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Obama Goes to War Against Afghan Opium

In a renewed effort to stamp out the Taliban by cutting off their cash flow, Obama is sending 20,000 troops into opium producing regions of Afghanistan. It's going to be a disaster. Jacob Sullum dug through this New York Times story and found several reasons why this plan will fail spectacularly:

1. Although the Taliban "often fade away when confronted by a conventional army,"
they "will probably stand and fight" to protect their revenue stream.

2. "The terrain is a guerrilla's dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense."  

3. "The opium is tilled in heavily populated areas...The prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population."

4. "Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain."

5. Opium poppies are "by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm."

6. "The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, American officials say."

7. "The country's opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan's roads."

8. "Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban's profits."

There's also the fact that there's enough opium buried somewhere in Afghanistan to supply the entire world for years. Sorry guys, eradication won't work. Stop trying it.

Latin America: Bolivian Cocaine Production Increasing, Official Says

Cocaine production in Bolivia is on the rise, Bolivian anti-drug police chief Óscar Nina told the Associated Press in an interview last week. Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations are contracting to have Bolivian coca paste processed in situ rather than exporting the paste for processing Colombia, he said.

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US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors
Coca leaf is typically harvested by poor farming families. While much goes to traditional markets in this region where the leaf has been chewed for centuries, coca leaf destined for the black market is crushed and processed into coca paste, which is then smuggled abroad to be further refined into cocaine at sophisticated labs in Colombia and elsewhere.

But now, said Nina, middle men from Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia are being hired by drug traffickers to do the final processing into cocaine in Bolivia. From there, the popular drug is smuggled by plane to Colombia and on to the insatiable markets of Europe and North America, or smuggled by men carrying backpacks walking into Peru or Brazil.

"There is more interest and investment in purifying coca paste here and exporting it, rather than sending it to Colombia for purification" as in years past, Nina said.

Police have raided three sophisticated cocaine labs in Bolivia's eastern lowlands this year, Nina said. In one bust, they seized 660 pounds of cocaine and arrested two Colombians. In other raids, no Colombians were found, but evidence of their presence was, said Nina without elaborating.

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca. While Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader, has supported continued coca cultivation, he has opposed cocaine production and trafficking under a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca."

Bolivian police last year busted some 3,000 smaller labs and seized a record 27 tons of cocaine. This year, they have already seized another nine tons and arrested 992 people.

Latin America: Shining Path Kills 14 Soldiers in Peruvian Coca-Growing Area

Leftist guerrillas of the Shining Path killed 14 Peruvian soldiers in a pair of ambushes in Ayacucho province, in the remote and rugged coca-growing region of the VRAE (Apurímac and Ene River valleys) last week, and they are vowing to do it again. Last week's attack on the military was the deadliest since last October, when 13 soldiers and two civilians were killed in an ambush of a military convoy in neighboring Huancavelica province.

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difficult country for terrorist hunting
The Shining Path originated in Ayacucho province as a revolutionary Maoist movement with roots going back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, in an all-out bid for power, the Shining Path battled government forces in a ruthless insurgency and counterinsurgency that left 70,000 Peruvians dead before the group's founder and leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992.

At its height, the Shining Path fielded 10,000 men, with countless thousands of supporters providing infrastructure, but today its numbers of armed combatants are estimated to be between 300 and 500. It is widely held that the group has largely shed its ideology and settled in to a life as a criminal drug trafficking organization. But it can still talk the talk.

"We will fight militarily those who defend imperialism and the government, and they are the armed forces and the police," Victor Quispe Palomino, who identified himself by his rebel name, Comrade José, said in a call to a radio station, Reuters reported.

The ambushes and threats are the group's strongest response yet to a Peruvian government effort to retake control of the VRAE, where some 40,000 families earn a living from coca fields. Since that effort got underway last August, at least 33 soldiers have been killed.

The move in the VRAE is part and parcel of President Alan García's broader effort to suppress coca production through eradication programs backed by the US. The world's second largest coca producer, Peru receives funds from the US for its eradication programs. García's plan also includes building schools and hospitals in remote towns, but it seems the army has a greater presence than the government's development teams.

But the Shining Path is also showing signs of deep pockets. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is profiting from prohibition, and the results can be deadly, said critics of García's program. "The Shining Path is using more and more fire power in each attack," Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister, told RPP Radio in Lima. "The plan has not produced results and the government keeps on insisting on the wrong strategy."

The situation was "unacceptable," said ex-Army chief Edwin Donayre. "There are principles applicable to conventional warfare that do not suffice for non-conventional war," he told RPP. "We have zero results so we need to reconfigure our strategy."

But President García is talking tough. "The terrorists won't hold us back," García said. "Our armed forces are trained to smash them."

Latin America: Colombia's Uribe Seeks to Recriminalize Drug Possession

Since a 1994 Colombian Supreme Court ruling that held criminalizing drug users violated their privacy and autonomy, drug possession has not been a crime in Colombia. But President Álvaro Uribe -- personal abstainer, ally of the US, and recipient of billions in US anti-drug assistance -- tried to recriminalize drug possession during the 2006 presidential election campaign, and now, the Global Post reported earlier this month, he's trying it again.

Under that 1994 ruling, adults may possess up to 20 grams of marijuana, two grams of Ecstasy, and one gram of heroin or cocaine in the privacy of their own homes. It is not, however, a get out of jail free card. In practice, Colombian police are known to charge simple drug possessors with intending to distribute drugs.

Still, the law provides some protections to drug users, and users are mobilizing to defeat the rollback effort. At a recent demonstration outside the presidential palace, pot smoke wafted through the air as protestors made their opposition clear.

"Taking drugs is a private matter," said Daniel Pacheco, 27, a Colombian journalist who helped organize the march. "There are a lot more important things that the government should be concerned about."

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Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Not for Uribe, whose plan for recriminalization envisions drug users arrested and fined or sent to drug treatment -- or jail if they persist in their bad habits. Not only does the politics of recriminalization appeal to Uribe's conservative base in a country where the Roman Catholic Church remains powerful, it is also consistent with Colombia's hard-line fight with the drug trade.

"It's not right for the country to have this ethical contradiction of being severe when it comes to drug production and smuggling, but totally lax and permissive when it comes to consumption," Uribe said in a speech in February.

Still, it is unclear whether even his own administration supports the move. Attorney General Mario Igaurán said recently that the government should focus on high-level drug traffickers rather than worrying about what people do in the privacy of their own homes. And health experts question whether the measure will be effective in getting people into treatment or having success with coerced treatment.

Uribe and his hard-line stance on drugs are increasingly isolated in Latin America. With Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil relaxing some drug laws in recent years, with Argentina threatening to decriminalize drug possession, and with the Mexican Congress this week hosting a debate on legalization, Uribe seems the committed contrarian, marching boldly backward into the dark days of the 20th Century.

Feature: Mexico's Congress Hosts Forum on Marijuana Regulation, Decriminalization

President Obama flew into Mexico City Thursday to, among other things, restate his support for the existing drug war paradigm as he reiterated his backing for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's bloody war against Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and violent drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. It's too bad he didn't schedule his trip for a few days earlier, because then he could have seen a new drug policy paradigm being born.

Earlier in the week, the Mexican Congress held a three-day debate on the merits of decriminalizing the personal use of marijuana. The debate, known as the Forums on the Regulation of Cannabis in Mexico, brought together government officials, elected representatives, academics and experts in a lively discussion of Mexican marijuana policy.

Although Mexico is a socially conservative country, and marijuana use is popularly -- if unfairly -- associated with lower-class criminality, the blood-stained fall-out from President Calderón's war against the cartels is creating social and political space for reform discussions that would have been impossible a decade ago. Since Calderón unleashed the Mexican army against the cartels at the beginning of 2007, the death toll has climbed to more than 10,000, and the spectacular, exemplary violence has shocked Mexican society.

