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Obama and the Militarization of the “Drug War” in Mexico and Central America May 10, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Costa Rica, Criminal Justice, Drugs, Honduras, Human Rights, Latin America, Mexico.
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Honduran soldiers exercised at Forward Operating Base Mocoron, one of three military outposts the United States is building in Honduras to help take the fight in Central America’s vicious drug war into remote, ungoverned areas that have been safe havens for narcotics traffickers. (Photo: Tomas Munita for The New York Times)

During his trip last week to Mexico and Costa Rica, President Obama sought to down play the U.S.’s security agenda in the region, emphasizing trade relations, energy cooperation and other more benign themes.  In a May 3rd joint press conference with his Costa Rican counterpart Laura Chinchilla, Obama stated that it was necessary “to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don’t see a brighter future ahead.”  Asked by a journalist about the potential use of U.S. warships to counter drug-trafficking, Obama said “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking.”

Human rights organizations from North America and Central America have a very different impression of the administration’s regional security policy.  In a letter sent to Obama and the other region’s presidents on April 30th, over 145 civil society organizations [PDF] from the U.S., Mexico and the countries of Central America called out U.S. policies that “promote militarization to address organized crime.”   These policies, the letter states, have only resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.”  The letter presents a scathing indictment of the U.S.-backed so-called “war on drugs” throughout the region:

Human rights abuses against our families and communities are, in many cases, directly attributable to failed and counterproductive security policies that have militarized our societies in the name of the “war on drugs.”  The deployment of our countries’ armed forces  to combat organized crime and drug-trafficking, and the increasing militarization of police units, endanger already weak civilian institutions and leads to increased human rights violations.

In Mexico, the letter says, “drug-related violence and the militarized response has killed an estimated 80,000 men, women, and children in the past six years. More than 26,000 have been disappeared, and countless numbers have been wounded and traumatized.”  The letter also discusses the situation in Guatemala, where violence is “reaching levels only seen during the internal armed conflict” and “controversial ‘security’ policies have placed the military back onto the streets.  And, in Honduras:

Since the coup d’état that forced the elected president into exile in 2009, the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared. We are witnessing a resurgence of death squad tactics with targeted killings of land rights advocates, journalists, LGBT activists, lawyers, women’s rights advocates, political activists and the Garifuna’s community. Both military and police are allegedly involved in abuses and killings but are almost never brought to justice.

Though Obama claims that he has sought to avoid “militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking”, the opposite trend has been observed throughout his administration.  As the “Just the Facts” database of U.S. military spending in the Western Hemisphere shows, military assistance to Central American countries has significantly increased under Obama, from $51.8 million in 2009, to $76.5 million in 2013 and an anticipated $90 million in 2014.

The U.S. sale of arms and military equipment to the region has also soared.  According to a recent Associated Press investigation by Martha Mendoza , “the U.S. authorized the sale of a record $2.8 billion worth of guns, satellites, radar equipment and tear gas to Western Hemisphere nations in 2011, four times the authorized sales 10 years ago, according to the latest State Department reports.”

The presence of the U.S military in the region, and the U.S. promotion of military tactics in law enforcement, has also increased under Obama.  A New York Times investigative report from May 5, 2012 described how the U.S. military had recently established forward operating bases in the remote Moskitia region of Honduras and was providing support to drug interdiction efforts.  A heavily armed DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) previously deployed in Afghanistan was conducting operations with a U.S.-trained and vetted Honduran Tactical Response Team.  Six days after the article was published, FAST and TRT killed four indigenous Miskitu villagers during an early morning operation.  As we showed in a report published last month jointly with Rights Action, the victims’ families continue to wait for some form of justice and compensation for the killings.

