Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ron Paul and the drug war

Ron Paul is getting a fair bit of credit for some of the matter-of-fact things he said in the last debate, particularly his comments on the drug war. A sampling:

“I think the federal war on drugs is a total failure. You can—you can at least let sick people have marijuana because it’s helpful, but compassionate conservatives say, well, we can’t do this; we’re going to put people who are sick and dying with cancer and they’re being helped with marijuana, if they have multiple sclerosis—the federal government’s going in there and overriding state laws and putting people like that in prison. Why don’t we handle the drugs like we handle alcohol? Alcohol is a deadly drug. What about—the real deadly drugs are the prescription drugs. They kill a lot more people than the illegal drugs. So the drug war is out of control. I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties. It magnifies our problems on the borders. We spend—like, over the last forty years, $1 trillion on this war. And believe me, the kids can still get the drugs. It just hasn’t worked.”

On the surface, the guy seems smart, and almost compassionate. Calling it like he sees it; even echoing the anti-drug war, left-leaning crowd which argues that the $1 trillion spent on a drug war that has not really reduced consumption and has only filled up U.S. prisons. According to some media reports, Paul really caught the attention of the so-called youth vote with these comments.

But look closer: Paul goes on to mention the "real deadly drugs." Prescription pills. Anyone know what the DEA's new No. 1 priority is? Going after, yes, prescription pills.

Now, I'm not a drug war-basher just for the sake of bashing, as anyone who has read The Last Narco will tell you. I'm not really for drugs, nor really against them, except when they clearly destroy lives. Personally, I don't like them because I prefer beer.

I'll even go so far as to say that I support the drug war as it exists today, because I haven't seen a truly viable alternative (no, nationwide legalization is not viable, because it won't ever happen.)

But what I don't support are politicians twisting their own opinions to pander to certain crowds. If the DEA makes pills its priority, does anyone really think the war on traffickers of other drugs will ease up? Why would it? An all-out war on pills would mean a bigger budget because you've got one more illicit substance to go after; that budget could and most likely would be allocated pretty much anywhere a vast bureaucracy likes.

Again, I'm all for going after pills, and the people who sell them to unsuspecting victims illegally. It's a sordid affair, and needs to be stopped. But please, don't pretend to be against a $1 trillion war that will only continue if you go after the pills!

It's this easy: I, ––––––––, think the DEA should go after prescription pills, perhaps the deadliest drug threat of them all. I recognize that the drug war has not entirely succeeded, especially in the eyes of many critics, and we need to seriously examine how to better combat the drug scourge in the future. Debating legalization is futile, unless you, the American people, decide to actually vote for it (California didn't; I somehow doubt the rest of you will). So in the meantime, we will add prescription pills to the long list of illicit substances our authorities will go after, and do our utmost to fix the underlying societal issues that are turning our kids to drugs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chapo's cash and clean soldiers

Following the news that the Mexican military seized $15 million in cash allegedly belonging to Chapo in Tijuana, I want to bring up a point that is rarely mentioned in the drug war: the soldiers actually brought the cash in.

Imagine stumbling upon $15 million in cash. You've searched a car, and there, just sitting there, is $15 million. You could pocket that cash and walk across the border into the US, and you'd never be heard from again. Neither you nor I can really fathom that amount of money. Nor, if we are entirely honest, can we imagine not being tempted to walk off with it. Yet these soldiers turned the money in to their superiors. They didn't take any of it (as far as we know). Kudos.

Incidentally, most news reports are claiming that this is the second-largest seizure of cash during the Calderon administration. It's actually the third. Here's an account (from The Last Narco) of the largest seizure and how a few honest cops refrained from taking a slice of the $207 million that was seized in Zhenli Ye Gon's Mexico City mansion.

//Antonio (not his real name) once helped lead a raid on a mansion in the swanky Mexico City district of Lomas de Chapultepec. The property belonged to Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese-Mexican businessman who the authorities believed was importing methamphetamine precursors for Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel.

Antonio and his crew found an enormous stash of cash in the mansion: 207 million in US dollars, 18 million Mexican pesos, 200,000 euros, 113,000 Hong Kong dollars and nearly a dozen gold bullion coins.

Antonio and another top police commander (his superior, on that occasion) wanted to make sure none of the cops walked off with any of the loot. So they ordered their men to empty their pockets and remove their clothes prior to leaving the scene. They did; no one had stolen anything. The other commander and his men then began to leave, but Antonio blocked him. No, everyone, he told the ranking man. What my men do, I do. So the two of them stripped down to their underwear.

