Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Mexico

War on drugs' big catch -- 'Viagra man'

The U.S. is spending vast sums and still can't effectively stem the flow of drugs from Latin America, but we are managing to protect the country from the evils of counterfeit erectile dysfunction pills
These just in -- two dispatches from the front of the war on drugs:

"U.S. fails to catch two-thirds of drug boats, general says," and "Man charged with smuggling 40,000 erectile dysfunction pills."

One is about being stupid. The other is about being caught.

I'll let you decide which is which.

First, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters Wednesday that military efforts to stem drug smuggling from Latin America are being hampered because planes and ships have been diverted to combat operations elsewhere.

It's certainly not a problem of funding, though. As The Times' story says:

The military has spent $6.1 billion since 2005 to help detect drug payloads heading to the U.S., as well as on surveillance and other intelligence operations, according to a report last year by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

At prices like that, it might be cheaper for the government to just buy the cocaine from the cartels.

And, of course, there's this little Catch-22:

"Any drug interdiction strategy is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix," said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counter-narcotics efforts at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. "It may reduce the supply for a short time, but what does get in is worth more."

Well, yeah, there's that. Otherwise known as the 800-lb. gorilla of the whole war-on-drugs policy. Drugs are illegal, but people still want them.  So someone supplies them. So we spend a fortune to try to stop them. And whatever we catch just makes the stuff we don't catch more valuable, which makes the guys who supply it richer. 

Legalization, anyone?

Naw, then people might use more drugs, and that would mean more addicts, and that would mean we would have to spend money on treatment. Instead of, uh, spending a large fortune trying to fight cartels that corrupt governments and kill people and -- well, OK, it's a mess.

Honestly, I don't know if legalization would work. But I'm pretty sure that what we're doing now isn't working.

Still, I'll admit that the current system did manage to get its man, one Kil Jun Lee, 71, of Westlake, Calif. 

Lee allegedly tried to slip 29,827 counterfeit Viagra tablets, 8,993 counterfeit Cialis pills and 793 counterfeit Levitra tablets past authorities at LAX by hiding them in his golf bag and luggage. (Which, of course, was his first mistake, because as any wife who's been abandoned for five hours on a Sunday by her golf-addict husband can tell you, golf and sex never mix.)

And it's not as though the law enforcement guys didn't have a sense of humor:

According to the criminal complaint, Lee concealed the tablets in aluminum-foil-wrapped packets, and was questioned by authorities about whether the pills were all for personal use. He responded that he had a heart condition, and using all the pills would kill him.

Oh, ha ha -- "all for your personal use."

Also, Lee didn't come across as your typical hardened drug smuggler:

He also said he "did not believe the pills were genuine," adding that "he was sorry" for bringing the pills and "will not do it again."

Which, really, is good enough for me. A sincere apology and a promise not to be a repeat offender for what is, in a sense, a victimless crime. (Unless, of course, you paid good money for the counterfeit stuff -- but then again, caveat emptor!)

So the Navy and Coast Guard will continue their futile efforts to stop Latin America's cartels. 

And the good folks at LAX will continue to protect us from the evils of phony Viagra.

And we taxpayers will keep paying for it all.

And that's no joke.


Holder's troubling death-by-drone rules

McCain: Bomb, bomb Iran.... Oh, and Syria

$3 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid buys little respect 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Colombian police at a cocaine production laboratory in the jungle. Credit: Mauricio Duenas / EPA

Drug war: Time for an exit strategy [Blowback]

Drug war
Daniel Robelo, a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance, responds to The Times' Jan. 11 article, "Mexico government sought to withhold drug war death statistics."
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The Mexican government's reluctant release of updated homicide statistics reveals the grim costs of the failed drug war -- and the growing need for an exit strategy.

As The Times notes, at least 50,000 people have been killed because of the drug war in the last five years -- nearly as many casualties as the U.S. suffered in Vietnam. Many of these victims had no connection to the drug trade.  

Though the Mexican government announced a slightly lower figure (47,515 people as of September), experts and advocates suggest the actual death toll may already be much higher, as only 2% of crimes in Mexico even get investigated. Further, the government has shown a total lack of transparency, exemplified by its drawn-out refusal to make these damning data public.

Regardless of the exact figure, the death toll is incomprehensible and unacceptable. And to this toll must be added the thousands of people disappeared, the hundreds of thousands displaced and the hundreds of thousands of children left orphaned during this same five-year period.

This crisis will only continue unless the U.S. works with Mexico to address the root cause: drug prohibition.

