Tag Archives: drug war

De Lima’s arrest represents sharp turn against Philippine rule of law

Leila de Lima, a top Duterte critic, was jailed Friday on drug-related corruption charges in the Philippines.

Nearly 7,000 people have died in the Philippines since controversial president Rodrigo Duterte launched his ‘drug war’ last July, following his insurgent populist victory.

Last week, the chief domestic critic of Duterte’s human rights record, senator Leila de Lima, was imprisoned on charges of drug-related corruption — charges that have been widely met with disgust from human rights groups who say that her arrest is politically motivated.

Since taking power, Duterte has bragged about killing drug dealers himself when he served as mayor of of Davao City, all while encouraging police (and others) to engage in extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers. Last September, Duterte threatened to kill up to 3 million drug addicts, likening himself to Adolf Hitler.

As human rights watchdogs across the world continue to sound alarms, Duterte’s encouragement is already showing signs of spiraling out of control, with far more suspected criminals killed at the hands of vigilante groups than the official police. A South Korean businessman was strangled to death in policy custody, forcing even the sharp-tongued Duterte to pause for a moment. Nevertheless, Duterte has pledged to continue his aggressive campaign through the end of his six-year presidential term in 2022. His blunt speaking, often in vulgar terms, has brought him popularity with an electorate that elected him to be tough on crime and on drug use. Even as Duterte risks becoming an international pariah over human rights, Philippines still give him an 83% approval rating as of the beginning of 2017.

De Lima, who previously served as the chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights under former president Gloria Macagapal-Arroyo and as the country’s justice secretary under Benigno (‘NoyNoy’) Aquino III from 2010 to 2015, has called Duterte a ‘murderer’ and a ‘sociopathic serial killer.’ De Lima has led the fight against Duterte’s drug war from the Senate, the 24-member upper house of the Philippine Congress. Last September, Duterte’s allies removed her from the Senate’s Justice and Human Rights Committee, where she hoped to investigate the abuses of the drug war, most notably the extrajudicial killings.

The two politicians have a difficult history. In 2009, when she was still heading the human rights commission, De Lima first investigated rumors of ‘death squads’ in Davao City, where Duterte served as mayor for over two decades, for the first time in 1988, prior to his election to the presidency last May.

Upon surrendering to authorities Friday morning, De Lima embraced her new, jarring role as one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners: Continue reading De Lima’s arrest represents sharp turn against Philippine rule of law

An interview with El Paso-area Congressman Beto O’Rourke

Congressman Beto O'Rourke has been representing the El Paso area in the U.S. House of Representatives since January 2013. (Rod Lamkey / Getty Images)
Congressman Beto O’Rourke has been representing the El Paso area in the US House of Representatives since January 2013. (Rod Lamkey / Getty Images)

As part of a reporting trip to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez earlier last month, I spoke with El Paso’s congressman, Beto O’Rourke, by telephone, on January 27. The transcript follows below, and it encompasses essentially the entire interview with the congressman, a member of the Democratic Party and a former member of the El Paso city council. Congressman O’Rourke has represented Texas’s 16th district since January 2013.USflagtexas flagMexico Flag Icon

You will be able to read my piece on El Paso and Juárez — and how their interconnectivity belies the rhetoric of Donald Trump — shortly. But the more wide-ranging and thoughtful interview with Congressman O’Rourke is also worth a read, given that we touched on many topics, including Trump, the history of the El Paso-Juárez region, the US ‘war on drugs,’ income inequality in an international context and the Democratic primary battle between former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Kevin Lees: Thanks for talking to me today.

Congressman Beto O’Rourke: My pleasure.

KL: How much time do we have?

BOR: I have right now about 30 minutes.

KL: So when are you headed back to Washington?

BOR: Monday, and you probably know this, but we were supposed to be there this week.

KL: You missed a snowstorm!

BOR: I know! [small talk continues]

BOR: I’m interested in people’s impression of El Paso. We have a very large military installation here. And there are somewhere around 30,000 to 32,000 active duty service members, most of whom are not from El Paso. And you hear what they thought when they found out they were going to be posted to El Paso, which is almost always negative, and then [you hear] what their actual experience was when they got here, is almost always positive. In part because they really assumed and feared the worst, and so starting from such a low point it can only get better once they got here. But it is really beautiful. We’re in the Rocky Mountains, which people don’t expect when they are in Texas. Where the US and Mexico, and then Texas and New Mexico and Chihuahua all meet. There‘s no other place that I’ve ever been that is as extraordinary. I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I’ve been to a lot of places, it’s really beautiful.

A view of El Paso and the Rocky Mountains from the US-Mexican border. (Kevin Lees)
A view of El Paso and the Rocky Mountains from the US-Mexican border. (Kevin Lees)

KL: And the culture is really a very bespoke culture, a sort of hybrid between American and Mexican culture. Its own borderlands kind of thing, where everyone sort of has a foot in two different countries. It’s very special to me. I thought it was a lot of fun.