Antonio and his superior (as well as their subordinates) were both clean – that time. But the superior officer would later be charged with links to organized crime and, specifically, receiving vast amounts of cash from one cartel in exchange for information on anti-narco operations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

No. 2 No. 5

While all the recent news has focused on the helicopter crash that killed Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora and of course, the conspiracy theories surrounding it, few journalists have pointed out that he is not only the second No. 2 to die in an aviation tragedy during this administration; his death makes successor Alejandro Poire the fifth interior secretary in as many years.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mexican interior minister dies in helicopter crash

So the Mexican authorities have declared Francisco Blake Mora dead, after a helicopter crash outside of Mexico City. Blake Mora, the nation's interior minister, or No. 2, was headed to Cuernavaca.

This is the second interior minister to die in an aviation disaster during the Calderon administration – the first, Juan Camilo Mourino, was a close friend and ally of Calderon's, and died in a plane crash in Mexico City on Nov. 4, 2008.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but seriously, this is all very suspect no matter how one looks at it. At the very least, it's time Mexican officials got either a) better helicopters/planes or b) better pilots.

My condolences to the families of the eight who died in the most recent crash.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chapo on Forbes' list

Once again, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has been named to Forbes' list of most powerful people in the world, occupying the no. 55 spot for no apparent reason.

Well, Forbes gives reasons, ie, a methodology of sorts. Forbes measured "how many people a person has power over." It looked at the person's "financial resources," then asked whether "a candidate [is] influential in more than one arena, or sphere." Lastly, Forbes "gave consideration to how actively the candidates wield their power."

Patrick Corcoran has some good thoughts on the matter here:
http://estepais.com/site/?p=35954

My thoughts, as someone who has researched Chapo for a fair amount of time now:

One thing to take into account on power lists is the fear factor. For instance, mention the name of President Felipe Calderon in Sinaloa, and you will most likely elicit a chuckle. I like Calderon, and I respect him, but that doesn't change the fact that in places like Sinaloa, people regard him as a pendejo.
Mention Chapo's name, on the other hand, and you get fear, awe, trembles, respect. That's power.

And what about his power as a brand? In 2007, Chapo was being written off by everyone in Mexico. Now, his name is as well-known as Pablo Escobar's. When one thinks of the global drug trade, one thinks of Chapo. Some idiot rapper even named his album after him.

I think another criteria for power should be likely effect of death or departure. For instance, if President Barack Obama resigned tomorrow for no apparent reason, the world would be in shock. There would be ripple-effects all over the place. Everyone would be wondering what happened, why, buzzing about what might happen next.

If Chapo were to retire tomorrow, or die, or be captured, what would happen? It's all speculation, but there would likely to be serious violence throughout Sinaloa, perhaps throughout Mexico. I still believe there are contingency plans in place for retaliation against the authorities if they nail him. (Disclaimer: this is based on no evidence whatsoever, just a hunch.)

Lastly, what about connections to power? A senior Mexican general was allegedly sent by a high-ranking administration official to talk to Chapo to ask him to contain the levels of violence in Sinaloa. When a member of the army – undoubtedly the most powerful entity in the country, at least officially – is sent to talk to you, to effectively ask for your assistance, that is power indeed.

Long story short, I think Chapo should be included on Forbes' list. But I think they should have included a little more info on why he belongs there, given how murky details on his financial resources etc really are.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Enique Krauze weighs in

Mexican historian and publisher Enrique Krauze has written a piece for Bloomberg View which several friends have sent along, recommending on Facebook and the like.

As a big fan of Krauze (ok, I admit I have never read more than three paragraphs of his stuff, but I've always wanted to write for Letras Libres) I eagerly opened the link to the article.

This is what I got:

"Mexico, battered by an interminable narco war, hasn’t found a firm consensus on how to combat organized crime."

My response: Mexico's congress, often battered by its own stubbornness, hasn't found a firm consensus on much in recent years. Just look at the gridlock since 2000. Police reforms are stuck there for a reason. As for Mexicans, well, polls do show that more than 70 percent of people favor the death penalty for narcos, and more than 80 percent support the use of the military in the drug war.

"In Spain, which has been plagued by the violence of the Basque group ETA, such a consensus was slow to develop..."

My response: ETA is not and never was part of a multi-billion dollar industry. Please don't compare rotten apples and rancid oranges.

