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In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drugs as public enemy number one and introduced a war on drugs called “Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act 1970. The act was to set out to reduce or eliminate the production, supply and consumption of illegal drugs. As Nixon made the war official, it was actually Woodrow Wilson who had set a Narcotics Tax in 1914 and Reagan that left a lasting legacy in 1980s. After a year in the office, Reagan stated: “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag.” With this, his administration introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences resulting in an explosive rise in the American prisons that continues today.

Many consider the 1960s as a colorful time and the heyday of drug use where hippies smoked marijuana, children living in the ghettos pushed heroine and Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor urged the world to try LSD. But in fact some data of surveys done then tells another story. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 4% of American adults said they had tried marijuana and parents would use scare tactics saying that marijuana would cause acne, blindness and sterility.

In the 1970s drugs became glamorous but were still misunderstood. The1981 book The Truth About Drugs — The Body, Mind and You by Gene Chill and John Duff asserted that cocaine wasn’t addictive and Gallup poll in 1973, 12% said they had tried marijuana.

During these 42 years, the U.S Government has spent $2, 5 trillion dollars fighting the “war on drugs”. Despite the ad campaigns, increased incarceration rates and a crackdown on smuggling, the number of illicit drug users in America has risen over the years and now sits at 19.9 million Americans and a large portion of their supply makes its way into the country through Mexico. The U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy has reports that 90% of cocaine, for example, reaches the United States through its southern border and drug-related violence in Mexico has gotten so bad that it is now spreading over into states such as Arizona, which has suffered a rash of kidnappings and ransoms as well as Arizona’s 370-mile border with Mexico serves as the gateway for nearly half of all smuggled marijuana.

 

In the beginning…

How did this menace hit the continent? Well it started around 30 years ago when hundreds of thousands of Central Americans immigrated to the US, many illegally. While the generation that immigrated to seek a better life for themselves and their family worked hard, unfortunately many of their children grew up to become gang members involved in different criminal activity.

The Latin Kings are said to be the largest and most organized Hispanic street gang in America. This gang can be dated back to the 1940s in Chicago, Illinois when Puerto Ricans on the north side of the city and the Mexicans on the south side organized themselves into a defense group to protect their communities. Their main intention was to unite “all Latinos” into a group against any oppression and to help each other to overcome racism and prejudice.

The next and most vicious and dangerous of them all is MS”, “Mara”, or “MS-13, a criminal gang that originates from Los Angeles and has spread to Central America, Canada and many parts of the United States. The ethnicities vary from Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.

 

 

 M18

The third largest is called 18th Street gang also known as M18, Calle 18, Barrio 18, La18 or Mara-18 in Central America. It’s a ruthless, multi-ethnic transitional criminal gang that started in Los Angeles, California and has tens of thousands of members in the city alone. Their membership goes from USA, Central America, South America and as far as to Australia.

FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiated in September 2005 a huge raid against suspected gang members making 660 arrests across the country. As many gang members were deported back to Central and South America, the crime and murders rose rapidly across Latin America. By 2005, homicides in Honduras had risen to nearly 2,500 a year for instance and these countries became a route for drug trafficking quite fast. The major findings in a report by the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center, which has not been publicly released, states that about 900,000 gang members live “within local communities across the country,” and about 147,000 are in U.S. prisons or jails. Same report also concludes that many states will experience an increased gang membership and crime activity as the gang member’s recruits new members from campuses and rural schools. The gang also uses the internet more sending encrypted emails either to recruit or communicate throughout the U.S. and other countries.

MEXICO – A country ravaged by drug

The exotic landscape draws many tourists every year and the financial district houses the Mexican headquarters of major corporations, Hewlett Packard and IBM including Mexico’s top private schools with heavily armed guards but as the fight against the drug cartels escalates, attackers and cartel members have reached into the most guarded districts.

When the United States Coast Guard shut down the Caribbean cocaine route, the trade shifted to Mexico.

This drug war has gone so far that it is threatening the stability of the countries in central and South America. Around 50,000 have died in Mexico including 3,000 public servants, policemen, soldiers, judges, mayors and dozens of federal officials and the violence is getting worse. The corruption and infiltration of cartels has spread to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and some Caribbean nations as well.

The Guatemalan government has lost large areas of the country and including some of its prison as the government has been infiltrated by the mafia. The countries of Central America’s northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) are now among the most violent places on earth and has become more deadlier even than most conventional war zones.

When Texas requested more National Guard protection from the Mexican drug cartels, the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair stated that the Mexican government had lost control of its own territory. President Felipe Calderón responded by pointing out that his nation shared a border with “the biggest consumer of drugs and the largest supplier of weapons in the world.”

The Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a war against the drug cartels just day after being sworn into office in 2006 when he sent 6,500 troops to end the execution style killings between the two rival drug gangs. The following year, Calderón’s public security minister Genaro Garcia Luna removed 284 federal police commissioners; all suspected of corruption and replaced them with a hand-selected group of officers who successfully arrested several drug lords. The drug cartels answer to this was vicious violence where 5,300 people were killed in drug-related crimes in 2008 and over 1,000 have died this year.

The boys are searching for something they can be a part of, and the gang offers them all the things they miss in their life. Money, attention, unity and brotherhood but all this has a price. The boy says that the gang becomes their family and that they look after each other. The young boys who are picked up as members starts working as lookouts or guardians (little drug shops) and then they start getting paid for killing people. In Mexico Juarez, a person can get killed for 1000 pesos equal to $85. On the surface it looks like the perfect thing to join but the membership results in two things and that is either in prison or 6 feet under.

The city of Juarez, Mexico is right next to El Paso, Texas and it is the murder capital of the world and so far this year, more than 2,000 people have been murdered in the city.  Despite the efforts of the Mexicans government to tackle the situation, corruption has spread to all levels of the government that they feel like they are losing the fight. Some have even gone so far to state that it is far safer to travel to Afghanistan and Iraq today rather than to cities like Juarez.

The members of the drug cartels has done their part by guaranteeing that their drug reaches the U.S. this was shown when U.S. officials raided a southern California warehouse and discovered a lighted and ventilated tunnel that was 4 feet (1,21 meters) high and 1,800 feet ( 548,6 meters) long crossing into Mexico. 25 tons of Marijuana was seized during the raid. This tunnel was just one of the 75 tunnels along the Mexican border discovered the last 4 years.

In 2011, there were 1,200 National Guard Troops along the Mexican border while there are deployed more than 28,000 U.S. troops along the South Korean border with North Korea. It is being spent millions of dollars to secure this border and not one single unauthorized entry has happened across the Korean border and at the same time, the U.S. government has said that it cannot secure the U.S. border with Mexico as some in the Obama administration believes it would be “a violation of human rights” to put up a fence or to implement extra security on the border while the drug trafficking and violence continues to cross over the border and into the U.S.

Although Obama and his administration won’t admit it, it is in fact a shared war that they all have to take part in. The cocaine and other drugs smuggled and sold by the cartel is bought and used by Americans making them the largest consumers. The relationship is give and take and in return the cartels purchase weapons. The automatic weapons, from AK-47s to M4’s are almost 90% American made and purchased in the US legally. More than 6,700 licensed gun dealers have set up shop within a short drive of the 2,000-mile border, from Texas to San Diego, California. “Straw Buyers” purchase these weapons for traffickers at small gun shops and large gun shows. One Mexican -American once bought more than 100 assault rifles, 9-mm handguns and other high-powered weapons at multiple shops over several months and the cartel paid him $40 per gun.

According to Mexican government officials, as many as 2,000 weapons enter Mexico from the US daily and fuel an arms race between competing Mexican drug cartels and since 1996, a total of 63,000 guns have been smuggled into Mexico. This has leaded to that the Mexican cartels now control large areas of Mexican territory and dozens of municipalities as well as having influence in the politics.

 

Since 2007, a total of 7,882 drug cartel related deaths have occurred. In Iraq, the number of US soldiers killed since 2003, is less. The Mexican government has spent $7 billion to fight the drug cartels. In some cases, the government has sent 6000 soldiers to a province to fight the cartels.

The U.S. Justice Department has stated in the previous months last that the Mexican gangs are the “biggest organized crime threat to the United States.”

In Phoenix, Arizona, homicides have increased with kidnap and execution style killings. In Southern California, Americans have been abducted by armed groups tied to the Tijuana drug trade. In the past month, the town of Juarez, right across the US border had over 250 deaths and President Calderon ordered 5,000 more troops and federal police to the town but it seems like it hasn’t done any difference.

The drug traffickers working for the drug cartels are recruiting young boys and the younger they are, the better. Texas high schools have reported that cartel members have visited their campuses many times in search for young boys. In 2010, a 14 year old was arrested as he had become a head-chopping cartel assassin with no remorse. “I slit their throats,” he stated and his sister helped him to dump the bodies on the freeways. The boy with the nickname “El Ponchis” (The Cloak) was found guilty of torturing and beheading and was sentenced to three years in Mexico.

In September 2011, a sack of heads was found near an Acapulco elementary school and a blogging reporter’s headless corpse was dumped in front of a major thoroughfare in the Texas border town of Nuevo Laredo. Her head, along with headphones and computer equipment, was found in a street planter.

