24 March 2013

Overcoming Inertia

Note: This article was written a few weeks ago, but due to some engrossing assignments, I didn’t have time to clean it up and post it until now. So please accept my apologies for lagging a bit behind in the national conversation. I feel that the main ideas discussed are important, despite this. Thanks to all my readers, Julie

Pre-script: So this commentary is not so out of the loop after all: 
US Aids Honduran Police Despite Death Squad Fears

A report published 30 January 2013 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that during fiscal years 2008 through 2011, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Aid spent $97 million of the allocated $350 million in support of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a spinoff of the 2007 Mérida Initiative that was aimed at fighting drug crime in Mexico and Central America. The funds were funneled through four foreign assistance accounts into programs to “strengthen law enforcement and maritime interdiction capabilities, support capacity building and training programs, and deter and detect border criminal activity,” according to the GAO.

The reaction to the report has ranged from alarm about the amount of money being spent in terms of the difficulty of keeping track of all those resources to alarm about the amount of money being spent in terms of Obama’s “exploding government debt” and his alleged aiding and abetting of corrupt leftist governments that are hostile to the United States. There seems to be very little public support for this kind of foreign drug interdiction, other than from within the agencies involved.

There are, of course, those who are suspicious of everything Obama does for reasons of racism/conservative paranoia who point to the False Flaggy Fake Whistleblowery that is the perceived Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal as proof of the administration’s evil intentions to sell arms to the world’s most dangerous criminals in order to create a situation where they can call a national emergency, swoop in and take away everyone’s guns, and install martial law.

As opposed to the ideology of the right that believes government to be inherently evil and that less government is the best government, there is another view that does not distrust all government, only those aspects of government that act undemocratically, in ways that belie the principles of freedom and human rights. Thus, my reaction to the report was also alarm – about not only the amount of resources being expended but, more deeply troubling, about the militarized response to a social issue and the export of U.S. militarism to this particular area of the world. These Latin American countries have long suffered from social strife due to the underdevelopment caused by exploitation on the part of anyone, foreign or domestic, who is able to manipulate chronically unstable political situations to their own benefit.

Real corruption in Latin America

The social problems faced by nations throughout Latin America are daunting, with deeply ingrained corruption of governing bodies being among the biggest hurdles to improving society. This is corruption of a different magnitude from what goes on in the United States, as the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores set the standard beginning over five hundred years ago, enslaving large populations of indigenous people and creating a system of cruel but not unusual plutocratic rule that would have made even the Robber Barons blush. Things did not change much when the European monarchies were rejected, as the well-entrenched plutocracy, aided, of course, by the Catholic Church, lived on through uprisings and infighting and regional warfare and foreign manipulation – right up to the present.

One indicator of the extent of corruption today is the World Economic Forum’s recently published Global Competition Report for 2012-2013. It provides a thorough analysis of many factors that make for an economically strong nation from the point of view of business executives who are surveyed for much of the information used to compile the report’s index. The health of public and private institutions as perceived by the executives surveyed is the first of the “12 pillars of competitiveness.” Of the Latin American countries included among the 144 nations profiled, only Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica achieve overall rankings in the top half of the index, while Panama tops the bottom half at #73. Key to dealing with the crime and corruption caused by the Drug War is the judiciary, and in the subcategory of judicial independence from pressure by politicians, business, and individuals, again excepting Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, Latin American nations do not place well. Even more telling are the subcategories of business costs of crime and violence and business costs of organized crime, where the drug-trade nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and several Caribbean nations plus Côte d’Ivoire in Africa make up a solid block at the bottom of the lists. These costs do not harm the businesses as much as the end users, as they are folded into the general costs of doing business and passed on to the consumer – as seen by the fact that Mexico and Colombia, over the past several years, have constantly been touted as having growing investment opportunities and good business environments. Imagine the possibilities for everyone if such costs weren’t simply an assumption for businesses in these countries!

The United States is well aware of the importance of strong government institutions, as recognized by this State Department fact sheet:
Developing Institutional Capacity
One of the key objectives of CARSI is supporting the development of strong, transparent and effective Central American governments and institutions. The violence and impunity of the region’s drug, gang, and criminal organizations present overwhelming challenges to governments already struggling to develop and maintain effective institutions. Central America needs greater investment in rule of law institutions, sufficient government revenues to support social services for the citizens of the region, and the creation of a culture that resists corruption. These investments will build confidence in public officials and government institutions by Central American citizens.
Policy drift

The question is, how effective could whatever these investments are possibly be? I suspect that the emphasis is on training police and prosecutors rather than strengthening the judiciary. The truth of the matter is that changing the culture of corruption of the elite institutions of any country in the world is not something that can be done from the outside, and thinking that pouring money into this kind of oblique effort is exactly what has been going on in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Mexico and Colombia – to no avail – for several decades, in the latter case. And failing to solve this pernicious problem deems any other improvements in law-enforcement tactics irrelevant.

