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In deeper

16 January 2011

When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Molly Ivins

The butcher’s bill from the “war on (some) narcotics exporters” is coming in for 2010, showing roughly a 160 percent rise in casualties (from 9700 in 2009 to 15,300 in 2010.

Mexico has roughly 227,000 people in prison in 429 facilities, with an estimated prisoner population surplus of 54,000. In other words, close to 25 percent above capacity.

(Ganchoblog:  11-January-2011)

A new set of official, Mexican government drug war statistics released Wednesday say 34,612 people have been killed in drug war-related killings since President Felipe Calderon ratcheted up military efforts against cartels some four years ago. The new numbers highlight a significant spike in violence in 2010: the bloodiest year on record. According to security spokesman Alejandro Poire, 15,273 individuals were killed in 2010, a 60% increase from 2009 when the government says 9,616 murders were recorded. As the Wall Street Journal points out, the figures are significantly higher than numbers discussed by Attorney General Arturo Chavez in November 2010. At that time, Chavez said 12,456 killings had occurred over the previous 11 months.

(Hemispheric Brief, 13-January-2011)

Both of these alarming developments are often seen as the results of a mistaken policy, but it seems to “solutions” proposed to undo the damage (or, rather, to end the on-going disaster) are based on continue moving in the wrong direction.

The usually proposed solution to the overcrowding problem is to simply build more prisons.  Seeing regularly in our media reports on prison escapes facilitated by prison officials (or, in Durango, prison officials sending out hitmen on a “work release program”), one wonders if simply building more prisons with the same management teams doesn’t seem all that brilliant an idea.

It should be noted that under the Mexican legal system people awaiting trial are also imprisoned and are not considered separately from persons in jail awaiting trial (as in the U.S.), but even so, the  number of total prisoners is about equal to that of either Texas or California CONVICTED prisoners if you add in the number of convicted prisoners a small state or two (say North Dakota and Iowa) . Too damn many people in jail.

Speaking of Texas, where there are 2383 separate felonies on the books at last count —  Scott Henson who brilliantly covers crime and punishment issues in that state on his blog, Grits for Breakfast.  writes:

… there’s a pervasive, bipartisan mindset among the governing class which encourages the view that criminalizing undesirable behavior is the best or even only way for government to influence it. Outside of tax cuts aimed at job creation, there’s very little discussion of creating incentives instead of (or even in addition to) punishments – few carrots to go with the stick.

Of course, there is no such thing as a “felony” in Roman/Napoleonic Law, and even with a presumption of guilt, many of those in prison here don’t need to be there, even after sentencing.  And, while we don’t arrest drug addicts just for being addicts, the biggest impediment to reducing the prison population has been the present court system.   I was excited about proposed changes to our court procedures, believing  “In theory, [new procedures] will speed up the system, and unclog the jails…”

The changes never came, and it doesn’t look like the present administration has any interest in fomenting these changes.  The latest of Calderón’s Secretarios de gobernacíon (number 4 in a series) was chosen for his experience with police, not with judges.  And his support of the “drug war” in which the number of arrests, not the disposition of the prosecution, seems to be the benchmark for success or failure.

In other words, the state is still incarcerating people who don’t need incarceration, while adding to the numbers of those suspected of serious crimes, and making a bad problem worse.

And of course, the sheer number of murders is overwhelming the abilities of the courts to function.  The  Calderón Administration likes to mention (and so do I), the Mexican murder rate, even with the mayhem related to the present administration’s “drug war”,  is much lower than many other Latin American nations, and the “drug warriors” statistics seem to suggest that most of the murders associated with this (bad) policy are outside state control:

…of the 34,612 murders since 2006, 30,913 are being registered by the government as “execution-style killings.” Just 3,153 deaths are considered the result of “shootouts between gangs” while 546 deaths involved “attacks on authorities.”  (Hemispheric Briefs)

Dead is dead, and the State SHOULD be prosecuting those responsible for homicides. Certainly, “attacks on authorities” need investigation, and so do “shootouts between gangs” (although the knee-jerk reaction is just to say “good riddance to bad rubbish”) but the inability to even investigate “execution-style killings” is the most troublesome. Other than police (and I’m including the military here) sent to prevent (or foment) the shootouts, the resources, tools and personnel needed to bring the executioners to justice have been stinted.

