuevo Leon, a mother and her daughter were killed and disappeared after being caught in a gun battle between suspected rival drug trafficking groups. The incident was reported by the woman's husband, who claims that the car in which the family was traveling was caught in a firefight on the highway. The car was struck by several bullets, killing the woman and the child. The husband was wounded, but managed to take refuge in a nearby house. When he returned to his vehicle, the bodies of his wife and daughter had vanished.

In Sinaloa, four people were killed in different incidents across the state. In one incident, the bullet riddled bodies of two men were found on the side of the Culiacan-Las Brisas highway. In another incident, an unidentified man was killed after gunmen ambushed him as he drove in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood of Culiacan.

Tuesday, May 4

In Tabasco, three women were killed in a parking lot in the municipality of Cardenas. The three women, none of whom have been identified, were beaten and abused before being killed.

Wednesday, May 5

In Mexico, El Universal reported that it is now estimated that there are 35 illegal firearms for every one policeman in the country. This figure comes from reports from Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the Collective for Security, Democracy and Human Rights. According to these figures, there are now at least 15 million illegal firearms in Mexico, and 426,800 federal, local, and state law enforcement officers.

In Cuernavaca, a new cartel claimed responsibility for the ambush of a high ranking police official in the city last Monday. The Cartel de Pacifico Sur (CPS) left signs on several bridges and overpasses in the city, claiming that they carried out the attack on Preventive Police Special Operations chief Jose Luis Arragon, which killed a woman who was riding in the car with him. Little is known about the relatively new CPS Cartel, but it is thought to be a faction of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, which was left leaderless in December after Mexican naval commandos killed boss Arturo Beltran-Leyva. Many of the signs left by the group threaten American-born trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal, aka "El Barbie", who is currently battling Hector Beltran-Leyva for control of the organization.

In Durango, a high-ranking police official was ambushed and killed by a group of armed men on highway 66. A bodyguard was also killed in the attack.

[Editor's Note: Due to a glitch last week at El Universal, on whose body count we rely, the running total was misreported. This week's total reflects the accurate number.]

Total Body Count for the Week: 109

Total Body Count for the Year: 3,233

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 19,560

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Feds: National Drug Intelligence Center Predicts Continued Failure in Drug War

In a report released Thursday, the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) said that overall, the availability of illegal drugs is increasing and that "the overall threat posed by illicit drugs will not diminish in the near term." The announcement comes after more than four decades of harsh state and federal policies designed to curb the supply of illicit drugs.

The report, the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, also once again identified Mexico's so-called drug cartels as the "single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States." It blamed the cartels, or DTOs (drug trafficking organizations), as it more accurately but less catchily refers to them, for much of the increase in illegal drug availability.

The NDIC noted that the prevalence of four out of five of the major drugs of concern -- heroin, marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy), and methamphetamine -- was "widespread and increasing in some areas." Only cocaine availability was down, with NDIC reporting persistent shortages.

Heroin availability was up, and NDIC said that was "partly attributable to increased production in Mexico," where opium production more than doubled between 2007 and 2008. Meth availability was up "as the result of higher production in Mexico," and "sustained" US domestic production. Also, "marijuana production increased in Mexico." Only with MDMA did NDIC point the finger at anyone else -- in this case, Asian DTOs who produce it in Canada.

"Mexican DTOs, already the predominant wholesale suppliers of illicit drugs in the United States, are gaining even greater strength in eastern drug markets where Colombian DTO strength is diminishing," NDIC said as it pronounced them the greatest drug trafficking threat. It included the following bullet points making the case:

  • Mexican DTOs were the only DTOs operating in every region of the country.
  • Mexican DTOs increased their cooperation with US-based street and prison gangs to distribute drugs. In many areas, these gangs were using their alliances with Mexican DTOs to facilitate an expansion of their midlevel and retail drug distribution operations into more rural and suburban areas.
  • In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities.
  • Mexican DTOs increased the flow of severaldrugs (heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana) into the United States, primarily because they increased production of those drugs in Mexico.
  • Drugs smuggled into the United States by Mexican DTOs usually are transported in private or commercial vehicles; however, Mexican DTOs also use cross-border tunnels, subterranean passageways, and low-flying small or ultra-light aircraft to move drugs from Mexico into the United States.
  • Mexican DTOs smuggled bulk cash drug proceeds totaling tens of billions of dollars from the United States through the Southwest Border and into Mexico. Much of the bulk cash (millions each week) was consolidated by the DTOs in several key areas, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina, where it was prepared for transport to the US-Mexico border and then smuggled into Mexico.
  • According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Mexican DTO members or associates acquire thousands of weapons each year in Arizona, California, and Texas and smuggle them across the border to Mexico.

The report came as a senior US delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returns from Mexico City, where it spent two days in talks with Mexican officials about increasing cooperation in their joint struggle against the drug traffic.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

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The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

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