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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mexican Authorities Burn 134 Tons of Seized Marijuana -

October 21, 2010

Marijuana Bonfire Celebrates a Fragile Calm

TIJUANA, Mexico — It is now the city safe enough for an Al Gore speech.
Indeed, Tijuana has become a place, in the narrative of federal and local officials, not only where the former vice president of the United States can attend a business conference, as he did earlier this month, but where the drug cartels are on the run.
Human remains are no longer discovered partly dissolved in chemicals; shootouts in broad daylight are rare; and local, state and federal law enforcement work so closely that they celebrated this week over the destruction of the largest load of marijuana — 134 metric tons, or about 150 United States tons — ever seized in the country.
“Citizens of Tijuana should be proud of the authorities and the armed forces,” said Gen. Alfonso Duarte Múgica, regional commander of the army, as the seized marijuana erupted in flames and smoke after soldiers set it ablaze.
But the question on the minds of many here is whether this is a fragile peace, or even peace at all.
It is true that this is not 2008, when the headlines reflected a sense of mayhem and out-of-control violence that led to 843 killings, a record high in this city of 1.6 million people across the border from San Diego.
Yet the body count this year stands at 639, on pace to match or exceed the 695 of last year.
“The only thing that has changed is you don’t see spectacular murders in the middle of the city,” said Victor Clark-Alfaro, a visiting professor from Tijuana at San Diego State University who has studied drug violence for years. “The elite feel more safe, but in the neighborhoods where drug dealers and addicts are dying, people do not feel any more safe,” he added.
Questions have also been raised about the hard-line tactics of the police and military here. Human Rights Watch, in a letter to President Felipe Calderón last month, urged him to investigate abuses at the hands of the authorities here, including more than 100 cases in the past year in which the group said people were taken to military bases and tortured into making confessions.
“Tijuana is anything but a model for an effective public security operation,” the letter said.
The police chief here, Julián Leyzaola, an army veteran who has been photographed kicking the body of a gunman believed responsible for killing a police officer, has remained unapologetic, saying a tough line is just what the town needs to clean up its police force and take on organized crime.
He beamed at an elaborate ceremony on Thursday, complete with a military band, bused-in dignitaries, and ample national and international coverage, to burn the tons of marijuana seized earlier in the week.
It was a spectacle meant as much to send a message to the traffickers as to reassure an anxious public of success, any success.
“This was a strike at the structure of this criminal group,” Chief Leyzaola said.
And for a moment at least, residents like Juan Alberto, 21, a law school student who watched the burning ceremony at the invitation of a professor, felt a measure of calm.
“I have felt a little safe these past few months,” Mr. Alberto said. “But I know things can change quickly.
Shopping centers are busy and bars and restaurants are slowly filling again, though American tourists remain scarce.
People go to work and school, and young people are venturing out, though with some trepidation.
“It is getting better, certainly better than a couple of years ago when everybody was afraid,” said Paula Cruz, 20.
Civic leaders have been anxious to put on the city’s best face.
The two-week Tijuana Innovadora conference, intended to stoke investment, concluded Thursday after speeches by Mr. Gore; the co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone; the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales; Mr. Calderón; and others.
But as if to remind the public of the drug war never far away, two decapitated bodies were found hanging from a bridge, and four young men were killed, both discoveries several miles from the conference.
David A. Shirk, who researches criminal justice in Mexico as the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, said Tijuana might simply be in a lull while gangs regroup.
He noted that the authorities claimed success both when violence was high, as a sign of destabilization among criminal organizations, and when it was low, as a mark of criminal activity being kept under control.
The violence tends to ebb and flow with little explanation, Mr. Shirk added, as one group gains strength or cuts deals with the police while others fall out of favor or lose ground.
The conventional wisdom is that the gruesome shows of violence decreased after the arrest in January of Teodoro Eduardo García Simental, a kingpin known as El Teo who, among other crimes, was accused of having the bodies of scores of enemies dissolved in vats of chemicals.
Still, the bottom line, Mr. Shirk said, was that the marijuana seizure would not greatly affect the drug market and that “even with 134 tons, there is no sign the flow of drugs into the United States has abated.”
A United States Justice Department report this year said marijuana production in Mexico had increased 59 percent since 2003. The report attributed the increase in production to a 48 percent decrease in eradication efforts over the last four years.
The decrease in crop destruction “is the result of the Mexican military’s focus on antiviolence measures rather than illicit crop cultivation,” the report said.
Alejandro Poiré, the Mexican government’s chief spokesman on security, said in a recent interview that it had and would continue to make big seizures.
The seizure of the big marijuana haul, which occurred Sunday and was announced Monday, came about after the local police happened on a convoy and were fired upon.
They, along with the state police and the military, eventually found three tractor-trailers and a smaller truck in an industrial neighborhood near the border, raising the question of how such a large load could have eluded police and military checkpoints leading into Tijuana from the interior, where most of the marijuana is grown.
The 15,300 bales were tightly wrapped in plastic and aluminum foil, with some labeled “yoyo,” “dog” or “wolf,” or bearing the smiling image of Homer Simpson, apparent branding or labels for drug distributors in the United States.
It will take two days to burn it all.

Mexican Authorities Burn 134 Tons of Seized Marijuana -

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