The present administration seems unwilling, or unable, to consider alternatives that lessen the need for both incarceration and violent responses to violence. It continually proposes “top down” solutions (more federal prisons, more federal police) and those that remove responsibility for the conduct of the policy from local hands  — more dependence on EPIC and similar U.S. controlled “assistance programs.

The U.S. “assistance” doesn’t have to be a problem, but it is.  Unfortunately for Mexico (although a boon to the Calderón Administration), the U.S. government still thinks of Latin America in separate terms than it thinks of the rest of the world.  Back in October 2007, I quoted Laura Carlsen on what was then called “Plan Mexico”:

… the real threat to Mexico lies in the fact that the plan proposes that the U.S. government be the funder and co-designer of a cornerstone of the nation’s national security strategy. Already it claims to be working with Mexico to build a central command to coordinate the work of internal agencies and facilitate binational coordination.

It’s no coincidence that the new plan concentrates on measures in Mexico, despite the obvious fact that the U.S. market drives the drug trade and illegal drugs couldn’t make it to the streets there unless organized crime and the complicity of government agents existed in the United States as well.

But it’s better business to attempt to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye than the log from your own. Although Mexico’s drug problem is far more than a speck (the General Accounting Office recently reported that it accounts for as much as a $23 billion-dollar a year business), the new deal will offer up lucrative contracts to U.S. military and intelligence equipment firms, long-term maintenance and training contracts, and related services. In a recent Washington Post article, Misha Glenny cites a GAO report on Plan Colombia that finds that 70% of the money allotted never leaves the United States.

Carlsen (and many others) were concerned (rightly, it seems) that the U.S. assistance would be modeled on the U.S. “assistance” to Colombia (which has hardly been a success, both narcotics exports and murders remaining intolerably high). Perhaps, had the U.S. not been so tied into “saving Latin America (from Latin Americans) they might have thought of their own work in Italy.

Five documents from the U.S. Consulate in Naples were “wikileaked” on 7 January 2011. I haven’t read them in any detail but all deal with Italy’s actions against the Mafia… or, rather, the several Mafias. The various south Italian criminal “cartels” — like the Mexican gangsters — traditionally had their own territories, the Italians being only different in that their “cartels” had centuries of experience, where even most entrenched Mexican gangs go back only a few generations. The violence of the south Italian gangs make the Mexican gangsters look like Sunday School teachers at times… not only making “execution style killings” a wholesale activity (with the difference being the south Italians had no compunction about killing not just business rivals, but anyone who questioned their rights to exist. Journalists and anti-crime activists are killed in Mexico, but not nearly on the scale they were in Italy, nor is it usual for the Mexican gangsters to regularly rack up “collateral damage” like the Italians, who would blow up entire apartment buildings to kill one enemy).

The United States, by accident or design, played a role in both the Italian mafias’ and the Mexican cartels’ growth (see Peter Robb’s “Midnight in Sicily” [New York: Picador, 2007]). However, the U.S. also played an important role in their control and prosecution of the gangsters — not in the form of arms and controlling the “war”, but in providing more effective (and damaging) assistance — investigating and prosecuting U.S. connections, closing money laundering outlets and stopping up material assistance (including arms supplies) from their U.S. counterparts and cooperating with Italian prosecutors.   However, assistance to Italy didn’t mean all that much assistance to U.S. companies, and perhaps that’s the difference.  The U.S. is “dug in” now, for political and economic reasons, and finds it hard to climb out.

Mexicans are willing to stop digging.  I will be posting on one of the more hopeful alternatives, one that runs completely counter to both the “more prisons” and “more police” model and seems to fill the holes in one community’s social fabric quite effectively.

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