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Crime & Punishment

In a memo last Thursday, Barack Obama declared that Venezuela and Bolivia “have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotic agreements.”  His argument rests upon their expulsion of DEA operatives.

To the contrary, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that from 2010 to 2011, Bolivia’s production of coca declined by 12 percent.  Eradication efforts were also up by 25 percent.  Moreover, Morales’ government has confiscated over three and a half times the amount of coca intercepted by the previous administration.  Though Venezuela has struggled to curtail rising violence from a spike in drug trafficking directed towards the growing European market for cocaine, Bolivia has been successful at containing the reach of organized crime and the proliferation of coca production.

Bolivia and Venezuela responded to US accusations with passion, but equally false claims.  Morales correctly countered that the US was the principle source country for cocaine, but failed to relate the historical trend of falling cocaine consumption in the US.

Morales challenged, “they should tell us by what percentage they have reduced the internal (drug) market. The internal market keeps growing and in some states of the United States they’re even legalizing the sale of cocaine under medical control.”

He pointed out “that since 1961, when the first international anti-drug agreements were signed, drug trafficking has grown rather than declined.”

Beside the erroneous claims of statewide cocaine legalization, what he failed to mention was that since 1989, the US market for cocaine has declined by over 360 percent.  The once enormous US market is set to be eclipsed by Europe over the next few years.

Though both sides in this squabble are rightfully upset over the actions and accusations, their conceptions of the issue are skewed by their position.

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Gang members surrender arms

The truce among rival gangs that reduced violence in El Salvador by 53 percent still holds firm.  Though, extortion and kidnapping are noticeably down in the capital of San Salvador, these gang related crimes shot up slightly in July.  With 30,000 to 50,000 gang members throughout the country it is difficult to enforce a complete de-mobilization.  By contrast, the country’s military and police forces are composed of about 15,000 active duty personnel each.

During peace talks, gang leaders evoked the agreement of Chapultepec that ended El Salvador’s civil war between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels and government forces in 1992. The war killed over 70,000. De-militarization proved to be the cornerstone of the agreement, separating Public Security from National Defense through the creation of a civilian police force distinct from the military.  By the end of the war, El Salvador had 63,000 soldiers.  An initial reduction plan sought to halve that force to 31,000 members.

But, the end of civil conflict did not stop violence in the country.  Criminal activity filled the vacuum after wartime hostilities ended.  The deportation of young Salvadoran refugees living in the US brought the gang culture present in major US cities to El Salvador.  Meanwhile, economic opportunity remained low and spending on security plummeted, as a result of peace accords.  By 1997, El Salvador was still the most dangerous country in the world, with 140 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.  At the beginning of the year, the country experiences about 65 murders per 100,000.

Though violence continues to grip the nation – once tied with neighboring Honduras, as the world’s most dangerous nation – March peace talks between the rival MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have brought a brief hiatus in a saga of death.  Sources in August estimate the murder rate is on track to fall to 34 homicides per 100,000, by the end of the year.

Peace talks were carried out between gang leaders in a maximum security prison and officiated by a military chaplain and a former lawmaker.  The Salvadoran government agreed to some concessions that granted the imprisoned bosses privileges such as family visits.  But despite the reduction in homicides, disappearances continue to plague the country.  In the first quarter of 2012, there were 692 disappearances – an 8 percent increase from the same period in 2011.

Ironically, the government overseeing the gang true is led by president Mauricio Funes, from the FMLN. The same rebel alliance that fought the government during the civil war of the 1980s has evolved into a modern political party operating in a democratic system.  The continued success or failure of the peace agreements will determine the fate of reconciliation and negotiation as a crime reduction strategy in the region.  Previous policies had taken a hardline, focusing on government led crackdowns and the expansion of law enforcement.  So far, none of El Salvador’s crime ridden neighbors in Guatemala and Honduras have endorsed the ceasefire.  Negotiating with criminal organizations still remains unpopular.

