Wednesday, May 31, 2017

U.S. opioid epidemic and poor Mexican law enforcement are fueling gang violence (May 31, 2017)

The U.S. opioid epidemic is fueling cartel violence in Mexico, where opium poppies are cultivated. While the plant has been cultivated for decades, the heroin boom in the U.S. and poppy expansion in Mexico are driving new turf wars among increasingly small and fragmented gangs.

An in-depth Washington Post piece and a Brookings Institution report out this week both look at the phenomenon. The WP ascribes "a breakdown of order in rural areas," to the heroin epidemic. Joshua Partlow likens heroin to "steroids for drug gangs, pumping money and muscle into their fight to control territory and transportation routes to the United States." The piece focuses on social breakdown along the "heroin highway" through Tierra Caliente, where criminal groups impinge on residents lives through extortion, kidnapping and robbery. More than 200 schools have closed periodically in recent months as striking teachers protested rampant criminality. And businesses are being choked to death by gangs.

"Heroin, per kilo, is more lucrative than cocaine, and easier logistically to transport to the United States. Unlike cocaine, which originates in South America and is moved by sprawling Mexican cartels, heroin is made right in Mexico. Smaller drug gangs, sometimes just a handful of friends or relatives, have sprung up to compete for profits. With the marijuana business slowing as U.S. states allow more production, heroin has become even more important for the gangs’ bottom line."

In the Brookings report Vanda Felbab-Brown also points to the relevance of U.S. opioid consumption, and advocates policies to reduce that demand through strategies such as treatment for hardcore addicts, and mild, swift, and certain punishments amounting to a night or a few days in prison, but no more.

But Felbab-Brown pins the intensity of Mexico's drug-related violence, which has claimed more than 177,000 lives over the past decade, on "the inability of Mexico’s law enforcement agencies to deter the violence." She notes that most drug peddling in the U.S. -- as well as Western Europe and East Asia -- is peaceful, because "law enforcement and justice systems have deterrence capacity to prevent violence among organized crime groups." She contrasts this with Mexico where she says deterrence collapsed in the 1980's after criminal groups infiltrated high levels of law enforcement. Subsequent efforts at police reform proved inadequate, she writes.

Felbab-Brown points cartel fragmentation and turf wars as drivers of violence -- pinning their increase on decapitation policies by Mexico's government. "Merely breaking up cartels neither establishes the rule of law, nor strengthens the state, nor creates deterrence capacity. ... And the opportunistic high-value-targeting policy, although relatively easy to implement, only makes things worse because it constantly generates leadership succession struggles and encourages new turf wars. A different targeting pattern is needed: one that seeks to both generate stability in the criminal market and weaken criminal groups, as well as seeks to create deterrence by anticipating where violence may break out as a result of arrests."

Self Defense: Ten towns in Guerrero have formed local self-defense groups to defend themselves from the growing gang warfare in the area, reports TeleSUR.