While President Calderón has proposed legislation that would offer pot smokers treatment instead of jail, Calderón and his ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) have stopped short of calling for legalization or decriminalization. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) supports decriminalization, while the smaller Social Democratic Party (PSD) has called for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs.

In 2006, Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, moved to pass decriminalization legislation. But he pulled the bill after being pressured by the US.

While Obama has not weighed in on marijuana legalization or decriminalization in Mexico, the DEA has. Either course would mark "a failure" of US and Mexican drug policy, DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Placido told El Universal Wednesday. "The legalization of marijuana in Mexico would create more misery and more addicts," he said. Nor would it weaken the cartels, he argued; instead, they would simply shift their attention to other illegal activities.

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''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
PSD Deputy Elsa Conde last year introduced three bills that would legalize medical marijuana, legalize hemp, and decriminalize marijuana possession, but the debate in Congress this week does not pertain to any particular piece of legislation. Instead, it lays the groundwork for future policy changes. Lawmakers have said they wanted to hear various viewpoints before considering any changes in the law.

Even the ruling PAN appears open to some sort of reform. "It's clear that a totally prohibitive policy has not been a solution for all ills," said Interior Department official Blanca Heredia. "At the same time, it's illusory to imagine that complete legalization of marijuana would be a panacea."

When it came to marijuana, said Heredia, neither total legalization nor prohibition should be the policy, but something in between. "Every new solution is necessarily partial," she said. "Every decision runs risks and brings with it new problems. We have to try to balance things carefully, to rigorously analyze the impact that different proposals would have on the drug market and the organized crime industry."

Javier González Garza, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in the Chamber of Deputies, said that while he favored decriminalizing marijuana, the topic should be discussed separately from other types of drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and the synthetics.

"What we don't want is the criminalization of our youth for consuming or carrying marijuana," said González. "That is the central point. If we made consuming or carrying marijuana a serious crime, there aren't enough jails in Mexico to hold everybody."

While the politicians talked politics, others took the discussion to loftier realms. Philosopher Rodolfo Vázquez Cardoso questioned whether it is ethically justifiable to criminalize the possession of drugs for personal use. He noted that while the theme of most discussion was the harmful effects of drug use, the central theme should instead be that of freedom.

"There is no legitimate objective of the judicial system to promote good living or virtue because that enters into conflict with the capacity of each individual to choose freely and rationally how to live his life and choose the ideals of virtue in accord with his own preferences," said Vázquez. Drug prohibition, he added, is based on "repressive paternalism" and violates the principle of personal autonomy.

For Ana Paula Hernández of the Angélica Foundation, human rights and the rule of law were key concerns. She cited the "unmeasured militarization of the country as a consequence of the war against organized crime" and warned that those most affected by the drug war were the poor peasant communities that were "the weakest link" of the drug production chain.

"These ideas about controlling prohibited drugs are innovative," said political scientist and drug policy expert Luis Astorga. "When it comes to drugs, we don't have to follow the path of the United States, which hasn't worked. We need to develop ideas and policies distinct from those of the US. We have a very good opportunity to do something independent, as they have in Europe and Canada," he said.

But Armando Patrón Vargas of the National Council Against Addiction in the Health Department said decriminalization wasn't necessary because Mexico doesn't criminalize drug addiction. "I don't see any urgent need to modify the status [of marijuana] and decriminalize use," he told the forum. The Mexican government guarantees treatment of addicts, he said, even if the investment in treatment is inadequate.

Dr. Humberto Brocca, a student of herbal and traditional medicine and a member of the pro-reform Grupo Cáñamo (Cannabis Group) told the forum it was time to end the prejudice and social stigma against pot smokers and urged legislators to be fearless in moving toward regulation "because fear is not a good advisor."

Brocca told the Chronicle Wednesday that while he did not expect quick change in the drug laws, the forum was a start. "It means that society is demanding some truth about important issues," he said.

Even the half-measure of decriminalization would make a big difference, he said. "It would take cannabis out of the criminal circuit and it would lower prices and guarantee good quality," Brocca said. "It would also remove cannabis from its role of rebellious banner for youth, thus making it less attractive for them. It would also help law enforcement to not waste its time on petty issues and focus on important ones, like going after the traffickers. And it would liberate the many people who currently serve time for nothing."

