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Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

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Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

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SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

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activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

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Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

Latin America: Mexican Troops Occupy Ciudad Juárez, US Officials Urge Greater Cooperation in Fight Against Cartels

As of Wednesday, some 1,500 Mexican soldiers had been deployed to Ciudad Juárez, the epicenter of the prohibition-related violence wracking the country. An additional 5,000 troops should join them by the weekend.

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Mexican military anti-drug patrol
Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, was the scene of more than 1,600 drug war killings last year, and another 400 have been killed in fighting among competing drug trafficking organizations and between the cartels and the Mexican military and law enforcement so far this year.

The security situation in Ciudad Juárez has grown so grave that the mayor and his family have relocated across the border to El Paso after being threatened with decapitation. The city's police chief resigned last week after traffickers threatened to kill a policeman every 48 hours until he did. At first, the police chief stood firm, but resigned after traffickers killed a policeman and a prison guard. At mid-week this week, a bloody riot broke out between rival drug gang factions in a prison on the south edge of the city, leaving some 20 dead.

"Ciudad Juárez worries us deeply," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said in an interview with Reuters. "It is the reason why there is a response by the federal government to support the request of local authorities. Public safety is a shared responsibility among the federal, state governments and municipalities. In areas where drug traffickers have a lot of influence, sadly there is a risk that they will have an interest in influencing the formation of public power, particularly the local authority. This is something that concerns us."

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón called out the armed forces to go after the country's wealthy, powerful, and violent cartels in December 2006, around 9,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence. Thousands have been arrested and tons of drugs seized, but both the illicit drug trade and the violence show no signs of letting up.

That is making US officials increasingly nervous. Congress last year passed a three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance package for Mexico and Central America, and Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was headed for Mexico late this week to offer further assistance to Calderón.

"Clearly one of the things he expects to talk to his counterparts in Mexico and other officials about is the growing violence and growing threat with regard to narco-trafficking and the drug cartels," Captain John Kirby, spokesman for Mullen, told Agence France-Presse. "We would welcome the opportunity to increase and enhance our military-to-military cooperation," Kirby said. "There's clearly room to do more."

Mullen wasn't the only high US official to express concern about the situation in Mexico this week. "The cartels are retaliating," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told NBC on Sunday. "It clearly is a serious problem."

But Gates added that the crisis has caused Mexico to drop its traditional arm's-length approach to the US military. "I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past," Gates said. "Some of the old biases against cooperation between our militaries and so on, I think, are being satisfied."

Southwest Asia: US NATO Commander in Afghanistan Backs Down on Order to Kill Any Drug Traffickers

As we reported last week, NATO top commander US Gen. John Craddock created a severe split inside the Western alliance by issuing a "guidance" -- the first step before issuing orders -- telling NATO commanders on the ground in Afghanistan he wanted their troops "to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan." Now, NATO says, Craddock has retreated, and the original agreement that NATO troops would only attack drug traffickers linked to the Taliban and related insurgents has been restored.

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"The discussion within the chain of command has now been completed," NATO spokesman James Apparthurai announced at a Wednesday press briefing in Brussels. "ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces will be able to engage against narcotics facilities and facilitators where they provide material support to the insurgency."

Craddock's original "guidance" had caused heads to explode among the NATO command in Afghanistan, with ISAF commander David McKiernan claiming that Craddock was trying to create "a new category" within the rules of engagement and treading perilously close to violating the international law of war. McKiernan's boss, Egon Ramms, the German leader of the NATO Command in the Netherlands, which is currently in charge of the ISAF forces, shared that critique.

"The guidance provided up the chain from General Ramms and General McKiernan was accepted by General Craddock," Apparthurai said. "Everything that will be done at ISAF will be done fully in compliance with international law, with the laws of armed conflict, as well as national laws."

Combined NATO and US forces in Afghanistan number about 50,000, with President Obama pledging to increase that number by 20,000 to 30,000. They are caught on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to the opium traffic: Attempt to suppress it and risk driving farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban, or instead ignore it, and allow the Taliban to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in opium profits, which it can use to buy shiny new weapons to shoot at NATO and US troops.

Feature: Obama and Calderón Meet Amidst Rash of Dire Warnings on Mexican Drug Violence

President-elect Barack Obama met Monday with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to discuss bilateral issues of major importance for the two countries. In addition to NAFTA and immigration policy, Mexico's ongoing plague of prohibition-related violence was high on the agenda.

