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Latin America: Bloody Easter Weekend in Mexico's Drug Wars

Prohibition-related violence in Mexico took no break for the Easter holiday, with 59 people killed in the three-day period between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, according to Mexican press reports compiled by New Mexico State University's Frontera NorteSur (FNS) news service. The victims included former and current policemen, four soldiers, street-level drug dealers, used car salesmen, and an American citizen, Cuban-born Humberto Flores, who was gunned down in Cancun.

The violence ran the length and breadth of the country, with killings occurring in the northern border states (Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas), the center (Guanajuato, Mexico state), the Yucatan peninsula (Quintana Roo), the east coast (Veracruz), and the Pacific Coast (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Sinaloa). As FNS noted: "Once again, the geographical pattern of killings demonstrates how organized crime has extended its violent reach to virtually every nook and cranny of the country."

But there are hotspots, and one of them is Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso. Nearly two dozen killings took place there over Easter weekend, including four people found burned to death at Los Lamentos ("The Regrets"), Chihuahua, on the New Mexico border. The police chief there crossed the US border into New Mexico seeking asylum after his deputies quit, saying he feared drug traffickers.

Further down the river in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the body of Araceli de la Cruz, a 47-year-old woman kidnapped March 13, was dumped in front of an army post blindfolded and with a mutilated hand stuffed in her mouth. Accompanying the body was a note addressed to a Mexican army general warning of the fate that befalls informers.

In the past two years, as the Mexican government has undertaken massive offensives against the drug trafficking organizations, and the cartels have fought among themselves for control of lucrative franchises, the death toll has been around 2,000 a year. It looks as if 2008 is on, if not ahead of, the pace. And the killing continues: Nine more murders were reported in Ciudad Juárez by mid-week this week.

Simple Farmers Bearing Brunt of Afghan Drug War

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kalif Mathieu is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section at http://stopthedrugwar.org/about/staff It was reported by the Associated Press on March 24 that 100 Afghan drug police were killed in the line of duty in 2007. One hundred deaths, not even counting civilians, simply to claim 13 provinces out of the country's 34 as poppy-free, seems like a brutal waste. And the war isn't truly even being fought against drugs, or even against a logical enemy of the state like the Taliban. This war is being fought against simple farmers, mostly in the remote and unruly provinces that don't have strong state presence. Farmers are thereby forced to pay taxes totaling in the tens of millions to non-governmental entities like the Taliban, essentially for "safe passage" in these lawless areas. This cost makes it a necessity, not merely an option, to secure the profits of growing opium. According to the World Bank: "[T]he cultivation of opium poppy started in the late 1970s -- with gross income per hectare yields 12 to 30 times higher than the country's staple, wheat." Given those numbers, it's easy to see why farmers living on the edge in a lawless province paying taxes to people like the Taliban would use opium growing to give themselves a little breathing room. It isn't that these farmers ideologically support opium or heroin use, or support the Taliban, quite the contrary. From the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's John Dixon of the Agricultural Management, Marketing and Finance Service in 2004: "Opium is not a crop of choice for most Afghan farmers. There are just no attractive alternatives at present that can give them a return anywhere near the return opium gives." So why is it that the focus of all of this on eliminating the growth of poppies instead of increasing central government jurisdiction, thereby increasing general security? Even after clearing these 13 provinces of opium, farmers have started planting marijuana instead, according to the AP, and so the struggle continues. Stop wasting time and money and lives burning fields of cropland and start working on protecting these farmers from Taliban extortion! This would seem a much more positive plan of action than destroying their livelihoods and committing them to poverty. The process would also reduce Taliban funding since they would have fewer and fewer farmers to exploit. That may sound optimistic, but at least aiming for the goal of security is a little more helpful to the people and realistic to work toward than trying to eliminate the drug trade in a place like Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan doesn't even agree 100% with the United State's approach to the situation: in late 2007 the US was pushing to spray opium fields with pesticides from the air, but the Afghanis wouldn't allow it.
Location: 
Afghanistan

They're Producing Cocaine in Brazil Now, Too

Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, the cartels controlling the cocaine trade will continue to expand their operations and defy US-funded eradication efforts in South America.

RIO DE JANEIRO, March 17 (UPI) -- A large-scale coca plant and cocaine production operations have been discovered in Brazil, the first of their kind, authorities said

At least four separate farms were found in the Amazon rain forest by way of satellite imagery analyzed by Brazilian officials, Agencia Estado news agency reported Monday.