In fact, a close look at Colombia will deem the notion that this country can be held up as a big-spending Drug War initiative success story to be a total fabrication. From an AP report on what it sees as the U.S. military expansion of its Drug War in Latin America:
U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, pointing to dramatic declines in violence and cocaine production in Colombia, says the strategy works.

"The results are historic and have tremendous implications, not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but for the world," he said at a conference on drug policy last year.
If it is from former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Velez that Kerlikowske gets the idea that the Drug War in Colombia was a success, then he might want to find a second source to base upon which to base his assessment. Uribe may soon be under investigation by the International Criminal Court for not only his role in “the extrajudicial killing of 3,000 innocent civilians who security forces presented as left-wing rebels killed in combat,” but also for “allegations that he was integral in forming a paramilitary bloc while he was governor of the Antioquia department.” Meanwhile, the trial that is taking place in Colombia right now that may send a group of Uribe’s political allies to jail for fraud in the attempt to allow the two-term president to run for office once again in 2010 is keeping alive the back-story about how Uribe’s 2006 re-election had been made possible through bribery and death-squad intimidation of voters. Uribe is the man who escalated the Drug War in Colombia with his hard-line security stance and launched a military assault against the left-wing guerrilla forces FARC and ELN, even going so far as to suggest, after 9/11, that the United States should send troops to Colombia to fight these forces in the name of the “War on Terror.”

Well, it turns out that the United States did train Colombians who ended up fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq under the auspices of the hailed Plan Colombia, although it was done by private contractors Blackwater and Halliburton in violation of regulations. The United States does have an official policy prohibiting the “Unauthorized export of technical data and provision of defense services involving Military/Security training” conducted internationally. But just like with the criminal bankers who are “too big to prosecute,” these military contractors are able to act in chaotic war situations with near-impunity – in the Blackwater case, a $42 million fine, small change for a company that raked in billions in no-bid contracts during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. This is “disaster capitalism” to the tee, and the key is for companies to be able to make their huge profits with little oversight or accountability. The effects of this war profiteering are not merely that tax dollars are spent on hugely inflated contracts that often go toward criminal activities, but even worse, they are immensely destabilizing to the regions where these mercenary armies operate, as they inevitably enable ugly and destructive politics, undermining democracy and good governance, and vastly exacerbate the complicated social issues underlying the organized crime that they purport to be fighting.

Of course, the head honchos at Blackwater were quite aware that what their company was doing didn’t look good, when they first changed its name to Xe, and then to ACADEMI. But what really doesn’t look good is, as Matt Taibbi has pointed out, that it is difficult to believe that the Drug War is anything but a joke when banking giant HSBC gets caught laundering drug money, but gets nothing but a slap on the wrist:
If you've ever been arrested on a drug charge, if you've ever spent even a day in jail for having a stem of marijuana in your pocket or "drug paraphernalia" in your gym bag, Assistant Attorney General and longtime Bill Clinton pal Lanny Breuer has a message for you: Bite me.

Breuer this week signed off on a settlement deal with the British banking giant HSBC that is the ultimate insult to every ordinary person who's ever had his life altered by a narcotics charge. Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a "record" financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.
As to Kerlikowske’s assertion that Plan Colombia was a success, it is directly contradicted by InSight Crime’s September 2012 profile of Colombia:
In sum, Colombia remains the epicenter of drug production, drug processing, drug storage and drug trafficking in the Americas. Some aspects have evolved, in particular the ability of the Colombians to produce high yield coca and the means by which the Colombians and their partners move their finished product, which now includes a fleet of semi-submersible (submarines), some of which can dive up to 30 meters below the surface. But other aspects have remained remarkably static, like the use of remote, unpatrolled areas to process coca into cocaine hydrochloride; the need for large armed groups to control territory for the production, storage and distribution of the HCL; and the ability of these criminal organizations to coopt local authorities to move large quantities of drugs, bring in large quantities of arms and launder heaps of money throughout the world.
Perhaps what Kerlikowske was referring to was what Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, revealed in the same AP article about the real goal of the Drug War, when he spoke of allowing the “balloon effect” (if you press on one part of the balloon, the air will move to another part of it) to play out in Central America, then move on to the Caribbean - where militarization is also being ramped up.
From AP:
The goal, he said, is to make it so hard for traffickers to move drugs to the U.S. that they will eventually opt out of North America, where cocaine use is falling. Traffickers would likely look for easier, more expanding markets, shifting sales to a growing customer base in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Brownfield said almost all Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine goes east through Brazil and Argentina and then to Western Europe. Cocaine that reaches North America mostly comes from Colombia, he said, with U.S. figures showing production falling sharply, from 700 metric tons in 2001 to 195 metric tons today — though estimates vary widely.