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shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacán -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from ''the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona''
More than 5,400 people were killed in the violence last year, and more than 8,000 in the two years since Calderón ratcheted up Mexico's drug war by sending thousands of troops into the fray. The multi-sided conflict pits rival trafficking groups -- the so-called cartels -- against each and the Mexican state, but has also seen pitched battles between rival law enforcement units where one group or the other is in the pay of the traffickers.

The Obama-Calderón meeting comes as the violence in Mexico is creating increasing concern among US policy and defense analysts. Last month, the National Drug Intelligence Center warned in its National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that "Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."

In a December report to the US Military Academy at West Point, former drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned dramatically that even the $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan approved by Congress and the Bush administration last year was barely a drop in the bucket, noting that it was only a tiny fraction of the money spent on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The stakes in Mexico are enormous," McCaffrey warned. "We cannot afford to have a narco state as a neighbor. Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism."

The consequences of US failure to act decisively in support of Calderón's drug war would be dire, McCaffrey warned. "A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the US border to escape the domestic misery of violence... and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state."

This week, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff jumped on the bandwagon. In their report, The Joint Operating Environment 2008, which examines global threats to the US, the Joint Chiefs warned that Mexico was one of the two countries most in danger of becoming a failed state. The other was Pakistan.

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely," the report noted, "but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

But for all the dire warnings of doom, the incoming president gave little sign that he would do anything other than stay the course. Nor did he suggest in any way that he would make a radical break with US drug policy on the border. Obama has stated publicly that he supports the Mérida Initiative aid package, and Monday he limited his public remarks to generalities.

Noting the "extraordinary relationship" between the US and Mexico, Obama added: "Not only did we talk about security along the border regions, how the United States can be helpful in Mexico's efforts, we talked about immigration and how we can have a comprehensive and thoughtful strategy that ultimately strengthens both countries."

Despite taking his first meeting with a head of foreign state with President Calderón and pledging renewed cooperation, and despite the chorus of cassandras crying for more action, analysts consulted by the Chronicle said that given the raft of serious problems, foreign and domestic, facing the Obama administration, Mexico and its drug war are likely to remain second-tier issues. Nor is the Mérida Initiative going to be much help, they suggested.

"Obama is busy with other pressing issues," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "He just doesn't have the space and will to take on this other fight in Mexico."

On the other hand, the border violence frightening US policy makers is largely "a self-inflicted wound," Tree said. "Mix together high domestic demand here, prohibition economics, and a tough law and order approach, shake vigorously, and you have a disaster cocktail. It's not like we didn't warn them," he said.

Also, Tree noted, despite the rising alarm in Washington, there is little interest in opening a new front on the southern border. "Who has the stomach to take this on right now?" he asked. "Who is clamoring for this outside of institutional actors who want to protect their budgets? There is a lot of war-weariness and budget shock in this city, and that might leave some openings" for reform, he said.

"Probably not much will come of that meeting," said Tomás Ayuso, Mexico analyst for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Calderón was pleading for Obama to put Mexico at the top of his list of priorities, but given what Obama is facing, the Mexican drug war is not at the top of his agenda."

Still, the situation in Mexico is serious and could get worse, Ayuso said. "If this isn't addressed now, Mexico could really descend into chaos. The drug cartels have virtually unlimited funding, their coffers are overflowing. The shadow economy in which they operate is booming, their operatives are armed to the teeth, and the next step is to set up a shadow government. It's very easy for them to influence people. They say: 'Accept our bribes or we'll kill you and your family.'" Ayuso said. "It's pretty effective."

"This meeting looked mostly like generalities, but Obama has said repeatedly during the campaign that he supports the Mérida Initiative, and that will most likely continue during his administration," said Maureen Meyer, Mexico analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America. "With more and more reports lately painting Mexico as a security crisis, we are seeing a recognition by the new administration that this is a priority, and it will continue cooperating with Mexico."

But the looming crisis on the border and in Mexico could provide openings for reform, Meyer said. "We hope to have more openings to reopen the debate on US drug policy internationally, and Mexico could give us the opportunity to look at what has and has not worked in the Andean region and Mexico as well," she said.

That debate could include modifications to the Mérida Initiative, which is heavily weighted toward military and law enforcement equipment and training, said Meyer. "Congress has reiterated its support for the Mérida Initiative, but we've also seen a tendency to redirect funding toward arms trafficking going south and demand here in the US. The Congress will also, we hope, start to look away from sending more equipment and toward more support for institutional reforms. Helicopters aren't going to have any impact on Mexico's underlying problems," she said.

