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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."

Latin America: Mexico's PRD May Call for Legalization

According to Mexican press reports this week, Mexico's Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD -- Democratic Revolution Party) is preparing to consider legalization of the drug trade as a response to the wave of narco-violence that has swept the country in the last year and a half. Around 5,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderón escalated Mexico's long-running drug war by enlisting the military in the fight in December 2006.

PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador came within a handful of votes of winning the presidency in 2006, and the party remains the second strongest political force in the country, behind the ruling Partido Acción Nacional (PAN -- National Action Party). But because of party infighting since that election, the PRD may drop into third place after this year's midterm elections, behind both the PAN and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI -- Revolutionary Institutional Party).

According to the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, the PRD's national council is calling on the party's legislators to begin discussing legalization as part of a "grand national accord" to deal with violence and insecurity in the country. The proposal came from the PRD's New Left faction, led by Jesús Zambrano, and was approved unanimously by the national council.

In an interview with Mexico's Televisa TV network, the PRD coordinator in the lower house, Javier González Garza, upped the ante, saying legalization should be considered not only in Mexico, but also in the US. "We can't continue thinking that we are going to combat the problem of drug trafficking without more radical measures, and one of them has to be the legalization of drugs in the United States," he said. "After the United States will we continue with Mexico? Of course, or both at the same time... This war, the way it is outlined, is going to be lost, we're all going to lose, it makes no sense and there need to be some changes."

Some 25,000 Mexican army troops are fighting drug traffickers along the border and in a number of major cities and drug-growing areas. Many observers blame the spike in violence -- more people have been killed already this year than in all of last year -- on the aggressive stance of the Calderón government. But the US government is pleased; it recently passed a $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico, most of which will go to beefing up military and police capabilities.

'THE BALLAD' of Esequiel Hernandez on PBS

In 1997, U.S. Marines patrolling the Texas-Mexico border as part of the War on Drugs shot and killed Esequiel Hernández Jr. Mistaken for a drug runner, the 18-year-old was, in fact, a U.S. citizen tending his family's goats with a .22 rifle. He became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings. "The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández," narrated by Tommy Lee Jones, explores Hernandez's tragic death and its torturous aftermath. His parents and friends, the Marines on patrol, and investigators discuss the dangers of militarizing the border and the death of one young man. A co-presentation of Latino Public Broadcasting. An official selection of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. For a preview, see http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2008/ballad/trailer.html.
Date: 
Tue, 07/08/2008 - 10:00pm - 11:30pm
Location: 
Check your local listings
United States

Latin America: Human Rights a Casualty in Chihuahua's Drug War

Three months after Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent thousands of troops into Ciudad Juárez and other Chihuahua cities and towns to fight drug traffickers in Operation Chihuahua Together, the number of complaints of human rights abuses is increasing and becoming a political issue, according to New Mexico State University's Frontera Norte/Sur (FNS) news service, which monitors Mexican and border press.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
By the middle of June, some 50 legal complaints had been filed with the attorney general's Ciudad Juárez office, FNS reported. The complaints accuse the army of committing abuses of authority, carrying out illegal detentions, forcibly disappearing citizens, conducting improper searches, and inflicting bodily injuries and damages.

The official Chihuahua's State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) reported an additional 28 complaints about the army in May and 32 more so far this month, mainly from the border town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Big Bend National Park in remote West Texas.

CEDH investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson said many of the victims of abuses were small-time dealers and addicts who have been beaten and subject to various forms of torture, including electric shocks, simulated suffocations with plastic bags and razor cuts at army installations. It was a "dangerous pattern," he said, drawing a comparison with Mexico's 1970s Dirty War, when the security forces tortured and disappeared dissidents and suspected leftist guerrillas.

In an incident that stirred outrage, soldiers shot three men to death June 8 at a checkpoint near the town of Cuauhtémoc in the center of the state. While details are unclear, the soldiers reportedly opened fire after the victims' vehicle struck and injured a soldier. One reporter on the scene was forced to the ground by soldiers, while the head of the state human rights commission showed up at the scene but was denied access by the military.

According to FNS, the Juárez Valley, just outside the city of the same name, has been a hot spot in recent weeks. Long the domain of drug traffickers and other criminals, the area has been the target of numerous army raids lately. The soldiers have netted arrests and loads of drugs, but they are also garnering an ever-lengthening list of complaints about their behavior.

