terça-feira, 30 de agosto de 2011

Drugs Central: Al Jazeera on the war on drugs

by David Ucko

It has been far too long since my last blog post. Between getting married, starting a new job and writing a new book, my blogging has taken a hit. But I am back now, hopefully with some more regular contributions. Today we shall mostly be talking about drugs…
Over the last month or so, al-Jazeera have featured a series of reports and on the role of the drugs trade in the Americas. For those interested in the relation between drugs, crime and political instability, the on-the-ground reporting and close access to growers, smugglers and ordinary residents affected by the drugs trade all make for interesting and disconcerting viewing. The series as a whole is called Drugs Central and you can find all of the relevant material and videos here. I would in particular recommend scrolling to the bottom of the page, where they have for some reason hidden all of the truly good stuff: 30-minute episodes of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines programme, providing in-depth investigations of particular problems relating to the drugs trade.
Watching these videos paints a fairly alarming picture of the scale of the problem. The cartels and drugs traffickers have established a scope and reach that stretches across countries, implicates law-enforcements agencies and often gives them more economic, political and military clout than the authorities and governments opposing them. Various counter-measures have been attempted but judging from these videos it would appear that the real losers of this war are the residents, most of them poor, who happen to populate the northwards path from supplier to consumer nations.
Even casual readers of the news are familiar with the particular problem in some of Mexico’s border towns, but the numbers involved are still shocking. More than 8,000 people have been killed since 2008. Here, the proximity to the US is the issue, as every street corner is prime real estate for the sale of drugs and have become the battle ground between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. As in many other places visited by the al Jazeera team, the institutions responsible for law and order are either too weak or unwilling to do their job. As a result of lacking capacity and capability, only about 1 to 2 per cent of the murders in Juarez lead to a sentence. Part of the reason for this is corruption, as members of the police force have been found to be implicated in organized crime. The result is a climate of impunity in which cartels harass citizens, engage in extortion and intimidation and violently get rid of anyone who may breach their rule or constitute a threat. The documentary Mexico: Impunity and Conflict provides a chilling assessment of the problem and its many causes.
Mexico may be the most notorious victim of the drugs trade, but the problem truly is international and affects all countries implicated in the process, from growers, transit countries, to consumers, including the United States. One of the reports details the arrest of the mayor and police chief of Columbus, New Mexico, both of whom had been gotten to by the Mexican drugs cartels and were charged with smuggling 400 guns across the border. In the same video, al Jazeera shows the determined effort by the Mexican drug cartels to infiltrate the very law-enforcement agency responsible for stopping narcotics from getting into the country. So far, we are told, 129 US Customs and Border Protection agents have been charged with various corruption-related offences and more than 600 possible charges are still underway.
If the cartels are able to achieve that type of influence and power in the United States, it is easy to imagine their sway elsewhere, where local institutions are weaker and opportunities fewer. In a report from Colon, Honduras, we see how the drug cartels are pushing farmers off their land so as to use their palm-oil plantation to smuggle cocaine. The police are shown as bystanders, refusing to get in the way of the cartels’ intimidation (and by intimidation, I mean ‘burning their farm down’). Through such action, we are told, Colon has gone from being the ‘breadbasket’ of Honduras to the ‘cocaine basket’ of the Central America. The problem, here as elsewhere, is the power and impunity of the cartels, the incapacity and corruption of official authorities and the detrimental effects of these factors on the local economy and society, with citizens resorting to increasingly desperate means to cope with the situation. In the end, for many, if you can’t beat them, you join them.
Of course Al Jazeera spends a fair amount of time on possible solutions, though it quickly emerges that there are no silver bullets here. In Acapulco, we are told, the strategy has consisted of removing the kingpins governing the cartels, in the hope that this would reduce violence. Instead, it seems, the drug flow – the causative factor behind the violence – remains and junior leaders are now engaged in a violent power struggle for the spoils left by their erstwhile leaders. As the younger generations fight, the aggregate death toll has risen.