The violence in Mexico could help further weaken already eroding support for US drug policy in the hemisphere as a whole, said Ayuso. "In Latin America, where most of the suffering is happening, many countries are asking whether the Washington-led war on drugs is the answer," he said. "That's something Calderón himself has brought up, but Obama is probably not going to budge on that. Still, the chorus is growing. More and more people want to reevaluate the drug war."

The Border: US Prepares "Surge" In Case Prohibition Violence in Mexico Spills Over

The United States has developed plans for a "surge" of law enforcement and even military deployment along the US-Mexican border in case prohibition-related violence in Mexico spills across the border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday. The plans have been in the works since last summer, he said.

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US Border Patrol
About 8,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the military against the so-called cartels two years ago, more than 5,300 of them last year. The dead include members of rival cartels, who are fighting the Mexican state as well as each other, along with hundreds of police and soldiers, and innocent bystanders.

Mexican border cities have been some of the hardest hit, with some 1,600 people killed in Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso) last year and hundreds more killed in Tijuana (across from San Diego). Border area law enforcement and political figures have been increasingly worried that the violence will flow north across the border just like the illicit -- and hugely profitable -- black market trade in drugs does.

"We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge -- if I may use that word -- capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with" the Defense Department, Chertoff told the New York Times in a telephone interview.

Homeland Security officials told the Times the plan called for aircraft, armored vehicles, and "special teams" to be ready to converge on any emerging hot-spots, with the size of the force depending on the scale of the problem. Military forces could be called on if civilian agencies like the Border Patrol and local police forces were overwhelmed, but the officials said that was considered unlikely.

"I put helping Mexico get control of its borders and organized crime problems" at the very top of the list of national security concerns, Chertoff added.

The US has also responded to the violence in Mexico by approving a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance plan, the first tranche of which is now flowing to the Mexican state. It will provide military equipment, helicopters, planes, and training.

Latin America: This Years' Death Toll in Mexico's Prohibition Wars Passes 5,000

The number of people killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico this year has surpassed 5,000, more than double the number of people killed last year, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said Monday. The number is likely to grow even higher, he warned.

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poster of assassinated Mexican human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
Violence among drug trafficking organizations and between them and government forces has escalated dramatically since President Felipe Calderón unleashed an offensive against the narcos nearly two years ago. Calderón has sent as many as 40,000 Mexican army troops into the fray, where they've joined tens of thousands of federal, state, and local police fighting against -- and sometimes for -- the traffickers. And the trafficking groups themselves are engaged in a lethal and spectacularly gruesome internecine struggle to control the lucrative multi-billion dollar trade in drugs destined for the insatiable American market.

The death is comparable to that in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the independent monitoring group Iraq Body Count, some 8,000 people have been killed in simmering violence in Iraq this year. In Afghanistan, some 4,000 people have been killed in fighting this year. In Afghanistan, 273 US and NATO troops have been killed this year, according to the independent monitoring organization Icasulaties.org. That is little more than half the number of Mexican police and soldiers killed this year.

Medina Mora put the death toll through the end of November at 5,376, a whopping 117% increase over the 2,477 killed in 2007. Most of the killing took place in the border states of Baja California and Chihuahua, and Sinaloa, the home base of the Sinaloa Cartel, although the violence has spread throughout the country, extending even to the Mexico City door steps of high police commanders, another one of whom was gunned down this week.

"These criminal organizations don't have limits," said Medina-Mora. "They certainly have an enormous power of intimidation."

And the killing continues. At least 18 people were killed in prohibition-related violence in southern Mexico on Sunday, including two people whose heads were left outside the mansion of the governor of Guerrero in Chilpancingo. Ten narcos and one soldier died in a shoot-out the same day in Arcelia, Guerrero.

Four more bodies showed up Tuesday in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, just days after the city saw 36 people killed in a 48-hour period. Meanwhile, 17 people, including a senior police investigator, were killed just days earlier in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso.

As a result of the escalation of violence in Tijuana, police chief Alberto Capella Ibarra was fired. Last month, Capella Ibarra told the British newspaper The Observer: "This war will continue so long as drugs are illegal and command high prices in the United States. Legalize the drugs, then the Americans can get high and we can live in peace."

But the Americans would prefer instead to pour fuel on the flames. Last week, the US released $200 million in anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military, the first tranche in a $1.4 billion, three-year package designed to help the Mexicans crack down on the narcos.

