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With 28,000 Killed Since 2006, Movement for Drug Legalization in Mexico Takes Hold

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The Mexican government’s policy against drug trafficking over the past few years has been to increasingly militarize the conflict with the only tangible result being a skyrocketing death toll. Now a growing movement in Mexico to legalize drugs, particularly marijuana, is taking shape. Four proposals that aim for varying degrees of decriminalization or legalization of drugs are on the docket in Mexico’s House of Deputies, and another is circulating in the Senate. Meanwhile, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was a key US ally in the war on drugs, has backed the legalization of drugs, saying prohibition has failed to reduce violence and corruption. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Mexico and to what’s happening south of the border and the border wars. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the so-called war on drugs is a hot-button topic of the day in Mexico. On Tuesday, President Felipe Calderón summoned legislators to take part in ongoing discussions about the issue. The Mexican government’s policy over the past few years has been to increasingly militarize the conflict, with the only tangible result being a skyrocketing death toll. But there is a growing movement in Mexico to legalize drugs, particularly marijuana, that is beginning to take hold.

Last week, President Calderón said he would support a national debate on legalizing drugs, reversing his previous stance. However, he did underscore that he does not favor legalization. His announcement came in the wake of a government report that found that more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since a US-backed military crackdown on cartels began three-and-a-half years ago when Calderón took office. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the border city of Ciudad Juárez alone, making it ground zero in the so-called drug war.

AMY GOODMAN: Four proposals that aim for varying degrees of decriminalization or legalization of drugs are on the docket in Mexico’s House of Deputies. Another is circulating in the Senate. Meanwhile, former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who was a key US ally in the war on drugs, has backed the legalization of drugs, saying prohibition has failed to reduce violence and corruption.

    VICENTE FOX: [translated] I have proposed the legalization of drugs, because I think it is not the responsibility of the government, what we are asking, to withdraw the drugs from the market, and so that, as a result, our children could be free from the temptation of going and consuming drugs. That is not possible. That will never happen. All prohibition seems to evoke the contrary effect. All prohibition, what it does is to bring more interest in going for the apple, in the case of Adam and Eve, or to go for the cigarette, or the alcohol in Chicago. What you see in Holland and in other European countries that have let it go, they released the drug, and consumption has not significantly increased.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, a close Bush ally who, before that, was head of Coca-Cola in Mexico. Last year, another former Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, pressed for decriminalization in a widely publicized report produced with former leaders of Colombia and Brazil.

For more on the issue, we’re joined on the phone by Victor Clark Alfaro, the director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana and a lecturer in the Latin American Studies Department at San Diego. And joining us on the phone from Mexico City, Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Laura Carlsen, explain what’s happening in the Mexican legislature.

LAURA CARLSEN: [inaudible] measure has been there for a while, and they have been developed by grassroots organizations that insist that legalization is not only a step in ending this violent campaign against organized crime, but also necessary for human rights and for the proper treatment of drug consumers within the country. However, these measures have really not moved, and it’s very unlikely that they’ll move in the near future. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus within Mexico that this kind of a proposal is politically viable. In fact, President Calderón threw out this mention of legalization of drugs as part of his series of consultations with different sectors of Mexican society in what he calls a dialogue on the security strategy and said that the pros and cons should be analyzed and immediately followed up, as you mentioned, by opposing legalization. For a lot of people, this was meant to be a red herring — and rather than being a serious proposal, it’s not backed up by any procedures for analyzing it or by mandating any studies of the real impact of legalization on organized crime — that it was meant to distract attention from the fact that this dialogue is revealing the deep discontent and lack of confidence in Calderón’s US-backed drug war. There’s really no question that legalization of drugs is a positive part of a real analysis of a more viable alternative to this failing drug war, but right now we’re not seeing this as viable, and it’s doubtful that Calderón has any intention of really changing the drug war model.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Victor Clark Alfaro, you have been going back and forth for years along the border between — especially between Tijuana and Southern California. What has been the impact in the city of Tijuana of, especially in the last few years, of this militarization of the drug war?

VICTOR CLARK ALFARO: Well, there is diminishing the quality of life and human rights; the increasing number of human rights violations from the military; the image of the border, of our border cities, or the country as a whole, abroad. The drug war has not affect at place in Tijuana the existence of drugs, is, until now, are very successful, although this process of increasing militarization. And we don’t see a solution at the end, at least until now, with this [inaudible] of President Calderón.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, when ex-president Vicente Fox made his statement a couple of weeks ago, he especially pointed to the fact that this militarization and the war on drugs has created huge problems in terms of drops in tourism for Mexico and also of the business of the maquiladoras along the border in Mexico. The economic impact of this continued war, could you talk about that?

