In Mexican Drug War, A Desperate Measure
Limited Legalization Sharpens Focus on Traffickers Rather Than Users

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 30, 2006

MEXICO CITY -- Sixteen months after President Vicente Fox declared "the mother of all battles" against drug trafficking, Mexico is increasingly awash in drug violence and is now turning to a new, and controversial, approach: decriminalization.

Fox is expected to sign a bill passed by the Mexican legislature last week that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of some of the most popular illegal drugs.

Under the law, penalties would be erased for possessing 500 milligrams of cocaine, 5 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of raw opium and 25 milligrams of heroin, among other drugs. The measure, which has surprised and angered anti-drug groups in the United States, is intended to further shift the focus of Mexico's sputtering drug battle from users to traffickers.

In an interview Saturday, Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego, the largest U.S. border city, said the timing of the measure could imperil efforts to reform immigration law in the United States: "This really stirs things up," he said. Sanders, a former San Diego Police chief, called the law "appallingly stupid, reckless and incredibly dangerous" and predicted that it would lead to a flood of teenagers trying to sneak into his city from Mexico with illegal drugs.

U.S. government reaction was more measured, with State Department spokesman Janelle Hironimus citing cooperation between the two nations in the battle against drugs.

"Preliminary information from Mexican legislative sources indicates that the intent of the draft legislation is to clarify the meaning of 'small amounts' of drugs for personal use as stated in current Mexican law," Hironimus said.

Some advocates of drug law reform in the United States applauded Mexico's decision.

"Mexico is trying to make the right choices. . . . The Mexican legislation will go a long way toward reducing opportunities for police corruption and harassment in their interactions with ordinary citizens," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. The group advocates ending the war on drugs.

Fox's anti-drug efforts, undertaken with the enthusiastic support of the United States, have led to a series of highly publicized arrests. But the drug cartels have responded brazenly.

Almost every week another assault by drug gangs, each more audacious than the last, generates headlines. Grenades have been launched at law-enforcement offices. Four undercover drug agents were shot to death last month in Nuevo Laredo. Two police officers were decapitated 10 days ago in the resort city of Acapulco, not long after they took part in an operation against a drug gang. Their heads were dumped beneath a sign that warned: "So that you learn to respect."

The escalating conflict has claimed more than 1,500 lives -- including police, rival drug traffickers and civilians -- in the past year, more than double the number in the previous year, according to Mexican researchers. The death toll has risen despite increased enforcement efforts in Mexico and by U.S. authorities across the border. The police killings, in particular, are believed to be retribution for a crackdown on cartels in Mexico undertaken at the urging of U.S. officials, said Jorge Chabat, an expert in Mexican criminal justice.

The violence also coincides with the remarkable growth of Mexican cartels, which have seized a greater share of the drug market as some of Colombia's drug kingpins have been arrested.

"Mexico is becoming the second Colombia," said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), whose district includes Laredo, across the border from Nuevo Laredo. "This is a serious and a ruthless situation."

Mexico's drug cartels have grown bolder as their profits have grown larger, Chabat said. Mexican drug traffickers generate as much as $10 billion a year by funneling South American cocaine into the United States, as well as by producing methamphetamines, heroin and marijuana, he said.

Mexico has had some successes in combating cartels. In the past five years, the leaders of the powerful Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have been arrested. But those victories have been muted by the failings of the Mexican justice system, Chabat said. The leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, escaped from prison in 2001, and the leader of the Gulf cartel, Osiel Cardenas, is suspected of running his criminal organization from the prison cell he has occupied since his arrest in 2003.

"The Mexican government has been very effective in making arrests, but the rest of the criminal justice system -- the prisons and the judiciary -- is very inefficient and very corrupt," Chabat said.

The imprisonment of Cardenas set off a struggle between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels for " la plaza " -- Mexican slang for drug turf. Each cartel is suspected of co-opting law enforcement officials -- and killing or intimidating those who don't go along -- to achieve their goal of controlling lucrative smuggling routes. But with Cardenas in prison, the Gulf cartel is at a disadvantage.

"The arrest provoked an imbalance, and now they are trying to reach an equilibrium," Chabat said. "There is clearly a war for control -- it's been a complicated war because after 1 1/2 years there has been no winner."

Cuellar applauds Mexico for responding with forceful measures, such as sending troops last year to quell drug violence in Nuevo Laredo. But with the violence persisting, he accuses Mexico of not being receptive enough to recent U.S. offers to help train police and prosecutors.

"They've started to work with us -- the question is: Can we get them to work with us more?" said Cuellar, who has pushed through legislation to boost border drug enforcement.

There have been signs that the two nations are collaborating more closely. Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff flew to Brownsville, Tex., on the Mexican border, to announce a plan to increase cooperation with Mexican drug authorities.

Just two weeks later, the four undercover drug agents in Nuevo Laredo were killed. The killings were seen here as a setback for Mexican drug authorities. But they were soon eclipsed by the shock of the beheadings in Acapulco.

The heads were discovered April 20 outside a government building not far from the beaches that draw tens of thousands of U.S. tourists each year. The killings, coupled with grenade attacks on police stations in neighboring cities, were graphic reminders that drug-related violence has spread beyond the border and into the port and beach towns where drugs enter the country before being funneled north.

"We can't believe this is happening," said Mario Nuñez Magaña, spokesman for the Acapulco police. "This used to happen just up at the border. Here, we were only about tourism."

The slain officers, whose bodies were found wrapped in plastic miles away from their heads, had participated several months earlier in a shootout that left four suspected drug gang members dead. On Tuesday, less than a week after the gruesome discoveries, the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior posted a video on its Web site that it said showed one of the officers killing a gang member execution-style during that shootout.

The newspaper's scoop was a big deal for a few hours. But soon there was more suspected drug violence to talk about: another police officer gunned down in Nuevo Laredo.

There was no comment from Nuevo Laredo's police chief because there is no Nuevo Laredo police chief. The interim chief, named after his predecessor was assassinated last year, quit a month ago. No one else wants the job.

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