Feature: NATO, US Deepen Anti-Drug Operations in Afghanistan in Bid to Throttle Taliban

The NATO and US forces battling Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan are on the verge of expanding their counterinsurgency efforts by getting more deeply involved in trying to suppress the country's booming opium trade. In so doing, they are stepping into tricky territory because they risk alienating large swathes of the population that are dependent on the trade to feed themselves and their families and driving them right into the tender embrace of the Taliban.

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The new, more aggressive anti-drug stance will come in two forms. On one hand, NATO has committed for the first time to actively target and track down drug traffickers and heroin-processing laboratories. On the other hand, US military forces training the Afghan military will now begin accompanying Afghan soldiers as they provide force protection for Afghan government poppy eradication teams.

The more aggressive posture comes as the political and military situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen. Some 242 NATO and US troops have been killed in fighting there this year, 10 more than last year with two and a half months to go, and last year was the worst so far for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some 33,000 US troops, including 13,000 under the command of the ISAF and 20,000 under direct US command, and nearly 40,000 NATO soldiers, are now in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration is calling for an additional 20,000 US troops to be deployed there next year.

The Taliban and related insurgents have shown increased military capabilities, in part because they are able to supply themselves with funds generated by the opium trade. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are making perhaps $100 million a year from taxing poppy farmers and providing protection to drug traffickers.

A leaked draft of an as yet unreleased US National Intelligence Estimate last week revealed that US intelligence agencies believe the war in Afghanistan is "on a downward spiral," with part of the problem resting with a corrupt government under President Hamid Karzai and part of the problem linked to the "destabilizing impact" of the opium trade.

That deteriorating situation impelled US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head to Europe to try to bring reluctant NATO members on board for a more aggressive anti-drug strategy last week. European countries have been reluctant to step into the morass of anti-drug efforts there, citing the risk of alienating the population and arguing that law enforcement is the responsibility of the Afghan government.

"Part of the problem that we face is that the Taliban make somewhere between $60 million and $80 million or more a year from the drug trafficking," Gates said at the NATO meeting in Budapest. "If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavour."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith in formerly opium growing village near Jalalabad
By last Friday, NATO had signed on. According to a Saturday NATO press release, "Based on the request of the Afghan government, consistent with the appropriate United Nations Security Council resolutions, under the existing operational plan, ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, in the context of counter-narcotics, subject to authorization of respective nations."

"At the request of the Afghan government, I am grateful that the North Atlantic Council has given me the authority to expand ISAF's role in counter-narcotics operations," added NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Gen. John Craddock in a statement the same day. "We now have the ability to move forward in an area that affects the security and stability of Afghanistan. It will allow us to reduce the funding and income to the insurgents, which will enhance the force protection of all ISAF and Afghan National Security Force personnel."

That's what Gates and the Bush administration wanted to hear. "It is just going to be part of regular military operations. This is not going to be a special mission," Gates said Saturday," adding that the counter-drug effort was likely to focus on the southern part of the country. "It starts with the commander of ISAF, and then it would be a question of what forces are available. Obviously the United States and the UK are interested in doing this. I think several others would but didn't speak out," he said. "I am fairly optimistic about the future," Gates said. "There is also an understanding that NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."

To that end, the US is taking another step deeper into the Afghan drug war: Using US ground troops to help eradicate poppy fields. The London Daily Mail, among other media, reported that a small number of US soldiers who are training the country's Poppy Eradication Force will accompany their charges as they head into the poppy fields around the beginning of the new year.

The idea is to target land owned by corrupt Afghan power brokers, especially in southern Helmand province, which accounts for the majority of Afghanistan's 93% share of global opium production. That is also an area where the Taliban presence is heavily felt. Some 75 Afghan eradicators were killed last year.

"There shouldn't be any no-go areas for eradication teams in Helmand, and in order to do that they are going to need more force protection," an unnamed British embassy counter-narcotics official told the Daily Mail. "Land that's controlled by major land owners, corrupt officials or major narco-figures is land that should be targeted. Having force protection is more likely to make that possible.'"

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
A US military spokesman told the Daily Mail there are 11 US soldiers training the Afghan Counter Narcotics Battalion in Kandahar. They will deploy along with Afghan soldiers on eradication missions, he said.

The US has long argued for stronger eradication efforts, but was rebuffed by the Karzai government when it floated the idea of aerial spraying earlier this year. But with manual eradication wiping out only 3.5% of the crop this year, pressure to do more is strong. The question is whether doing more to fight the drug trade will help or hinder the effort to build a strong, stable government in Kabul.