BOR: I don’t know if you Snapchat at all, but we’re trying to connect with people to broadcast their views, information exclusively from Snapchat. Which apparently is big for a lot of people 14- to 24-year olds. And I’m trying to use it to show people what it is when they think about this region. So I used it for a run today along the Rio Grande and the Upper Valley of El Paso, and I kind of took a shot and posted it of ‘Over here is El Paso, this is Del Ray where Mexico, New Mexico, and Mexico all connect; this is a neighborhood in Juárez; all in one shot.’

It really kind of blows people’s minds when they see that or realize that we really are either at the end of the world, or the beginning of the world in terms of what your world is. Either the back door to the United States or the front door to the United States. Front door or back door to Latin America.

KL: One of the things that you realize when you are in El Paso and Juárez is the two cities function as sort of each other’s yin and yang in some ways. In what ways do you consider El Paso and Juárez the same city? Continue reading An interview with El Paso-area Congressman Beto O’Rourke

How the Obama administration is failing Honduras — and Central America


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The June 2009 coup that ousted Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya from office was the first 3 a.m. call of U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration. USflaghonduras flag icon

While Obama and Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, condemned the coup and the interim government’s refusal to reinstate Zelaya, the United States returned to business as usual with the election of Porfirio Lobo Sosa later that year, and U.S.-Honduran cooperation, especially militarily, has been on the rise during the Lobo Sosa administration.  As Juan Orlando Hernández prepares to assume the Honduran presidency — like Lobo Sosa, he comes from the conservative Partido Nacional (PN, National Party), it also likely means continuity in US policy toward Honduras, specifically, and Central America, generally.

But should it?

Though the votes aren’t even fully counted, and there are real questions about the November 24 election’s fairness, it’s hard to believe that U.S. policymakers are too upset about the apparent defeat of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the former president, and the leader of the newly formed LIBRE, which would have pulled Honduras in a more leftist direction – and toward closer contact with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, each of whom have challenged U.S. influence in Latin America.

There’s another risk that the Obama administration’s Central American policy could be causing more harm than good by ‘feeding the beast’ of corruption among police officers and impunity among drug traffickers, the very things that U.S. aid to Honduras is ostensibly designed to combat.

With three more upcoming elections in Central America over the next six months, it’s a particularly relevant opportunity for the Obama administration to review its policy in the region.  Guatemala’s conservative president Otto Pérez Molina came to power early last year, promptly declared the ‘war on drugs’ a failure, and issued a powerful call to legalize drug use.  Even Felipe Calderón, who militarized the Mexican fight against drug traffickers in the late 2000s, has argued that legalization might be the most effective policy weapon in combatting drug-related violence in Latin America.

Even as some libertarian Republicans in the United States increasingly believe that the four-decade ‘war on drugs’ is a failure at home, it’s easy to underestimate the damage that war has wrought in Latin America, with North American demand fueling an illicit drug supply, together with subsequent US-sponsored military efforts throughout the region, that have destabilized entire countries – Colombia in the 1990s, Mexico in the 2000s and Honduras today.  Research from Horace Bartilow and Kihong Eom, professors of political science at the University of Kentucky, finds that U.S. drug policies have caused greater levels of drug violence in Latin America.  Even when countries are ‘successful’ in their supply-side fights against drug traffickers, demand dictates that the suppliers find new countries, establishing a vicious ‘bubble problem’ – success in one country means that a new chapter opens elsewhere as traffickers search out new bases for drug operations, a tragic game of ‘whack-a-mole’ on a hemispheric level.

It’s Central America’s turn, which now sources the vast majority of known cocaine shipments to the United States.  In particular, traffickers found Honduras a particularly attractive target, in part due to the breakdown in the rule of law that resulted from the 2009 coup.  Sadly, Honduras now boasts the world’s highest homicide rate, and has a thriving arms trafficking trade to match the drug trade. Continue reading How the Obama administration is failing Honduras — and Central America

Clarke’s British reform failures a lesson as Holder pushes for historic turn on U.S. crime


As U.S. attorney general Eric Holder makes a serious push for prison and justice reform in the United States, he would do well to look at a similar push across the Atlantic — Kenneth Clarke’s attempt to reverse decades of tough criminal law policies in the United Kingdom provides a cautionary tale.USflagUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Holder announced yesterday in a speech to the American Bar Association that the U.S. justice department will seek to avoid mandatory sentences for non-violent, low-level drug-related offenses, and justice reform advocates largely cheered a welcome pivot from the ‘tough-on-crime’ approach to justice that’s marked U.S. policy for the past four decades throughout much of the ‘War on Drugs’ — drug-related offenses have largely fueled the explosion in the U.S. prison population.  Holder will instruct prosecutors in federal cases not to list the amount of drugs in indictments for such non-violent drug offenses, thereby evading the mandatory sentences judges would otherwise be forced to administer under federal sentencing guidelines.  That’s only a small number of prisoners because 86% of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated by state government and not by the federal government.

