Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jul 2011
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2011 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Authors: Dudley Althaus and Dane Schiller


Ease of Production, High Demand Make Pot a Sure Bet for Gangs

MEXICO CITY -- But for its problematic pedigree, Mexico's marijuana 
might be hailed as a marketing miracle.

The much-maligned weed has suffered decades of punishment -- burned, 
poisoned, ripped from the earth by its roots. Customers have been 
jailed, suppliers battered by literally cutthroat competition. Better 
products from Colombia, California and countless suburban back-rooms 
have somewhat eroded its popularity. Governments refuse to make it honest.

Yet, this pot has persevered. Production grows, quality improves and 
exports northward hum along. Despite decades of U.S. officials' 
efforts against it, Mexican marijuana remains widely available, 
frequently used and commonly disregarded as a danger.

"They are never going to stop it," said Dan Webb, a recently retired 
anti-narcotics lieutenant with the Texas Department of Public Safety, 
who now teaches drug enforcement at Sam Houston State University.

"It is just like Prohibition," Webb said, comparing Mexico's cannabis 
trade to the boom in liquor smuggling after the U.S. government 
outlawed alcohol sales decades ago. "As long as there is a demand, 
somebody is going to come up with a supply."

Then again, there's that dark legacy. Marijuana sales to American 
consumers largely finance the gangster warfare that's killed upwards 
of 40,000 Mexicans in less than five years. 'Commodity of choice'

Though its slice of the gangs' income may be shrinking -- the thugs 
long have profited from cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as well 
as kidnapping, extortion and piracy -- marijuana remains a solid bet. 
Call it the money market fund of the Mexican mob.

"Marijuana remains the constant commodity of choice for the drug 
cartels because of end user demand and the ease of production," said 
Tony Garcia, South Texas director of an intergovernmental police 
alliance that keeps tabs on the illicit drug trade.

"When cartels lose large quantities of other type drugs to law 
enforcement, their money coffers are replenished through the 
trafficking of marijuana," he said.

Cheap to grow and relatively easy to bring to market, Mexico's 
marijuana provides sustenance for entire mountain communities and 
wide profit margins for the gangsters. One widely challenged U.S. 
government study five years ago estimated that cannabis exports 
provided some 60 percent of the gangs' revenues. Other estimates 
range from 15 to 40 percent.

In addition to trafficking their own loads, gangsters tax competitors 
moving marijuana and drugs through their territory. Contract disputes 
usually end in slaughter. Communities through which marijuana is 
smuggled have become some of the most violent corners of the world.

Acreage devoted to marijuana in Mexico's western mountains has risen 
sharply as troops once focused on destroying the fields -- and those 
of opium poppies -- have redeployed to fight gangsters along the 
border and in cities and towns. Bumper harvests

Reliable estimates remain elusive, the latest U.S. government drug 
threat assessment notes, but Mexico is believed to be enjoying bumper 
pot harvests. It had the potential to produce 21,500 metric tons of 
cannabis in 2008, the latest year analyzed.

A metric ton, 2,200 pounds, of marijuana equals more than 35,000 
ounces, or as many as 1.75 million joints.

"The big priority now is to try to stop the violence on Mexican 
streets," said Duncan Wood a policy analyst at ITAM, a Mexico City 
university, and several Washington D.C. think tanks. "This may 
backfire and cause a spike in violence."

In few places has marijuana smuggling proved a more enabling anchor 
for the gangs than along the Rio Grande in South Texas, where 
hundreds of Mexicans have been killed as gunmen from the Zetas and 
Gulf Cartel gangs battle one another and security forces.

U.S. agents captured 364 tons of marijuana last year -- about a third 
of the total for the U.S. Mexico border -- on or near the Rio Grande 
from Del Rio to Brownsville, according to federal officials. They've 
seized another 184 tons so far this year, a nearly 10 percent bump 
from the same period in 2010.

Over just 10 days this month, supposedly the low season for marijuana 
smuggling, Mexican soldiers seized some 19 metric tons of marijuana 
either on or headed for the South Texas border. U.S. federal agents 
since early June captured another 10 tons or more of the drug just 
north of the Rio Grande.

About half those recent seizures occurred near the towns of Mier and 
Ciudad Miguel Aleman, bordering the Texas community of Roma, where 
armed skirmishes and terror tactics drove hundreds of families from 
their homes.

"Marijuana seems to be the principal thing they are moving through 
the area," said Henry Mendiola, a spokesman for the U.S. Border 
Patrol, whose duties include stopping illicit drug imports.

While exports barely have been impeded by interdiction, Mexican 
marijuana's legal status north of the border has been enhanced as 
cities and states put enforcement to the back burner. Trends in United States

Fourteen U.S. states now treat low-volume marijuana possession much 
as traffic infractions. Others like California have legalized 
marijuana for medical use, a widely winked-at way for recreation 
smokers to obtain the drug.

"We're making a significant mistake when we think it's just a benign 
drug," Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. drug czar, has warned in repeated 
meetings with reporters.

But surveys suggest at least 11 percent of Americans over age 12 
regularly puff from a joint, pipe or bong. Overwhelmed federal 
prosecutors routinely dead-file possession cases of less than 100 
pounds of marijuana.

"It is another example of fooling ourselves, pretending we are doing 
some sort of good," said Dean Becker, a Houston-based radio host and 
member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which lobbies for 
legalization, "when truthfully all we are doing is ensuring inflated 
prices for these barbarous cartels."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom