The U.S.-financed War on Drugs has had savage results in Mexico, and now its president wants to decriminalize pot, cocaine and heroin possession.
By Silja J.A. Talvi / AlterNet / Posted October 14, 2008.
Even on his most homicidal of days, Al Pacino’s character in Scarface couldn’t even approach the level of drug trafficking-related brutality bleeding down Mexico’s streets. It is no longer unusual for the Mexican news media to report on yet another, freshly decapitated head stuck atop a fencepost or a metal spike, or a garbage bag filled with body parts, usually with a hand-scrawled note or placard attached. That amounts to a cartel’s calling card, and it’s usually delivered in the form of a warning to a rival cartel, or for the Mexican authorities to stay away and stop seizing their drugs. Other times, it’s just a chilling placard intended to strike terror into the hearts of the people who come across the gory scene and the text: “Ha Ha Ha.” To be sure that their message is heard, cartels are known to send regular text messages to newspaper reporters, place newspaper advertisements, or to even upload their own killing videos (sometimes accompanied by narco-corridos as background music) to YouTube.
Mexican drug cartels are, rather effectively, fighting the government’s War on Drugs with their own War of Terror, often swelling their ranks (and combat/terror tactics) with former members of law enforcement. The Zetas, for instance, are members of former Mexican counter-narcotics squads (some with U.S.-assisted training under their belts), who have become the self-proclaimed and much-feared hit men of the Gulf cartel.
So far this year, roughly 3,500 murders have been directly attributed to the drug war in Mexico, surpassing last year’s estimate of 2,500. (These numbers include the murders of at least 500 soldiers, cops, judges, politicians — and their family members — in nearly two years. The drug war rages across Mexico’s urban and (mostly) rural terrain, and murders are usually targeted toward pronounced rivals, but increasing numbers of victims are innocent bystanders, including women and children who were previously considered off-limits where acts of drug war-related retaliation were concerned.
Reports of attacks are rolling in daily, sometimes several times a day. This Sunday, unidentified gunmen shot up the United States consulate in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. While no injuries were reported there because the consulate was closed, six young adults attending a private celebration were killed on Saturday in the violence-and-drug-plagued Mexican border state of Chihuahua, in Ciudad Juárez. Those murders, as yet unsolved, followed on the heels of 11 homicides in a Chihuahua bar, when a gunman opened fire on unsuspecting patrons, including a prominent journalist who may or may not have been a specific target.
It should be of note that much of the worst drug war violence is happening right at the border: Tijuana, adjacent to San Diego, saw nearly 40 people murdered in the last week of September alone, in addition to nearly 25 deaths of male and female prisoners the previous week due to two major riots at the vastly overcrowded Tijuana State Prison. (Prisoners alleged frequent incidents of torture and sexual violence, sometimes leading to death, at the hands of guards.)
American newspapers located in border cities and states tend to report some of the more gruesome events and mass killings, but the rest of this country seems remarkably in the dark about what’s happening to our Mexican neighbors, much less the fact that the violence has increased dramatically since U.S. drug war dollars have increased in the form of support for Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s militarily-minded crackdown on trafficking, with the goal of dismantling the cartels’ leadership apparatus, as well as breaking apart close alliances between local authorities, cops, and drug traffickers. (Corruption in Mexican law enforcement and military is epidemic; consider that many police officers in Mexico make no more than $5,000 per year.)
Since President Calderón took office in December 2006, he has authorized large-scale troop deployments (roughly 30,000 troops), in an attempt to diminish the power lorded over Mexico and its citizens by rival Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, as well as affiliates like La Familia, which has earned a reputation for particularly memorable and gruesome acts, including the night that five decapitated heads were thrown onto a dance floor packed with people.
Seizures of illicit drugs, particularly cocaine, have indeed increased. But so has the bloodshed and the level of fear: a national poll published on October 4th indicated that more than 40% of Mexicans felt less secure since Calderón’s drug war offensive began. Another poll published by the Mexico City daily, Reforma, showed that more than half of Mexicans believed that the cartels, not the government, were winning the drug war.
Still, as one would imagine, the Bush Administration has responded favorably to Calderón’s crackdown on drug cartels, ushering in the three-year “Merida Initiative” to support counter-narcotics efforts in Mexico and Central America: “The Merida Initiative complements U.S. domestic efforts to reduce drug demand, stop the flow of arms and weapons, and confront gangs and criminal organizations,” as the State Department explained in April 2008.