The discovery shocked authorities, as coca plants do not normally thrive in the dense, humid Amazon rain forest. [UPI]

I suppose these precious rainforests become less humid when you burn them down to plant coca. Now that they know it works, we can expect much, much more of this. I wrote recently about the inevitable destruction of rainforests throughout South America if we continue mindlessly chasing coca production in circles. This latest move into Brazil is another step towards that outcome.

The thriving cocaine industry cannot be stopped, but it can be regulated and controlled to prevent violence, corruption, and environmental destruction. Some might call this "giving up," but when you're doing something so phenomenally expensive and ineffective, giving up eventually becomes your only option. Besides, I'd rather give up on the drug war than the rainforest anyway.

Location: 
United States

Latin America: First Coca Plantations, Cocaine Lab Found in Brazil

In an ominous sign for US coca eradication efforts in South America, the Brazilian military said Sunday it had for the first time discovered coca plantations and a cocaine laboratory on its national territory. Coca has been grown by indigenous people in the Andes for thousands of years, and in recent years, three countries -- Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- have accounted for all the world's coca leaf.

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coca seedlings
The Brazilian army used helicopters and small boats to reach the coca fields and lab in a remote area near the northwestern city of Tabatinga, close to the borders with Peru and Colombia. The fields were discovered when satellite photos showed large clearings hacked out of the jungle.

Lt. Col. Antônio Elcio Franco Filho told reporters Sunday finding coca plants was a surprise. "It is the first time these plantations have been found in Brazil," he said, adding that the find had prompted authorities to look for more fields in the region.

"This is new in Brazil and it's a concern," Walter Maierovitch, an organized crime expert who once headed Brazil's anti-drug efforts, told the government's Agência Brasil news service. "It could mean a change in the geo-strategy of some Colombian cartels."

While coca grows well in the Andean-Amazon highlands, the climate in the Amazon basin is not believed to be favorable to coca cultivation. But according to Franco Filho, the leaf growing in Brazil could be adapted to that climate.

"We believe they are using a transgenic or an adaptation of the leaf used in the Andean region," Franco Filho said. "They are probably trying to find new locations to grow this, so we need to stay alert. Authorities need to crack down on them immediately. If we don't do anything it might even become a source of deforestation."

By Monday, US anti-drug officials were raising alarms. "Brazilian law enforcement is going to have to be vigilant on this front, so it doesn't become a major producer," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Associated Press. If coca can be successful grown there, said Courtney, "the Amazon would be a perfect area, with all the brush and uninhabited areas. It almost creates a perfect opportunity. Drug traffickers and organizations are always moving to new areas."

No one was arrested in the raid. Brazil, whose status as the world's number two cocaine consumer nation may be threatened by the rising popularity of the drug in Europe, may now be about to join the elite ranks of the coca producing nations.

Latin America: Bolivia Defies UN Drug Watchdog, Will Fund Push for Expanded Coca Markets

Last week, the UN-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called on Bolivia and Peru to ban the growing and chewing of the coca plant, but both governments have rejected that call. The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales is going a step further: Instead of banning the plant, it announced that it plans to spend $300,000 this year in an effort to develop legal markets for coca products.

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Bolivian display at UN drug summit featuring coca-3000 years posters
Although used traditionally and non-problematically for thousands of years in South America, the coca leaf is also the source of cocaine. All the world's coca comes from three countries -- Colombia (50%), Peru (33%), and Bolivia (17%).

While Morales, a former coca grower union leader, first announced the funding last month, his government decided to publicize it in the wake of the INCB call last week. Vice Ministry of Social Defense spokesman Ilder Cejas told the Associated Press Tuesday the money would go to promote the "industrialization" of the coca leaf. The Bolivian government hopes that by broadening legal markets for coca products, such as tea, toothpaste, flour, and herbal medicines, it can rescue the leaf from the drug trade.

Although use of coca preparations is common in the Andes, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Drugs, which, along with its successor treaties, forms the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime, lists the coca plant as a banned drug, like cocaine, heroin, and opium. Under the 1961 treaty, coca chewing was to be "abolished" by 1987. That hasn't happened.

