Friday, February 13, 2009

Musings: Losing the War

The moon, though shrinking fast, was still bright enough to trick me into thinking it was closer to day than night, which is why Koko and I were out walking under a smattering of stars this morning.

The clouds were just beginning to turn pink when we returned home, my thoughts already on the cup of hot, honey-sweetened Earl Grey tea that soon would be warming my body and focusing my brain.

Caffeine is one of the drugs that is lucky enough to be legal, despite reports that it is ”mildly addictive.” The same cannot be said for the two other highly addictive drugs — alcohol and nicotine — that are widely and legally consumed by Americans.

But all the other substances that folks like to use are not only banned, but the focus of a brutal and expensive war, much of it waged on Mexico and other Latin American nations. And now a Latin American panel is saying that war has not only failed, it’s pushing their societies “to the breaking point." According to an article in The Wall Street Journal:

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.

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.

A journalist friend of mine, who has been living and working in Tijuana for the past two decades, confirmed the failure of America’s policy. He called me a week ago, tense and anxious, saying that for the first time he is considering leaving that border city because the violence has become so extreme.

The city’s official murder count for 2008 was 843. Nearly all of the dead were either innocent bystanders or directly linked to Mexican and Columbian drug trafficking organizations, which gross an $19 billion to $34 billion annually, according to the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center.

The actual number of murders is thought to be much higher, he said, because many of the victims simply disappear. In one particularly chilling account, a man confessed to being paid $600 per week by a drug cartel to liquefy some 300 corpses in barrels of acid.

In 2007, the Mexican government seized some 10,000 automatic weapons involved in the drug trade, he said. Some 95 percent originated in Texas, Arizona, California or New Mexico and were brought to Mexico illegally.

“It is the evil-doings of Americans who consume drugs and have no qualms about selling these guns that have no purpose but to kill people as quickly as possible,” he said. “What’s going on in Tijuana wouldn’t be possible without what’s going on in the U.S. We’ve got drugs going north, and money and guns going south.”

Ironically, once the money is counted and laundered — a process that involves a vast number of ordinary people and legitimate businesses, thus sucking them into the drug cartels’ web — much of it returns to the U.S. as legal bank deposits, he said.

He sent me the draft of a story he’s working on, which I’ll link to once it’s published, that included these paragraphs:

Life in Tijuana goes on. The buses run, people go to work, kids go to school, traffic still sometimes jams the city’s major arteries. But something has changed dramatically in the last year or so: most of the city’s residents go about their day-to-day business with a gnawing apprehension, haunted by an unpleasant feeling that something horrible may happen at any moment. The sensation is similar to what you feel when you narrowly avoid a car crash, or catch a child just in time to avoid disaster -- relief that it did not happen, distress that it almost did, dread that next time you may not be so lucky. The Tijuana state-of-mind has become popularly known as “the psychosis.” Anyone who lives in Tijuana knows what you’re talking about when you use the term.

While Tijuana has yet to descend into chaos, the situation is so stressful – almost unlivable – for ordinary people who just want to live their lives and raise their families that some have begun calling on the government to call a truce with the narco cartels, or to allow one cartel to win control with government help.

My friend has another suggestion: “Legalize drugs.”


Katy said...

I look forward to reading your friend's article, Joan.

I appreciate the way he identifies the cross-border nature of the trade in systemic terms.

My worry is that the crisis of violence related to the Mexican-US drug trade will be easily used to further demonize migrant workers. This will prove to be devastating to the already extremely vulnerable people forced to migrate for economic reasons and provide a convenient distraction from systemic solutions like migrant justice and drug legalization.

The violence also provides ample cover for more aggressive, imperial interventions into Latin America by the US. In fact, the War On Drugs has already provided cover for military activity in Bolivia, Venezuala, Colombia and elsewhere in the region for some time, where the real aim has been to destabilize revolutionary anti-capitalist movements.

Andy Parx said...

Shifting powders back and forth
Black goes south and white comes north.- J.P. Barlow

Last night one of the network news programs had a piece about Phoenix becoming the kidnapping capitol of the US. Seems there is no border for the drug cartels who collect their “due” however- and now wherever- they need to.

Anyone heard their precious Obama call for an end to the insanity of the war on drugs? No- instead we’re bringing the show to Afghanistan by expanding out definition of “terrorist” to create the “Al Quida narco-terrorist” and moving the war machine there.

Anonymous said...

1. only an uniformed (or mean) person thinks / says the migrants = drug trade problems (even when factoring in the few mules)

2. "imperial interventions into Latin America"...what like some cia guys in a plane over columbia doing radar scouting? intervention operations = imperial interventions?

3. you aint never gonna get those guys in afg to stop poppy processing. good luck

4. its worthwhile to point out the US guns going south, as well as the US consumption is also relevant that the "institutions" (in a really broad sense of the term) south of the US have been and certainly are still very weak to handle various "pressures"

5. even if cannabis is legalized, you still have meth and coke...both of which would still causes these problems in the US and elsewhere

Anonymous said...

The "war on drugs" is just another form of imperialism abroad and governmental abuse of power at home.

Anonymous said...

This site calculates the cost of the war on drugs:\

With all of our tax dollars being poured into the problem, who really has an incentive to solve it?

Anonymous said...

> With all of our tax dollars being poured into the problem, who really has an incentive to solve it? <

Governments have no incentive to win the international "war on drugs." To piously proclaim their outrage, yes -- it's good publicity. To contain excessive violence, yes -- it's bad publicity. But to act decisively to win, or even to make a major change in the decades-long balance of power between suppliers, consumers and enforcement, no.

