War on Drugs Conference at UTEP

"Border bust" courtesy of Ivan Pierre Aguirre

"Border bust" courtesy of Ivan Pierre Aguirre

EL PASO – Longer than all the combined wars America fought in the 20th century the War on Drugs turns 40 on Monday. The conflict that started in the fertile fields of remote countries and worked its way through jungle paths to nearly all American cities, is now open warfare in the streets of Juarez, El Paso’s sister city where it has claimed some 3,000 lives in the past two years.

With violence at an all time high, a two-day conference that starts Monday at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) will reevaluate this “war” the nation has been fighting. The 40-year war has cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $500 billion, yet American drug use is at an all time high and it is fueling the carnage south of the border. With most of this money allotted to law enforcement strategies, very little is left over for rehabilitation programs for the countless addicts in this nation said Sito Negron, one of the conference organizers and a reporter for the on-line Newspaper Tree. “I’m hoping that this conference is able to create a record so that it’s not just an event that goes away… people can use this as a resource to learn about the border and the issues it faces,” Negron told Borderzine.

Organizers hope that this record will provide an accessible lasting library of information on this subject. UTEP Professor of Political Science and conference coordinator Dr. Kathleen Staudt explained that national news organizations will “parachute” journalists into El Paso for a day to talk to as many people as they can before going off and writing a story that may not reflect the complexities and realities of the border. “Many times they end up demonizing the border or demonizing Mexico and Mexicans,” Staudt said.

The Conference (see the complete agenda at http://warondrugsconference.utep.edu/Program.html) will present six panels, each focusing on a different aspect of the war. They are: Panel 1 – History, Success and Failures; Panel 2 – Reporting the War on Drugs; Panel 3 – Drug War and Violence: Effects on Communities in Mexico and the U.S.; Panel 4 – Exporting the Drug War: Historical and Geographical Perspectives; Panel 5 – Social Consequences of the War; and Panel 6 – Alternative Strategies and Policy Proposals for the Drug War.

Panel 1 will run from 9 a.m. to10: 30a.m. at the UTEP Tomás Rivera Conference Center (Union Building East, 3rd floor), and will examine recent and current U.S. Policy. Presenters will include: Dr. Luis Astorga, who is the leading academic drug expert in Mexico; Joy Olsen from the Washington office on Latin America; Terry Nelson, speaking on behalf of LEAK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition); and Tom Barry from the TransBorder Project.

Panel 2 will run from 10: 45a.m. to 12:15p.m. at the same venue, and will present journalists who cover the War on Drugs. Speakers will include: John Burnett from NPR; Ramón Cantú, a reporter from Nuevo Laredo, a city 1/3 the size of Juarez with an equal murder rate; and other freelance journalists, one of whom covered the war in Bolivia from 2006 to 2009.

Judge Jim Gray from Orange County, California, the author of Why our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do about It, will be Monday’s luncheon speaker. For 20 years Gray advocated a new approach to drug policy and was in the documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope.

Panel 3 at the same location will discuss the impact the drug war violence has had on the surrounding communities from 1:45 p.m. to 3:15p.m. Experts from both countries include Sigrid Arzt, who was National Security Advisor to President Filipe Calderon; Dr. Howard Campbell, Author of Drug War Zone; Dr. Oscar Martinez, professor at The University of Arizona; Dr. David Shirk of the San Diego Trans-Border Institute; and Dr. Victor Quintana of the Chihuahua State Congress. An event in Juarez at the Cibeles Conference Center is scheduled for 6p.m. with presenter Dr. Sergio Farjado.

Speakers for Panel 4, from 8 a.m. to10 a.m.at the at the Plaza Theater, include historian and scholar on prohibition policy, Dr. David Courtwright; author of Cops, Soldiers, and Diplomats and The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs Immigration and Homeland Security, Dr. Tony Payan; director of intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Anthony Placido; and Dr. Craig Reinarman from the University of California at Santa Cruz, who had done comparative studies of drug use.

The fifth panel will take place at the same location from 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. The presenters will be Dr. Michael Agar, an anthropologist form the University of Maryland, who has done research on heroin abuse and addiction in the U.S.; Westley Clark M.D. from the Center of Substance Abuse of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Carolyn Esparza, from Community Solutions, a non-profit organization that helps families who have parents in jail due to drug violations; and Dr. Eric C. Schneider, historian on social consequences, from the University of Pennsylvania.

The last panel will run from 1:15 p.m. to 2:30p.m. also at the Plaza Theater and will discuss alternative strategies and new proposals for the war on drugs. Moderating this panel will be John Burnett of National Public Radio. Presenters include: Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance co-author of Policing the Globe; Dr. William Martin, theologist and philosopher from Rice University; and Jose Rodriguez, El Paso’s County Attorney.

Alan Bersin “Border Czar” was scheduled to speak, however, Homeland Security said that neither Bersin nor anyone from that office would attend. “Drug Czar” Gil Kerlikowske also turned down an invitation to appear.

Organizers hope this conference will establish a record of the real issues surrounding the War on Drugs. “History is not irreversible,” Negron said, “If we all keep pushing, one day we can get to a point where we can become closer as communities and not have these security issues define who we are.”

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