Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

MEXICO-US: Little Spillover of “Narco-Deaths”

Daniela Pastrana and Aprille Muscara

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico/WASHINGTON, Mar 18 2011 (IPS) - In the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas the media sounded the alarm: six murders committed in just two months, more than the 2010 total of five. Just across the Mexican border, in the sprawling border city of Ciudad Juárez, no one doubts that this year’s homicide rate will surpass last year’s record: 3,111.

The lights of El Paso, seen from Ciudad Juárez.  Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

The lights of El Paso, seen from Ciudad Juárez. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

An artificial-intelligence model generated by Alberto Ochoa, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, projects that 5,000 people will be killed in that city this year if conditions remain the same in the area, where the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels are fighting over the trafficking routes to the world’s single biggest market for drugs, the United States.

The extremely different levels of violence between Ciudad Juárez, dubbed the murder capital of the world, and El Paso, one of the safest big cities in the U.S., is the latest and most persistent gap between two cities that just a few decades ago enjoyed brisk trade across the Rio Grande.

The increasingly tight border here is selectively porous: while drugs continue making their way northwards, drug-related killings occur almost exclusively on the Mexican side.

In Ciudad Juárez people explain it simply. “People can do anything they want here. In the United States you can’t, you’ll be arrested,” says local journalist Josefina Martínez.

In the last decade, the Mexican cartels have taken over many cocaine distribution routes formerly dominated by Colombian drug syndicates, while tightening their grip on the production and distribution of marijuana and getting more heavily involved in the production of synthetic drugs – all of which has bolstered their earnings and, thus, their economic clout and firepower.

But drug-related homicides have soared since the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón militarised the war on drugs in 2007: in just four years, there have been more than 35,000 “narco-deaths” in Mexico.

“It is a mistake to see the violence as a perplexing isolated phenomenon, rather than as a problem caused by the weakness of the state,” Samuel González Ruiz, former Mexican chief prosecutor in the special unit against organised crime and a former expert in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told IPS.

“All governments in the world ‘manage’ licit or illicit markets, by action or omission,” he said. “The fundamental difference is that in Mexico, public employees and officials are relatively free to be involved in corruption, while other countries have law enforcement policies.

“Think of a big garden. The U.S. garden is green, green, green…there are drugs in every corner, and every once in a while the grass is mowed and plants are pruned, and the grass is short and neat again. In countries like Mexico, the garden is abandoned, overgrown with shrubs, whose roots are growing and spread under the house until they even jeopardise the foundations,” he said.

Little spillover

Waging war where their customers are located is not good business for the drug syndicates.

Moreover, foreign workers and tourists are not typically targeted in the drug violence that runs rampant in Mexico’s border towns – unless they have cartel connections, which most victims do. Many of the victims meet their fate as a result of battles between rival syndicates over control of key turf where major routes are located, funnelling narcotics northward to nationwide networks of distributors in the U.S.

“Spillover violence, in which DTOs (drug trafficking organisations) bring their fight to American soil, is a remote worst-case scenario,” David Shirk, a prominent expert on U.S.-Mexico relations and border issues, argues in a report released early this month by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “Officials have documented few cases of actual ‘spillover’.

“Reacting to public concerns, the United States has deployed massive amounts of manpower and funding to the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent undocumented immigration and stave off ‘spillover’ violence,” Shirk explains in the report, ‘The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat’.

Over 20,000 Border Patrol agents and more than 3,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel manned the 3,200 kilometres dividing Mexico and the U.S. last year, while 2010 funding for these agencies totalled some 11.5 and 5.7 billion dollars, respectively – amounts that have nearly doubled since 2004.

“In short, today the border has a greater security presence than at any point since the 1910 Mexican revolution, when (the U.S.) sent half (of its) military forces to protect against possible incursion by insurgent groups,” wrote Shirk and colleague Eric Olson in a post for the Washington-based Immigration Policy Centre in February.

The U.S. has recently ramped up its efforts to crack down on drug- and gang-related violence, including rounding up U.S. associates of Mexican drug trafficking organisations. From December 2010 to February 2011, in an ICE operation dubbed ‘Project Southern Tempest’, almost 700 people were arrested in a 168-city sweep of gang members and affiliated individuals.

The ICE reports that almost half of those apprehended are believed to have connections with Mexican drug cartels, including the notorious Zetas, who are reported to have been behind a Feb. 15 attack on two ICE agents, Jaime Zapata and Victor Ávila, who were shot as they drove on a Mexican highway towards the capital. Zapata died and Ávila was wounded.

The sweep resulted in the confiscation of cash and illegal drugs and weapons from Los Angeles, California to Houston, Texas and Newark, New Jersey. It is typically in major urban centres like these, some far from the border, where drug-related crimes are manifested in inner-city gang violence.