Latin America: INCB Calls on Peru, Bolivia to Ban Coca Chewing

In its 2007 Annual Report, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to ban coca chewing, as well as its sale or export. The indigenous people of the Andes have chewed coca for thousands of years, and the call is likely to fall on deaf ears in the Andes.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia
The INCB is a 23-member independent commission that works with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and other international organizations to monitor implementation of the series of international treaties that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime. While its remit includes ensuring adequate supplies of drugs are available for medical and scientific uses (see related story here), it spends much of its resources trying to prevent any deviations from the global prohibitionist drug policy status quo. For instance, this year, the INCB once again criticized Canada for allowing harm reduction measures such as the Vancouver safe injection site and the distribution of "safe crack use kits."

In its review of coca and cocaine production in South America, the board noted that despite multi-billion dollar eradication efforts in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- responsible for 50%, 33%, and 17% of coca production, respectively -- cocaine production had remained stable at between 800 and 1,000 tons a year for the past decade. The way to get at cocaine production is to eliminate coca production, the board suggested.

"The Board requests the Government of Bolivia and Peru to take measures to prohibit the sale, use and attempts to export coca leaf for purposes which are not in line with the international drug control treaties," the group said. "The Board is concerned by the negative impact of increased coca leaf production and cocaine manufacture in the region."

It urged governments "to establish as a criminal offense" using coca leaf to make tea, flour, or other products. That would undercut efforts in all three countries to develop and expand markets for coca products.

Reaction from Bolivia, where former coca leader President Evo Morales has called for the removal of the coca plant from the list of substances banned by the international drug treaties, was swift and negative. "In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca,'' said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. "To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity," he told Bloomberg News Service Wednesday.

Treating coca as if it were a dangerous drug was "absurd," said Wade Davis, an author and botanist who studied coca in Colombia. "Coca is as vital to the Andes as the Eucharist is to Catholics," he told the news service. "There is no evidence of toxicity or addiction in 4,000 years of use."

The INCB call to ban coca use was also met by a sharp attack from the Transnational Institute, whose Drugs and Democracy Project seeks to develop and implement pragmatic, harm reduction approaches to global drug issues. "The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures," said Pien Metaal, a TNI researcher specializing in coca issues. "Isn't it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?"

Not only does the INCB proposal violate the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, it "would mean the prosecution of several million people in the Andean-Amazon region," TNI said. "It targets not just consumers, but also peasants who grow coca."

"The Board's position makes no sense," said Metaal. "It would criminalize entire peoples for a popular tradition and custom that has no harm and is even beneficial."

Latin America: Colombian Peasants Battle Police Over Coca Crops

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's plan to manually eradicate 250,000 acres of coca plants this year ran into violent opposition last week as some 2,000 peasants blocked a highway outside Medellin, smashed a toll booth, and fought with police in protest of Uribe's campaign. The peasant farmers are demanding two years to shift to legal crops.

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coca seedlings
A few days later, the violence over coca cultivation spread to the Venezuelan border, where two soldiers and three leftist rebels were killed in clashes over coca fields. The soldiers and rebels died in a Monday clash in Santander province.

The US and Colombian governments have spent billions of dollars in recent years in efforts to eradicate coca crops there, but the country remains the world's leading coca and cocaine producer. The protests by peasants and shoot-outs between soldiers and rebels illustrate the obstacles faced by Uribe and his allies in Washington.

For the peasant farmers outside Medellin, protecting their coca crops is a matter of survival, said local officials. "They are asking for solutions to their food security and sustenance," the mayor of the town of Tarazá, Miguel Ángel Gómez, told Reuters.

"We're protesting because if they finish off the illegal crops, which we all know are illegal and damaging, then they finish off our way of sustaining our families," one farmer told local television.

The Colombian government has blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group, with fomenting the protests. Like many other actors in the Colombian conflict, the FARC profits from the coca and cocaine trade.

Latin America: Colombian Soldiers Convicted of Killing Colombian Narcotics Police

In one of the most depraved cases of corruption in the Colombian armed forces in recent years, a Colombian court Monday convicted an army colonel and 14 soldiers of massacring 10 members of an elite, US-trained anti-drug police unit and an informant at the behest of drug traffickers. A judge in Cali found Col. Bayron Carvajal and his soldiers guilty of aggravated homicide for the May 2006 ambush outside a rural nursing home near Cali. The men will be sentenced in two weeks.

The soldiers bushwhacked the police unit as it was about to seize 220 pounds of cocaine that the informant had told them was stashed inside a psychiatric facility in the town of Jamundí. The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds at the police and attacked them with hand grenades. Six of the police officers were found to have been shot at close range. No drugs were recovered.