Mexico's lawmakers have had their chance to discuss marijuana law reform. Now it is time to craft and pass the necessary legislation to put those reforms in place. But with mid-term elections coming up in a couple of months, little is likely to happen before then.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Targets Informal Saints of the Poor and the Narcos

Beware San Malverde! Watch out, Santa Muerte! The enemies of Mexico's violent and thriving illicit drug trade are after you. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last weekend that Mexican authorities destroyed dozens of religious shrines paying homage to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), an informal Catholic saint favored by the poor as well as by criminals and drug traffickers, and San Malverde, a similar figure based on a peasant highwayman of the late 19th century.

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San Malverde picture, with Malverde pot leaf, Malverde keychain and Malverde pot leaf belt buckle (author's personal collection)
Images of both saints have been appropriated by Mexico's drug traffickers and have been found on walls, tattoos, pendants, belt buckles, even engraved into the grips of pistols. For US law enforcement, coming across either saint is strongly indicative of drug trade activity. But the saints are also widely revered by Mexico's Catholic poor. Marches for Santa Muerte have drawn thousands of adherents in Mexico City, and San Malverde branded beer is available in Sinaloa, his home state and home of the Sinaloa cartel.

Four shrines to Santa Muerte and one to San Malverde were destroyed last Saturday in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito Beach. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said it was a military action, but the military has not confirmed that. Two days later, city and federal officials destroyed 34 more Santa Muerte chapels that had sprung up in recent years along the highway between Monterrey and the border town of Nuevo Laredo.

For officials, the unsanctioned saints are, like the narcocorridos (drug ballads), celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers, evidence of the drug culture seeping into broader civic culture. "This is a subject that must open a great social debate in Tijuana," Ramos said in an interview last week. "Should we permit these spaces where hired assassins who kill children, families, police seek protection? What side are we on? I am on the side of tranquility and security."

Ramos, a member of President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party (PAN), is pushing censorship as a response to the spreading drug culture. He is agitating for a package of bills before the Baja California legislature that would ban the broadcast of narcocorridos, as well as videos and images that would "glorify" drug traffickers.

But such plans have their critics, who argue that destroying shrines will not accomplish anything and that the informal saints are adored by many who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. "Destroying these chapels is not going to do anything to diminish crime," said Jose Manuel Valenzuela, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana think-tank. "Someone who's going to commit a crime could just as easily go to a Catholic church as a Santa Muerte shrine, or go nowhere at all."

The people who came to the Tijuana shrines last week only to find they had been destroyed were not happy. "I feel so angry," said Zaida Romero, 33, a used-clothing vendor and single mother of seven, standing by the pile of rubble and twisted metal on the day the shrines were destroyed March 21. "She has helped me so, so, so much," said Romero, explaining that La Santa Muerte helped her overcome cancer.

Feature: Failed Drug War Policies in Mexico? Let's Try More of the Same

Mexico and its wave of prohibition-related violence were front and center in Washington this week as the Obama administration unveiled its "comprehensive response and commitment" to US-Mexico border security and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico to preach renewed support in the fight against the powerful drug trafficking organizations, but also to enunciate a mea culpa for the US role in the bloody situation.

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US Border Patrol
More than 9,000 people -- including more than 600 police and soldiers -- have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent out the Mexican armed forces to subdue the cartels at the beginning of 2007, with the pace of killing accelerating last year and early this year. Now, some 45,000 Mexican army troops are part of the campaign, including more than 8,000 that are currently occupying Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, which has seen some of the highest levels of violence anywhere in the country. More than 1,600 were killed there last year, and more than a hundred so far this year.

Calderon intervened in ongoing rivalries between various trafficking organizations, helping to turn what had been turf wars for valuable drug smuggling franchises into a multi-sided battle pitching the cartels against each other and Mexican police and soldiers. The prize is a cross-border smuggling fortune estimated at anywhere between $10 billion and $40 billion and based on Americans' insatiable appetite for the drugs it loves to hate (or hates to love).