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Follow Up

Murdered schoolboys shake Salvador’s gang truce

Some wish the truce to fail

9 September, 2012

Marcos Aleman, AP

LAS COLINAS, El Salvador – [Five] schoolboys went missing on a Thursday, and it took nearly three weeks for police to discover the mass grave…The killings were the work of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of two notorious Salvadoran gangs that regularly visited schoolyards to recruit kids – using the usual method: a big meal with cake and soft drinks.

Carlos Ponce, an expert on crime for the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, says the truce is a sham.

“It’s all a lie, the gangs continue to operate, people continue getting killed, people keep disappearing and the gangs get stronger and stronger,” he said.

http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/09/09/v-fullstory/2992851/murdered-schoolboys-shake-salvadors.html#storylink=cpy

Who knew that dried endangered seahorse powder works as the perfect aphrodisiac and cure for asthma?  Just a pinch of the stuff is equivalent to popping a Viagra and taking a hit off an inhaler at the same time.  It is important to make sure that the product is endangered; do not be fooled by imitators boasting a ‘vulnerable’ status.

But, the market for ground seahorse medicine took a hit yesterday when Peruvian Police seized more than 16,000 dried seahorses before they could be exported illegally to Asian countries.  The warm waters off the northern Peruvian coast make the perfect breeding ground for slow moving, yet ironically horse-shaped sea creatures.

Authorities say the shipment weighed 160 kilos.  At $6,000 per kilo, the cargo could have been worth nearly $1 million at street value.  However, other sources put the total retail price at around $250,000 – a figure based on values from the 1990s, when the underground market was first publicized in detail.

Last year, law enforcement seized a total of 20 tons of dried seahorse throughout the world, with half a ton found in Peru.  The extensive trade is estimated to be a $20 million annual industry, with Hong Kong as the hub for sales to mainland China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan.  However, Australia and the United States also import hundreds of thousands of dried seahorses every year.

Seahorse medicine has been around since the Ming Dynasty began raising the creatures for consumption in the 14th century.  But in the late 20th century, the animals were declared endangered due to over collection and the industry moved underground.  All specimens used for medicinal purposes come from the genus Hippocampus and vary in size for 10 to 300 millimeters or 3 to 25 grams.

Though we rarely hear about this illicit market, busts such as the one in Peru reveal the extensive black markets outside the world of narcotics.  Profitable illegality pervades all types of products throughout the world and no seahorse or snow leopard is safe.

Before several Mexican cities became more dangerous than many Baghdad neighborhoods, the country once experienced fewer annual murders than the United States.   Back in 2005, Mexico recorded 9,921 homicides, compared with 16,740 murders north of the border.  By 2011, Mexico reported 27,199 annual murders, vastly surpassing 14,585 in the US.

Though Mexico’s 2005 murder rate of 9 per 100,000 people exceeded the US rate of 5.6 per 100,000, the concentration of homicides in the Southern United States and urban areas, had made several portions of the country more dangerous than Mexico.

But homicide in Mexico has risen steadily, ever since President Felipe Calderon kicked off the drug war with Joint Operation Michoacán in 2006, dispatching 6,500 soldiers to free the president’s home state from the grips of powerful drug traffickers.

Despite the estimated 50,000-60,000 drug war fatalities since 2006, Mexico maintains a much lower murder rate than many Central American countries, as well as Venezuelan (67), Colombia (33), and Brazil (26).  In 2011, Mexico recorded 18 homicides per 100,000.

However, Mexico surpasses the world average of 6.9 murders per 100,000 people.   This reality reveals a larger phenomenon of high crime throughout the Americas.  In 2011, though the region accounted for only 14 percent of the world’s population, it produced nearly one third of all homicides.  By contrast, Asia constitutes 60 percent of the global population with only 27 percent of all murders.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) correlates high crime – most easily measured by homicide rate – with high levels of income inequality and a low Human Development Index (HDI).  However, countries with the second highest level of HDI have equally high murder rates, as do countries with the lowest level of HDI.  This discrepancy is in fact explained, by rampant homicide in many Latin American countries with relatively high levels of development – most notably, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Latin America’s propensity for violent criminal activity stems largely from persistent poverty and unemployment, juxtaposed with extreme wealth – rising internally and ever present to the north.  Poor law enforcement and the resulting entrenchment of organized crime have not been very helpful either.  Likewise, bellicose policies have further provoked violence from often highly disciplined and well organized criminal operations.  The Cartels have intensified their methods in the face of extinction at the hands of government forces.  As the first graphic illustrates, a de-escalation of the war in Iraq corresponded with fewer homicides; while an escalation of the drug war in Mexico corresponded with a surge of violence.

