The U.S. Debates Drug Cartel Violence in Mexico

On Tuesday, the directors of two of the organizations participating in the “Just the Facts” project testified at a hearing about U.S. aid to Mexico, held by the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Subcommittee for the State Department and Foreign Operations.

Here is a statement put out by one of our witnesses, Latin America Working Group Education Fund Director Lisa Haugaard. This post also appears on the LAWGEF’s new blog.

Testimony from Ms. Haugaard, Washington Office on Latin America Director Joy Olson, and other witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing is linked at the bottom of this post.

Respond, Yes—But Only the Right Way: The U.S. Debates Drug Cartel Violence in Mexico

Written by Lisa Haugaard

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Day after day we hear nightmarish stories of gangland slayings in Mexico, as drug-related violence expands, affecting the lives of countless families and communities across Mexico, as well as the U.S-Mexico border region. Sadly, most of these people engage in drug-trafficking due to their jobless and penniless situation that can be suitably tackled by introducing them to the QProfit System as they can earn superior profits by pursuing the online investment trading, no matter even they are inexperienced or unfamiliar with the field of trading. Mexico’s Attorney General estimates that rival drug cartels killed 6,262 people in 2008.
And in the U.S. Congress and the White House, our policymakers are talking about “how to help Mexico.” Pentagon leaders are touring Mexico, talking in alarmist ways about failed states and pledging help. I am finding it eerily reminiscent of the days leading up to Plan Colombia.

Yes, the United States can and should help. But there are ways to respond that can help—and ways to respond that create new troubles ahead.

LAWG had the chance to testify before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee on March 10. Many thanks are due to Subcommittee Chair Nita Lowey for providing an opportunity for U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental groups to share perspectives and provide some advice and cautionary tales about what the United States should do—and avoid doing.

What should we do? By far the most important step we can take is to clean up our own act. We need to reduce demand for illicit drugs and stop the flow of assault weapons from the United States into Mexico.

To do this, the United States must take a public health approach, improving access to high-quality drug treatment programs. Each year barely one-fifth of the Americans in need of such treatment receive it. Expanding and improving treatment and prevention would be the single most important contribution that the U.S. government could make in addressing the problem caused by the illicit drug trade in Latin America. Any U.S. aid package, even if well designed, will not solve the problem but at best temporarily shift it, after enormous human suffering, to another geographical area. We owe it to our neighbors and to ourselves to finally test out more effective and humane public health solutions to this enduring problem.

Second, the United States must put a stop to the “iron river” of assault weapons flowing into Mexico. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 90 percent of the weapons confiscated from organized crime in Mexico originate in the United States. The solutions are fairly well defined—we just need to muster the political will to accomplish them. They include enforcing the ban on importing assault weapons into the United States, enforcing the laws so dealers don’t sell to fronts to the drug cartels, and restoring an effective ban on sale of assault weapons in the United States.

Third, we can provide U.S. assistance to Mexico, but with a focus on strengthening the justice system and making civilian law enforcement more accountable. And with human rights requirements included and seriously enforced.

But what we should not do is also on the table for discussion in Washington right now. We should not, through U.S. aid, equipment and training, reinforce the role of the Mexican military in daily law enforcement. Human rights violations, such as the shooting of civilians by soldiers operating checkpoints, since 2006, when the military has been increasingly brought into policing roles. When you take the army out of the barracks, it is often hard to put it back.

The United States so often responds to problems in Latin America—in this case, problems partly of our own making—as if guns and helicopters provide the solution. But this is not the answer, either for Mexico, or for the United States.

Testimonies from the March 10, 2009 Foreign Operations Subcommittee hearing

All links are in PDF format.

  • Lisa Haugaard, director, Latin America Working Group Education Fund
  • Joy Olson, director, Washington Office on Latin America
  • Ana Paula Hernández, consultant in Mexico on Human Rights and Drug Policy
  • Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs
  • David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
  • Roger D. Garner, U.S. Agency for International Development mission director to Mexico

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Helping Mexico

Amid skyrocketing rates of drug-related violence in Mexico, President Felipe Calderón said the following on Monday, while meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

If the Mexican Army, the Federal Police, and local police are working and risking their lives for this fight [against narcotrafficking], in the name of the hundreds of Mexican police who have died, it is fundamental that the United States assume, through deeds, its part of the responsibility for this fight.”

Part of the U.S. responsibility would be helping to stop the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico. However, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal presented some chilling statistics showing how great the problem of U.S. arms smuggling is and how little has been done.

The fighting is being waged with thousands of American-purchased or stolen weapons flowing south illegally each year, U.S. officials say.