On Tuesday, the White House presented its plan to secure the border, including the disbursement of $700 million in previously authorized Plan Merida assistance to Mexico, ramped up enforcement on the US side of the border, and an increased emphasis on demand reduction in the US.

The Plan Merida aid will provide surveillance and information technologies, training for rule of law and justice reform, assistance to Mexican prosecutors in crafting effective witness protection programs, and five helicopters for the Mexican Army and Air Force and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican Navy. Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security is bringing its numerous resources to bear, including doubling Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripling the number of DHS intelligence analysts working the border, beefing up Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff in Mexico, bringing more surveillance technology to ports of entry, bringing more drug dogs to the border, and targeting flows of guns and money south as well as drugs north.

The DEA is adding 16 new agents on the border to its current 1,170 already there and forming four new Mobile Enforcement Teams to go after Mexican meth traffickers, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is moving 100 agents to the border and continuing its program of tracing guns used in drug cartel violence. Even the FBI is getting in on the act by forming a Southwest Intelligence Group to act as a clearinghouse for all FBI activities involving Mexico.

"The whole package we announced today is not only about enforcement and stopping the flow of drugs into the United States and helping Mexico against these very brutal cartels, but it includes money for more drug courts and reduction in demand," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview Tuesday. "So, we look forward to working on the demand side as well as the supply side, but I'll tell you, where the Department of Homeland Security is concerned, it's all about border safety and security and making sure that spillover violence does not erupt in our own country."

Secretary of State Clinton sang much the same tune in Mexico this week, but also bluntly accepted US responsibility for the violence, saying that decades of US anti-drug policies have been a failure and that US demand for drugs drove the trade.

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Clinton's visit came as the chorus calling for change in US prohibitionist drug policies is growing louder. Last month, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico called on the US to radically reassess its drug policies, and increasing concern over the violence in Mexico and its spillover in US border states is only turning up the volume of the calls for legalization.

Law enforcement on the border wants much more help -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called for 1,000 more agents or even National Guard troops -- but Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr., head of the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Association, said the administration move was a start. "The plan the president announced is a help," said Gonzalez. "But we still haven't seen the plan that was supposed to be in place last year."

Gonzalez's remote Zapata County has not seen much spillover from the violence across the river, but that's not the case elsewhere, the sheriff said. "As chairman of the association, I hear regularly from my colleagues that what we are seeing is spillover that has been going on for some time -- extortions, kidnapping, robberies. What we're concerned with now is that with the squeeze on in Mexico, there will be even more spillover here."

While security officials and law enforcement were talking more drug war, other observers doubted that the initiative would have much impact on the cartels and could make an intractable problem even worse. But they also saw an opportunity to advance the cause of ending America's reliance on drug prohibition as the primary approach to drug use.

"This is not a major departure from what was budgeted under the Bush administration," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The most important assistance the US can provide is intelligence-related assets, as in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s -- CIA or NSA-type information that helps the Mexicans target the most violent and powerful of the traffickers. Providing financial assistance to help pay local police more is also helpful, but beefing up the border is largely symbolic and is responding to both legitimate concerns as well as media and political hysteria around this. This is not a departure, not a major new initiative."

"The biggest problem in all this is that Calderon's policies have thrown gasoline on the fire," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "It was utterly foolish of Calderon to get in the middle of a cartel turf war. Those people are all about making money, and the violence isn't going to decline until the cartels reach a modus vivendi among themselves. There are rumors they are trying to do that; they want the killing to stop so they can get back to business."

Neither should we take much comfort in Mexico's ability to occasionally kill or capture a leading cartel figure, said Tree. "It's like killing Al Qaeda's number three man," he laughed grimly. "All it means is someone below him is going to move up, or there will be a struggle to see who replaces him."

