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New Strategies Considered to Curb U.S.-Mexico Drug Trade

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. dealt a “significant blow” to one of Mexico’s most reviled drug cartels in a massive 19-state drug raid. More than 300 people connected to La Familia were arrested and $32 million in U.S. currency was seized over two days.

Though new to the drug trade, the Michoacan-based La Familia has emerged as one of Mexico’s deadliest cartels. The group started several years ago as a vigilante anti-drug organization but eventually evolved into a ruthless supplier and manufacturer of methamphetamine and cocaine, according to media reports.

Law enforcement indicated that the raids would cripple the notorious cartel, infamous for beheading their victims. In addition to the arrests, authorities seized 29 pounds of heroin, 2,700 pounds of methamphetamine, 4,400 pounds of cocaine, and 16,000 pounds of marijuana.

“These are drugs that are headed for our streets,” Holder said. “That’s why we’re hitting them where it hurts the most — their revenue stream. By seizing their drugs and upending their supply chains, we have disrupted their ‘business as usual’ state of operations.”

The sweep comes at a time when policymakers in Washington are beginning to engage in a new drug policy dialogue stressing judicial training, rehabilitation and prevention.

The shift aims to curb the crippling violence that is tearing through Mexican cities and spilling over into the U.S. via a porous — although closely patrolled — border.

“It’s been brought home to us, with the horrific murders of people in our community, that the consequences of this drug war are being disproportionately shouldered by communities likes ours and we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” said Beto O’Rourke, a city councilmember in El Paso, Texas. “We desperately need something better.”

Now, top U.S. policymakers such as drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske are signaling a new eye toward more long-term goals, said Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. Rather than engaging cartels on their home turf, the new strategy centers on harnessing organized crime, flushing out corruption and strengthening Mexico’s judicial system.

“There is a move away from the immediate ‘let’s provide helicopters and planes,’ to ‘how do you help Mexico develop its institutional capacity, particularly the court system, the police forces?'” he said. “This is all new within the last few months.”

During a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in April, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the United States shares responsibility for the drug-related bloodshed sweeping through Mexico. He pushed the Senate to approve supplemental funding for the Merida Initiative, adopted under President George W. Bush, which guaranteed $1.4 billion to Mexico over three years for weapons, training and equipment to battle cartels.

“At a time when the Mexican government has so courageously taken on the drug cartels that have plagued both sides of the border, it is absolutely critical that the United States joins as a full partner is dealing with this,” Mr. Obama said at the time.

The additional Merida funds are likely to reflect the changing tide of U.S. drug policy, according to Selee. In February, Congress rejected financing the Mexican military because of rampant human rights abuses. Instead, the U.S. Senate allotted approximately 30 percent of Merida money to the more transparent Mexican navy.

The remaining funds aim to establish a bilateral exchange of judges and lawyers specializing in drug policy, and to training federal police. Already, Mexico has hired 9,000 forensics investigators armed with laboratories instead of guns and jails, Selee said.

Attention-grabbing advertising is also playing a role in ongoing anti-drug strategy. An anti-methamphetamine ad campaign run in Montana reaches up to 90 percent of teens in that state per week, according to the Montana Meth Project. The graphic ads show pock-marked high school students living in squalor, prostituting themselves and even stealing from their own families in order to feed their addiction.

Drug czar Kerlikowske is pushing for new judicial approaches. Seattle’s drug courts send narcotics offenders to treatments centers instead of straight to jails. He is urging law enforcers to rethink their strategy, calling for a more nuanced approach to handling the rampant drug trade on both sides of the border.

“Law enforcement has a vital role in combating the illegal production, transport, sale and abuse of drugs, but our efforts will come to nothing if we don’t match them with a robust public health response,” he told a group of police chiefs earlier this month in Denver.

Selee expects that next year’s budget will reflect this shift within the administration. Already, referring to the international drug problem as a “war” has been replaced with new terminology that suggests a strategic move away from the policy of years past.

“There is a question now of whether we’re seeing the epitaph of the war on drugs, if we’re seeing the end of this right now,” Selee said. “It’s not a question of fighting a war against drug use, it’s a question of how do you manage it in a way that does the least amount of harm to people.”

El Paso Councilmember O’Rourke says he has been urging his city council to reconsider its harsh treatment of narcotics offenders for years.

“If you were to decriminalize marijuana and control its production and sale you would, by some estimates, remove 60 to 70 percent of the drug cartels’ bottom line,” O’Rourke claims.

But 40 years after the drug war officially began, some in the U.S. fear that the change of course will come too slow.

Professor Tony Payan of the University of Texas, El Paso, worries that the Merida Initiative does not include enough money for drug treatment or education, and that drug policy in the future will simply mirror the past.

“You’re talking about an industry that makes billions and billions of dollars, where the incentives are very strong,” he said. “Even though $1.4 billion is quite a bit of money, given the incentives of the drug business, it’s really just a drop in the bucket.”

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