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Conference Summary

Global Public Policy Forum on the War on Drugs              
September 21-22, 2009, El Paso-Ciudad Juárez/U.S.-Mexico Border
Summary and Recommendations
Kathleen Staudt, Sito Negrón, Charles Ambler, Josiah Heyman, Howard Campbell, Tony Payan, and Lucinda Vargas

A precedent-setting, two-day conference on the forty-year old war on drugs, hosted by the University of Texas at El Paso, drew speakers of multiple points of view from the academic, government, and advocacy sectors. Conference collaborator, Plan Estratégico de Juárez, A.C., hosted Dr. Sergio Fajardo, ex-Mayor of Medellín, Colombia, as part of its own conference series on strategic topics.  In succinct summary, the consensus follows:

            U.S. consumer drug demand fuels profitable organized crime, wreaking havoc on societies and fueling challenges to democracies in the Americas. The situation demands serious consideration of a range of practical alternatives to the currently costly and ineffective prohibition policies.

Over a thousand people attended events, launching a civil-society call to change prohibition policies: the failed drug-control interdiction and criminalization paradigm that invests little budgetary support into public health approaches such as addiction prevention and treatment and harm-reduction approaches. While government officials spoke on several panels, two invited U.S. political appointee ‘czars’ did not attend, depriving attendees of opportunities to engage over policies in the current administration.  Nevertheless, speakers and attendees developed some consensus (see below) about alternative strategies for change.  

Why was this serious discussion launched at and from the U.S.-Mexico border?

*First, U.S. drug demand fuels the profitable supply of drugs by violent, well-armed organized criminals both inside and outside the United States. The sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez form a gateway corridor that supplies drugs to meet U.S. demand. In the last two years, conflicts involving the drug trade have resulted in an unprecedented bloodbath in Ciudad Juárez, leaving thousands dead, through acts of violence variously attributed to organized crime, the notorious law enforcement system, and the military engaged in social ‘cleansing.’  U.S.-based drug distribution networks enjoy anonymity, while Mexico and the border are viewed as the source of all drug problems.

*Second, the El Paso City Council in January 2009 unanimously supported a resolution of solidarity in support of its neighbors, from Juarez, including a Representative Beto O’Rourke’s call for and inspiration of a serious debate about the forty-year old U.S. War on Drugs. In response to adverse political reaction that accompanies most serious efforts to reconsider failed
drug policies, El Paso’s mayor issued a veto.  But the mayor and the Council provided crucial
support for the conference.

*Third, the conference facilitated the interaction of bi-national, national, and border experts along with border people who are most affected by the “War on Drugs.” 

Day One: University of Texas at El Paso

Day One of the conference offered three panels and a speech from Judge James P. Gray, introduced by Vanessa Romero, past president of the UTEP chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.  Judge Gray criticized prohibition policies that, he said, glamorize drugs and keep hundreds of thousands of people in prison with costly prosecution and enforcement bureaucracies.  He warned about looking to the federal government for change, because they are dependent on money devoted to the War on Drugs. As he stated, “the drug war may not be winnable, but it is eminently fundable.”

Several vantage points emerged in Panel One, “History, Successes, and Failures,” moderated by Dr. Kathleen Staudt, author of Violence and Activism at the Border (2008) and UTEP professor. Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, (, discussed U.S. drug policy in hemispheric and historical perspective. She cautioned about “balloon effects,” wherein the suppression of drug trafficking suppliers in one locale would pop up in other locales, given on-going demand.  Terry Nelson, retired law enforcement officer in the Americas and the U.S. and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) (, called for regulation, rather than prohibition of the dangerous drug market.  Dr. Luis Astorga, Universidad Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), discussed how the Mexican government and drug cartels have historically been interwoven along with the transformation and ascendancy of specific cartels.  Tom Barry, of the International Relations Center (, developed connections between the drug war and war on immigrations through the prison and detention “industrial complex,” about which President Eisenhower once warned--the collusion between expanding government bureaucracies, private business contractors, and public taxpayer money.  Juan Carlos Hidalgo, an economist from the Cato Institute, (, criticized drug-control bureaucracies for their vested interest in costly drug-control strategies and affirmed free-trade agreements in the Americas for the leverage nations gained in exercising their own sovereignty with drug decriminalization policies, such as Argentina and Mexico. Conference planners had invited both Border Czar Alan Bersin and Drug Czar and Gil Kerlikowske, but were unable to attend and chose not to send policy staff. 