For Tree, the situation in Mexico is taking on the ominous aspect of Colombia in the 1990s, where the breakdown of public security led to vigilantism and death squad activity, the predecessors of the Colombian paramilitaries. "When people became to realize the state was powerless to stop prohibition-related violence, it opened the door for other criminal activities, including kidnapping, and what makes this really dangerous is that now the ability of the state to protect individuals comes into question."

But Tree also noted that the situation in Mexico is forcing American media and policymakers to at least address calls for drug legalization. "This is doing what Colombia and Afghanistan couldn't do, which is to bring the violence of prohibition right to our door step and rub our faces in it," said Tree. "Calderon got in between some hornets' nests with a fly swatter, and now people in both countries have to make a choice. Mexicans supported this at first, but when they realized this isn't ending but is instead getting worse, they asked why he picked this fight."

"I'm worried about the militarization of the border and the assumption that that will fix this," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "On the other hand, it seems to be causing a growing crescendo of people wanting to talk about drug legalization. It's as if a critical mass has been arrived at. The recent statement by the three Latin American presidents was a voltaic shock to get the discussion going, and with the violence in Mexico, one has to acknowledge that a preponderance of the evidence shows the present model for drug control is not working. Even though there is a huge, formidable self-interested drug prohibition lobby, the logic of legalization is becoming so compelling it becomes all but impossible not to address it."

That political space to discuss legalization is changing things, Birns said. "Organizations like my own, which were timorous about taking on this issue now feel much more at ease with the clear recognition that everything else has failed. The possibility of legalization has to be seriously reviewed, inspected, and debated now."

Nadelmann suggested the current crisis could and should open debate about effective demand reduction strategies. "If we want to help Mexico by reducing demand, and want to give the notion more than lip service, then we have to remove the ideological inhibitions that limit our ability to effectively reduce demand," he said. "A small number of drug users consume a significant portion of all drugs. The traditional answer is to get more serious about drug treatment and rehab, but it could also mean providing addicts with legal sources of the drugs they are consuming. We know it works with heroin; the same approach deserves to be tried with cocaine and meth."

"The other thing we can do," Nadelmann argued, "is to move in the direction of legalizing marijuana. We know have 40% of Americans in favor of it, and it's approaching 50% out West. This is the first time a furor over drug-related violence has been so powerfully linked with marijuana prohibition. That mere fact that so many law enforcement people are saying it lends it credibility. This is putting the notion of marijuana legalization as a partial solution to prohibition-related violence on the edge of the mainstream political discussion in the US. With the Ammiano bill in California, Barney Frank's bill waiting to be introduced, Sen. Webb pushing for his commission, the conversation is really bubbling up now."

And so it goes. As the prohibition-related violence in Mexico continues and as the US appears to be heading down the reflexive path of fighting drug war failure with more drug war, the prohibitionist consensus grows ever more brittle. It's a shame that so many Mexicans have to die to get us to shift the direction of our dialogue on drugs.

Latin America: Peru to Export Coca Beer

A coca trade fair in Lima designed to demonstrate that coca is not cocaine showcased a number of products, but the star of the show was a coca leaf beer whose manufacturer has plans to export it to markets in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The fair was organized by the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONPACCP), the country's largest coca growers' union.

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Cerveza Apu coca beer (photo from malamarxa.blogspot.com)
The coca beer, sold under the brand name Apu by the entrepreneurial Alarcón family of Andahuaylas, is already being sold (and eagerly consumed) in Peru's Andean region, as well as markets in Lima. General manager Manuel Alarcón told Living in Peru the beer was a big hit with tourists at Machu Picchu. But with a production capacity of 180,000 bottles a month, Alarcón is looking outside the domestic market.

Alarcon said the paperwork is already underway to export Apu to China, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela. That seems like a breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, which sought to phase out use of the coca plant, excepting de-cocainized products such as Coca Cola. Some contest that interpretation of international law, however, and given that Venezuela has already inked deals with Bolivia to import coca products, it seems the treaty is sometimes observed only in the breach.