VICTOR CLARK ALFARO: Well, in the case of Tijuana, we used to have millions of border visitors coming to Tijuana. By 1990, there were 19 million border visitors. By 1998, there were four million border visitors, especially US citizens. But early this year, there were more than — barely less than half-a-million visitors to our city. Actually, the tourist industry just collapsed in Tijuana, not only as a consequence of the image of violence of our city abroad, but different issues, the long lines to cross to the — waiting on line to cross to the US side, the lack of publicity of Tijuana abroad, the collapsing of the image by police extorting money of tourists. A lot of other elements provoked, including the image of violence and the violence itself, provoked a collapse in the tourist industry, not only in Tijuana, but in other border cities, and obviously with an important impact in our cities, because tourism is one of the main — or used to be one of the main incomes in our cities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Laura Carlsen, there have been several reports by the State Department in recent years that the cultivation of drug crops in Mexico, not only marijuana, obviously, but also opium, have increased dramatically in recent years. Some people attribute that to the increasing number of peasants thrown off the land as a result of NAFTA, that they don’t have anything. The only way to make decent income is to resort to drug cultivation. Can you talk about the impact of the drug war in the countryside?

LAURA CARLSEN: That’s true. According to statistics, there is an increase in the amount of drugs that are being grown in the countryside. And there’s no question in my mind that this is a direct result of the fact that legal crops, food crops that we so much need here Mexico, where there is a problem of hunger, have been displaced by organized crime coming in and offering everything that the government doesn’t offer — a higher price for the product, credit, seeds, the kinds of conditions that farmers need in order to cultivate. And in these conditions, peasants are changing to drug crops.

The problem now is that the drug war is becoming an excuse also to go into the countryside and repress certain areas and organizations that are independent. We’re seeing a real problem with what we call the criminalization of social protest. So, indigenous movements and other campesino peasant movements are being repressed and occupied, in some cases, by the military under the excuse of the drug war.

Meanwhile, there’s a complete lack of coherency in the policies that are coming out of Mexico and out of the United States in order to deal with this problem. There’s basic root causes that have to do with a population that doesn’t have jobs, a population that’s been immersed in poverty. With the financial crisis, there’s an estimated 5.8 million more Mexicans in poverty now than there were before. And this makes it easy pickings for cartels to recruit young people who don’t have other futures and who enter into areas like these rural areas, where they’re able to convince people to grow illicit drug crops because they have few other viable choices.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Carlsen, what about the US backing for the war on drugs and what this means?

LAURA CARLSEN: I think it’s really an insult to the Mexican people that, as this dialogue is progressing and it becomes so clear that the majority of the people do not believe that it’s a winnable war, that they’re angry at their president for immersing the country in a strategy that’s led to a spiraling of violence — up to 28,000 people, as was mentioned, plus a huge increase in human rights violations against the army, which is now in the streets, nearly 50,000 troops fighting this supposed war — that in the United States no one’s taking note of this.

And the strategy continues to be supported through the Mérida Initiative. In fact, Congress just appropriated an additional $175 million to Mexico for the drug war in the supplemental appropriations, and there’s another $310 million that’s included in the 2011 budget. So this three-year plan to support the Mexican drug war that Bush designed is now turned into an indefinite plan under the Obama administration, despite the fact that there’s been no real assessment, that every indicator, virtually, that we have that’s a serious indicator of actually weakening organized crime or of the impact on Mexican society is completely negative. And the plan itself has no benchmarks, so there’s no way to really evaluate what success would even look like in this case. They know they can’t wipe out cartels, because that’s never been done. And so, there’s not an exit strategy. There’s no measure of success. And we keep throwing money at a problem that is literally holding the Mexican people hostage to a badly conceived and implemented security strategy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Victor Clark, what do you think are the prospects of any change in a government policy in terms of legalization, especially now that two former presidents — Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox — have both urged decriminalization? In case of Fox’s, he’s saying legalize the production and the sale completely.

