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Can the Caravan for Peace force us to rethink the War on Drugs?

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Javier Sicilia, front man of Caravan for Peace.

Groups taking part in Sicilia's Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) — like the Drug Policy Alliance, the Center for International Policy's Americas Program, and Witness for Peace, among others — drafted the current MPJD platform at a mid-June weekend conference, Gallagher said. As the caravan takes the platform north, they hope to steer dialogue on drugs away from the simple prohibition-versus-legalization polarity into more humane territory, giving U.S. policymakers plenty to chew on by calling for suspension of U.S. assistance to Mexico's armed forces and a shift from military aid to development assistance. They call for tougher policies to stop the river of guns flowing from the U.S. into Mexico — particularly through Texas and Arizona — and increased federal crackdowns on money laundering. The platform also calls for better U.S. protections for immigrants displaced by violence seeking refuge in the U.S.

"We've come to the conclusion that the drug war is an abject failure, it needs to be ended," said Dean Becker, a Pacifica radio show host and activist with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition following the caravan. "The U.S. runs its drug war much in the same way these cartels do. It's plata or plomo, it's take the silver or lead," he said, referencing the common cartel expression to force cooperation with either a bribe or bullet. It's the same with the U.S. military aid, he insists, giving South and Central American governments the option to take millions to carry out the war on drugs, "or we flag them, put them on the bad-actors list, and cut off trade. … We need a fundamental shift in the way we approach this problem."

Key to Sicilia's message to the U.S. is not only how drug violence has ravaged Mexico, but how the drug war has fractured families on the U.S. side of the border. Kicked-off in San Diego and trailing along the border states before heading into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, Sicilia's caravan brings the message that the drug war is demonstrably ineffective and inhumane. Flanked by representatives with groups like the NAACP — which sends members to speak with Sicilia in every city the caravan visits — Sicilia talks of how U.S. drug policy, and the increased militarization of drug enforcement, has turned the U.S. into an incarceration nation, disproportionately jailing African-Americans and Hispanics along the way. Two-thirds of all prisoners held on drug-related charges are people of color, according to the Washington-based The Sentencing Project.

The U.S. has some 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, as much as 10 times as many as other developed countries, and the U.S., home to 5 percent of the world's population, also plays home to 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Chalk it up to the war on drugs, activists with the caravan say. Incarceration in the U.S. has skyrocketed since Nixon launched the drug war, quadrupling just since the 1980s, while drug convictions rose ten fold between the 1980s and 1990s. More than half of federal inmates are in on drug convictions, and of the 1.64 million Americans arrested on drug charges in 2010, four out of five were jailed for possession, according to U.S. drug enforcement data.

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