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Head exploding

August 4, 2010

Having just written about the need for performance measures in the Mérida Initiative for the Harvard National Security Journal, I was excited to read the new Congressional Research Service report on US-Mexican security cooperation. The section about measuring Mérida’s success was well-written — highlighting the debates and challenges in evaluation — but really blew my mind in terms of the State Department’s claims. From the CRS report:

[The State Department’s June 11, 2010 report to congressional appropriators]  continues to document progress in terms of the amount of equipment that has been delivered and training courses that have been carried out, but does not include information on any other performance indicators.

Just, yikes.

If, for example, the speed of equipment deliveries or the number of Mexican officials trained are used as benchmarks for success, it is unclear whether the Mérida Initiative may still be considered a success if equipment is delivered and training programs are carried out, but the Mexican government is still unable to make significant inroads against drug trafficking organizations and organized criminal groups.

I hope the CRS is being snarky here. Let’s say my doctor writes me a prescription for medication to cure a serious ailment. I take the medication, as prescribed, yet my ailment continues (or worsens). Arguing that my medical consultation was “successful” doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

Nevertheless, recent State Department fact sheets have shown that, with respect to arrests and seizures of some drugs (i.e. cocaine and methamphetamine), the Mérida Initiative may have had some success. Arrests and seizures on both sides of the border have increased… Another example of Mérida success—in the form of bilateral cooperation—cited by the State Department is the increasing number of extraditions from Mexico to the United States…

No, no, no. The State Department said themselves, back in July 2008, that these were not adequate indicators. I quote then (and current) Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David T. Johnson: “I wouldn’t necessarily consider extraditions as a numeral indicator of how well or how poorly we’re doing. That’s a quality of the relationship that we have and a trust that we have in each other’s justice institutions more than anything else… [S]eizures are of course one measure, but really, the target here is not – not to up the amount of seizures, it’s to assist our partners and help them build institutions so that the organizations themselves can be taken down and destroyed and no longer be a threat to either them or to us.”

On the meaning behind seizures statistics, the CRS gets it right on:

It is also important to note that changes in seizure data and drug prices may not be directly related to U.S.—Mexican efforts to combat the DTOs. For instance, a decrease in drug seizures may be linked to a decrease in drug production and transshipment across the Southwest border, a decrease in the number of border enforcement officers available to search vehicles and people crossing the border, a shift in the smuggling routes used by the DTOs, a diversification of DTO activities to rely upon other illegal activities to generate income, or a success by the United States and Mexico in combating the drug smuggling activities of the DTOs. It is equally difficult to parcel out the reasons for periodic fluctuations in drug prices and purity in the United States.

Please, let us measure what really needs measuring in Mexico: the provision of security, justice and stability so sorely needed. For more, read my NSJ article here, or Vanda Felbab-Brown’s piece on Mérida evaluation here.

Must-read: “The Cocaine Coast”

August 3, 2010

Marco Vernaschi‘s striking photographic work on the drug trade has had my attention for some time now, but I just recently had the opportunity to read his article on Guinea Bissau in the Virginia Quarterly Review, entitled “The Cocaine Coast.” It highlights so many key dynamics in international drug policy — the centrality of demand in determining trade routes, the intersection with development and security sector reform, the relationships between trafficking and terrorism, the creation of new addicts in transit countries — in such a thoughtful manner that I was shocked to hear of recent ethics questions raised against him. The piece is, simply, a must-read.

The Flower

July 30, 2010

This animated PSA against marijuana prohibition has been circling around the interwebs the last few days, and I just had the opportunity to watch it. It’s wonderful; hats off to creator Black Mustache.

I especially like the pseudo “coffee shop” where the individuals toast a flower to each other, highlighting how similar marijuana really is (or can be, if we legalize and regulate) to alcohol. We can separate social and problem drinking; we can certainly separate social and problem smoking.

“Presumed Guilty” online

July 28, 2010

Presumed Guilty, the damning documentary of the Mexican criminal justice system by Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernández, is streaming online through August 4th. Key part of the film’s description follows:

Accused of shooting and killing a young man named Juan Reyes, [26 year old Antonio] Zúñiga went to a closed-door trial knowing that no physical evidence linked him to the crime and that several witnesses would testify that he had been at his market stall at the time of the murder. He had no link to the victim, no motive and no criminal history. The judge, Hector Palomares, found Zúñiga guilty and sentenced him to 20 years behind bars.

Watch the film here in its entirety. Thank you, PBS!

New resources: legal reform, guns, and private contractors

July 26, 2010

Good stuff ’round the interwebs:

• WOLA and the Transnational Institute have launched an impressive website on drug law reform in Latin America.

• On the tenth anniversary of Plan Colombia last week, WOLA comments on the “success” of this huge investment.

• Harvard’s Anthony Braga on the secondary gun market, which contributes largely to trafficking from the US to Mexico’s bloody drug wars.

• The Center for a New American Security releases a much needed report on reforming the use of private security contracting in conflicts. While focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, there are most certainly lessons to be taken away for contracting in the drug wars and in broader US efforts in security/rule of law abroad.

Compare and contrast

July 18, 2010

…drug route maps.

1) BBC:

2) British comedy show Brass Eye:

Bottom line: Invasion!

Expose on Coke’s extradition

July 13, 2010

Al Jazeera English has a wonderful, probing video essay on the extradition of Christopher Coke from Jamaica and the surrounding violence that shook the island in May. It highlights many of my concerns with the process — especially the potentially destabilizing effect of removing a man responsible for bringing Kingston’s poor some semblance of security (if tenuous) and development (albeit heavily dependent on illegal proceeds).

One issue the AJE piece doesn’t seriously explore is the extent of violence enacted by Coke and his “Shower Posse.” The DEA calls Coke “one of the world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins.” What does this really mean, though? Well, Coke is on the Justice Department’s list of Consolidated Priority Organization Targets (CPOTs), a “unified agency target list of international ‘command and control’ drug traffickers and money launderers.” The indictment (link here) charges Coke with conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, marijuana and firearms.

Does that really make him the most dangerous, though? More fundamentally, does his extradition serve the long-term interests of the US and Jamaica in rule of law, development and citizen security? Or rather create instability and insecurity while leaving the structural conditions upon which Coke’s empire is based untouched? I have serious doubts.

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