Last Saturday, angry valley residents staged protests outside the office of the Mexican attorney general in downtown Juarez. A woman from the town of Guadalupe Bravo, Josefina Reyes, complained that soldiers raided her house and destroyed property before stealing her cell phone and other goods. "On that day, there were around 25 more searches in which they made off with various people," Reyes said.

While neither the military nor the attorney general's office has responded publicly to the complaints, local elected officials are beginning to. The state congress earlier this month passed a resolution urging the army to punish soldiers involved in abuses, and the head of the congress, Jorge Alberto Gutiérrez Casas has urged the military to open up about the Cuauhtémoc checkpoint killings.

"We are going to demand from the legislative branch that human rights not be violated in a struggle that is focused on organized crime, because what happened at the checkpoint doesn't justify the response of the army members." Gutiérrez said. "The army is one of the institutions which has more prestige and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, and because of this we must not permit isolated situations to end up discrediting the confidence that society has in them."

Allegations of human rights abuses by the military as it pursues its war on drug traffickers are by no means
limited to Chihuahua. In fact, they seem to follow the military wherever it is deployed as law enforcers. In February, we reported on human rights violations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and last month, we reported on human rights violations in Sinaloa.

The issue of human rights threatens to scuttle the Bush administration's Mérida Initiative anti-drug assistance package for Mexican and the Central American countries. Some congressional Democrats want to tie the $1.4 billion aid package to human rights and other conditions, a move firmly opposed by Mexico, which is extremely sensitive about its sovereignty when it comes to its northern neighbor. On Monday, President Bush appealed to lawmakers to approve the package "without many conditions."

Meanwhile, the toll from prohibition-related violence continues to soar in Mexico. Since Calderón unleashed the military at the beginning of last year, about 4,000 people have been killed, including nearly 500 police and soldiers. Even in Ciudad Juárez, where the military has been deployed since March, the killing continues to escalate. From January 1 to March 31, 210 people were murdered. Between April one and now, another 276 have been killed.

Latin America: US House Approves Mexico Anti-Drug Aid Bill, But Mexico Balks at Senate Human Rights Conditions

The US House of Representatives Tuesday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan aimed at helping Mexico and Central American countries fight the region's powerful drug trafficking organizations, but the package is now in doubt after the Mexican government voiced strong objections to provisions in the Senate version of the bill that tie the aid to human rights measures. The version of the bill in the Senate has yet to be approved.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
The vote came amidst rising levels of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. Some 4,000 people -- including more than 450 police and soldiers -- have been killed in the drug war since President Felipe Calderón escalated it at the beginning of last year by sending some 25,000 troops and federal police into drug trafficker strongholds. The traffickers have taken time off from fighting among themselves to strike back at government forces, recently assassinating several top federal and municipal police commanders. Last week, traffickers in Culiacán ambushed and killed eight police in one day.

The bill, passed by the House 311-106, would begin to implement the Mérida Initiative, named after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials sat down last year to hammer out an assistance package. Under that plan, the US funds would go for equipping and training security forces in Mexico and Central America and for improving justice systems in the region. Mexico would get $1.1 billion, while Central American and Caribbean countries would get roughly $400 million. Another $74 million would go to trying to slow the flow of illicit weapons from the US to Mexico.

But while Mexico had been eager to win the aid package, it is balking at the conditions in the Senate bill, which include human rights reviews, judicial reforms, and other issues. The conditions mark a return to "certification," where the US unilaterally determined whether nations where complying with US drug objectives, complained Mexican assistant attorney general for international affairs José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.

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Ríodoce (newspaper) cover -- Sinaloa keeps bleeding. Why more (soldiers)?
"Why don't we tell the Americans to use those [funds] for their own interdiction forces or interception forces... and stop the flow of weapons," Santiago Vasconcelos said in a radio interview cited by the Dallas Morning News. "Rather than giving them to Mexico, they can be used by the Americans to reinforce their Customs service, their Border Patrol, and stop the arms trafficking to our country."

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said last week that President Calderón is waiting to see the final version of the bill before making a decision. "The president will very carefully consider what is finally approved, and defending the best interests of Mexico, will make the correct decision, of that we can be sure," he said.

"I think one way or another, it's dead," political commentator Ricardo Alemán told the Morning News. "Mr. Vasconcelos is a very high-ranking police official and has support from the government," Alemán said, adding that Mexican pride is at stake. "Mexicans are very unyielding on this," he said. "First you reduce the amount, and then you put on conditions, so why don't you just keep your money."

