Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Congress Testimony on Merida Initiative Points to "Terrorist" Cartels, Dropping Cocaine Prices

During a Congressional hearing on the Merida Initiative, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) called once again for Mexican drug cartels to be formally designated as “terrorists.” “The drug cartels intimidate and coerce the civilian population, affect the conduct of the Mexican government and threaten the national security of the
United States. This is the very essence of ‘terrorism,’” said McCaul during his opening statements for the Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

McCaul first introduced legislation to designate the Mexican drug cartels “foreign terrorist organizations” in March. Since then the bill has stalled in Congress, and it’s likely to stay that way. If the U.S. government should list criminal syndicates like the Zetas alongside designated terrorist groups like the FARC and the AUC, it would create significant diplomatic tensions with Mexico. The other question is what would change, in terms of policy, if the U.S. began categorizing the Mexican cartels in such a way. McCaul argues that the label would make it easier to fight the cartels’ financial and logistical supporters. This is probably true, but would such efforts mean cracking down on the U.S. gun stores that provide the cartels with their weaponry? Such political challenges explain why McCaul’s measure will probably do no more than inspire more debate on how the technical definition of “terrorism” differs from “criminal insurgency” or just plain “gang activity.”

The subcommittee hearing also received testimony from “drugs czar” William R. Brownfield, who summarized the achievements of the Merida Initiative. Brownfield gives a run-down on the technical support and training that U.S. forces have given to Mexican police so far, including the creation of a criminal database which apparently helped identify the suspects of the Monterrey casino bombing. He also claimed that for every dollar spent in the U.S. on the Merida Initiative, $13 is spent in Mexico. The next phase of Merida will emphasize the creation of a new police unit in Mexico, known as MPUs (Model Police Units), meant to strengthen Mexico’s state-level law enforcement capacity, Brownfield added. The effort will compliment President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to clean up Mexico’s security forces, which includes a proposed bill that would essentially unite the municipal police with the state police.

DEA Chief of Intelligence Rodney G. Benson also testified, as well as Homeland Security official Mariko Silver. Notably, Benson stated that the price of cocaine in the U.S. is rising even while purity is decreasing, alleged evidence that law enforcement has restricted drug flow into the U.S. “Unlike in the past, we are now in the midst of a four-year period of escalating prices and decreasing purity,” said Benson. This appears to contradict previous findings by the National Drug Intelligence Center, in which the price of cocaine is depicted as having dropped slightly, suggesting that drug supply levels in the U.S. remain stable.

News Briefs

  • El Faro has an intriguing, although complex, investigation into how the inner circle of Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes has changed since his 2009 election. Funes’ closest advisers include the three Caceres brothers, one of whom is considered the president’s unofficial chief of staff, another is the Treasury Minister. The article implies that ever since right-wing party ARENA split into two, Funes has spent more time listening to the dissident party leader, Herbert Saca, than the Caceres brothers, in partial recognition that he needs the allies in Congress. Another person of influence named by El Faro is Miguel Menendez, a businessman who runs a private security company and may also own a munitions factory and an arms import business, providing the National Police with weapons off the books.
  • Coinciding with Monday’s submission of Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to U.S. Congress, Verdad Abierta reports on a study by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office which found that paramilitaries were responsible for 53 percent of all crimes committed against union leaders over the past decade. The FTA stalled in Congress partly because of pressure on Colombia to show progress in human rights, which includes investigations into the deaths of labor activists. The Hill reports that House Democrats may still try to seek to amend the agreement, in recognition of concerns from U.S. unions about losing jobs overseas. The Latin American Working Group, meanwhile, has an op-ed on why the FTA shouldn’t pass. From Colombia media, La Silla Vacia examines whether President Juan Manuel Santos kept up his end of the bargain, especially in regards to Colombia’s record on labor rights, a key factor for getting the agreement passed.
  • El Universal reports on a study by Centro Gumilla, a non-profit with Jesuit roots, which examines political culture in Venezuela. The study, apparently completed in April, found that some 42 percent of those surveyed said they were “afraid” to talk politics with neighbors. Supporters of the Socialist Party are the most cautious about bringing up the topic, the survey said.
  • The Associated Press profiles Camila Vallejo, the student leader of Chile’s ongoing education reform protests. The article examines how Vallejo became a symbol for the post-Pinochet Chileans intent on exercising their right to public protest.
  • Yesterday saw the conclusion of a two-day summit at Stanford University on violence and governance in Mexico. Prior to the event, Stanford professor and former drug policy advisor Dr. Keith Humphreys prepared several graphs outlining the estimated revenue streams for Mexican cartels. Based primarily on research by the RAND corporation, the images are a helpful visual aid depicting just how little revenue is thought to come from drug sales.
  • El Tiempo takes a look at the FARC’s alleged head of covert operations in Colombian universities, an Argentine based in Colombia since 2002.
  • Inmates in a Venezuelan prison have taken some 200 visitors hostage, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. It is the latest crisis in the Venezuelan prison system, following the inmate takeovers in two overcrowded detention centers last spring.
  • Finally, the Christian Science Monitor has a brief feature on drug-education libraries in Mexico, most of them based in the country’s capital.