VICTOR CLARK ALFARO: Well, to be honest, I don’t think it will happen. It is only more — it is only a discussion in sympathy with specific and vocalized groups. But I don’t see a sympathy from the majority of our population, probably because of lack of information, because [inaudible]. And I don’t think that it is going to happen really. It is only a discussion, especially in academic sectors, with intellectuals, these two — with former presidents. But at the end, it is not going to happen, I think. But also, we have another example of the US, in the case of California and other states that are now discussing the possibility of legalization of marijuana, that send messages to our country also.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the related issue of militarization of the US-Mexico border. On Friday, President Obama signed into law a $600 million bill to deploy some 1,500 new Border Patrol agents and law enforcement officials along the border, as well as two aerial surveillance drones. The bill was quickly passed by Congress in a rare display of bipartisanship.

For more on this issue, we’re going to turn to Arnoldo García, the program director of the Immigrant Justice & Rights Program at National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He’s joining us from the University of California, Berkeley.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Arnoldo. What about this issue and the — your assessment of what Congress passed?

ARNOLDO GARCÍA: Well, the US has been militarizing immigration control in border communities for the last fifteen years, and it has consisted of deliberately funneling migrants to cross through the most dangerous and desolate parts of the desert region and basically pushing people to enter through Arizona. They risk their lives that way. On the US side, there is an average of the remains of two migrants are found on the US side. And human rights groups that are tracking the deaths and trying to prevent people from dying in the desert estimate that for each migrant remain found, there’s at least ten other people missing. So, not only are migrants the casualties of this militarization of the border, but are also the rights of the communities that are suffering this onslaught on their daily lives. And I think Arizona is the epicenter right now, but the epicenter has changed over time, from California to Arizona, from, you know, different parts of the South Texas, and it’s also been extended into the interior, in terms of how the increase that Obama just signed last Friday also increases interior policing and also increases the other types of policing on the border, including sending additional soldiers to patrol in Arizona, particularly.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Arnoldo García, have you been surprised by the fact that in the first year of the Obama administration a record number of people were deported, about 75 percent of them, as we reported, 73 percent, to Mexico, that the mass deportations are continuing under a Democratic administration, as they were increasing under the Bush administration?

ARNOLDO GARCÍA: Unfortunately, we weren’t surprised, because the government has been increasing or building the infrastructure of a plan called Operation Endgame, which consists of creating the facilities and the policing to — their ideal is, for every immigrant that’s detained, one would be deported. And this includes the increasing of jail beds exclusively for undocumented immigrants who are deportable and also the doubling of the Border Patrol on the US-Mexico border and the tripling of Immigration and Customs Enforcement police in the interior, and, on top of that, like what’s happened in Arizona, federal programs that allow police to collaborate with immigration law enforcement. So when you have this type of operation, right, this type of strategy and policies to criminalize immigrants and to deport them, then you are going to have increases that we’ve been seeing. And it’s not so much Obama as it’s presently as part of a compact that exists among Republicans and Democrats and also a plan, an operative plan that they’ve been implementing at least since 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Arnoldo García, program director of the Immigrant Justice & Rights Program at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; Laura Carlsen on the phone with us from Mexico City; as Victor Clark Alfaro is also joining us from Tijuana. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Victor Clark, in terms of the impact on the northern cities of Mexico, of these continued mass deportations and the militarization of the border, what’s been the result on the other side?

VICTOR CLARK ALFARO: Well, in the case of deportations, at least in Tijuana, where we have the majority of the deportations along the border, there are three different kinds of migrants who are being sent to our borders. There are 400 Mexicans being deported per day in Tijuana. And of those, 30 percent are Mexicans that belong to gangs or come from prisons. Other 30 percent are Mexicans who were living on the US side for long periods of time — twenty years, thirty years. And the other 30 percent are Mexicans who just crossed yesterday or a week ago or days ago.

But in the case of the first group, the ones who come from prisons and from — and they belong to gangs, they don’t have — when they are deported to our border, nobody is going to hire them. They don’t have any opportunity to work, because the way they look, the way they speak. And what we have observed is that they are becoming the labor reserve for the organized crime, because they have all the abilities. They speak English. They know the business of drugs. They know how to use arms. They have contact on the US side. They are reorganizing themselves on the Mexican side in gangs that we haven’t seen in the past. They have a way to communicate themselves that we haven’t heard in the past. And the lack of opportunities for this sector, and specifically of migrants being deported to our cities, they are becoming the labor reserve, and the organized crime are hiring them as hit men, are hiring them to sell drugs on the streets.