For decades, the Colombians would have the Mexicans transport cocaine for them unless they sent the cocaine directly into the U.S. on planes or speedboats but this came to an end in 1990 when the United States tightened the Colombians main smuggling point in the Caribbean and Florida and cooperated with the Colombian government to fight the cartels. The Colombians then had to rely on the Mexicans who used to smuggle across areas that was difficult to monitor. The Mexicans saw this as an opportunity and bought out every last single competitor and within few years, they gained dominance in the global illicit drug trade.

The number of people murdered in the drug war inside the United States between 2006 and 2010 exceeds the US-troop death toll in the Iraq War since it was launched in 2003, according to a Narco News analysis of FBI crime statistics.

The US drug-war homicide also is nearly three times greater than the number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001, the same analysis shows.

Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, had the highest number of violent deaths at 1,206, followed by the beach resort town of Acapulco, with 795. But despite the high numbers of deaths, the Calderon administration takes credit for capturing 22 of 37 most important cartel leaders. Chris Sabatini, policy director for the Americas Society, stated naively that he didn’t expect the violence to spread over into the U.S. He doesn’t care much of it as long as the violence stays south of the border but the facts show that the cartels and violence is consuming the U.S. slowly but surely.

Legalized drugs – Desperate or a clever move?

Presidents from Guatemala and Colombia have raised the possibility of legalization in their countries and the region, with politicians from Costa Rica, Mexico and El Salvador joining the debate and possibility.

Although decriminalization doesn’t guarantee and end to the violence and crime, it could give the government some free space and profit the supporters suggest. This suggestion is supported by many business man as well as the drug war and crimes has caused problems for Latin America’s business and economics by weakening the state institutions, infiltrating judicial systems and the government.

The debate over the legalization was brought by the Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. When he met with the Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes at the summit, he proposed decriminalizing the drug war in Central America as a way to put an end to the violent cartel activity that is moving through the region leaving many deaths behind them. Funes seemed to like the idea in Guatemala City but by the time he returned home, he had a change of heart. “I am not in agreement with decriminalization of production, trafficking or consumption of drugs,” he said in an attempt to “avoid erroneous interpretations.” This did not come as a surprise as the region is dependent and under a strong influence of the U.S. who is against legalization. To legalize is a bold move and it would most probably not work for the U.S. if the government legalizes the use of marijuana, then that means that people will be able to buy it from other places rather than only from drug dealers leaving other stronger drugs behind. To sell these other drugs will either be easy or hard since people will use more marijuana than other drugs because its legal and drug dealers and cartels will become more violent and aggressive to sell the other drugs as well. For one thing, if marijuana makes up 60 percent of the cartels’ profits, that still leaves another 40 percent, which includes the sale of methamphetamine, cocaine, and brown-powder and black-tar heroin. If marijuana were legalized, the cartels would still make huge profits from the sale of these other drugs as people can buy marijuana from drug dealers who can push stronger drugs on them at the same time.

The positive and negative sides of this issue can be seen in countries and cities that has legalized and liberalized the law are:

Portugal

In 2001, Portugal became the first European country officially to abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs. Those found guilty of possessing small amounts are sent to a panel made up of a psychologist, a social worker and a legal adviser who will advise on appropriate treatment.

Italy

Drug laws were relaxed in 1993 to define very small amounts of drugs (usually less than half a gram) as being for personal use. People found with smaller amounts do not face criminal prosecution, though they are placed on a users’ register.

California

The passing into law of Proposition 215 in November 1996 did not legalise marijuana in California but created a new exemption from criminal penalties for its medical use for those with a doctor’s recommendation, which can be made either in writing or verbally. This November the state will vote on a plan, called Proposition 19, to let adults possess small amounts of marijuana and let local government tax its sale.

The Netherlands

The Dutch classify cannabis in all its forms as a soft drug and the smoking of it, even in public, is not prosecuted. Selling cannabis, although technically illegal, is widely tolerated in coffee shops which, however, must keep to a five gram maximum transaction and sell only to adults. Recent moves have been made to tighten these controls in response to drug tourism.

Switzerland

Zurich’s Platzpitz park needle exchange project in the mid-1980s led to the decision by authorities not to police the park on the grounds that it would focus drug use in one place. The experiment ended after the number of addicts in the park rose from a few hundred in 1987 to more than 20,000 in 1992.

Obama’s failed war

When President Obama head to Colombia last week for the Summit of the Americas, he was going to face some difficult and important questions that no president before him has really had to answer. As the U.S. drug war entered its fourth decade, the leaders of South and Latin America are demanding changes and reforms from the largest importer and consumer of drugs but they failed to come to an agreement as several key leaders failed to show up to the meeting.