Democracies or dictatorships, governments gain enormous benefits of power and influence over each other and their own citizens by fighting the international drug trade but not ending it.

Anonymous said...

the "imperialism" fetish is kinda weird fyi

Anonymous said...

> the "imperialism" fetish is kinda weird fyi <

What's weird is when people read history, watch the news, and then swear that Our Government doesn't do that sort of stuff.

Those who've lived in South America and the Middle East tend to have just a slightly different view.

Anonymous said...

"Those who've lived in South America and the Middle East tend to have just a slightly different view."

i have thanks and your point is?

what do you want to review? foreign aid? trade treaties? wars / military? other?

about to claim all or most problems in the countries in those areas stem from the US?

are you about to claim the US made the folks in argentina kidnap people? and when we find out that they did we should call them out on that publicly and the hell with any other consequences? (that is a softball for you fyi)

would you not support musharraf? explain the operative dynamics there pls

pls offer more than dulles/cia and some fruit company took out some guy in central america ages ago and that the shah of iran was a bad guy


awolgov said...

Thanks, Joan and your friend. I hope he remains safe.

“What’s going on in Tijuana wouldn’t be possible without what’s going on in the U.S. We’ve got drugs going north, and money and guns going south.”

Wow. Well said. And thatʻs the way itʻs going to stay. Just ask the Bush family. Where would they be financially had they not been pushers? Got to keep the insatiable, dull brained and immoral americans supplied.

I can point my finger at the Bush family for the majority of the drug flow facilitation.

As far as Afghanistan and the poppy production, the Taliban had that problem under control at one time...but the U.S. couldnʻt live with that very long. Uh uh uh, had to fix that.

The CIA defininately would cease to function if the drug trade was cut off.

What you got to say about that? Try to make a complete sentence when you do, med man.

Anonymous said...

you are informed as you are wise

Anonymous said...

> about to claim all or most problems in the countries in those areas stem from the US?

are you about to claim the US made the folks in argentina kidnap people? <

What in the world gives you the idea that only the U.S. is imperialist?

Anonymous said...

"What in the world gives you the idea that only the U.S. is imperialist?"

-- fair question

-- answer: (1) that is the road many people on this blog usually go down and focus on, hence the US-centric structure of my post, and; (2) your "Our Government" reference certainly suggested you had the US in mind

but if you are in the UK, and want to focus on the brits, knock yourself out (russia or japan or china could provide some good examples as well of course)

and if you want to offer examples showing the US is, on the net, an "imperialist" (ie, historically negative aggregate global impact), then i am (still) interested in listening to same

Anonymous said...

> My friend has another suggestion: “Legalize drugs.” <

From CNN:

Mexico, a country with a nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States, is undergoing a horrifying wave of violence that some are likening to a civil war. Drug traffickers battle fiercely with each other and Mexican authorities. The homicide rate reached a record level in 2008 and indications are that the carnage could be exceeded this year.

Every day, newspapers and the airwaves are filled with stories and images of beheadings and other gruesome killings. Wednesday's front page on Mexico City's La Prensa carried a large banner headline that simply said "Hysteria!" The entire page was devoted to photos of bloody bodies and grim-faced soldiers. One photo shows a man with two young children walking across a street with an army vehicle in the background, with a soldier standing at a turret machine gun.

Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, calls it "a sickening vertigo into chaos and plunder."

By most accounts, that's not hyperbole.

"The grisly portrait of the violence is unprecedented and horrific," said Robert Pastor, a Latin America national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

"I don't think there's any question that Mexico is going through a very rough time. Not only is there violence with the gangs, but the entire population is very scared," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy center.

Speaking on a news show a few weeks ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it a civil war. Birns agrees.

"Of course it's a civil war, but that only touches the violence of it," he said Wednesday. "It's also a civic conflict, as an increasing number of people look upon the law and democratic values as something that can be violated."

Pastor and Hakim note that the United States helps fuel the violence, not only by providing a ready market for illegal drugs, but also by supplying the vast majority of weapons used by drug gangs.

Pastor says there are at least 6,600 U.S. gun shops within 100 miles of the Mexican border and more than 90 percent of weapons in Mexico come from the United States.

And it's not just handguns. Drug traffickers used a bazooka in Tuesday's shootout with federal police and army soldiers in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas.

"The drug gangs are better equipped than the army," Hakim said.

Pervasive corruption among public officials is central to the drug cartels' success.

"There is so much money involved in the drug trade, there is so much fear involved in the drug trade, that no institution can survive unaffected," Birns said.

"This has really revealed just how corrupt Mexican officeholders are," Hakim said.

In one recent instance, Noe Ramirez Mandujano, who was the nation's top anti-drug official from 2006 until August 2008, was arrested on charges that he accepted $450,000 a month in bribes from drug traffickers while in office.

Such dire problems call for a new way of looking at the situation, some say.

Pastor calls the problem in Mexico "even worse than Chicago during the Prohibition era" and said a solution similar to what ended that violence is needed now.

"What worked in the U.S. was not Eliot Ness," he said, referring to the federal agent famous for fighting gangsters in 1920s and '30s. "It was the repeal of Prohibition."

That viewpoint has picked up some high-level support in Latin America.

Last week, the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil called for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use and a change in strategy on the war on drugs at a meeting in Brazil of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.

"The problem is that current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria said at a news conference, in which the 17-member commission's recommendations were presented.

Full text at

Anonymous said...

Are we actually listening to the wisdom of someone willingly living in Tijuana for 2 decades???