This past June, Bush struck a deal with Calderón to approve $400 million toward additional drug war assistance (representing a 20% increase in the Mexican anti-narcotics budget) — for still more helicopters, military training, ion scanners, canine units, and surveillance technology.
Considering their close ties, President Calderón’s announcement earlier this month must have come as a bit of an unwanted surprise to the Bush Administration. On October 2, Calderón proposed legislation that would decriminalize drug possession, ostensibly for personal use. Not just for marijuana, as one might have expected in a country where pot smoke has not been demonized to the same degree as in the U.S., but for cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, as well.
To be more specific, Calderón’s proposed legislation, supported by the Mexican attorney general’s office, is intended to address a different kind of drug crisis on Mexican soil: a growing number of addicts. Cocaine once solely destined from Colombia and other Andean nations toward the U.S. is still flowing in such great supply that it has ended up attracting more users — and abusers. In addition, meth lab crackdowns in the U.S. have allowed narco-cartels to step in and fill the void, so that speed is now more readily available in Mexico, as well. The impact has been dramatic: according to the government’s own statistics, the number of drug addicts in Mexico is estimated to have doubled in just six years to 307,000, while the number of people who have tried drugs at some point rose from 3.5 million to 4.5 million.
If passed, Calderón’s legislation would decriminalize up to 2 grams of marijuana, 500 milligrams of cocaine, 40 milligrams of meth, and 50 milligrams of heroin. To qualify, any individual arrested with those drugs would have to agree to a drug treatment program to address admitted addiction or enter a prevention program designed for recreational users. Those who refused to attend one of these kinds of programs would be subject to a fine.
This proposal isn’t the first of its kind in Mexican political history. In fact, former President Vicente Fox also supported limited decriminalization just over two years ago, but his efforts were quashed in the wake of unrelenting pressure from the White House and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. It’s a safe bet that pressure of this kind has already started up where Calderón’s proposal is concerned.
“President Calderón’s proposal to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs is consistent with the broader trend throughout Western Europe, Canada, and other parts of Latin America to stop treating drug use and possession as a criminal problem,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug policy reform organization. But it contrasts sharply with [the approach taken in] the United States [the U.S. government] should think twice before criticizing a foreign government for its drug policy, much less holding out the U.S. as a model. Looking to the U.S. as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid South Africa for how to deal with race.”
Or, for that matter, looking toward U.S. intervention in Colombia as a model for how to deal with Mexican drug cartels. In effect, the U.S. government waded into a long-running civil war when it started to throw money toward anti-narcotics military training, aviation training, weaponry, surveillance technology, and the availability of Monsanto’s coca-killing herbicide, Round-Up. Ostensibly, all of this assistance was for the “good guys.” American taxpayers, as always, were expected to overlook the death squad part of the equation, the part about the right-wing paramilitary leaders who took their U.S.-supplied training and weapons and turned them into family and local economy-displacing attacks akin to, or worse, than that of their sworn enemies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The end result: Colombia’s cities, towns, jungles, and streets were turned into even more militarized, more deadly versions of themselves. The U.S. government still declared victory when the leadership of the cocaine-producing Medellín Cartel was dismantled (or killed) from the 1980s to the early 1990s.
That particular cartel was brought down, and city streets are safer today than they were in the 80s and 90s, but Colombia’s problems have hardly gone away. Blood still flows as a result of territorial battles between FARC and right-wing militias, often over the control over land suitable for growing plentiful coca crops. At this very moment, there are some 300,000 displaced Colombians, meaning the country has the second-worst internal refugee crisis in the world, right behind Sudan.
Since 2000, in fact, the U.S. has continued to pour huge sums of money into Colombia: over $5 billion since 2000, making it the biggest recipient of drug war funding (from the U.S. to a foreign country) in the 21st century. Has it paid off? Consider that in June, the United Nations released data indicated that coca cultivation actually increased nearly 30% in 2007 to 244,634 acres.
Colombia not only remains the world’s largest coca producer, but its farmers have apparently succeeded in creating herbicide-resistant hybrid coca plants that defy Monsanto’s poisons. Ninety percent of the cocaine consumed by Americans (half the cocaine consumed in the world goes up American noses) is now flowing this way from Colombia. And much of that cocaine is, indeed, passing through Mexico. (It is estimated that 80% of methamphetamine reaching the U.S. is coming from Mexico directly.)
Last week, the two-day security meeting of the Organization of American States kicked off with the frank admission that Mexico’s narco-cartels are primarily buying their cocaine from FARC and right-wing paramilitary groups.