News Briefs
  • OAS foreign ministers are meeting today to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. The 20 ministers will seek to find a strategy to get the government and the opposition to sit down at a negotiating table, reports the Miami Herald. But good faith is in short supply: the opposition says it won't call off protests until the government meets its demands to release political prisoners and hold general elections. And the government says the opposition is angling for a coup and accuses the OAS of meddling.
  • On that topic, a group of Venezuelan scholars created Venezuela Dialogue, a space for discussion and debate of the country's economic and political crisis. The first post is dedicated to whether the OAS is playing a constructive role in Venezuela, and what it could be doing differently. David Smilde defend's OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro's push to invoke the Democratic Charter, though it "could have been done in a more diplomatic way and with a different time frame." 
    • For Smilde, "it has been a net positive in generating international attention to a rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela." On the other hand, Miguel Tinker Salas argues that "Almagro has pursued policies that aggravate the current crisis in Venezuela. Almagro adopted a hostile attitude toward Venezuela since assuming the post that has removed the OAS as a potential mediator in the current crisis." 
    • In a similar vein, Mark Weisbrot says the OAS is aligned with those who seek regime change in Venezuela, and warns that "that the organization is currently an instrument of those who simply want to use the current crisis to topple the Venezuelan government." Using the OAS to pressure the Venezuelan government will likely backfire and cause it to dig in its heels, he argues. 
    • Steve Ellner takes a balanced view of the errors both sides have committed in Venezuela, "the good guy- bad guy narrative is simplistic and does not stand up to the facts." Nonetheless, "in spite of the nebulousness and complexity, important international actors such as the OAS as well as the U.S. mainstream media have failed to achieve even a modest degree of impartiality. Specifically, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has failed to place himself above Venezuela’s internal politics and to facilitate a peaceful and constructive resolution of the conflict. Instead, his statements without exception have been unequivocally in line with the opposition’s narrative and demands." 
    • In her post, Jennifer McCoy delves into the history of the OAS's defense of democracy in the region. "It is constrained by politics and its own habits of consensus decision-making, but it has important leverage in granting or withdrawing legitimacy from any government or actor in the hemisphere. And legitimacy is crucial in this democratic age."
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Secretary John Kelly will travel to Haiti where he will discuss  international cooperation and issues related to repatriation with government officials. The focus on repatriation follows hints earlier this month that the temporary protected status for Haitians in the U.S. will likely be terminated in January. (See May 23's briefs.) The visit will apparently last just four hours, and will include "no visits to post-earthquake tent cities, cholera treatment centers, or the hurricane-ravaged and famine-plagued southern coast," reports the Miami Herald. The limited nature of the visit is particularly relevant as justification for ending TPS is that conditions on the ground in Haiti have recovered sufficiently to receive Haitians living abroad. But advocates counter this vision. Yesterday, 38 humanitarian and development organizations wrote to Kelly with a list of individuals and organizations -- including the post-earthquake slum of Canaan -- he should talk to about conditions in Haiti.
  • The Haitian government had requested an 18 month extension to TPS, rather than the six months granted last week. The government has argued that "it is ill equipped to manage an influx of returnees, and that the remittances provided by those in the TPS program are vital to Haiti’s continued recovery," writes Emma Fawcett in an Aula Blog post. The potential end of TPS, along with the end of the 13-year U.N. peace keeping operation this year, "portend a rocky road ahead for a new government that is just barely getting some traction.  The end of both forms of support for Haiti represent donor fatigue – not Haitian achievement of benchmarks of progress," she writes. "While both the UN peacekeeping mission and U.S. immigration policy have been at times poorly executed, their absence will be a major blow, if nothing else because changes on both fronts are proof that Haiti is no longer anyone’s priority.  Moïse’s administration has much to tackle – bolstering the national police force and preparing for the arrival of potentially tens of thousands of TPS returnees without adequate resources for either task – while he addresses 14 percent inflation and a bloated civil service.  Looking for homegrown solutions would be a huge challenge for any country, especially one struggling with as many fundamentals as Haiti."
  • Historically Belize has welcomed Central Americans fleeing violence at home. And the regional refugee crisis led the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to reopen an office in Belize last year, after an absence of almost 20 years. But the influx has to the sparsely populated English speaking country has prompted an anti-Latino backlash and a hardline stance against asylum seekers, which the government claims threaten Belize’s security, economic stability and cultural heritage, reports the Guardian.
  • Honduras is a prime example of a country governed by a "kelptocratic operating system" according to a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Sarah Chayes. It is one of about five dozen countries around the world where "corruption can no longer be understood as merely the iniquitous doings of individuals. Rather, it is the operating system of sophisticated networks that cross sectoral and national boundaries in their drive to maximize returns for their members," she writes. "This case thus illustrates core features of the way apparently open or chaotic economies are in reality structured worldwide—and some of the dynamics that are driving climate change, persistent inequality, and spiraling conflict." In Honduras the system is devastating the environment, with "deliberate “development” policies—whose primary purpose is actually to funnel rents to network members." And repression -- like the assassination last year of Berta Cáceres -- "is carefully targeted for maximum psychological effect." Chayes emphasizes that "kleptocracy benefits from significant external reinforcement, witting or unwitting, including not just military assistance, but much international development financing," and says recognition of outsiders' role in reinforcing the system is key to disarming it.
  • A scathing report last week on DEA operations in Honduras -- which led to civilian deaths and subsequent coverup of the agency's role -- is "a strong reminder of the need to have a clear mandate, avoid improvisation and make room for oversight," argues InSight Crime. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Gubernatorial elections in Mexico State are this weekend, and polls show Morena and PRI candidates neck-to-neck, reports Animal Político. Delfina Gómez, candidate for Morena, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador's new party, has 31.9 percent in a Reforma poll, and the PRI candidate Alfredo del Mazo has 30.7. The election is considered a proxy for Morena's chances in next year's national election. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • A new report from the Andean Information Network advocates Bolivia's strategy to reducing coca production as a potential policy for Colombia, where cultivation of the plant has boomed in recent years. The report reviews failed approaches to alternative development strategies in both Colombia and Bolivia, and instead advocates Bolivia's policy of permitting limited coca cultivation among registered growers, which "provides farmers with a steady subsistence income as they risk investing in other economic activities, which usually take up to two years to become economically profitable." But, while the Bolivian approach has important lessons for Colombia about respecting farmers' livelihoods and human rights, the situation in Colombia is too different for the strategy to be applicable, according to InSight Crime's critical review. InSight points to a struggle among illegal armed groups to control coca cultivation -- making state intervention dangerous -- and a lack of traditional (ie legal) uses for the plan in Colombia.
  • Among former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's many crimes was opening the country's door to drug traffickers in the 80s. InSight Crime explores why Panama remains a drug trafficking haven for the successors of the Colombian criminals that Noriega helped make rich. (See yesterday's briefs.)

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