 

Since the 1970’s, the U.S. government has pursued a militarized and aggressive policy against illicit substances. Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil have all taken steps towards decriminalization as they have suffered the most from ruthless cartels. Guatemala’s new President, Otto Perez Molina, a former general believes in decriminalizing the narcotic trade saying this would get remove money laundering, smuggling, arms trafficking and corruption not to mention the violence and deaths.

President Obama admitted in January 2004 that the war on drugs was failing:”The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws..We need to rethink how we can operate the drug war”. Since then, he has shown little interest on the war on drugs. He knows that he cannot end the drug war but has urged to focus on increased prevention and treatment over incarcerations after being too much focused on arrests.

 

U.S. authorities say that there are now over 1 million members of criminal gangs operating inside the United States and according to federal statistics; these 1 million gang members are responsible for up to 80% of the violent crimes committed in the U.S. each year. A growing percentage of It is Spanish speaking gangs are becoming a dominant key factor in every city in the United States.

 

The White House on their side defenses their war by presenting some facts:

  • Overall drug use in the United States has dropped substantially over the past thirty years. The number of Americans using illicit drugs today is roughly half what it was in the late 70’s.
  • There has been a 46% drop in current cocaine use among young adults over the past five years, and a 68% drop in the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace since 2006.
  • The potential production capacity for pure cocaine in Colombia has declined from an estimated 700 metric tons of potential cocaine production in 2001 to only 280 metric tons in 2009 —a 60% drop.
  • Legalization remains a non-starter “because research shows that illegal drug use is associated with voluntary treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents, mental illness, and emergency room admissions.”

 

Statistics

When Nixon announced the war on drugs in 1971, the US kept just 0.2% of its population behind bars but today, it incarcerates close to 0.8% of its population – 2.25 million Americans. A further 5 more million are on parole or probation. In total, more than 7 million people in the US are under correctional supervision. If they were all gathered together they could form the 13th biggest state of the union by population. Most of the prisons are overcrowded and private prisons are increasing as it profits unbelievably. Human rights organizations have long condemned the “inhuman exploitation in the United States” where it is said that the prisons house over 2 million – mostly African-American and Hispanics coming as no surprise. For the tycoons who have invested in the private jails, this is a working goldmine for them. Here the prisoners come to work every single day and work full time without any excuse and vacation, and if they aren’t happy about the 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they just get locked up in isolation cells. Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry complex. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations. Some of the companies are IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., but reached its height in 1990 under William Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling as warm bread.

Corporate stockholders making money off the prisoner’s do everything they can for longer sentences in order to expand their employment rather than rehabilitate the inmates. A study presented by the Progressive Labor Party accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.” An example of this is the prison in Virginia, Lawrenceville where the CCA has an ultra-modern prison where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.

Another helpful thing was the passage of the “three strikes law” (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies). This made the already existing prisons overcrowded and necessary to build 20 more new federal prisons.

According to California Prison Focus, no other society in the world and in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens. From less than 300,000 in 1972, inmates increased to 2 million by the year of 2000, minus those with probation. This is the opposite of what Obama suggested years ago, rehabilitation rather than punishment but it has obviously been failing as notorious gang members who enter prison continues to commit crimes inside and outside when they are released. Other Gang leaders give orders from prison to those on the outside such as selling drugs and committing murder. But it doesn’t stop there, because the drugs reach all the way into the prisons as well. Most of it is smuggled in by visitors or sent in by different techniques or smuggled in and sold by “dirty” prison guards.

The National Survey on Drug Use estimates that almost 23 million Americans are illicit drug users making it 8,9% of its adult population from 2008-2009 when it was only 8%. The number of marijuana users has gone up from 14.4 million in 2007 to 17.4 million in 2010. As illicit drugs, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and some other prescription drugs was used making marijuana the most commonly used drug with more than 17 million users in 2010. This is because marijuana is the most common drug for first-time users, according to the study. Among people who started using drugs in the year before the survey, 62% said they first used marijuana, 26% first used prescription drugs like tranquilizers and stimulants, and 9% first used inhalants.

America is clearly going on the wrong track when it comes to the war on drugs and their imprisonment habits. Instead of focusing on putting drug users behind bars to profit from them, they should focus more on treating this as an illness, not as a crime. People need help to fight the need and urge for drug or to treat the problem that pushes them to use drugs. Those who are guilty are the drug smugglers and sellers who profits from consumers. U.S. should rather target the big fish in the pound and legalizing is not the answer. That would mean going from bad to worse.

 

Hatef Mokhtar

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