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The Face of the Prop 19 Cartel Debate

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(Tijuana, Mexico)
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jose Ramirez says until every cartel member is killed, there will be no peace on the border. Ramirez was deported from the U.S. about a year ago, and now lives in the middle of a Tijuana neighborhood, scared by cartel violence.  

While police regularly patrol the center of Tijuana, Ramirez says the streets by his house are lawless.

"Where I stay is kind of crazy over there…it's far away from downtown," Ramirez says. "And the night, you can see everybody has a bunch of thugs that can watch their houses. You never know who is coming around, robbing."

Since his deportation, Ramirez has been beaten up twice walking at night in his neighborhood.

"I was talking to these people, these tough guys, and they thought I had money," Ramirez says, "but I had no money, and they beat me up very badly. Smashed my nose. And then I went to the hospital."

He says the doctor had to drain blood from his lungs.

A year ago, near Ramirez's Tijuana neighborhood, a local tax collector thought to have cartel ties was mutilated and hung from a bridge.

His corpse greeted children on their way to school.  

Just down the road from that hanging, earlier this week, two men suspected to have ties to drug dealers were beheaded and hung from another bridge.

Along the US-Mexico border, over the past four years, officials estimate 30,000 people have been killed.

Ramirez was afraid to be seen with a reporter, so we went to a secluded corner of a public park, far away from his house and neighborhood. It's a hot day, but I put on a sweater and hide the recorder in my sleeve to ease Ramirez's fears.

"Right here, it's like you never know… who is around," Ramirez whispers, before suggesting we leave for the more touristy areas downtown.

Legalization Would Cut Cartel's "Life Blood"

Supporters of Proposition 19, like Democratic State Senator Mark Leno, point to the violence that has so many Mexican border residents living in fear as a major argument for approving the ballot measure. Leno says if the cartel's profit is cut in California, life would be much safer on the other side of the border.

"If it were decriminalized as Prop 19 proposes, it would dismantle the life blood of the cartels, which is the huge amounts of cash to keep them going," Leno says.

Leno's argument goes like this: Drug cash fuels the war among the cartels and the government. That money buys guns in the U.S., which end up killing people in Mexico. But Leno says, if you reduce the flow of money, that will damage the cartels, and ultimately there should be less violence.  Prop 19 supporters cite a U.S. government estimate that marijuana accounts for 60% of Cartel drug sales.

"Marijuana is the lion's share of their profits currently," Leno says. "Why not, remove the prohibition, which is clearly not working? Take away the black market, which fuels violence and degradation to our environment at huge profits. Regulate it. Tax it."

That's been one of the most effective arguments for prop 19 supporters.

Disputed Numbers, Flawed Argument?

But Beau Kilmer says it's a false premise. He's co director of the Rand Drug Policy research center and issued a report Tuesday showing Mexican marijuana does not make the majority of money for cartels.

"We found that the figure is probably closer to 15-26%. In our calculations, cocaine dominates more than marijuana," Kilmer says.

Rand takes no position on proposition 19. But Kilmer's research shows if the measure is passed, the cartels will only lose 2-4 percent of their business, or 1-2 billion dollars. He describes the cartels marijuana business as one line of income among a larger drug portfolio, with methamphatimine, cocaine and heroin making up the bulk of the cartels earnings.

Leno, the chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says that could very well be true.

"But if [the cartels] have opportunity to make money from, let's say, five different sources, why not take one of them away?" Leno asks.

Kilmer's research also shows the only way legalized marijuana would undercut the cartels would be if a bootleg industry began exporting California pot to other states.

"After legalization," Kilmer says, "the high quality marijuana that's produced in California, if it's exported to other states and at prices that outcompetes the marijuana that comes from Mexico--- at that point you could see reductions in their export revenues from 13-23 percent."

Opponents of Prop 19, meanwhile, say the prospect of a bootlegged pot industry in California could spark violence in the state.

Little Optimism In Mexico

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who declared his country's war on drugs in 2006, is opposed to Prop 19. He says the drug war will only end when the U.S. demand for drugs goes down, not when marijuana is legalized.

In a recent interview with the AP, he expressed frustration with the U.S. Government, saying "there is no discernible effort to reduce the consumption of drugs in the United States."

As for Ramirez, he says his neighbors are disheartened. Walking towards downtown, Ramirez says the women in his neighborhood stopped feeding they stray dogs because they want the animals to go where it's safer.

I ask him where that is.

Ramirez stops walking for a moment, before pointing towards the U.S.

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