"This whole issue has been discussed in different forums in Afghanistan for some time now, said Sher Jah Ahmadzai, an associate at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "The government rejected aerial eradication for various reasons, even though it was desired by the US. But this NATO move is being welcomed by the government and the international agencies because now they are targeting the drug lords, not the farmers themselves. If you go after the farmers, it could backfire on NATO and the Afghan government, so going after the big drug lords is the viable option now. Everyone knows who they are," he said.

But not all drug lords are equal, said Ahmadzai. "There are many drug lords who are involved in the government, there are high ministers who are believed to have been drug lords before they were appointed, there are a number of people in the provincial governments who are involved, but the government is not going to go after them because that could create a backlash," he said. "But the other drug lords, the ones who are openly supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they will go after them."

Only with a stronger Afghan state sometime in the future would it be feasible to actually go after all drug traffickers, said Ahmadzai. "The next phase would be strengthening the Afghan government so it can purge itself," he said.

But Ahmadzai's view is much rosier than some. Critics of the move said it would only worsen the insurgency. "The NATO governments did say they will try to target drug trafficking operations that seem to be in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which makes this policy shift merely unwise instead of egregiously unwise," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "But pressuring NATO and the Karzai government on this simply guarantees that we will drive many people back into the arms of the Taliban, and that's a short-sighted strategy," he argued.

"The Americans have been training Afghan counter-narcotics forces, but they were creating problems for the government because they were aiming straight at the farmers, and the farmers would go straight to the Taliban," agreed Ahmadzai. "If you go after the farmers, you risk alienating them. If you don't, the Taliban and Al Qaeda profit. It's really a double-edged sword."

"The underlying problem is that the drug trade is such a huge part of the Afghan economy," said Carpenter. "The UN says there are some 509,000 families involved in growing or other aspects of the drug trade. If you just consider a standard nuclear family, that's about 15% of the population involved in the drug trade, but when you consider that Afghanistan is very much an extended family- and clan-based society, the real number is more like a third to 40% of the population earning a livelihood off the drug trade. There is no realistic way to shut that down."

There is an alternative, said Carpenter. "US policy-makers could just look the other way, ignore the drug commerce, and focus on trying to weaken the Taliban and Al Qaeda, our mortal adversaries," he said.

While that would leave the Taliban and Al Qaeda free to fund themselves from opium profits, that's a price we would have to pay, Carpenter said. "No doubt those groups derive revenue from the drug trade, but unfortunately for our strategy, so do Karzai's allies. Most major power brokers are involved in some way with the illegal drug trade. It's such a lucrative enterprise because of the black market premium that anyone who exercises power and influence in that society is tempted to get involved."

Noting that the NATO plan to go after only traffickers linked to the insurgency would in effect remove the competition for government-linked drug traffickers, Carpenter said the decision was no surprise. "I don't think that is a deliberate motive, but to the extent that the Karzai government is interested in cooperating, it will be precisely because it will eliminate the competition for those traffickers with backing in Kabul. Expecting the Kabul government to truly suppress the trade would be like asking Japan to eliminate its auto and high-tech industries. It isn't going to happen," he said.

And deeper into the morass we go.

Latin America: Mexicans Bummed Out By Prohibition-Related Violence -- 44% Say Legalize Drugs

As Mexican President Felipe Calderón's war on drug trafficking organizations nears the two-year mark and the violence shows no sign of letting up, a new BBC World Service poll shows that Mexicans are increasingly concerned and preoccupied by the toll the drug trade and the drug war is having on their daily lives. Nearly 6,000 people, including hundreds of police officers and soldiers, have been killed since Calderón enlisted the military in the drug war in 2006, and the numbers are higher this year than last.

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Mexican anti-drug patrol
Given the upsurge in violence in what is only the latest chapter of the quarter-century struggle against drug trafficking organizations enriched by the flow of Colombian cocaine beginning in the early 1980s -- an unintended consequence of the Reagan administration's crackdown on Caribbean drug trafficking routes -- a healthy number of Mexicans now say they favor legalizing drugs. Some 44% said legalize them, while 46% said no.

But in a sign that wishful thinking about drug policy is not limited to north of the border, 58% said they thought the war on drugs could be won. An even higher number -- 68% -- approved of Calderón's use of the military to fight drug traffickers. Still, 80% said the government should consider alternative policies.