Shipment intercepted by Spanish authorities

This morning, Spain announced the apprehension of four traffickers associated with the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, including the cousin of billionaire kingpin fugitive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Near the end of July, Spanish authorities discover the four men with a shipping container of 373kg of cocaine, worth more than $24 million in street value.  Today, Spain went public with the seizer and apprehensions.

According BBC News, “it was only a matter of time before the cartel tried to expand into Europe and Spain was the natural choice as an entry point, given the common language and its sea ports.”  Sinaloa, which controls near half of all US narcotics trade, may have connections in more than 50 countries.

Two of the detained: Jesus Gutierrez Guzman (left) and Samuel Zazueta Valenzuela

This extensive transnational criminal network may be uncovering a major strategy shift among Mexican cartels to distance themselves from the violent corridor into the US.

And speaking of “natural entry points,” landlocked Mongolia has become a new hotspot of narcotics trafficking.  Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) are packing up their supplies and heading to the steppes.  The opportunity of tapping the vast Mongolian market has encouraged Sinaloa and others to set up shop in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.  “The pay-off is endless out here,” said an anonymous DEA spokesman, “they’re calling it the ‘Hot Gobi.’”

“What’s the point in fighting bitterly over millions of wealthy customers, when you can relax in a yurt all day and sell dime bags to a few thousand nomads,” said one former dealer.

Potential regulars

Such is the logic of ruthless DTOs.  First it was the Caribbean corridor, then it was Mexico and Central America, now it’s the entire Pacific Ocean with a rendezvous along Russia’s Eastern Seaboard, followed by a quick jaunt through northern China.  The balloon effect – a tightening of enforcement in one area leading to an expansion of trafficking in another – has really taken a bizarre turn.

What used to be a 3,500 mile journey from Colombia to the US border is now an 8,500 mile journey to Mongolia.  As of a few hours ago, the DEA announced it will relocate its Mexican and Central American operations to Ulaanbaatar.  “This is ground zero,” said another DEA agent.  The CIA is likely to follow, capitalizing on the lucrative and practical Mongolian corridor.

Disclaimer: Half of this news update is veritably untrue.  For real news on the East Asian drug trade follow this link: http://www.china.org.cn/china/news/2009-06/27/content_18023666.htm.

The tide is shifting in the drug legalization debate throughout Latin America.  Traditionally, regional leaders endorsed the US policy of aggressive interdiction and eradication.  But with violence from trafficking destabilizing states, many are seeking an alternative approach.

The Fresh Debate

Last year, the former Presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia called for the immediate decriminalization of marijuana.  Similarly, in March of 2012, current Central American leaders kicked off a discussion on the possibility of legalization and decriminalization.  President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, backed by Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and Ricardo Martinelli of Panama, held a week long drug dialogue attended by US Vice President Joseph Biden. The Central Americans called for decriminalization and the possible regulation of trafficking.  Biden reaffirmed the US policy of prohibition.

Even Colombia and Mexico, the main recipients of the US counternarcotic assistance, have endorsed the decriminalization of drugs for personal use.

Legalization

In Uruguay, President Jose Mujica has called for the outright legalization and regulation of Marijuana.  His plan would allow users to cultivate the plant for non-commercial use and grant licenses to professional farmers for larger scale production.   It includes a system of user registry, tax and quality control, coordinated through the existing agency that monitors tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals.

From Banana’s to Kush

The tiny islands of the Caribbean have switched from bananas to banana Kush.  When preferential trade benefits with Europe and the Archipelago ended, the region’s banana industry collapsed, causing banana farmers to replant their fields with Cannabis.  In St. Vincent, Marijuana is the largest cash crop. The island nation recently overtook Jamaica as the largest producer in the Caribbean. St. Lucia has been following suit and increased cultivation has pressured politicians to rethink the country’s prohibitionist policy.

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