A Massacre In Mexico, Ctd

Protest to Demand Justice for The 43 Missing Students

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo follows up on the 43 Mexican students who disappeared in late September in the southwestern state of Guerrero:

Authorities believe the police delivered the students to the local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. The mayor of the town, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, were later arrested and charged with ordering the police to capture the students out of fear that they would cause a disturbance. Three of the gang members confessed this week to murdering the students, burning them, and throwing the remains in plastic bags in a nearby river and garbage dump. The remains are so badly charred that local forensics investigators haven’t been able to confirm their identities. An outside commission from Argentina had to be called to perform further tests.

This is not the first, biggest, or most gruesome mass disappearance during Mexico’s past eight years of brutal drug violence. More than 106,000 have died in what government data term “executions,” “confrontations,” and “homicide-aggressions” since former President Felipe Calderon informally declared his war on drugs in 2006. But the tragedy of Ayotzinapa is different. Rarely has the collusion between local authorities and the cartels been so obvious and the consequences so dire.

The disappearances, the insidious corruption they revealed, and the Mexican authorities’ failure to locate the students’ remains despite uncovering one mass grave after another have sparked protests throughout the country, as citizens demand answers and accountability from president Enrique Peña Nieto and his government. Laura Carlsen focuses on how these protests relate to Mexico’s left-wing activist movement, with which the murdered students were associated:

While the demonstrators seek justice for the 43 students, what’s also driving them is a deep-seated anger at the Peña Nieto administration. The 16 rural teachers’ colleges embody that clash of cultures. No matter what fallout results from Ayotzinapa, the ongoing demonstrations have revealed the vast gulf between Mexico’s radical grassroots and its government. …

With public pressure rising and the protests showing no sign of abating, the Ayotzinapa case will almost certainly continue to ensnare government officials — the only question is how far up the chain. The Guerrero state governor, Angel Aguirre, was the first political leader forced to resign as a result of the crisis on Oct. 23; some are calling for the resignation of Peña Nieto and [Attorney General Jesus] Murillo. “This is the bad old Mexico, where local officials are inept, corrupt or in cahoots with organized crime; where life is cheap and justice elusive,” the Financial Times warned on Oct. 28 — a far cry from the modern, business-friendly image Peña Nieto has worked so hard to project.

José Cárdenas criticizes Peña Nieto’s “fitful approach to endemic security issues”:

What Guerrero puts into bold relief is the huge chasm between security efforts at the federal level, where security forces have been reshuffled and consolidated, and local levels, where weak and frequently corrupt state and municipal institutions have proved almost helpless against the armed capability and audacity of the large criminal groups, who have successfully infiltrated those same institutions and forces. Guerrero should be a watershed moment for Mexico, convincing Mexico City elites that the security situation is not a distraction from the economic agenda, but instead that dismantling the operations of criminal enterprises is indispensable to their nations’ stability and prosperity. Clearly, ordinary citizens are finding the levels of criminal violence unbearable and are losing patience with government strategies.

Anabel Hernández is less charitable:

Since Peña Nieto came to power, there have been grave regressions in Mexico, one of which is the abhorrence of transparency and public accountability, a move that was led by the presidential office and replicated by other governmental institutions. What else can be expected of this soiled government? In recent months, the military and the attorney general have presented false reports regarding crimes. Official information shows that in 2006 the number of criminal complaints not investigated by the federal government amounted to 24,000; in 2013, the number was 63,000. In Peña Nieto’s administration, law enforcement has become increasingly slow and pathetic.

(In Mexico City, Mexico on November 16, 2014 a protester holds a sign reading “Mexico is a grave” during a demonstration against Mexico’s government. By Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Feds Play Whack-A-Mole On The Deep Web

Last Thursday, the FBI announced that it had shut down the second incarnation of the infamous black market site Silk Road and arrested its founder:

Investigators claim that Blake Benthall, 26, co-created Silk Road 2.0 in November 2013 after the man accused of founding the original Silk Road — Ross Ulbricht, known as “Dread Pirate Roberts” — was arrested and had his site shut down the month earlier. Operating under the name “Defcon,” the officials allege, Benthall owned and operated “one of the most extensive, sophisticated, and widely used criminal marketplaces on the Internet today.” The marketplace, which shielded its some 150,000 active users with Tor technology and appears to have been seized by federal authorities, was apparently generating sales of about $8 million each month, primarily in illicit drugs.