During the trial, more than a hundred witnesses testified. Some of them linked Carvajal to both leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Carvajal claimed his troops were attacking leftist rebels working with drug traffickers, but that didn't fly. Neither did the military's original explanation that the deaths were accidental. The military later conceded that its inquiries suggested links between the soldiers and drug gangs operating in the region.

Under Plan Colombia, the US has sent an average of $650 million a year in recent years to fight the drug trade and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Most of that money has gone to expand, equip, and train the Colombian military and police. Part of the rationale for that aid was that it would reduce corruption and human rights abuses in the Colombian armed forces.

The Carvajal case is not the only one to tarnish the image of the Colombian military lately. In the last two years, high-ranking military officers have been accused of selling secrets to drug traffickers to help them escape capture and planting fake bombs to advance their careers. Killings of noncombatants by the military are also reportedly on the increase after decreasing during the early years of Plan Colombia.

Meanwhile, for all the billions spent, that Colombian cocaine just keeps on coming.

Editorial: Politicians Are Too Scared to Talk About Drug Prohibition, So We Must Talk

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
Each week, as many of you know, our editor Phil Smith compiles a list of the latest reports on police corruption relating to the drug laws: "This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories." Phil has been writing these for more than five years -- I won't let him stop -- and in all that time I can only remember a single week in which he was unable to find any relevant news articles. Whatever one thinks of the police, the bottom line is that the drug laws corrupt some of them, and so long as we have these drug laws they always will.

To the south, a court in the nation of Colombia dealt with the perpetrators of a particularly troubling incident of government corruption at a level I hope we never see here. In May 2006, a judge found, an Army colonel and 14 of his troops massacred 10 Colombian narcotics police, ambushing them outside the city of Cali as they prepared to seize 220 pounds of cocaine to which they had been pointed (rightly or wrongly) by an informant. Mexico may even have it worse right now. In 2006 and 2007 roughly 4,000 people have been murdered in drug trade violence, and police are among the many suspects. While police corruption and drug trade violence have certainly taken their toll on our country here in the north, we should by no means rule out the possibility that things could get even worse.

And so the US government should take a lesson from the experience of Colombia, both for their sakes and for ours. Colombia is fighting the drug war in the way it does, in part because they have been pushed into it by US diplomatic pressure. Colombian cognoscenti in significant number understand that it is prohibition which causes drug trade violence, and that Colombia would be better off with some form of drug legalization -- The understanding may fall short of an outright consensus, but it is an understanding that is widely held nonetheless. Many US policymakers privately understand this too, but for reasons both political and ideological they not only refuse to deal with it, but in many cases continue to actively push other countries in the wrong direction. To be fair, drug warrior politicians in Colombia presumably find the drug laws useful for political purposes as well.

The situation is a wrongful one, and should be changed. Colombia doesn't deserve to be torn apart by flawed drug policies that it didn't invent, and it is our users here who buy most of their product anyway and thereby make it possible. There are viable options for reducing the harms of substance that don't involve prohibition, and which therefore don't cause drug trade violence, don't cause corruption, don't place addicts into the hell we've all seen, and that could actually work. Just because we talk about making drugs legal doesn't mean we won't still offer treatment, that the addicted won't organize for self-help, that we can no longer seek to discourage drug use or do harm reduction for those who don't listen. The exact best regulation system or set of programs is hard to tell, and every possible scenario has both pros and cons. But they all have in common that they are preferable to prohibition for almost every important measure one can construct.

The victims of the drug laws -- in Colombia, here, everywhere -- don't deserve what is being done to them. Since our politicians are mostly too scared to talk about this, it is therefore up to us to press the case. Bit by bit, the public will hear our ideas, and eventually turn our way. It is only an unfortunate matter of how many lives get ruined in the meanwhile.

No Relief in Sight: Reynosa, Mexico, Military Occupation Yields No Let-Up in Drug War Violence

In the latest move in his ongoing war against Mexico's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- President Felipe Calderón last month sent some 6,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police into the cities on his side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Nuevo Laredo down to Matamoros. They disarmed the municipal police forces, who are widely suspected of being in the pay of the traffickers, established checkpoints between and within cities, and are conducting regular patrols in Reynosa and elsewhere.