"A major factor impeding agreement on a program of action is a rejection, by many Mexicans, of the law-enforcement policies pursued by President Felipe Calderon. Nevertheless, in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of respondents approved of the government’s deployment of the army against the cartels."

My response: Did I miss something here? Did you just undercut your own argument in the following sentence?

"Yet a strong undercurrent of opposition to Calderon’s strategy has been expressed in the recent countrywide marches of the Movement for Peace, founded by the poet Javier Sicilia after his son was murdered by men connected with a drug cartel for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as has happened to so many innocents in recent years."

My response: Come on, Dr Krauze. You know full well that Sicilia's movement, as moving and inspiring as it seems, is not likely to be very different from past movements, led by the likes of Alejandro Marti. Marches bring awareness, but right now, Mexico is hardly an under-reported news story of yesteryear. People need security now, not some poet speaking out and shedding tears on their behalf and taking up the president's time by having a nice little televised dialogue with him about things he already knows and is trying to fix.

"A complete acceptance of Calderon’s strategies is by no means required to secure a broad national consensus against organized crime."

My response: Thank God for that. I'm no fan of authoritarianism, but Calderon is the president, and definitely needs some leeway to just do what he thinks is right. He shouldn't have to ask permission on every detail of his plan; sometimes I wonder if some Mexican pundits have taken this whole democracy thing a bit far.

"Like many others, I would criticize the overwhelming emphasis on a military solution... [and the lack of] focus on the corrupt connections between power and crime."

My response: No one has said the military is a solution. Every single government official that I know of says the eventual aim is to get the military back in the barracks as soon as it is possible. It has done so on several occasions in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, only to have to bring them back in. As for focusing on the corrupt connections between power and crime, well, I would agree with that if the Calderon administration hadn't thrown its drug czar in jail, arrested a top DEA-backed commander, thrown 30 or so Michoacan officials and mayors in jail (let's ignore the fact that they were later released due to lack of evidence), and so on. Sure, much more needs to be done, but Operation Clean House wasn't all smoke and mirrors.

"A society mobilized to confront so grave a problem as the cartel violence in Mexico cannot tolerate inefficiency and corruption in its political leaders. But it must be equally firm in its rejection of, and active opposition to, criminals."

Response: Agreed.

A link to the article is in the title of this post.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Anonymous

Back in 2008, Mexican officials called on the people of Mexico to rise up and do their part against organized crime. Report incidents and suspicious activity, top officials urged. It's up to you to fight organized crime, not us.

At the time, the request seemed a little off colour, ridiculous even. Tens of thousands of people were dying, shootouts in public places were becoming more common.

But the government was right: the people had to do something, at the very least gain confidence in their ability to report crimes and not become victims themselves.

The authorities set up some anonymous hotlines in cities like Culiacan, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. They got some calls. Some tips were worth acting on. Then the calls stopped coming.

The callers were getting killed. The local police were simply noting down the numbers of the callers, checking in the phone company, and passing a list of the numbers/names off to the narcos.

Human rights activists caught wind of it, and warned the brave folks who still might dare to report illicit activity: call from a payphone. Never use your home phone or mobile. Never give your real name. Don't stay on the line too long.

The denuncias anonimas kept coming. They still are to this day. There have been few reprisals that I know of.

That's what the authorities had in mind when they called on people to take matters into their own hands.

The video released by people purporting to be the hacker group Anonymous is an interesting new twist. Reporting information about a shootout on twitter is one thing, threatening the Zetas head-on is another. I still am not quite sure what this group hopes to achieve. Los Zetas can track hackers if they are local. They don't really care about the names of officials being publicized, because most people already assume who is involved, thanks to the Mexican penchant for secretos a voces. Publishing names anonymously might implicate someone who is not a criminal; at best, it will only likely reaffirm the public's suspicions about official so-and-so. Hard evidence, if the group has it, should go straight to the federal authorities – perhaps on the condition that if the authorities do nothing, the group will publish it, if trust in said authorities is lacking.

Going after Los Zetas, as many commentators have already written, could be really dangerous. There is no clear goal, and Los Zetas, let's remember, do not hesitate to behead people when they deem it necessary.

I want the violence in Mexico to end just as much as the next guy. But the only thing I can see coming out of the Anonymous threat is more violence. I cannot see a serious challenge to Los Zetas anywhere in this.

I welcome comments, particularly from people who have been to Veracruz recently or actually, anywhere in Zeta territory, because it's been a few years since I was there.