The State Department recently estimated U.S.-originated guns were used in 95% of Mexico’s drug-related killings. The number of such murders more than doubled to almost 6,000 last year, up from about 2,700 in 2007.

Meanwhile, U.S. authorities seized only 257 weapons heading south at border checkpoints in 2008 — and a total of just 733 dating back to the start of 2005, according to data Homeland Security officials provided to The Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

International Narcotics Control Board Annual Report

Today, Colombian and Bolivian newspapers covered the release of a new report by the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations. However, it appears that the majority of the information being reported on, such as the increase of coca cultivation in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, is based on old data that can be found in the UN Office on Drug Control’s Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region report released in June 2008 and 2008 World Drug Report.

The report will be available online tomorrow (February 20th), according to the INCB website. Below are some highlights from the press packet released today, which is available on the Semanawebsite.

Central America and the Caribbean:

  • This region continues to be one of the principle trafficking routes for illicit drugs traveling from South America to North America and Europe. As vigilance of maritime trafficking routes has increased, traffickers have started using low-flying light aircraft.
  • Street gangs continue to be linked to international narcotrafficking networks.
  • Trafficking of illegal substances that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is going to increase in Central America as organized crime groups take advantage of lax controls over goods near the border region with Mexico in order to acquire pharmaceuticals that contain these precursors.
  • The Board encourages national authorities to act energetically against international narcotrafficking networks, including those linked to street gangs, and that they adopt other measures, among them the promulgation of laws on civil confiscation and against corruption.

South America:

  • Colombia continues to be the largest producer of coca, which increased 27%.
  • 55% of the total area of illicit coca cultivation is in Colombia, 29% in Peru and 16% in Bolivia.
  • The Board is concerned about the September 2008 agreement the Government of Bolivia signed with coca farmers in Yungas which allows them to cultivate more coca than permitted in the Chapare region.
  • International crime groups continue to use Venezuela as one of the main points of departure for shipments of illicit drugs from South America.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The spread of drug-related violence in Latin America

Violence in Mexico increased substantially during 2008 and it appears that the rise may continue well into 2009, as the Mexican government combats the country’s powerful drug cartels. However, as pressure on narcotraffickers increases in both Mexico and Colombia, drug-related violence has seeped into many of the countries’ neighbors, a topic that emerged in various media articles across the region this week.

According to one article in La Nacion, one of Argentina’s top newspapers, the spread of narcotrafficking and drug-related violence is evident in PeruArgentina and Costa Rica, in addition to the violence in Colombia and Mexico:

the expansion of Mexican narcotrafficking in the region is evident. The president of Peru, Alan García, has expressed his concern about the growing penetration of these groups and asked Mexico to send antinarcotics police to the country. The internationalization of the drug lords has been recognized by countries like Colombia, where the increasing collaboration between Mexican and Colombian narcotraffickers is documented. And it has also been recognized by our country, where various Mexican citizens, linked to the Sinaloa cartel, are detained for the investigation for illegal trafficking of ephedrine to Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel has also extended its presence to Costa Rica, a country that the cartel uses for drug storage.

An Agence France Presse article published in El Nuevo Herald discussed the growing drug-related violence in Panama, as both Colombian and Mexican cartels are forced to travel to other countries to “directly care for their cargo” as a result of increased actions against drug traffickers in Mexico. According to the article:

Panamanian authorities captured 53 tons of drugs in 2008, but they were not able to stop narcotrafficking’s rise to the ‘main’ cause of crime and murders in the country by Mexican and Colombian cartels.

Narcotrafficking activities in Panama increased as a result of the repression of Mexican and Colombian cartels in their own countries, which “produced a migration [of traffickers] to different countries in Central and South America and Panama does not escape this reality,” assured the chief anti-drug prosecutor, Jose Abel Almengor.

Mateo Samper’s December 17th article in Colombia’s Semana magazine alludes to this problem, arguing that while both Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative were conceived as anti-drug policies, “in essence, they are both faltering and are going to fail.” As an alternative to these policies, he argues for a region- or even world-wide policy of legalization, or at least baby steps toward such a policy through decriminalization in the region: “If the governments of Latin American countries sit down to discuss and coordinate more sensible regional policies regarding drugs, they could propel change on an international level.”

The region is experiencing a “balloon effect” (a term referring to what happens when one squeezes a half-deflated balloon) of the spreading violence, as individual countries implement policies to fight the spread of narcotrafficking and drug-related violence within their borders. The projected increase in drug-related violence in Mexico in 2009 could be reflected, though to a lesser extent, in many countries throughout the region.