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Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
The crackdown on the Tamaulipas border towns came after a bloody year last year. According to the Reynosa-based Center for Border Studies and the Protection of Human Rights (CEFPRODHAC), drug prohibition-related violence claimed 67 lives in Tamaulipas border towns last year. But it was only after a violent shootout in Rio Bravo (between Reynosa and Matamoros) last month that resulted in several traffickers killed and nearly a dozen soldiers wounded, and the cartel's retaliatory attacks on army patrols in the center of Reynosa the next day that Calderón sent in the soldiers.

Since then, the military occupation has put a damper on the economy -- and especially the nightlife -- of Reynosa and other valley border towns, but it hasn't stopped the killing. According to CEFPRODHAC, as of Tuesday, 18 more people have been killed in the Tamaulipas drug wars so far this year, accounting for the vast majority of the 25 killings overall. In Reynosa, a whopping 12 of the city's 14 homicides this year were related to the drug war, including one Sunday night.

If the army hasn't stopped the killing, it has brought the city's tourist economy to a near halt. Several bar and club owners in the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone near the international bridge said they had been ordered to close at 10:00pm by soldiers or police. They also said it barely mattered, because they weren't getting any business anyway.

"We used to have the Texans coming across to party," said one club owner who asked not to be named. "Now they don't come. They don't want to be harassed by the soldiers."

Workers in some of Reynosa's seedier industries -- prostitutes, strip joint workers, pirate taxi drivers -- even led a protest march two weeks ago, complaining that the occupation was making it impossible for them to earn a living. (A pair of Reynosa businessmen who absolutely declined to go on the record claimed that the march was backed by the narcos, but that is a charge that is yet unproven.)

While Calderón's resort to sending in the army -- more than 20,000 troops have been deployed to hotspots in the past year -- has won praise in Washington and even some support among Reynosans tired of the violence, it is also leading to a spike in human rights abuses, according to CEFPRODHAC. "We have had 11 complaints of abuse filed with us since the soldiers came," said Juan Manuel Cantú, head of the group's documentation office. "One in Rio Bravo and 10 here. People are complaining that the soldiers enter their homes illegally, that they torture them, that they steal things from their homes -- electronic equipment, jewelry, even food. The soldiers think they're at war, and everyone here on the border is a narco," Cantú complained.

CEFPRODHAC dutifully compiles and files the complaints, Cantú said, but has little expectation that the military will act to address them. The military opened a human rights office last month, but it has so far made little difference, he said. "Until now, there is no justice. When the complaints go to SEDENA [the office of the secretary of defense], they always say there are no human rights violations."

When the abuses come at the hands of the police or the military, victims or relatives will at least file complaints, even if they don't have much expectation of results. But when it comes to abuses by the narcos, the fear of retaliation is too great for the victims or their families to complain. "People don't want to talk about those crimes," said Cantú. "They won't talk to us or the official human rights organizations, they won't talk to the military, they won't talk to the federal police. They feel threatened by the narcos."

Paired with Brownsville and McAllen on the Texas side, Reynosa, Matamoros, and the other cities on the Mexican side are part of a bi-national conurbation with a combined population somewhere around three million. (Roughly 700,000 people in the McAllen area, 400,000 in the Brownsville area, 700,000 in Matamoros, another 500,000 in Reynosa, and a few tens of thousands scattered in between). Spanish is the most commonly heard tongue on both sides of the border. While the military occupation and the drug war violence (for the most part) is restricted to the Mexican side, the drug trade and the drug war are felt on both sides, albeit in different ways.

Mike Allen is vice-chair of the Texas Border Commission, a non-governmental entity that seeks to represent the interest of elected officials on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Among the commission's primary concerns are facilitating cross-border trade and fending off what it sees as bone-headed responses to concerns about security on the border.

Number one on the commission's list of complaints is the planned border wall, which is set to cut across South Texas, forcing landowners to go through distant gates to get to portions of their property beyond the fence and, according to unhappy local officials, damaging the environment without serving its stated purpose of controlling the border. Local officials and landowners are now engaged in legal battles with the Department of Homeland Security as the department threatens to exercise eminent domain to seize property for the wall.

"The wall is a huge waste of money," said Allen. "Those of us living here know that. The Mexicans will go over, under, or around it. But you have to remember that 99% of the people coming across that border are trying to get jobs. They're not criminals or terrorists or drug traffickers."

But some of them are, he conceded, pointing a finger at his own compatriots. "The reason we have so much drug trafficking here is that we have so many American citizens taking drugs," said Allen. "It doesn't matter what we do -- the drug trafficking will continue one way or another because there is such a demand for it in the US."