Two smaller “Darknet” sites were reportedly also seized. Chris Ingraham contends that these shutdowns actually make the drug market more dangerous, and in any case, as soon as one site goes down, another goes up:

I’ll note that there’s a strong argument to be made that the darknet economy makes the world a safer place overall. By taking drug transactions off the street and putting them online, you eliminate a significant link in the chain of violence between drug suppliers and end users. Drugs purchased online are typically less adulterated with dangerous contaminants than street drugs are, and a system of reviews rewards sellers who provide high-quality product. … Regardless of how many of these sites the FBI has seized today, it’s a near certainty that dozens more will spring up to take their place tomorrow.

In a follow-up, he adds that the FBI is returning to old-school drug war tactics that we know don’t work:

In essence, this is nothing more than a promise of an endless arms race between the FBI and Darknet administrators. It’s understandable that the FBI is going to pursue to biggest facilitators of drug sales — which are still illegal at the federal level — but it’ stills a throwback to the darkest days of the drug war, when law enforcement’s relentless focus on “supply reduction,”  shutting down drug sellers and manufacturers, fueled a surge in crime and had, studies showed, no impact on overall drug use trends.

Much of the rhetoric coming out of the federal government recently, on the other hand, has been focused on the flip side of that coin: demand reduction, including drug use prevention and treatment measures. These measures largely embrace the notion that drug use is a fact of modern life, and that the best way to address it is to focus on eliminating the harms associated with it.

ISIS On The Rio Grande?

Musa al-Gharbi argues that Mexico’s drug cartels are in every last respect more violent and dangerous than the Islamic State, from their body count (16,000 killed last year) to their use of child soldiers, kidnapping, torture, rape, and slavery:

Some may argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat than ISIL because ISIL is unified around an ideology, which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is not true.

A good deal of the cartels’ violence is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion, which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology. One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name evokes religious warfare), even boasts about its leader’s death and resurrection. When cartel members are killed, they are buried in lavish mausoleums, regarded as martyrs and commemorated in popular songs glorifying their exploits in all their brutality. Many of their members view the “martyrs” as heroes who died resisting an international order that exploits Latin America and fighting the feckless governments that enable it. The cartels see their role as compensating for state failures in governance. The narco gospel, which derives from Catholicism, is swiftly making inroads in the United States and Central America.

In short, the cartels’ ideological disposition is no less pronounced than ISIL’s, if not worse.

Losing The Opium War

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A new report (pdf) from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reveals that poppy production in Afghanistan hit a record high of 209,000 hectares last year, despite a $7.6 billion eradication effort:

“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials. “The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock. Keating notes that poppy production “actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since”:

The drop in cultivation prior to 2009 probably had less to do with military efforts than with economic factors. Thanks to drought and a global spike in food prices during that period, the gross income ratio of poppies relative to wheat fell from 10-to-1 in 2007 to 3-to-1 in 2008. Since then, global wheat prices have eased—they’re pretty low at the moment—and the price of poppies has increased, and farmers have gone back to the harder stuff. Eastern Nangahar province, which was declared opium-free and touted as a counternarcotics success story in 2008, saw a fourfold increase in cultivation last year.

Farmers may also be hedging their bets in anticipation of the departure of NATO forces—the majority are pulling out at the end of this year, leaving behind a smaller contingent of U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. The majority of Afghanistan’s poppies are still grown in the Taliban-dominated Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but cultivation has been increasing around government-controlled Kabul as well.

Jason Koebler compares Afghanistan to South America:

Though the situation is a little different because the US has been engaged in an all out war-war in Afghanistan and not just a war-on-drugs war as it has been in South America with cocaine, the failures and patterns appear to be very similar to what has happened there. In South America, for instance, when Colombia or Peru (backed with US money) has tried to curb coca cultivation by applying aerial herbicide, farmers have simply gone to more remote areas or started growing coca plants in between other crops in order to disguise what they were doing.

In the short term, prices go up when supply temporarily falls, then stabilize once the already skilled farmers relocate and get supply back up to normal or record levels. The overall profits flowing into potentially dangerous coffers (in South America, drug cartels; in Afghanistan, the Taliban or local warlords) don’t really change all that much.