Elsewhere, governments have attempted to deal with the problem of limited capacity by bringing in the armed forces, including the special forces, to combat the drug cartels. In Guatemala, for example, al Jazeera covers the Kaibiles, an elite unit with a history of gruesome operations against left-wing sympathisers and civilians during the country’s civil war, but that is now involved in domestic counter-narcotics operations. The problem here is that this expedient measure, even if effective, represents a dangerous backwards step for countries with a problematic history of civil-military relations. Take El Salvador, for example, where the Army is now back on the street to deal with problem of gangs involved in the drugs trade. The domestic use of the military was one of the major issues at the Chapultepec Accords that ended the El Salvador civil war in 1992, but when the gangs are armed, number 25-30,000 and control entire neighbourhoods, the state may have few viable alternatives other than to deploy the Army on domestic counter-narcotics duties.
This is not the only problem with ‘bringing out the big guns’. First, the armed forces are not immune to the corruption that has affected most other authorities involved in this battle. In Guatemala, former members of the Kaibiles have allegedly been recruited by the drug cartels as trainers, given their specialist knowledge of the military craft. The cartels have apparently also been able to corrupt mid- to high-ranking military officers and get their hands on Army weapons. And of course armies are directed by civilian masters and as al Jazeera’s coverage makes clear, the cartels are able to buy off local politicians, determining the results of elections and ensuring, in this manner, that future political leaders are friendly to their cause or amenable to their pressure. Contenders to political office who take an undesirable approach toward the cartels are attacked, murdered or otherwise coerced to step out of the race.
Finally, of course, the military typically deals with a security implications of more deep-rooted problems, with economic, political and social underpinnings. This is where the true magnitude of the problem becomes clear. In El Salvador for example, it might be possible for the Army to counter the gangs that are most active in the drugs trade, primarily the Mara Salvatrucha. Yet as the al Jazeera report points out, the gangs in El Salvador are mere service providers for the Zeta cartels based in Mexico. In other words, there is a risk that these gang members, most of whom are under 20, become cannon fodder in a war in which they are just pawns. Then a deeper question must be asked, will these dead pawns simply be replaced and why, finally, are there so many gangs in El Salvador? One boy interviewed in the Al Jazeera report says he had wanted to study graphic design but his parents could not afford it. So instead, he turned to gang-life.
Similarly deep-rooted socio-economic problems underlie the drugs problem in Guatemala. Corruption is a huge problem, as is poor governance and lack of opportunity. Against this backdrop, the drugs trade provides a lucrative market and patronage system, the spoils of which are fought over violently. As an illustration, in an interview with al Jazeera, Alvaro Colom, the President of Guatemala, explains that the amount of drug money passing through Guatemala is 1.5 times the national budget. Not surprising then that in the last decade the murder rate in Guatemala has doubled that of Mexico.
All of the videos in this series are interesting and well worth watching, but the longer programmes are probably the most valuable parts of the series. The interviews are also interesting: witness the brutally honest and pragmatic suggestion by Jorge Castaneda, the former foreign minister of Mexico, that all drugs be legalised so as to undercut the power of the gangs that profit from their control over the market.
That argument may be too extreme for many, but watching these videos and reading around the topic, it seems to me that it is time to think seriously about decriminalising marijuana in the United States. Already the medical marijuana industry provides a grey zone that is ripe for abuse, the topic of a recent PBS documentary. While federal and municipal authorities wrestle over what is lawful and what is not, teenagers and adults keep on buying, selling and smoking the stuff (which for all intents and purpose is no more dangerous, some might say it is less dangerous, than alcohol). Bear in mind also that the Mexican drug cartels at the centre of the mess described in this post derive more than 50% of their profits from marijuana. More than 50%… Meanwhile, decriminalization could also provide cash-strapped municipal authorities with some added resources, through taxation and through the savings accrued by not having to pursue and incarcerate US citizens on marijuana-related crimes. According to one estimate, the U.S. spent an estimated $7.6 billion dollars on incarcerating 700,000 non-violent offenders on various marijuana-related offenses in 2003. It is a situation that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

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