Alexander Main

Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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Uruguay’s government may go into the drug-dealing business to fight crime June 21, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Drugs, Latin America, Uruguay.
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Roger’s note: decriminalization is a no brainer.  A Canadian sociologist did a cost analysis showing (I read this years ago, so these are not exact figures, but you get the idea), for example, that a kilo of street cocaine might sell for $10,000 whereas the actual cost of production is something like fifty dollars.  It is the enormous profit that makes drug dealing a matter for the criminal underworld, and that includes not only Mafia types, but police, governments, the CIA, etc.; and that is where the real political problem lies with respect to achieving decriminalization.

Pablo Fernandez, The Associated Press, June 21, 2012

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY—Peaceful Uruguay is planning a novel approach to fighting rising crime: having its government sell marijuana to take drug profits out of the hands of dealers.

Under the plan backed by President Jose Mujica’s leftist administration, only the government would be allowed to sell marijuana and only to adults who register on a government database, letting officials keep track of their purchases over time. Profits would reportedly go toward rehabilitating drug addicts.

“It’s a fight on both fronts: against consumption and drug trafficking. We think the prohibition of some drugs is creating more problems to society than the drug itself,” Defence Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told reporters late Wednesday.

Fernandez said the bill would soon be sent to Congress, which is dominated by Mujica’s party, but that an exact date had not been set. If approved, Uruguay’s national government would be the first in the world to directly sell marijuana to its citizens. Some local governments do so.

The proposed measure elicited responses ranging from support to criticism to humour.

“People who consume are not going to buy it from the state,” said Natalia Pereira, 28, adding that she smokes marijuana occasionally. “There is going to be mistrust buying it from a place where you have to register and they can typecast you.”

Media reports have said that people who use more than a limited number of marijuana cigarettes would have to undergo drug rehabilitation.

“I can now imagine you going down to the kiosk to buy bread, milk and a little box of marijuana!” one person in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, wrote on their Twitter account.

Behind the move is a series of recent gang shootouts and rising cocaine seizures that have raised security concerns in one of Latin America’s safest countries and taken a toll on Mujiica’s already dipping popularity. The Interior Ministry says that from January to May, the number of homicides jumped to 133 from 76 in the same period last year.

The crime figures are small compared to its neighbours Argentina and Brazil but huge for this tiny South American country where many take pride in being able to leave their doors open and gather in the streets late at night to sip traditional mate tea.

To combat rising criminality, the government also announced a series of measures that include compensation for victims of violent crime and longer jail terms for traffickers of crack-like drugs.

The idea behind the marijuana proposal is to weaken crime by removing profits from drug dealers and diverting users from harder drugs, according to government officials.

“The main argument for this is to keep addicts from dealing and reaching substances” like base paste, a crack cocaine-like drug smoked in South America , said Juan Carlos Redin a psychologist who works with drug addicts in Montevideo.

Redin said that Uruguayans should be allowed to grow their own marijuana because the government would run into trouble if it tries to sell it. The big question he said will be, “Who will provide the government (with marijuana)?”

During the press conference, the defence minister said Uruguayan farmers would plant the marijuana but said more details would come soon.

“The laws of the market will rule here: whoever sells the best and the cheapest will end with drug trafficking,” Fernandez said. “We’ll have to regulate farm production so there’s no contraband and regulate distribution … we must make sure we don’t affect neighbouring countries or be accused of being an international drug production centre.”

There are no laws against marijuana use in Uruguay. Possession of marijuana for personal use has never been criminalized here and a 1974 law gives judges discretion to determine if the amount of marijuana found on a suspect is for legal personal use or for illegal dealing.

Liberal think tanks and drug liberalization activists hailed the planned measure.

“If they actually sell it themselves, and you have to go to the Uruguay government store to buy marijuana, then that would be a precedent for sure, but not so different than from the dispensaries in half the United States,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of U.S.-based NORML, an organization that advocates decriminalization of marijuana use.

St. Pierre said the move would make Uruguay the only national government in the world selling marijuana. Numerous dispensaries on the local level in the U.S. are allowed to sell marijuana for medical use.

Some drug rehabilitation experts disagreed with the planned bill altogether. Guillermo Castro, head of psychiatry at the Hospital Britanico in Montevideo, said marijuana is a gateway to stronger drugs.

“In the long-run, marijuana is still poison,” Castro said, adding that marijuana contains 17 times more carcinogens than tobacco has, and that its use is linked to higher rates of depression and suicide.

“If it’s going to be openly legalized, something that is now in the hands of politics, it’s important that they explain to people what it is and what it produces,” he said.

Overburdened by clogged prisons, some Latin American countries have relaxed penalties for drug possession and personal use and distanced themselves from the tough stance pushed by the United States four decades ago when the Richard Nixon administration declared the war on drugs.

“There’s a real human drama where people get swept up in draconian drug laws intended to put major drug traffickers behind bars, but because the way they are implemented in Latin America, they end up putting many marijuana consumers behind bars,” said Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank.

“There’s a growing recognition in the region that marijuana needs to be treated differently than other drugs, because it’s a clear case that the drug laws have a greater negative impact than the use of the drug itself,” Youngers said. “If Uruguay moved in this direction they would be challenging the international drug control system.”

Latin American Panel Calls U.S. Drug War a Failure February 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Brazil, Colombia, Latin America, Mexico.
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Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009

MEXICO CITY — As drug violence spirals out of control in Mexico, a commission led by three former Latin American heads of state blasted the U.S.-led drug war as a failure that is pushing Latin American societies to the breaking point.

“The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war,” said former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in a conference call with reporters from Rio de Janeiro. “We have to move from this approach to another one.”

The commission, headed by Mr. Cardoso and former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia, says Latin American governments as well as the U.S. must break what they say is a policy “taboo” and re-examine U.S.-inspired antidrugs efforts. The panel recommends that governments consider measures including decriminalizing the use of marijuana.

Associated Press

Mexico has been besieged by drug violence amid a two-year government crackdown.

The report, by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, is the latest to question the U.S.’s emphasis on punitive measures to deal with illegal drug use and the criminal violence that accompanies it. A recent Brookings Institution study concluded that despite interdiction and eradication efforts, the world’s governments haven’t been able to significantly decrease the supply of drugs, while punitive methods haven’t succeeded in lowering drug use.

John Walters, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said, “It’s not true that we’ve lost or can’t do anything about the drug problem,” and cited security improvements in Colombia.

President Barack Obama has yet to appoint a successor to Mr. Walters. A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy said he couldn’t comment on speculation over the appointment of a new director.

According to a Democratic official familiar with the process, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske is under consideration for an administration job, most likely to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The three former presidents who head the commission are political conservatives who have confronted in their home countries the violence and corruption that accompany drug trafficking.

The report warned that the U.S.-style antidrug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk and corrupting “judicial systems, governments, the political system and especially the police forces.”

The report comes as drug violence is engulfing Mexico, which has become the key transit point for cocaine traffic to the U.S. Decapitation of rival drug traffickers has become common as cartels try to intimidate one another.

Mr. Walters said increased violence in border areas of Mexico was partly a result of criminal organizations compensating for reduced income from the supply of drugs by turning to other activities, such as people-smuggling, and continuing to fight over turf.

U.S. law-enforcement officials — as well as some of their counterparts in Mexico — say the explosion in violence indicates progress in the war on drugs as organizations under pressure are clashing.

“If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence,” a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. There is violence “because these guys are flailing. We’re taking these guys out. The worst thing you could do is stop now.”

Latin American governments have largely followed U.S. advice in trying to stop the flow of drugs from the point of origin. The policy has had little effect.

In Colombia, billions of dollars in U.S. aid have helped the military regain control from the hands of drug-financed communist guerrillas and lower crime, but the help hasn’t dented the amount of drugs flowing from Colombia.

In the conference call, Mr. Gaviria said the U.S. approach to narcotics — based on treating drug consumption as a crime — had failed. Latin America, he said, should adapt a more European approach, based on treating drug addiction as a health problem.

—David Luhnow, Louise Radnofsky and Evan Perez contributed to this article.Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com