So where did all that money go? Ryan Devereaux answers:

While U.S. efforts have failed to effectively diminish drug trafficking in Afghanistan, they have succeeded in making a handful of private security companies increasingly rich, a point that is not addressed in the inspector general’s report. In 2009, official responsibility for training Afghan police forces was shifted from the State Department to an obscure branch of the Pentagon known as Counter Narco-Terrorism Program Office (CNTPO), which took over the roughly $1 billion contract. In waging the privatized war on drugs, CNTPO has partnered with such corporate security giants as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, ARINC, DynCorp and U.S. Training Center, a subsidiary of the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

AJ Vicens reminds us why this matters:

Drug addiction is a major problem in Afghanistan, with as many 1 million people addicted to opium, heroin, and other drugs—including children as young as four. In a joint statement that prefaced the release of the 2013 data, Din Mohammad Mobariz Rashidi, Afghanistan’s acting minister of counternarcotics, and Yury Fedotov, the executive director of the UNODC, said that Afghan and American officials are making progress, and that authorities seize roughly 10 percent of Afghan poppy production. But, they continued, not enough “powerful figures” are being prosecuted. That could be a reference to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s brother, who was accused of having strong connections to the Afghan heroin trade.

Also, as James Weir and Hekmatullah Azamy’s research indicates, access to the lucrative drug trade and other illicit activities is the main draw for Afghans who join up with the Taliban:

In early 2014 we conducted research that examined violent extremism and Taliban networks with the hope of bridging differences between insurgent groups, community elders, and the Afghan government. In interviews with active, former, and imprisoned Taliban, tribal leaders, and government officials in Helmand and Herat provinces of Afghanistan a consensus emerged: joining the insurgency pays well, especially in a countryside marked by insecurity and economic stagnation. And more important than an insurgent salary, — Taliban rarely mentioned, and most emphatically denied, ideological or political inspiration — being associated with the Taliban enables quasi-independent profiteering from a diverse array of illegal activities.

A Massacre In Mexico

Mexican Federal Forces Takes Over Security In Iguala and Tixla

Nick Miroff reports on the aftermath of a horrifying mass disappearance in Iguala, where “43 student teachers appear to have been rounded up after a day of protests, then marched into the hills and apparently massacred by local police and gang members, who prosecutors say control the city and its officials.” The discovery of at least 28 bodies, “so butchered and burned that Mexican authorities say it could take two months for DNA testing to determine if they’re the missing students”, has sparked protests throughout the country:

Iguala — in one of Mexico’s poorest and most troubled states, Guerrero — is the place where the country’s radical protest traditions have collided tragically with a new reality of gangster-run local governments. It’s not to say that local police wouldn’t have roughed up protesters, or possibly worse, in the past. But in Iguala, where prosecutors say police act under the orders of the gangsters, there was no restraint. Where crime bosses rule — the local capo goes by the nickname “El Chucky” — there was apparently no patience for pesky protesters and other such democratic nuisances. What has been so shocking to Mexicans is that the traffickers would treat them just as any other criminal rivals. One grisly image circulating social media shows a dead student whose face has been removed.

Claudia Romero stresses that this was not an isolated incident:

[T]he state of Guerrero is only one of several Mexican states where organized crime is fighting a turf war. The government of Iguala, moreover, is not Mexico’s only bureaucracy paralyzed by corruption. Police brutality is nothing unique to this case, either. Murders, disappearances, torture—these are weapons law enforcement across Mexico has turned on peaceful protesters. Ayotzinapa calls to mind other similar cases, including; Aguas Blancas, Acteal, and Tlataya, where corrupt police in league with the mafia have effectively criminalized social protests.

“It’s not always clear,” Kathy Gilsinan adds, “whether the local government is working for the drug cartels, or the other way around”:

InSight Crime’s David Gagne suggested on Thursday that Guerreros Unidos was likely “acting as ‘muscle’ for corrupt local officials,” since the cartel itself had little incentive to target the students. “Oftentimes criminal groups can take actions that authorities cannot,” InSight Crime’s co-director Steven Dudley told me. As to who exactly is working for whom in Mexico’s criminal-political nexus, Dudley said, “The short answer is, we don’t know. And the longer answer is, it changes all the time.”

Leon Krauze blames President Enrique Peña Nieto for failing to address Mexico’s serious corruption problem:

In lockstep with his party’s long held tradition, Peña Nieto has mostly turned a blind eye to numerous allegations of corruption at both the municipal and the state level. In the months before the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students, Jose Luis Abarca, the allegedly corrupt mayor of Iguala, had numerous and serious complaints filed against him. Federal authorities merely stood by. Now, the man is on the run, along with his chief of police. I’d be surprised if they’re heard from again and amazed if they’re ever prosecuted and sent to jail.

