El Paso’s City Council Debates on Drug Legalization

EL PASO, Texas – The call for a new strategy to stop drug violence comes as El Paso watches the carnage across the border. In Ciudad Juarez, drug violence has claimed more than 1,600 lives in 2008.

“We’ve reached a level of crisis, especially here along the border, so now all solutions now have to be on the table. This includes ending the prohibition of narcotics,” said Beto O’Rourke, El Paso City Representative.

El Paso’s city council put the issue on the table by unanimously voting for a resolution containing several recommendations for coping with drug violence. One of the recommendations was that the Federal Government should start a serious debate on legalizing drugs.

“It’s counterproductive and would make it extremely difficult for me to bring our federal legislative agenda to Washington with any credibility,” said El Paso Mayor John Cook.

The mayor quickly vetoed the resolution, but it is still certain whether El Paso city council members will stick to their unanimous vote and override the Mayor’s veto.

In either case, the resolution has already accomplished one of its goals: focus national attention on this border region devastated by drug violence.

– Article from KHOU.comon January 8, 2009.

Former Mayor to City Council: Stay The Course on Drug Resolution

by Bill Tilney

Kudos to city Rep. Beto O’Rourke for the courage he showed in proposing an amendment to the resolution expressing support for Ciudad Juarez. Mr. O’Rourke’s efforts demonstrated that he, along with brave members of the El Paso City Council, have an understanding of what is tragically unfolding in the Paso del Norte region. In a sense, they are on the cutting edge of what is needed to change the direction we are going in our 40 year long “war on drugs.” We may be far from Washington, but there is no reason why an honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics shouldn’t begin here along the Rio Grande. Remember this is where NASA began and the first atomic bomb was detonated. It is also the home of General Black Jack Pershing and Pancho Villa, who played a leading role in the Mexican Revolution. Even the first U.S.-Mexico presidential summit took place in El Paso at the Paso del Norte Hotel, when President William H. Taft met with President Porfirio Diaz in 1910. Pasenos are risk takers.

As a former mayor, I understand the position taken by Mayor John Cook, when he decided to veto the resolution at the last moment. [link] The City of El Paso is dependent in many ways on both the Texas state government and the United States federal government for funding of many important projects. Tweaking their noses could have unpleasant consequences. U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who has done a great job as the region’s representative, was chief of the Border Patrol for many years. Given the fact that he was involved in the “war on drugs” and interdiction here along the border, he may have reservations about launching a national debate at City Council. Nevertheless, given President-elect Barack Obama’s philosophy of “Yes, we can change,” this seems a propitious moment to give El Paso center stage at the national level. Also the simple truth that the last three presidents have experimented with illegal drugs, like cocaine or marijuana, makes it a most apropos time to initiate a national debate.

Back in 1969, when I was assigned to Mexico as a vice consul with our Embassy, the budget for DEA , formerly the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, was less than $70 million dollars. In 1970, President Richard Nixon literally closed the U.S.-Mexican border, when he launched “Operation Intercept.” Its intent was to shut off drugs flowing into the United States from south of the border. It failed. In 1981, I was posted to Ciudad Juarez as the American consul general. During my tenure there, DEA’s budget increased to $365 million by 1985. As a point of interest, I lived in an official residence in Colonia Campestre, directly across the street the street from the Mexican federal security representative, who was then alleged to be the largest drug dealer in Mexico. He was gunned down in Cancun, along with members of his family, during this period. There were also unfortunate victims of the drug trade including a colleague of mine, former Juarez Chief of Police, Captain Cucu Ruvalcaba, who was assassinated along with his young sons by members of cartels. Bullet riddled bodies were also regularly found strewn around the Salamayuca area south of the city and in “las afueras.”

It was during this period of time that the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena in Guadalajara occurred.

Concurrently, the creation of cartels exploded along the border and vast quantities of drugs moved across the border. Notwithstanding the efforts of DEA, along with U.S. Immigration, U.S. Customs, the Border Patrol and the Department of Agriculture, drug flows into the United States increased manifold. Violence multiplied significantly during that same time frame and Ciudad Juarez became notorious for its “narcotraficantes.” Unfortunately, a number of well-known families in Ciudad Juarez were subjected to unfounded rumors that they were involved in the drug trade. They were also victims of the illegal drug traffic along the border.

This past year, we saw DEA’s budget increase into the billions of dollars to combat the drug trade tidal wave. Here along the border, we have seen thousands of people — too many of them innocents — slaughtered in Juarez and other border towns. Why they were killed is simple. Greed, drugs and a struggle to control the very lucrative drug trade, with its tentacles reaching into literally every city and town in our country. This phenomena has affected the way people live on both sides of the border. Illegal drugs have also created an enormous law enforcement presence and bureaucracy to combat the flow of drugs into the United States.

Has it been effective? Just think of the fact that the United States has incarcerated nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. [link] The sad thing is that almost 50 percent of that population are behind bars because of drug related crimes. Couldn’t monies utilized to house prisoners be better channeled to build infrastructure and educate America’s youth? The American people should be questioning the federal government’s policies as to how we deal with drug trafficking. Will we continue to witness our neighbor to the south become a “failed state” because of the American insatiable demand for drugs? Will we continue to see budgets and numbers balloon as we throw money at this obscene problem? When will we have a president who has the “huevos” to say “enough” to this macabre dance along the border?

As a side note, I would like to point out that if we didn’t have this failed “war on drugs,” the quality of life could improve along the border. Global manufacturing would be more efficient and productive. At the same time, we would be more competitive on the global stage.

Additionally, international trade and job creation would flourish in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and construction of infrastructure would take off. Also, our military bases and schools would not be targets for illegal drugs. Even the Border Patrol could concentrate on thwarting illegal immigration. Taxes on drugs could be beneficial to the local and national economies and crime could drop significantly in border towns. While there will be detractors to this scenario, I would like to put forth the hypothesis that those who rabidly support the “war on drugs” could be construed to be saboteurs, who undermine the social well-being and economic development in our part of the world.

As a final note, I want to say bravo to the brave band of City Council representatives for putting forth the resolution. I am sure they have been subjected to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Nevertheless, now that you have gained the attention of the national media, don’t drop the ball. As President George H. Bush once said “Stay the course.”

Bill Tilney was mayor of El Paso from 1991-93.

– Article from The Newspaper Tree on January 8, 2009.