So, too, are Mexican cartels using what were once considered to be Colombian narco-terror tactics, including the use of “Colombian neckties” and the killing of innocent civilians. In fact, the drug war in Mexico is beginning to look, feel, and sound like the worst of the drug war in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. In late August, eleven headless, shirtless bodies were found handcuffed together in the Mérida suburb of Chichi Suarez, in Yucatan State. The nature of the as-yet-unsolved crime is considered to be one drug cartel’s “warning sign” to a rival group.
Mexican civilians have even become the recent victims of explosives detonated in public spaces, something that had not previously been a concern. The use of larger-scale explosives as a method of terrorist attack started just two months after Calderón took office, leading up to last month’s terrifying explosion in a crowded plaza in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán. The attack in broad daylight was timed to coincide with Mexican Independence Day festivities: over 100 people, primarily working-class men and women who had gathered for the free celebration, were wounded in the attack. Eight people were killed, including a 13-year-old.
As was the case in Colombia, journalists are being increasingly targeted for exposing narco-cartels (or links with officials and law anforcement, as the case may be). The Chihuahua bar shooting last Thursday claimed the life of David Garcia Monroy, a well-respected columnist at the daily newspaper, El Diario de Chihuahua. That same day, the editor of La Noticia de Michoacán, Miguel Angel Villagomez, was kidnapped as he left work in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. And, on September 23, a popular Mexican radio host, Alejandro Zenn Fonseca Estrada, was shot to death with AR-15 rifles, at close range, in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco. According to witnesses, a van pulled up alongside Fonseca as he was hanging anti-violence posters on a major street. (According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of the posters read, “No to Kidnappings”). The murder remains unsolved.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mexico ranks 10th on CPJ’s “Impunity Index,” a list of countries where journalists are attacked or slain on a regular basis and those crimes consistently remain unsolved.
Calderón’s call for decriminalization won’t put a direct dent in this kind of violence, but former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, says that it’s a step in the right direction toward alleviating the overflow of non-violent drug offenders in Mexican courtrooms, jails, and prisons — something that’s beginning to resemble the criminal justice landscape of the United States. Stamper, an active member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), says that those comparisons need to be drawn. “Our drug policy, predicated on the prohibition model, has caused far more harm than good, locally and globally, ” he says. “The results? The same as Mexico’s: higher potency drugs, more readily available, and at cheaper prices than ever.”
Statements like these, particularly coming from prominent members of law enforcement, would have been almost unheard of in the not-too-distant past. But these days, American public is sending strong signs that they, too, are ready for a truly different approach to drug and sentencing policies, as well as strategies on mental illness and/or substance abuse treatment. According to a nationwide Zogby poll released on October 2, three out of four U.S. voters believe that the war on drugs is failing, while over one-quarter agree that legalizing at least some drugs is the best alternative to the current strategy.
While Stamper supports Calderón’s call for decriminalization, fellow LEAP activist and board member Terry Nelson says that he doesn’t believe in “incremental steps,” explaining that nothing short of complete legalization will bring an end to the profit-driven violence associated with the global drug trade, valued at around $500 billion per year. “To use a drug is not to abuse a drug,” says Nelson. “Calderón is just trying to take some pressure off the court system with legalization, [most] of the actual crime and violence would be taken away, almost overnight.”
A 32-year veteran of the military and various branches of law enforcement, Nelson’s career took him on narco-traffic interdiction training and surveillance missions across Mexico, Central and South America. Nelson admits that he was involved in the Mexican Aviation Training Initiative, “designed to improve our counterparts in Mexico’s professionalism in enforcing Mexican drug laws.”
Some of the people Nelson helped to train ended up as Zetas, as he later found out.
Now retired and living in Fort Worth, Texas, Nelson served for five years as the Field Director of Surveillance Support Branch East (SSB East). During that time, he says, SSB East successfully seized of over 230,000 pounds of cocaine throughout Latin America. Nelson’s biggest, personal drug trafficking bust happened off the coast of Ecuador, resulting in the seizure of 30,000 pounds of cocaine.
Much to his dismay, even such a large-scale bust yielded absolutely nothing by way of a drop in street supply — or an increase in price. “If that big a bust doesn’t affect the street trade,” he muses, “what chances do you have doing it a gram or a kilo at a time?”
To put it another way, he asks, “if we hadn’t called it a war to begin with, could we admit that we’re not winning?”
Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It’s So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times