The US, Carimah Townes argues, doesn’t have clean hands here either:

Though Mexico is well-known for government corruption and systemic violence, the U.S. cannot be absolved of its involvement. The U.S. has contributed billions in financial aid to Mexico’s military under the Merida Initiative, with very little oversight. Indeed, due to concern over the U.S.-Mexico partnership and little knowledge of how the money is actually spent, Amnesty International stated, “In August [2012], despite the failure of Mexican authorities to meet human rights conditions set by the US Congress as part of the Merida initiative, the US State Department recommended that Congress release the 15% of funds subject to the conditions.” The Washington Office on Latin America, also attributes the overall militarization of Mexico’s public security to a U.S.-backed remodel, under which law enforcement officials are military-trained.

(Photo: Abandoned clothing is seen near clandestine graves in the outskirts of Iguala on October 13, 2014 in Iguala, Mexico. Mexican authorities found four more graves containing human remains near Iguala where 43 students went missing after a confrontation with local police that left 6 dead last September 26. By Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images)

“Declaring A War On The War On Drugs”

Jon Walker heralds an important new report:

On Tuesday a broad coalition of international statesmen including former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former Presidents from Mexico, Switzerland, Brazil, Portugal, Chile and Poland called for the world to move towards a new approach on drug policy. Their vision would end the criminalization of drug use and instead focus on health, harm reduction, and the legal regulation of drugs. The plan is laid out in a new report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work from the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Friedersdorf gives the document a close read:

I can’t help but conclude that what they’re doing–in the accepted parlance of our political discourse–is declaring a war on the war on drugs. The attacks on drug warriors start right in the summary.

“Powerful and established drug control bureaucracies, both national and international, staunchly defend status quo policies,” the report states. “They seldom question whether their involvement and tactics in enforcing drug policy are doing more harm than good.” The zingers keep coming: “Meanwhile, there is often a tendency to sensationalize each new ‘drug scare’ in the media,” the report continues. “And politicians regularly subscribe to the appealing rhetoric of ‘zero tolerance’ and creating ‘drug free’ societies rather than pursuing an informed approach based on evidence of what works. Popular associations of illicit drugs with ethnic and racial minorities stir fear and inspire harsh legislation. And enlightened reform advocates are routinely attacked as ‘soft on crime’ or even ‘pro-drug.'”

Sullum is less enthusiastic:

The report says governments should seek the sweet spot between the “unregulated criminal market” and the “unregulated legal market”: the point where “social and health harms” are minimized.

That aspiration, which does not seem to take into account the pleasure that people get from drugs, is apt to encourage much heavier regulation than libertarians would like. The commissioners take for granted “the need to better regulate alcohol and tobacco,” and they call for “maintaining prohibitions on the most potent and risky drugs or drug preparations” (which will mean different things to different legislators), forgetting their own point that drugs should be legal “precisely because they can be dangerous and pose serious risks.” Still, Annan et al.’s “responsible legal regulation” beats the violent crusade for an unattainable (and undesirable) “drug-free society” by a mile.

Drug War Fail: Afghanistan Edition

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Beauchamp illustrates how little our opium eradication efforts have accomplished:

From 2008 to 2013, when the US anti-opium campaign hit its apex, the US only managed to eradicate 3.7 percent of the land devoted to poppy cultivation. The total amount of land devoted to poppy cultivation was a third higher in 2013 than in 2008 … Now, it’s true that the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan has declined from its 2008 peak. But, according to the UN, that’s because of “plant diseases and bad weather” — not the war. There’s more land devoted to poppy cultivation, but it’s less productive because of natural conditions. Drug eradication doesn’t appear to have much to do with it.

Why has the campaign against opium failed so epically?

There are plenty of reasons, including widespread Afghan government corruption and the fact that 95 percent of poppy cultivation happens in the country’s insecure, Taliban-filled southwestern provinces. But the most important one is the most basic — Afghanistan runs on opium. Opium-related activities make up half of the country’s GDP; the legal economy depends on its proceeds to function. As Fabrice Pothier, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s European branch and an expert of the Afghan drug trade, explains in an absolutely staggering passage, opium is more than 50 times as important to Afghanistan as cocaine is to Colombia[.]

Dan Murphy concurs with Zack’s takeaway:

To be fair, trying to wipe out opium production in Afghanistan would have been a Sisyphean task no matter what strategy was deployed. It’s a lucrative business, and poppies are easily cultivated, generating far more money for poor farmers and corrupt middlemen than any feasible substitution crop. During the height of the American counterinsurgency effort, winning over the general population to the side of the government and foreign forces was a big focus. The US found that tearing up crops and impoverishing farmers wasn’t very popular.

The early eradication strategy was largely abandoned in favor of going after big opium dealers and encouragng farmers to grow other crops. But that really hasn’t worked, either. The country’s opium and heroin trade is a top earner, and with the military effort winding down, the business opportunities associated with aid and foreign military spending are set to decline.