These murders are not drug-related, they are prohibition-related -- committed by cartels that were spawned by drug prohibition, that derive their power from the inflated profits of prohibited but highly demanded commodities, and that operate in an underground economy in which violence is routinely employed to resolve disputes or remove business opponents. It's similar to what occurred in the U.S. during alcohol prohibition, but on a far more horrific scale.

Meanwhile, Mexico's U.S.-backed military response, rather than reducing violence, has resulted in systematic and documented violations of human rights, including rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. Abuses have been so grave and widespread that human rights attorneys have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate President Felipe Calderon for crimes against humanity.

What are Mexicans getting in return for this unthinkable price? Not much. Cartels show no signs of weakening, while drugs remain as widely consumed and available in the U.S. as ever before.

The numbers, of course, cannot tell the true story of what this violence means for Mexico. Each person killed was, after all, a son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. The Times' article highlights one such person, Juan Francisco Sicilia, a 24-year-old student killed last March, whose father, Javier, has become a leader of the national popular movement against the war on drugs.  United with family members of other victims, along with everyday citizens fed up with being afraid, the elder Sicilia's movement seeks to humanize each victim. Drawing inspiration from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, this growing movement has been commemorating each victim by nailing a plaque with his or her name to the walls of public buildings across Mexico. 

Sicilia has also proposed the regulation of drugs as a way to reduce the devastation that prohibition has inflicted on Mexico.

Regional leaders agree that many of these deaths could have been prevented -- not by hitting the cartels harder but by being smarter about U.S. and global drug policy. In late December, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Chile and all of Central America issued a joint declaration urging the U.S. to rein in its demand for drugs or, if it cannot do so, "explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end."

The American public is ready for such a change. According to a Gallup poll in October, 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana like alcohol -- a modest step that could deprive cartels of their leading source of revenue, diminishing their ability to buy weapons, hire recruits, corrupt officials and terrorize the Mexican people.

These U.S. citizens, no longer the minority, wait impatiently for their government to join the rest of the hemisphere in rethinking the failed drug war.  Our southern neighbors cannot afford to wait any longer. 


U.S. blacklisting seems to have little consequence in Mexico

Former drug kingpin pleads guilty to racketeering, conspiracy

Mexico government sought to withhold drug war death statistics

--Daniel Robelo

Photo: A Mexican soldier stands near the bodies of two men found slain in Acapulco in February. Credit: Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images

Immigration: Candidates up the ante on border security

When it came to immigration and border security, Tuesday's Republican presidential debate sounded more like a Vegas casino than a policy debate. Candidates were quick to up the ante on enforcement, calling for a wall. No, make that a double wall -- or perhaps an electric fence.

The first to offer up a plan was businessman-turned-candidate Herman Cain, who backed away from his call for an electric fence along the border.  Cain, who said he was joking, outlined a multi-pronged approach to border security that would include a fence, high technology and boots on the ground. Does that sound familiar? It should. That is the current strategy, used by the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations.

Rep. Michele Bachmann quickly jumped in with a plan for securing the border: a double wall.

And of course Texas Gov. Rick Perry offered up his proposal for more boots on the ground to patrol the border, along with predator drones to conduct surveillance flights.

All three plans ignore one small detail. Currently, deportations and federal funding for immigration enforcement are at an all-time high.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that it had deported 396,906 immigrants, up from 291,000 in 2007.

Spending has also increased, going from $8.5 billion in 2005 to nearly $16.2 billion this year. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased from 12,348 in 2006 to more than 21,000 in 2011.


Obama administration reports record number of deportations

Obama administration extends National Guard deployment at Southwest border

-- Sandra Hernandez

Michael Jackson's death: La La Land at its (worst) best

LaToya Jackson

La La Land.

That's what L.A. is often called. And it's usually not a compliment.

And you know what? Sometimes we deserve it. And this is one of those times.

Just take a look at what's making news here this week:

"Michael Jackson death: Doctor's jury hears drugged singer's voice"

The voice of a heavily drugged, rambling Michael Jackson echoed through the courtroom during opening arguments Tuesday in the trial of his personal doctor.

"When people leave my show, I want them to say, 'I've never seen nothing like this in my life,' " the singer mumbled on a recording that the prosecution said was made on Dr. Conrad Murray’s iPhone.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren told jurors that Murray recorded his famous patient about six weeks before his death when he was "under the influence of unknown agents."