A delegation of US senators flew last weekend to Monterrey, Mexico, to meet with Mexican officials in an effort to assuage their concerns, and there are signs they will seek to remove the offensive language from the Senate bill.

"We heard from everyone here the common message that this language has got to be changed," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), one of 11 US legislators attending the two-day meeting. "Our friends in Mexico needed to vent and explain how this issue was not handled well," the senator added. "Anything that smacks of certification is a nonstarter."

Now it's time to see if the US Senate will sacrifice Mexican human rights on the altar of the drug war.

Latin America: Prohibition-Related Violence Surges in Mexico

More than 100 people, including at least 20 police officers, died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico in the past week as drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- shot it out with police, soldiers, and each other in cities across the country. Among those killed were Federal Preventive Police (PFP) Commander Édgar Millán, assassinated on his doorstep in Mexico City, and Ciudad Juárez Municipal Police Chief Juan Antonio Román, gunned down in front of his home Saturday in a hail of bullets.

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At least three other high-ranking PFP commanders have been gunned down in Mexico City in the past few days, presumably by gunmen of the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. Another PFP commander, Arturo Cabrera, narrowly escaped the assassin's bullet Tuesday in Monterrey. He was attacked by gunmen as he left the state police academy, but managed to retreat back to the base, where he managed to hold off his attackers with his own gun until being rescued by a police SWAT team.

Guzmán's own son, Édgar Guzmán, was himself gunned down in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, on Saturday, presumably by gunmen of the rival Juárez Cartel, which has been battling Guzman's group for control over the drug traffic there. That was only the latest flare-up in two weeks of violence there that have seen bloody attacks on PFP and local police, massive multi-vehicle convoys of armed narcos marauding through the streets, and an infusion of 3,000 more soldiers into the state.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the Mexican military a year and half ago in a bid to break the power of the cartels. But with some 30,000 soldiers now deployed in the fight, the violence not only continues, but seems to be escalating. Around 3,000 people have been killed since Calderón's offensive began, more than 1,100 of them so far this year, according to Mexican media reports.

The US Congress is now debating approval of a $1.6 billion, three-year anti-drug aid package for Mexico, heavily tilted toward military assistance. While the violence would appear to strengthen the case for such an aid program, it is unclear whether an infusion of military training and technology will have a positive impact on Mexico's drug war.

[Ed: In February 2003, a Mexican congressman from Sinaloa, Gregorio Urías Germán, after calling for drug legalization, attended our Latin America conference, "Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century" ("Saliendo de las sombras: Terminando con la prohibición de las drogas en el Siglo XXI" en español). Urías argued that "If we can't even discuss the alternatives, if we can't even admit the drug war is a failure, then we will never solve the problem." He said that existing forums, such as the UN and the Organization of American States, are not fruitful places for discussion, "because only the repressive policies of the United States are discussed at these forums." Sinaloa continues to suffer from the violence caused by drug prohibition, as discussed in this newsbrief five years later. In different but similar ways, inner-city neighborhoods throughout the US suffer from violence and disorder caused by prohibition as well.]

Feature: Battling Military Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

Lawmakers in the United States this week took the first steps toward approving a $1.6 billion dollar, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico that is heavily weighted toward aid for the Mexican military. The Mexican army needs all the help it can get as, with 30,000 troops deployed against violent drug traffickers by President Felipe Calderón, it wages war against the so-called cartels, say supporters of the package.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
But even as the aid package, known as Plan Mérida after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials hammered out details, was being crafted, the Mexican military was once again demonstrating the risks of using soldiers for law enforcement. On the evening of March 26, near the town of Santiago de los Caballeros in the municipality of Badiraguato in the mountains of the state of Sinaloa, a five-man military patrol opened fire on a white Hummer driven by a local man back from the US. When the smoke cleared, four people in the vehicle were dead, two were wounded -- and there was no sign of any weapons.

It was the second time in less than a year that soldiers in Badiraguato had opened fire, killing multiple innocent civilians. Last June, three school teachers and two of their young children were killed when soldiers at a checkpoint perforated their vehicle with bullets. That case went away after the military paid their families $1,600 each.

Seeing yet another unjustified killing by the military was enough for Mercedes Murillo, head of the independent human rights organization the Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front). The veteran activist saw her brother assassinated in September after discussing the June killings on his radio program, but that didn't stop her from filing a lawsuit designed to end what is in effect impunity for soldiers who commit human rights offenses against civilians.