The drug trade has not adversely affected local economies, said Allen. That is perhaps an understatement. While the Lower Rio Grande Valley has high indices of poverty, it also has gleaming office towers, numerous banks, high-end specialty stores, thrumming traffic, and gigantic shopping centers like La Plaza in McAllen, where the JC Penney's store stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone -- customers and employees alike -- seems to be speaking Spanish.

"We have more banks here than we have 7-11s," former DEA agent and valley resident Celerino Castillo chuckled ruefully. "This is supposed to be a poor area, but everybody's driving Escalades."

But while the drug trade may not have hurt business along the border, the drug prohibition-related violence associated with it has -- on both sides of the border. "People hear about those shootings, and they don't want to cross the bridge into Mexico," said Allen. "A lot of Americans don't want to cross into Mexico, and that means some of them won't be coming here on their way," he said.

And while there is much noise about corruption in Mexico, that door swings both ways, said Castillo, who first came to public attention when he exposed US-linked drug-running out of El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base during the Central American wars of the 1980s in his book Powderburns.

"There is corruption on both sides of the border," said Castillo. "The drug war isn't about stopping drugs; it's about lining pockets. That's why this billion dollar aid package is just bullshit. We've been fighting this war for 30 years, and we're worse off than when we started."

Castillo regularly works gun shows in the area selling Vietnam-era memorabilia, and he said he regularly encounters cartel members there. "They're always showing up looking for weaponry," he said, "along with members of the Mexican military. It's very, very busy."

Some handguns are in high demand by cartel members, said Castillo. "They really like the Belgian FN Herstal P90 because they can easily remove the serial number," he explained. "These things retail for $1,000, but cartel buyers will turn around and pay $2,500 for them, and whoever takes them across the border gets $4,000 a weapon," he said.

Other, heavier, weapons and munitions are not available in the civilian gun market, but that just means the cartels use other networks, Castillo said. "The heavy weapons, the grenade launchers, the mass quantities of ammo are only available in military armories, here or in Central America. We sell tons of weapons to the Salvadoran Army, and it's my belief they're turning around and selling them to the cartels."

The drug trade thrives off poverty of both sides of the border, said one local observer. "In reality, you can put a lot of money into policing, but people have to eat, people have to survive," said Marco Davila, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas-Brownsville. "If there are no jobs, you have to do something. It's not just the drug trade, there is also prostitution, theft, and other forms of deviance."

What is needed on both sides of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is real assistance, not massive anti-drug programs for law enforcement, said Davila. "You can put that money wherever, but if the people are still hurting, it will be a toss-up whether it will work. The people who need money are not the cops and soldiers," he said.

CEFPRODHAC's Cantú agreed with that assessment. "That money isn't going to make us safe," he said. "It won't do anything good. If the soldiers get that US aid, it will only mean more violence. They are prepared for war, not policing. What we need are programs for drug education and prevention, even here in Mexico, but especially in the United States," he said. When asked about drug legalization, Cantú was willing to ponder it. "It might stop the violence," he mused.

On the Texas side, said Davila, a culture of poverty traps whole generations of poor Latinos. "Look at these kids in Brownsville," he said. "They have no hope. They've given up. They're not talking about trying hard. They're saying 'We're gangsters, we're gonna sell drugs.' People used to have tattoos of the Virgin of Guadelupe, but now she's been replaced by Scarface."

On the other side of the river, poverty drives the drug trade, too -- as well as illegal immigration. "The Mexicans are just broke, scared, and hungry. They have nothing else," said Davila. "If they don't want to go into an illegal trade, like drug trafficking, they come across the border any way they can. People are putting their lives on the line to cross that river," he said.

And many of them are paying the ultimate price. According to reports from Reynosa human rights watchers, 75 would-be immigrants drowned in the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros last year. Another five have drowned already this year.

And so it goes on the Mexican border. Just as it has for the past 20 years, when in yet another stark example of the law of unintended consequences, then President Reagan appointed Vice President George Bush to head a task force designed to block Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes. From that moment, what had previously been relatively small, local, family smuggling operations carrying loads of marijuana into the US began morphing into the Frankenstein monster known as the cartels.

Mexico and the United States are inextricably intertwined. A solution to the problems of drug abuse and the violent black market drug trade is going to have to be a joint solution. But few observers on the ground think throwing more money at Mexico's drug war is the answer.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School