And in the case migrants who are crossing to the US side, we estimated that around 90 percent of them close together with human smugglers. And probably we will see in the near future an increased prices in the rates of human smuggler. Probably human smugglers are going to try to find new states to cross to the US side, new parts, new areas to cross to the US side. If Arizona, until recently, was — or is the most important area to cross to the US side, probably with this process of militarization and increased technology and all these things, probably coyotes are going to try to find new states, probably New Mexico or return to California in large numbers. So we are going to see a change in the extreme of migrants. And also, because the migrants hear what is going on on the border and news of the unemployment and lack of opportunities in what used to be the American Dream, probably we will see a diminishing number of migrants trying to cross to the US side.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Laura Carlsen in Mexico City to ask about an issue that might well be related to this. It’s the decision in the last few days of Colombia’s Constitutional Court that suspended a deal giving US military access to at least seven Colombian bases. On Tuesday, the court ruled the deal is unconstitutional and ordered the Colombian government to submit it to lawmakers for approval. In addition to opening the bases to the US military, Colombia also agreed to allow up to 800 US troops and 600 military contractors and granting them diplomatic immunity, the deal coming under wide criticism in Latin America from countries like Brazil and Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as several human rights groups. Explain what’s happened here.

LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah, I think that this is definitely — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead? Laura? Laura, we just heard you, and now we can’t.

LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah, I was having a few technical difficulties.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that this Colombia base agreement issue is related to the others, because it’s another example of the use of militarization by the United States to address any situation of conflict, instead of looking for peaceful ways. Basically, what they decided in the court was that this agreement could not be just slipped under the door, as had been attempted by the Colombian government under President — former President Uribe and the State Department, but that it had to be ratified by Congress, because it was a major departure and it was a major international treaty within Colombia. This means that the Colombian Congress is likely to ratify it. The ruling party controls that Congress. But it opens up the space in which the civil society groups that are opposing this and the rest of Latin America will once again have an opportunity to discuss it and to analyze.

It’s also interesting because that means there’s some discussion that if it’s called a treaty in Colombia, it will have to go through the Congress in the United States. And it’s not clear if that’s actually the case or not, but that would be an excellent opportunity for us in the United States to take a look at this agreement, which has caused so much controversy in Latin America and has really alienated a lot of our allies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Laura, in a related matter, in terms of Mexico, the prospects of US troops actually being involved in Mexico in the war on drugs? It was, I think, an interview where Janet Napolitano — with NPR — suggested that that was actually being considered, but didn’t seem to want to talk about it much. Could you tell us what you think about that?

LAURA CARLSEN: It’s shocking that she said that, and I think it has to be taken very seriously. It’s an issue that would enrage Mexicans, for historic reasons and because of the political culture here. Up to now, the United States has been very careful to say there will be everything but troops within Mexico. And so, the idea that the military is at least considering the idea of sending troops into Mexico is very important and could cause a major controversy here.

On the other hand, it’s important to say that the degree of US penetration in the Mexican national security apparatus and within Mexico itself is not only measured by US soldiers being on Mexican territory. In a recent congressional hearing, they said there was almost a 300 percent increase in US presence within Mexico in the form of drug enforcement agencies, alcohol and tobacco, FBI, all sorts of other kinds of agencies that are working within Mexico now. There are many people here who consider that a threat to sovereignty, as well as, again, being part of a drug war model that simply is not working.

AMY GOODMAN: Arnoldo, on that issue of US troops in Mexico, the significance, Arnoldo García?

ARNOLDO GARCÍA: Well, we already have the 1,200 troops that are being sent into Arizona with a dual mission of doing drug interdiction and detaining undocumented migrants. And that’s a — this has been created deliberately by the US. It’s a really explosive situation. And from our perspective, right, they have to be delinked in order to defuse the crisis happening in Arizona, and also the rights crisis that we’re having within the immigrant communities across the United States, where the police, ICE and other police agencies are using the issues of drug trafficking and human smuggling, and so forth, in order to crack down on our communities. And they have to be delinked, right, because otherwise we are going to — we’re headed towards a really bad situation and a deepening of the crisis that’s happening on the border as we speak.

AMY GOODMAN: Arnoldo García, we want to thank you for being with us, with the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, speaking to us from University of California, Berkeley; Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy; and Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana and a lecturer at the Latin American Studies Deparment at San Diego State. Thanks so much.

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