Under Mexican law -- the result of a post-revolutionary political settlement designed to keep the military out of politics -- members of the military do not face trial in the civilian courts, but in special military courts. This martial fuero -- a privileged judicial instance whenever the military are on trial -- results in soldiers charged with human rights abuses being judged by members of their own institution, and all too frequently, being absolved of any wrongdoing no matter what the facts are.

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Mercedes Murillo with legal assistant
Now, Murillo and her legal team, acting on behalf of the widow of the Hummer driver, have filed suit in Sinaloa district court in Mazatlán, challenging the fuero system. She doesn't expect immediate success, she said.

"This is the first case presented in Mexico against the actions the army has taken," said Murillo. "We know that when we present this in Mazatlán, the judges will give us nothing. Then we must take it to the Supreme Court of Mexico, and there might be people there who will study what we are presenting."

But Murillo isn't counting on the Mexican courts; her vision goes beyond that. "I don't think we can win here, but even if the Supreme Court says the military can do what it wants, that will lay the groundwork for going to the Inter-American Court. Military impunity violates international treaties that Mexico has signed," she argued.

The Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights are autonomous institutions charged by the hemispheric organization with interpreting and applying the American Treaty on Human Rights and ensuring governments' compliance with it. Mexico is a signatory to that treaty.

"Using the military for drug enforcement in Mexico is a serious problem," agreed Ana Paula Hernández of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountains in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. In addition to being one of the most impoverished areas of the country, the mountains of Guerrero have long been home to poppy and marijuana farmers, as well as the occasional leftist guerrilla band over the decades. The military has been deployed there for years.

But while most attention these days is focused on the military's deployment to fight the cartels in major cities, Hernández cited the military's more traditional drug war role: manual illicit crop eradication. "It's an almost impossible and useless task since illicit crop cultivation is an issue of survival in the mountain region, as in other parts of the country," she said. "In these regions, farmers have two options -- either they grow illicit crops or they migrate, so of course they will continue to find ways to grow illicit crops. It will never end unless the social and structural reasons for it are addressed."

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/mercedes-murillo-office.jpg
Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front) office, hippie shop next-door
But instead, successive Mexican governments have sent in the military to root out the poppy and pot fields. At least, that is their stated purpose, but Hernández isn't sure they're serious. "This is the excuse for deploying the military in many rural and indigenous regions, but in many cases it's more about a counterinsurgency strategy than a crop eradication strategy," she said.

The military presence in such regions is "an intimidating and threatening" one, said Hernández. "They set up camp wherever they like, often destroying licit crops and harvests in the process, stealing the water from the community, entering people's homes to take their food, stopping people on the roads to interrogate them, and so on. Worse yet, the military has become one of the main perpetrators of human rights abuses in the region, committing violations as serious as sexual rape for example," Hernández said. "This is something that is very common but that is rarely denounced."

Tlachinollan has documented some 80 cases of human rights violations carried out by members of the military in the region in recent years, including the rape of two women, Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández, by soldiers in 2002, said Hernández. But because of the military court system, nobody has been punished.

"Justice has not been carried out in a single case," she said. "It is very difficult, almost impossible, to obtain justice in cases where the military is involved. They remain untouchable to a certain degree and without a doubt, absolutely unaccountable to society for their actions."

As for Cantú and Fernández, they have given up on Mexican justice and are now seeking redress before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Their case is pending after a hearing last October.

While Mexican citizens and activists struggle to rein in the military, some US experts wonder whether involving soldiers in drug law enforcement does any good anyway.
"We don't think it's a problem that can be solved militarily," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The use of the military in the drug war is not a new thing -- they continually bring in the military because the police are either too weak or too corrupt to deal with the traffickers -- but the question is whether it can deal with the challenge at hand, and we don't think so," she said.

But even if the military is unable to stop drug production and trafficking, it will continue to be the backstop for hard-pressed Mexican politicians unless real reforms take place, Olson said. "We need to be talking about significant police reform. Until that happens, the military will be used over and over again without solving the problem."

Murillo agreed that police reforms were necessary, and vowed never to give up the fight for justice. "They killed my brother because he criticized the army," she said, "but we are so used to the soldiers now that we are not scared. I have nothing to lose. My sons and daughters are married, my husband is 82. If they kill me, I don't care. That's the only way to work. You can't be afraid."

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