Support for the drug war is driven by fear and public safety concerns. Nearly half (42%) of poll respondents said they felt less safe than last year, while only 10% said they felt safer. More than one-third (37%) of respondents said the influence of the drug cartels had made them think about emigrating. Drug trafficking ranked above worries about the economy, general crime, education and social inequality, with 20% of respondents listing it as their main concern. Only concern about corruption, listed by 28% as their primary worry, came in higher, and corruption and the black market drug trade are inextricably intertwined.

With some 3,000 drug war deaths reported so far this year, or an average of more than 300 a month, the prohibition-related violence in Mexico is reaching levels generally associated with war zones. By way of comparison, Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit organization monitoring violence in Iraq, put the civilian death toll there in July at 460. Human Rights Watch put the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan during the first eight months of this year at 540.

Latin America: Embattled Mexican President Seeks More Money to Fight Crime, Drug Gangs

Mexican President Felipe Calderón came into office nearly two years ago vowing to destroy the country's powerful drug trafficking organizations and the violent crime associated with them. But now, roughly 5,000 prohibition-related deaths later and with violent common crime also on the rise, Calderón finds himself increasingly under fire for his failure to live up to his promises.

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Shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacán -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from ''the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona'' (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
On Monday, Calderon sought to give himself some political breathing room by asking for a whopping 39% increase in crime-fighting and anti-drug funding in his proposed 2009 budget. But while he was quick to publicize the funding request, he was short on details on how the extra money would be spent.

“I have asked for this increase of nearly 40% because we know that today security, justice and order are the principal challenge facing Mexico,” Calderón said.

Indeed, since Calderón took office and called out around 30,000 soldiers to join state, local, and federal police in taking on the cartels, matters have only deteriorated. Not only is prohibition-related violence escalating -- nearly 3,000 have been killed in the drug wars so far this year -- but common crime has grown to such proportions that just two weeks ago tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets of Mexico City and other cities demanding that Calderón do something.

Calderón responded to the protests first by meeting with march leaders, then by announcing a series of anti-crime measures, and now, by seeking a large increase in crime-fighting funds. But so far, nothing has worked. In just one week at the end of August, 130 people died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico.

While Calderón can probably count on winning approval of his increased anti-drug and crime funding request, he can also count on the arrival in coming months of the first tranche of a $1.4 billion US anti-drug assistance package consisting largely of helicopters, surveillance gear, and training. Then we will see if more of the same produces different results.

Latin America: Mexican Drug Violence Taking Toll on Pres. Calderón's Popularity

In December 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced a bold escalation in that country's decades-long struggle with wealthy, powerful, and violent drug trafficking organizations, calling in the army to join the struggle. Now, nearly 30,000 troops have joined thousands of state, federal, and local police in the fight, but the death toll continues to escalate, and Mexicans are getting fed up.

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Felipe Calderón (agenciabrasil.gov.br)
Last weekend, after yet another brutal month of prohibition-related violence, including the decapitation of 12 people in the Yucatán and the raking of a Chihuahua dance hall with gunfire that left 13 dead, including an infant, Mexicans took to the streets by the tens of thousands in cities across the land to say "Enough already!" They were protesting not only the violent drug trafficking wars, but also the more common crime -- robbery and kidnapping--that has become increasingly commonplace.

Most crimes go unsolved, and police corruption is endemic. While prohibition-related violence is often disturbingly brutal and sensational, it is only part of a larger wave of criminality plaguing the country. Marchers in Mexico City, for instance, were stirred by the August kidnapping and murder of a businessman's son by a group that included a police officer.

In Mexico City, tens of thousands of marchers filled the Zócalo, demanding action. "Security," they chanted. "If you can't do it, resign!"

"We can no longer live, we can't be safe anywhere," Enrique Contreras, 42, salesman and the victim of numerous robberies, told the Associated Press. "I hope those in government do their jobs. Otherwise, they should resign."

Calderón is attempting to respond to rising public disaffection with his crime and security policies. He met Sunday with protest leaders, pledging to set up citizen panels to monitor government progress, arm police with better weapons, and recruit better officers. But if he is not successful in reducing the violence, his war on the drug trafficking organizations could backfire on him.

"Calderón, who was on shaky ground after the closeness of the 2006 election, increased his public opinion approval by militarizing the fight against drug-trafficking violence in Mexico," Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Many people were won over to him... I think Calderón has begun to lose the confidence of the Mexican people."

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