Now, this is serious stuff. After all, CNN, Fox and half the world's media outlets are parked outside the courtroom. A man, a famous man, is dead. No news nugget is insignificant.  As The Times reported breathlessly Tuesday:

Some fans reported that Jackson's magician, Majestic Magnificent, was present at the courthouse.

Of course, bizarre isn't limited to Michael Jackson. Here's a little tidbit that's sure to further endear L.A. to the "tea party" movement:

"Drug lord's wife has twins in Los Angeles County hospital."

The spaces for "Name of Father" are blank. But the L.A. County birth certificates list the mother, who happens to be the young wife of one of history’s biggest and most sought-after drug lords, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Emma Coronel traveled to Southern California in mid-July, and on Aug. 15 gave birth to twin girls at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, according to birth records and a senior U.S. law enforcement official.

Turns out Coronel, a 22-year-old former beauty queen, holds U.S. citizenship, which entitles her to travel freely to the U.S. and to use its hospitals. By being born in California, her little girls now also have U.S. citizenship.

Oh good, a twofer:  Her husband's a wanted drug lord, and now their kids are American citizens.

But look on the bright side, tea partyers: When those little El Chapos grow up, want to go to a U.S. college, and apply for financial aid, it won't be a case of giving assistance to illegal immigrants.    

And don't blame lax law enforcement for this. As the story says:

U.S. federal agents apparently kept tabs on Emma Coronel even before she crossed the border at Calexico, through her hospital stay and until she left the country to return to Mexico. Although her husband tops most-wanted lists on both sides of the border, Coronel was not arrested because there are no charges against her, the law enforcement official said.

But what I really want to know is, how did she pay for her hospital stay?  A suitcase full of cash? Or does she have insurance? If so, will she and her husband be dunned by a collection agency if they don't pay?

And speaking of law enforcement, how about those L.A. County jails?

"FBI paid deputy to smuggle cellphone in jail sting."

FBI agents probing misconduct allegations in the L.A. County Jail orchestrated an undercover sting in which they paid about $1,500 to a sheriff's deputy to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate, sources said.

The revelation is the first public indication that the FBI's investigations into allegations of inmate beatings and other deputy misconduct in the jails have uncovered possible criminal wrongdoing.

The FBI conducted the cellphone sting without notifying top Sheriff's Department brass, enraging Sheriff Lee Baca and causing a rift between the two law enforcement agencies.

So, let's see: Sheriff's deputies are allegedly beating up inmates; the FBI is looking into it; the agency found a seemingly crooked deputy to help them get a phone to an informant; and Baca isn't concerned about that and the beating allegations, he's just mad at the FBI.

Baca's bottom line? "We police ourselves," he said.

Gee, I think that's what Richard Nixon said too.

And, on top of all this, President Obama was in town for a series of appearances and fundraisers.

And yes, you know what that meant: People complaining about traffic tie-ups.

Ah, just another week in La La Land. 


Live video: Coverage of Murray trial

35 bodies dumped on street in Mexico

What else will surface at Echo Park Lake?

FBI probing reports of beatings in L.A. County jails

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: La Toya Jackson enters the courthouse Tuesday for opening statements in the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray. Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Ted Rall cartoon: Tunneling to Mexico

The problem with using a pipeline to smuggle drugs: The possibility of neighbors complaining about a gas leak. That’s how one such cross-border “pipeline tunnel” was discovered in the Imperial Valley, reports Tony Perry. And get this: The tunnel was started on our turf, not Mexico’s. What should we make of this? It’s obvious, isn’t it?



L.A.'s new parking meter plan

Jerry Brown's foster prison program

Squeezing every last cent out of homeowners

Partying with unemployed makes for a depressing scene

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Cartoon by Ted Rall / For The Times

Gun control: New reporting requirements come under fire

ATF and Gun Control

It didn't take long for the fight to begin. Republicans in Congress are angry over a temporary new rule that would require gun dealers to report multiple sales of semiautomatic weapons.

Just one day after the new rule was announced, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriation bill to pull funding from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The new rule, which does not need congressional approval, would require about 8,500 gun dealers in four states along the border with Mexico to report multiple sales of semiautomatic weapons made within five days to the ATF. Similar reporting rules already exist for handguns.

The ATF rule won't impose any new restrictions on gun owners, who are still free to purchase guns. It will, however, require dealers to notify the agency.

On his website, Rehberg vowed to defeat the regulation, adding it was illegal and intended to create a national gun registry.

"Whether it's a new gun control law or a new gun control regulation, I will continue protect our Second Amendment rights from all efforts to undermine them," Rehberg wrote.

The Obama administration is promoting the rule as a way to combat the illegal flow of guns into Mexico.

