Latin Pulse Blog

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Daniel Marrin

Daniel Marrin, a multimedia reporter based in New York City, takes you on an illuminating look into Latin America's current affairs, focusing on the effects for people on the ground and lesser-known perspectives. Thoughts of international leaders and big media pundits are widely available - we search for the unconsidered angles and opinions on the Latin American story.

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On the Juarez Killings

The execution of seventeen recovering addicts in last week's shooting in Juarez struck me as one of the most perverse crimes I have ever heard of in my life. Despite having read about a wide variety of atrocities in war -- the killing of pregnant women and children in Rwanda, or the dragging of charred American bodies through Fallujah -- this act struck me as something so cold as to be sub-human. Yet it was the not first time either. Fifteen others have been killed previously in this exact way in Juarez in the last two years.
The violence in Juarez seems to be ignored by most of the media, yet this is truly one of the world's prime war zones right now. A recent New York Times video report stated that in 2008 a civilian was more likely to be killed in Ciudad Juarez than in Baghdad.

Wednesday's attack came on the same day that at least twenty-three others were killed around Mexico, including the number two security official in President Felipe Calderon's home state of Michoacan. It also came just a week or two after Mexico officially decriminalized personal use of many formerly illicit drugs. The new orders for police are that they are to refer addicts to treatment clinics rather than take them into police custody. After Wednesday's attack though, that option may no longer seem so safe.

It seems clear that we Americans share some of the blame for this violence; though perhaps there have been good intentions in criminalizing marijuana, cocaine and other substances, when our prohibitions are combined with our high demand, we have ended up giving these cartels incentive for their work. And now apparently, the weapons that have come through our borders have allowed them to create carnage in their country.

This is a war many of us can can shut our eyes to on a daily basis, because we are not losing anyone there in Mexico. Yet this war is so close to us at the same time: the war zone of Juarez stands a few miles across the border from the relatively safe city of El Paso, Texas.

We can try to keep this violence and chaos out though militarizing the border, and perhaps that will allow us to continue turning a blind eye to this bloodshed. However, it will not absolve us of the responsibility and obligation to help search for an end to this conflict. Some cartels may be brought down, and the centers of violence may move from one city to another, as they seem to be moving now towards Central America. However, as long as the economic incentive exists for these cartels' work, can we really expect to see an end to this violence?


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Drug Decriminalization in Latin America

This August, Latin American countries showed their will to dissent from U.S. drug policy, as both Mexico and Argentina decriminalized possession of marijuana and other illicit drugs. 

The decision in Argentina came after a Supreme Court ruling that the arrest of eight men in 2006 for possession of marijuana cigarettes was unconstitutional.  In its ruling, the court concentrated on the defendants' rights to privacy.  As Supreme Court President Ricardo Lorenzetti said, "Behavior in private is legal, as long as it doesn't constitute clear danger."

While Argentina's move is historic, Mexico's decision is far wider in scope. On Friday August 21st, the Mexican government decriminalized "personal and immediate use" of illicit drugs including heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines, LSD and cocaine.  For each of these drugs, the government set legal limits for personal possession.  One can now possess the equivalent of four joints of marijuana, 4 lines' worth of cocaine, .015 milligrams of LSD, 50 milligrams of heroin, or 40 milligrams of methamphetamines. However, the government remains cautious in its spin on the decision.  Bernardo Espino del Castillo of the Mexican attorney general's office said, "This is not legalization.  This is regulating the issue and giving citizens greater legal certainty."

Instead of arrests, people caught with these small amounts will be told of available clinics and encouraged to enter a rehabilitation program.  One wonders if there will be a Miranda rights-like speech created for this type of encounter.  Rehab will be mandatory when a user is caught a third time.

Mexico became the second Latin American country after Portugal to decriminalize possession of these drugs.  Reactions to the decision have been varied, especially as drug use remains a volatile issue in Mexico.  One recent government survey put the number of Mexico's addicts at 460,000, which was 50 percent larger than the addict population in 2002. Meanwhile, drug use can lead to other public health issues: 67 percent of intravenous drug users in Tijuana, for example, have tested positive for tuberculosis.

Some hope that the decision will lead to a greater focus on drug treatment rather than prosecution, and will help the government focus on the cartels rather than the users.  As Alberto Islas, a security consultant in Mexico City said to the Wall Street Journal, "It helps the government focus on the bad guys and lets state and local governments get involved in drug abuse as a public health issue."

Efforts at fighting drug use through arrests have been unsuccessful in the past.  Since Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, there have been approximately 95,000 people detained for small-scale drug-dealing and possession, but out of those detainees, only 12 to 15 percent have ever been charged with anything.  Many times police officers used the illegality of the drugs to shake down casual users for bribes in order to avoid arrests. 

While the change may make for more focused law enforcement, Javier Oliva, a political scientist at Mexico's Autonomous University, said the law could pose a contradiction for the government's larger anti-drug efforts. "If they decriminalize drugs, it could lead the army, which has been given the task of combating this, to say, 'What are we doing?'"

Julie Myers Wood, former head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement under President G.W. Bush, said she also had doubts about Mexico's decision. "I'm sympathetic with the Mexicans that they need to find a more effective way to deal with the cartels," she said. "But just giving up, in terms of small amounts of drugs like cocaine and heroin, does not seem to me to be the most sensible approach."

Some Mexican law enforcement and drug treatment agencies also expressed doubt about the change. "You're inviting the young generation to use drugs," said San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez to an online news source.  Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said, "It's street-level use that's destroying society."

The NY Times interviewed a Tijuana drug counselor who said, "With everything that's happening, we need to distance ourselves from the drugs.  Imagine if I told people in here that it was legal for them to have a little.  No way." One of the more interesting opinions came from a Christian Science Monitor forum on the issue.  "Lawrence" wrote, "The Mexican drug laws are not what's causing the cartels to gain power and money-- it is the American drug laws."

There's some support for that notion: FBI figures from 2007 showed more arrests in the U.S. for drug violations than any other crime.  Of the country's 1.8 million drug arrests that year, 82 percent were for possession, not dealing, and of that figure, 42 percent, or 872,721 people, were arrested for marijuana possession.  That figure was a record high for the country, likely indicating record sales for the drug cartels.  The Obama administration's reaction to Mexico's decision has been low-key.  When US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske visited Mexico in July, he said that he would take a "wait-and-see" approach if the law passed.

As for now, there's no telling whether the new law will help clean the streets of Tijuana, but it will hopefully lead more addicts to treatment rather than police custody.


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