Two Obama czars opt out of drug war forum
by David Crowder and Elizabeth Ruiz
“I don’t know why you’re all so surprised about the federal government’s unwillingness to address this because, quite frankly, they’ve ignored the problem for years, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in now." -- El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles.
Posted on September 20, 2009
Two key Obama administration officials have dropped out of this coming week’s Global Public Policy Forum on the U.S. War on Drugs, raising questions about whether U.S. federal authorities will be listening to what goes on so far from Washington and so close to the bloody front of the real drug war.
At a panel discussion organized by the El Paso Press Club on Saturday, UTEP Professor Kathy Staudt announced that President Obama’s border czar Alan Bersin and National drug control policy czar Gil Kerlikowske surprised organizers by bowing out days before the start of the conference.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the "War on Drugs" that President Richard Nixon declared in 1969, the forum will take place on the UTEP campus and in Juarez on Monday and Tuesday. (See War on Drugs forum)
The purpose, according to forum’s website, will be to "take a comparative look at the drug-war policy in an effort to calculate the effects on societies and economies." (Click here for further information).
UTEP Assistant Professor Tony Payan, an authority on the two-year conflict between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels, said the absence of Obama’s two top advisors suggests that the young administration is still uncertain about its own stand on the nation’s decades-old drug policy.
El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles offered this scathing assessment:
“I don’t know why you’re all so surprised about the federal government’s unwillingness to address this because, quite frankly, they’ve ignored the problem for years, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in now.
“As a matter of fact, the only reason that we’ve got national attention is because it’s on the backs of the dead people in Juarez.”
While federal laws and policy still call for drug interdiction and the prosecution of drug traffickers and users alike, Wiles said, “we have been on a slope of decriminalization for years.”
In the 1960s, he said, simple possession of marijuana was a felony in Texas, but the laws have been loosened to the point that the possession of a small amount of the drug is now a misdemeanor for which people receive a citation instead of being arrested.
Last month, the Mexican government legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in hopes of eliminating some of the incentive for the on-going cartel wars there.
El Paso city Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he hopes for a meaningful public discussion at the conference about legalizing drugs in the face of a failed strategy that has had such a destructive impact on everyday life in Juarez.
“I think that many of us here were at the Border Security Conference last month, and I thought it was very fitting that you had the border czar and the drug czar construct this Potemkin village of ‘Everything’s okay.’
“Look, (Mexican President) Calderon’s decided to fight the drug war, we’re pumping money in there, (saying) ‘Let’s stay the course; let’s stick with it; everything’s going to be okay.’ What struck me was how disassociated with reality these people were, and I found myself thinking, or asking, ‘What planet are they on?’ ”
The energy behind the move to stage this week’s drug forum sprang largely from the controversy that arose last January over a resolution introduced to the El Paso City Council by the city’s Border Relations Committee addressing the drug war.
The council unanimously approved the resolution with a 12-word amendment offered by O’Rourke urging the federal government to come to the aid of Juarez by "supporting an honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics."
The resolution created a furor and Mayor John Cook vetoed it, leading to the approval of the original resolution calling for a conference to examine U.S. drug policy and the War on Drugs.
O’Rourke recalled that in the midst of the debate over the resolution, Sal Payan, speaking for U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes’ office, predicted that the violence that took more than 1,600 lives in Juarez last year would play itself out within six months.
Reyes himself likened the conflict to the movie “Last Man Standing” in which, O’Rourke said, the two sides would “kill each other off and eventually one side will win.”
Since then, O’Rourke said, his position has shifted from supporting a national discussion about legalizing some drugs, to favoring the decriminalization of drugs, especially marijuana.
As much as I can, as far … as I can, I want to push that point of view,” he said.
UTEP’s Tony Payan said the conflict in Juarez is no longer just between two cartels but involves tens of thousands of young, uneducated men who have lost jobs and resorted to crime in a city that can no longer fight crime.
“We are talking about 100,000 young men with nothing else to do and … nowhere to go,” he said. “You can kill 10,000 or 20,000 and there’s still 20,000 waiting to take their place in crime.
“The city has fallen into veritable chaos, and you can see it on the streets of Juarez.”
Given the extent of the bloodshed between the two cartels, he said, it is unlikely that Juarez will see the peace that settled over Nuevo Laredo several years ago when a drug war there ended.
So, Reyes may have been right.
“They have done so much damage to one another that there will be no pax mafiosa,” Payan said, “It will be a fight to the death, and it could go on for months.”