When the drug war turns bloody, he said, the strategy is working.
So, there you have it. The objective is not actually to stop criminal activity and violence from happening, but to put pressure on it so it will be redirect to where it doesn’t affect the United States anymore. And I just love the part about the strategy working when things get bloody. Dick Cheney said just about the same thing about the Iraq War back in June 2005, when the war was just two years old and he told Larry King, “The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.” Here is the context of that statement, according to Wikipedia:

Hopes for a quick end to the insurgency and a withdrawal of U.S. troops were dashed in May, Iraq's bloodiest month since the invasion. Suicide bombers, believed to be mainly disheartened Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Syrians and Saudis, tore through Iraq. Their targets were often Shia gatherings or civilian concentrations of Shias. As a result, over 700 Iraqi civilians died in that month, as well as 79 U.S. soldiers.
So according to Brownfield’s rubric, the efforts in Colombia were successful and the War on Drugs is working. There are a number of reports that seem to support the assertion that cocaine use in the United States has dropped sharply in recent years, and that is a very good thing. But even this good news comes with the caveat:

Whatever the case, cartels appear to be adjusting their business model in true corporate fashion by adding new revenue streams. Methamphetamines, for instance, are now part of the traffickers' inventory. While seizures of cocaine along the border were in decline, those for methamphetamines (as well as the cartels' traditional cash cows, marijuana and heroin) went up.

In addition, the cartels are diversifying into counterfeit computer software and pirated DVDs, as well as stolen car parts and human trafficking, including for sexual exploitation.
It is also true that Brazil, with its newly expanding middle class, is the new target for cocaine coming through Bolivia and Peru. And let’s not forget that Brazil will be hosting the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics, which will be a magnet for sex and drug dealers galore. So not only is the United States exporting its militarism, but it also has a policy objective of exporting its drug problem elsewhere. Problem solved.

Given the growing level of skepticism of U.S. drug policies, both domestic and foreign, we should be looking closely at what it is that continues to drive these policies.

Starting with the domestic policy, the answer seems to be, essentially, inertia. The DEA Position on Marijuana, from January 2011, like every other federal government position on marijuana, is an affront to the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about the drug other than the characterizations that are attributed it by those who oppose marijuana legalization based on little more than perceived, cultural factors.

The DEA’s official position, assuming that this document remains current, is based on the spurious arguments of “evidence that smoked marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medicinal value in treatment in the United States, and evidence that there is a general lack of accepted safety for its use even under medical supervision.” While all of that may (or may not) be true – as the policy statement depends on scientific studies focused on these factors alone from no later than 2009 –the very same could be said about alcohol. These arguments are completely missing the point that marijuana use is less harmful to society than its prohibition. Furthermore, the document is grossly propagandistic – what, pray tell, does the fact that George Soros helped fund a medical marijuana initiative have to do with the facts about marijuana or why it should not be legalized, when the backers of every other policy decision, from financial and auto industry regulation to voter ID laws, are influenced by often-secretive organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, a truth that is never, ever included in official policy statements!

What this discussion really needs to focus on is the inertia of the nation’s law enforcement and security organizations, both domestic and foreign. They are immense and unruly, and staffed by career employees whose personal ambitions often are at odds with the aims of the organizations they work for (see Fast and Furious “whistleblower,” John Dodson). In combination with the State Department, which I once naively believed was supposed to be the segment of the U.S. government that specializes in diplomacy, only to awaken to the reality, starting with the 2009 coup in Honduras, that it is focused more on securing U.S. business and political interests, these organizations are adrift, off in the wilderness, far, far away from legitimate national interests or democratic ideals. This is the key problem that the United States needs to come to terms with, if ever this tragic War on Drugs is to be brought to an end.

This fellow, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield – who believes that a bloody Drug War is a good Drug War – is the man who is in charge of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Having been the U.S. ambassador to Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia, one has to wonder what his priorities were in those positions (the fact that Chavez twice threatened to expel him doesn’t speak well of diplomacy) and why he would be so dismissive of the fate of countries other than the United States. He was also involved in the U.S. occupation of Panama in 1989-1990 and was trained at the National War College, which offers a clue as to the priorities of the United States in relations with Latin American countries.

This attitude has to change, and the U.S. government needs to listen to what the leaders of Latin America and many others are telling them about these Drug War policies. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, current Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have all called for taking a serious look at decriminalization or legalization of drugs, most recently, at the United Nations. This is crucial, because one major block to legalization is an international treaty called the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that is overseen by the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs. There is also the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, representing still more Latin American political and cultural leaders, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel that included such dignitaries as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, among many others. Both of these bodies issued reports that concluded that the United States’ War on Drugs has failed.

Push back

A 14 February post on Office of National Drug Control Policy’s blog titled, Toward a Smarter Drug Policy is encouraging. It reflects a push coming from the White House to overcome this inertia, a push toward changing policies to focus more on drug addiction treatment rather than dealing with the problem through stronger law-enforcement and more arrests.

In Congress, representatives from Oregon and Colorado have introduced legislation that to end marijuana prohibition. These are smart measures that will treat marijuana like alcohol, and they give citizens a chance to show their support by contacting their legislators and encouraging them to vote for these measures.

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