The ATF seems to be in a tough position right now. A House investigation is currently looking into Fast and Furious, an operation intended to track straw purchases of guns back to drug cartels and gangs in Mexico. The ATF allowed the illegal purchases to be made but then lost track of many of the weapons. At least one of the guns turned up at the crime scene where a federal agent was shot to death.

The fight over the plan is just beginning, so stay tuned.


Gun control at the border

Amid Fast and Furious probe, Democrats push new gun control bill

--Sandra Hernandez

Photo: Mexican federal police stand next to seized weapons, including AR-15 and AK-47 rifles, during a presentation of members of the Zetas criminal organization and drug gang in May. Credit: Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters

Immigration: President Obama's border moat

President Obama renewed his vow to fight for comprehensive immigration reform Tuesday during a visit to the border. Standing in the Texas heat, the president practically bragged about his administration's efforts to crack down on those who attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally.

More agents are now assigned to the border than at any other time in history, he said. The number of intelligence analysts working there has nearly tripled. And drones patrol the skies. Yet despite his best efforts, the president joked, nothing seems to satisfy some Republicans' demands for greater border security. "Maybe they'll need a moat," he said. "Or alligators in the moat."

Oddly, Obama isn't the first to float the moat idea. Several years ago, the satirical website The Onion urged Congress to adopt a moat approach. The website, which bills itself as "America's Finest News Source," also proposed a catapult defense system that would allow immigration officials to hurl objects over the current fence toward our neighbor to the south.

Though Obama's gator moat remark may have been delivered as if it were a funny, off-the-cuff remark, it was written into the president's speech, at least in the copy handed out to reporters.

It makes me wonder if the White House speechwriters might be getting their material from CNN and The Onion.


Get moving on immigration reform

Citizen children and life under the radar

Immigration: A better farm worker fix

Obama's immigration speech: A way to get Latino and Asian voters?

Illinois ditches program intended to deport dangerous immigrants

--Sandra Hernandez

U.S.-Mexico relations: Hoping Obama and Calderon can make up, move on


As President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon address the nation via live press conference (watch above), the editorial board has laid out its hopes for Calderon's U.S. visit.

First and foremost, they must push forward with a binational plan to fight Mexican drug cartels and quell the violence that threatens to spill across the border. The U.S. has already pledged more than $1.4 billion as part of the 2008 Merida Initiative aimed at providing equipment and technical assistance. Mexican officials have said that some of the help has yet to arrive. Both sides must air those concerns privately and move forward.

Keep reading "Working with Mexico" here.


A weapon against drug cartels

--Alexandra Le Tellier

A brief Q&A with the U.S. trade representative

Ron Kirk Ambassador Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas whom President Obama tapped to be the U.S. trade representative, has solid credentials as a free-trader -- more solid, alas, than the man he works for. While in Southern California to speak to a state legislators' association, small businesses and studio executives, he dropped by to chat with The Times' editorial board, offering a status report on pending trade agreements and an overview of the administration's trade strategy. He was circumspect -- trade talks are done in secret, after all (more on that later) -- so the session was long on explanation and short on revelation. Some of the notable quotes appear after the jump; scroll down for links to audio recordings from the session.

Continue reading »

In today's pages: Ling and Lee on their incarceration in North Korea -- plus fire, drugs and healthcare reform

North Korea, Laura Ling, Euna Lee, Current TV, healthcare reform, Station fire, Mt. Wilson observatory, drug policy, decriminalization, marijuana If you've been wondering how Laura Ling and Euna Lee wound up prisoners of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, read the pair's Op-Ed today and find out. In addition to providing chilling details about their capture (sounds to me like they were set up, but judge for yourself), they also explain why they were so determined to report on human trafficking between North Korea and China:

First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland.

It's a compelling piece. Rounding out the page, columnist Tim Rutten provides a history lesson about the observatory on Mt. Wilson that's now threatened by the rampaging Station fire, as well as some harsh words about the policies that have seemingly turned Southern California into a tinderbox.

On the editorial side of the stack, the Times board says it's too early to abandon comprehensive healthcare reform for a more incremental, less controversial approach. Besides, the board says, "piecemeal efforts ... quickly run into the same complexities" that a sweeping overhaul faces, such as the need for expensive subsidies. The board also endorses moves by Latin American countries to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs, while also praising the Obama administration for taking a "wait-and-see approach" to the changes.

Photo: Laura Ling, left, and Euna Lee. Credit: Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty Images

-- Jon Healey



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About the Bloggers
The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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