Holder called for ‘sweeping, systemic changes’ to the American justice system yesterday and attacked mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, which he said caused ‘too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason.’

That approach has left the United States with a prison population of nearly 2.5 million people (though the absolute number has declined slightly after peaking in 2008) and the world’s highest incarceration rate of 716 prisoners per 100,000 .  That’s more than Russia (484), Brazil (274) the People’s Republic of China (170) or England and Wales (148) and as Holder noted yesterday, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Particularly damning to the United States is that 39.4% of all U.S. inmates are black and 20.6% are Latino, despite the fact that black Americans comprise just 13% of the U.S. population and Latinos comprise just 16%.  Holder yesterday cited a report showing that black convicts receive prison sentences that are around 20% longer than white convicts who commit the same crime.  Holder denounced mandatory minimums as ‘draconian,’ and made an eloquent case that U.S. enforcement priorities have had ‘a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color,’ that have been counterproductive in many cases.  Holder also made that case that in an era of budget cuts, America’s incarceration rate is a financial burden of up to $80 billion a year, and that reducing the U.S. prisoner population could shore up the country’s finances as well.

But Holder — and prison reform advocates that have emerged on both the American left and right — face a heavy task in reversing nearly a half-century of crime legislation that has largely ratcheted up, not down.

Just ask Kenneth Clarke, who until last September was the justice minister in UK prime minister David Cameron’s coalition government, who as one of the longest-serving and most effective Tories in government for the past four decades, faced a tough road in enacting prison reform in England and Wales.

Though its prison population and incarceration rate pales in comparison to that of the United States, the British justice system imprisons more offenders than many other countries in the European Union, such as France (101 prisoners per 100,000) or Germany (80).

Cameron faced a delicate task in finding a role for Clarke in his government back in mid-2010.  Clarke, a self-proclaimed ‘big beast’ of Tory politics got his start under ‘one nation Tory’ prime minister Edward Heath and found his stride under Heath’s successor, Margaret Thatcher.  He became John Major’s chancellor of the exchequer, guiding No. 11 from the dark days of the 1992 ‘Black Wednesday’ sterling crisis to a more robust financial position.  When Labour swept to power in May 1997 under Tony Blair, Clarke immediately became the most popular Conservative in the country, even though the significantly more right-wing and increasingly euroskpetic party thrice denied the pro-Europe Clarke its leadership.  While Clarke may have passed his glory days in government, his appointment as justice minister reflected that Clarke could still be useful in government.

Clarke’s biggest target as justice minister?  Reducing the number of offenders in English prisons and attacking what Clarke memorably called the ‘Victorian bang-’em-up prison culture’ in a landmark June 2010 speech: Continue reading Clarke’s British reform failures a lesson as Holder pushes for historic turn on U.S. crime

Drug cartels and the security issue in the Mexican election

One issue I have not emphasized much in advance of the Mexican presidential and legislative elections is the drug issue, because I don’t think that the issue alone has necessarily driven the resurgence of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the popularity of presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.

But it’s of course a huge issue, especially in the background, and it does account for a lot of the fatigue with outgoing president Felipe Calderón.  William Finnegan in The New Yorker and Patrick Radden Keefe in the The New York Times Magazine both provide amazing accounts in the past week or two, with stunning insights into the Mexican drug cartels: the power of the longtime Sinaloa cartel and its head, Joaquín Guzmán; their rivals, the Zetas (a mutant sect of one-time elite army forces-turned-criminals); and the Calderón administration’s “war” against the drug cartels.

Calderón enlisted Mexico’s military to combat the drug trade in 2006.  The results of that effort have not exactly been successful: an army that’s now distrusted by the citizenry, but not feared by the drug lords; spreading (although still very localized) violence; 55,000 Mexicans dead in six years; and a public that’s generally weary of additional Mexican bloodshed.  But the drug violence is really just one among several issues — lack of progress in reducing corruption, economic reforms, GDP growth and unemployment, lack of further energy development — where the public has gotten frustrated with Calderón and with his predecessor, Vicente Fox, in the 12 years that the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) has held Mexico’s presidency.

You should take the time to read both stories — they provide a fascinating background for Sunday’s general election (and make clear that reducing drug use is a demand-side problem currently in Sisyphean pursuit of a supply-side solution).  But I would caution against using them as the sole prism through which to view Mexican politics, for various reasons.

The drug war is an issue that gets plenty of exposure in the American media space, but probably more exposure than it should.  For much of the past six years, the American media has generally overemphasized the drug violence to the point where many Americans now assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. That’s ridiculous, of course — it should be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe a gram of something stronger), but anecdotally, I get the sense that this is one of several pressing issues in Mexican public life for Mexicans, but not the overweening issue.  Growing the economy, reducing unemployment, further tax reform, labor market reform, reducing corruption, reducing poverty, political reform, trade and foreign relations — all are just as important to Mexicans.

It’s also important to remember that drug violence varies widely by region.    Continue reading Drug cartels and the security issue in the Mexican election