But despite the unprecedented amount of manpower and money devoted yearly to U.S. border security for the purposes of combating illegal flows of people, funds, weapons and narcotics – and the violence that may accompany the latter – “as the world’s largest consumer of drugs and its largest supplier of firearms, the United States is a direct contributor to Mexico’s drug violence,” Shirk declares in the CFR report.

Weapons and drugs evade controls

The latest UNODC report estimates that in 2008, 865 tons of pure cocaine was produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Some 309 tons were shipped out of South America towards the U.S., and after “purity-adjusted seizures along the route,” 165 tons of pure cocaine made it to consumers in that country, the report says.

In Europe, 124 tons were consumed that year, out of 212 tons that left South America.

But in neither of these markets has the fight against drugs been militarised, as it has been in Colombia and Mexico with U.S. support.

However, impunity is not total in Europe or the United States. While an estimated 80 percent of murders are solved in France or Spain, for example, the rate is only four percent in Mexico and as low as one percent in places like Ciudad Juárez.

Despite tightened controls along the U.S.-Mexico border, plenty of weapons make it into Mexico from the U.S.

According to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, more than 20,000, or around 87 percent, of guns confiscated by Mexican authorities and traced over the previous five years originated in the United States.

Weapons, like the favoured AK-47 and AR-15 rifles, that end up arming Mexico’s cartels are “often imported legally to the United States from Europe, then sold illegally and in large numbers to surrogate or ‘straw’ purchasers in the United States,” which “is a convenient point of purchase for Mexican DTOs, given that an estimated ten percent of U.S. gun dealers are located along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Shirk writes.

Hugo Almada, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez and a member of the Juárez Citizen Observatory for Public Safety and Social Security, puts it this way: “Mexico is providing the victims in a war that isn’t taking us anywhere and isn’t possible to win.”

María Idalia Gómez, a reporter who specialises in organised crime, said “drug consumption levels in Mexico have not changed.

“Cocaine use has gone down a bit, but consumption of marijuana and black tar heroin remain the same. So what ‘war’ are we talking about?” Gómez, co-author of the book ‘Con la muerte en el bolsillo – Seis desaforadas historias del narcotráfico en México’ (roughly, Carrying Death in the Pocket – Six Outrageous Stories of Drug Trafficking in Mexico), told IPS.

Of the 309 tons of cocaine shipped from South America en route to the U.S. in 2008, 17 tons stayed in Mexico, UNODC reported.

The start of a debate?

When Presidents Calderón and Barack Obama met Mar. 3 in Washington, the Mexican leader pushed for increased resources while his U.S. counterpart pledged once more to “combat the southbound flow of guns and money” and to strengthen and deepen bilateral cooperation.

But neither questioned “the war on drugs” or the Merida Initiative, a 1.4-billion-dollar assistance package to Mexico and Central America to fight organised crime and drug trafficking that was approved by the government of George W. Bush (2001-2009) and has similarities with Plan Colombia, through which the U.S. government has channelled eight billion dollars in aid since 2000 to a country that is still the world’s top producer of cocaine.

“No one knows what happens to the drugs once they cross the border,” Almada said. “It’s like a river of s**t that is running and isn’t going to stop, and that is killing people here; and I don’t know where it’s going to end.

“But it’s not up to us here in Mexico to combat it,” he said. “If the people who have the huge drug consumption problem don’t do it, why should we?”

While there have been U.S.-wide sweeps like ‘Project Southern Tempest’ and major local drug busts that have sought to cripple transnational drug networks in the past, the overall U.S. anti-drug strategy seems, historically, to have focused more on locking up junkies and common drug dealers – a strategy that Shirk argues has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful.

“The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false,” he writes in the CFR report.

According to a joint Zogby International and Inter American Dialogue (IAD) survey conducted in 2008, 75 percent of respondents in the U.S. said the “war on drugs” has failed. With this level of public support and a potentially warm climate for a change in drug policy in Washington, observers argue that the time is ripe for reform.

A February report by the Washington-based IAD argues that the past twenty years of U.S. drug policy, which have been enforcement-based and supply-focused, have found scant success in tackling the problems they were aimed to address and, in some cases, have actually had a detrimental effect.

“Recent Congressional initiatives to review U.S. anti-drug strategy suggest that lawmakers recognise the need to re-think current policies,” says the report, ‘Rethinking U.S. Drug Policy’.

“It’s not just okay to criticise and raise questions about drug reform; it’s irresponsible not to,” John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy and the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, told IPS.

“To imagine an overhaul from one day to the next is not going to happen,” Walsh admitted. “There are real obstacles and they won’t be overcome easily. On the other hand, the climate of openness and willingness to confront the real dilemmas in drug policy is perceptibly shifting.”

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