"Thankfully China is a country where coca leaves are accepted and its derivatives can easily enter the country," said Alarcón.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. While some of the country's hundreds of thousands of small producers are registered with the national coca monopoly and deliver their harvests to it, the majority of producers are not legally growing the plant, and much of it is destined for the insatiable international cocaine market.

The situation has led to years of conflict between coca growers and the Peruvian national government. If recent reports are to be believed, it is now leading to a resurgence of the Shining Path and an increasingly violent counterinsurgency operation by the Peruvian military in the Apurímac and Ene River valleys.

Latin America: Mexico Prohibition Violence Catches Washington's Eye, New Initiatives Pending

When lawmakers in Washington managed to tear themselves away from the AIG bonus scandal, much of their attention this week was focused on Mexico. With prohibition-related violence there showing no sign of a let-up -- more than a thousand people have been killed already this year -- legislators held a number of hearings this week to assess the threat and see what the Obama administration plans to do about it.

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DEA Spanish-language poster targeting Mexican trafficking organization (2007)
At a joint hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations posed a direct threat to the US. Citing a recent Justice Department report, he said they have a presence in at least 230 US cities.

But Durbin also said some of the blame resides north of the border. "The insatiable demand for illegal drugs in the United States keeps the Mexican drug cartels in business every day," he said.

"The facts about what is going on in Mexico are staggering, imposing an enormous threat to the United States," concurred Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

In the face of increasingly shrill congressional demands to "do something," Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who oversees the border as head of the Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration is working on an integrated plan to address the seemingly unending violence, much of it taking place in the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexican cities on the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

He said likely measures would include efforts to clamp down on the flow of guns into Mexico, tightening border security, and increased support for the Mexican military. "I think we'll have good plans come out of this work this week," he said.

Renuart also hinted that the new plan could involve more boots on the ground in the border region. "Certainly, there may be a need for additional manpower," he said. "Whether that is best suited or best provided by National Guard or additional law enforcement agencies, I think, this planning team will really lead us to," he told the committee.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed some 50,000 troops in his war against the cartels, including some 8,500 who occupied Juárez and took over policing duties there last week. But Calderón's two-year-old offensive has only led to increasing levels of brutal and exemplary violence. More than 2,000 people died in the cartel wars in 2007, more than 5,000 last year, and the pace of killings this year should yield similar numbers.

But DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Plácido told the joint committee that the escalating violence was a "desperate attempt" by traffickers to fight off the government offensive. "DEA assesses that the current surge in violence is driven in large measure by the government of Mexico's offensive against these traffickers who, in turn, perceive themselves as fighting for a larger share of a shrinking market," he said.

With passage of last year's Mérida Initiative, the US has pledged some $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid to Mexico over the next three years. The first tranche of that aid has already been delivered, providing Mexico with helicopters and sophisticated surveillance equipment.

On Wednesday, in the week's first concrete action to crack down on the border, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was sending 50 Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to the border to try to cut down the flow of weapons headed south.

Europe: Dutch Mayors Say Border Coffee Shops to Close in Bid to Stifle Drug Tourism

The mayors of the Dutch border towns of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom confirmed Thursday that they will shut down all marijuana selling coffee shops in their towns by September 16. They said that by closing the coffee shops they hoped to end the public nuisances created by an influx of some 25,000 non-Dutch pot buyers a week.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/smokey.jpg
Smokey coffee shop in Amsterdam -- not closing down (courtesy amsterdam.info
Because of more repressive laws in neighboring countries such as France and Germany, Dutch coffee shops have been a favorite haunt of pot seekers in northwestern Europe. But the huge numbers of foreigners coming to the border towns has created traffic, public order, and other problems. Mayors of other border towns have responded with plans to move coffee houses from city centers to the outskirts.

The conservative Dutch national coalition government, while desiring to see an end to the coffee shops, has committed to taking no action until after new elections in 2010. That leaves the regulatory field to the mayors.

An attorney for coffee shop owners said there was little he could do until coffee shops are actually closed down. "But if you want to change drug policy, you first need to discuss it nationally and also check EU law if you want to discourage European tourists," said Harrie Nieland.

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