In Panel Two, “Reporting on the Drug War,” journalists who cover the drug war participated in a give-and-take dialogue about their strategies, risks, and insights associated with coverage. Angela Kocherga, Border Bureau Chief of Belo Television, led the dialogue. Panelists posed journalistic challenges: tracking body counts devoid of contexts and writing beyond the caricature often framed in national media.  Alfredo Corchado of Dallas Morning News wondered why cartels have Mexico-only labels rather than labels like the Juarez-El Paso cartel or the Gulf-Dallas cartel. He noted the difficulty of in-depth coverage with cut-backs in staff and the self-censorship in the Mexico where journalists can be murdered with impunity. Ramón Cantu of La Mañana (Nuevo Laredo) said he imposes some self-censorship to protect the lives of staff. In 2005 in Nuevo Laredo two cartels fought with the Gulf cartel drawing on ex-military "los Zetas" who spread fear, threatened, and attacked journalists, among others.  John Burnettof National Public Radio ( discussed the differences of insider versus outsider journalists, the latter of whom may be freer to report the truth compared to insiders who might cross that line -- take the wrong picture, mention the wrong name, refer to the wrong incident.

Panel Three, “Drug War and Violence: Effects on Communities in Mexico and the U.S.,” was moderated by Dr. Howard Campbell, author of Drug War Zone (2009) and UTEP professor. Dr. Victor Quintana framed his remarks about violence, human rights abuses, and official impunity in Northern Mexico with reference to Cormac McCarthy’s No County for Old Men. Quintana pointed out that a fourth of the state of Chihuahua is controlled by drug cartels and that drug-related violence is not just in Juarez but also especially in the small towns in and adjacent to the Sierra Madre.  Dr. Oscar Martínez, historian of the central border region and professor at the University of Arizona, said that the violence in Ciudad Juárez was the worst thing that ever happened to Juarez; he concluded his presentation with a JFK/Kennedy-esque Berlin speech call for all to proclaim: yo soy Juarense. Former National Security Advisor to Mexico President Calderón, Sigrid Arzt, warned about increasing addiction problems in Mexico and called for civil society action and demand for accountability and the end of systemic government collusion with organized crime.  Dr. David Shirk, professor and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, provided a panoramic perspective of drug violence, drug consumption and supply in the U.S. and Mexico with slides showing pictures and numbers.

Evening, Day One: Ciudad Juárez
Plan Estratégico de Juárez, A.C. (, a Juárez-based civil society organization, presented a brief update report of the activities of El Pacto (, a project through which Juarenses are calling for improved governance and the establishment of the rule of law in Mexico as basic elements needed to stem the crime, violence and impunity that allow crime syndicates to operate freely in the entire country but more flagrantly in border cities like Juárez.  This report preceded the keynote speaker for the evening sponsored by Plan Estratégico de Juárez, A.C., Dr. Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, ex-mayor of Medellín, Colombia (2004-07) who delivered a speech entitled “Del Miedo a la Esperanza” (“From Fear to Hope”) before a crowd of 2,600 attendees. Farajdo focused on the transformation of Medellín from a city with high rates of drug-related murder to a city that invested in fine schools and parks to build social solidarity and to reduce inequality. He illustrated these changes with pictures and slides. Fajardo called for stronger civil society that demands accountability from its politicians and an end to corruption.

Day Two: Plaza Theatre, Downtown El Paso
Dr. Tony Payan, author of two books on the border wars published in 2006, co-editor with Staudt of Human Rights along the U.S.-Mexico Border (2009), and UTEP professor, moderated Panel Four, “Exporting the Drug War: Historical and Geographic Perspectives.”  Dr. David Courtwright, of the University of North Florida, presented slides with a panoramic and global historical perspective on drug use and control policies, illustrating policy options with three ranges and potentially, hundreds of variations within each range: (1) free market to prohibition, (2) nonexistent/weak to strong punitive sanctions, and (3) no/low tax to high tax burdens.  From the University of California at Santa Cruz, Dr. Craig Reinarman presented slides on comparative drug use and drug policies using data from the U.S. and European Union nations, especially the Netherlands, where decriminalization and public health (harm reduction and treatment) programs result in far lower drug use than the United States. Drug Enforcement Agency Intelligence Director Anthony Placido illustrated his remarks with vivid graphic pictures and numeric data, highlighting drugs as ‘evil’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ He asserted links between drug trafficking and terrorism. Placido acknowledged, in response to a question, that Mexico’s decriminalization approach would reduce opportunities for corruption and prisons filled with low-level users and dealers.

Panel Five, on “Social Consequences of the Drug War,” was moderated by Dr. Josiah Heyman, author of numerous academic articles on border security, bureaucracy, and immigration and UTEP professor. Panelists took a more comprehensive view of harmful and addictive substances, including the “big killer” tobacco and alcohol.  Dr. Eric Schneider, of the University of Pennsylvania, framed his presentation on inner-city drug markets in the global economic context which de-industrialized many U.S. cities and eliminated jobs, leaving the drug trade one of the few economic possibilities. H. Westley Clark, M.D., from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, discussed a range of evidence-based treatment programs for both alcohol and drug addiction.  University of Maryland and Director of Ethnoworks, Dr. Michael Agardiscussed promising prevention and intervention strategies drawing on community networks and use-backlash loops.  Carolyn Esparza, of El Paso’s nonprofit Community Solutions, discussed outreach with families and children with a parent in prison, where drug treatment programs are limited and denied to users or addicted people who are convicted of other crimes like theft.   

Panel Six, moderated by John Burnett of National Public Radio, focused on “Alternative Strategies and Policy Proposals for the Drug War.” Panelists included El Paso County Attorney José Rodríguez, Rice University professor Dr. William Martin, SSDP Southwest/International Coordinator Amber Langston, and Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance ( ) Director. The interactive dialogue is summarized in the recommendations section below. Once again, the absence of representatives from key U.S. agencies deprived conference attendees the opportunity to engage U.S. policies.

Options for Changes in U.S. Policies
The conference did not provide a formal process to formalize recommendations.  However, many observations and options emerged, requiring follow up and civil society activism.  Many who presented stressed that tobacco, alcohol, prescription drug overuse—the full range of ‘drugs’--can be dangerous and unhealthy.  Nevertheless, the social problems typically associated with both drug use and drug markets are derived substantially from efforts to prohibit them. 

Near-consensus/Short-term Strategies
*Emphasize funding for public health strategies to educate, treat, and reduce addiction and harm, drawing on successful and cost-effective programs in Europe.

*Invest in social infrastructure, jobs, and education in “inner-city drug markets” of U.S. cities and impoverished neighborhoods of Mexican cities to reduce drug use and provide employment opportunities.

*End the disparate treatment of enforcement that results in disproportionate incarceration rates of ‘persons of color.’

*Encourage and empower local and state governments to experiment with new approaches to drug regulation.  This has occurred in many states, including Alaska, California, and New Mexico: 13 states have medical marijuana laws and 14 states have reduced small amounts of marijuana possession and use to low priority, non-serious or misdemeanor status.

*Encourage practical local-level strategies to reduce the criminalization of drug users and to protect their health, e.g. through needle-exchange programs

*Consider strategies leading to the decriminalization and regulation of so-called soft drugs, such as marijuana, comparable to the regulation of alcohol.

*Encourage research on cannabis for medicinal use.

*Recognize/treat dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Less Consensus/Long-term Strategy
*Legalize, tax, and regulate drugs, such as the post-1933 U.S. policies regarding alcohol, to reduce criminal ‘outlaws,’ the profitability of organized crime, and easy access to hard drugs through underground drug dealing and to increase reliable consistency of content.