This is a drop in the bucket compared to what should be done, but some progress. Remember too that federal inmates are only 15% of our inmate population. The states need to do much more reform in this area.
Excerpts from the Article:
Fewer increased penalties for recidivists were imposed during the first year of the federal First Step Act, the U.S. Sentencing Commission says in a new report. The report suggested that the law was having its intended effect so far, but not seeing a large impact on the federal criminal justice system as a whole.
Summarizing the initial results of some of the law’s sentencing provisions, the commission said the number of federal offenders who got increased sanctions because of a record of previous offenses dropped by 15.2 percent, from 1,001 in fiscal year 2018 to 849 in the first year of First Step.
Few offenders were subject to more severe penalties because of previous convictions of “serious violent penalties,” the report said.
Of the 849 offenders subject to that provision of the law, only 36 had been convicted of one or more qualifying “serious violent felony” offenses. And only 11 were subject to enhanced penalties based on one or more convictions for crimes like weapons offenses, robbery, and aggravated assault.
Under the First Step Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, offenders were more likely to avoid a mandatory minimum penalty or get a reduction in their sentences because of the law’s expansion of eligibility for a “safety valve,” the commission said.
Of 13,138 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 41.8 percent did not get the mandatory minimum penalty, up from 35.7 percent in the year before First Step went into effect.
The law also limited “stacking” of penalties in which offenders with a second firearms offense got a 25-year prison term. In the year before First Step, there were 117 such cases in the federal court system. Under First Step, there were only five.
The commission said that sentences of five, seven or ten years “typically replaced what would have been a 25-year penalty” before First Step.
The First Step Act allowed offenders to seek “compassionate release” from prison by going to court rather relying on the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The commission said 145 inmates were granted compassionate release in the First Step Act’s first year, a five-fold increase from the 24 granted in fiscal year 2018, before the law was in effect.
Commenting on the report, sentencing expert Douglas Berman of Ohio State University’s law school said in his Sentencing Law and Policy blog that the law’s provisions “largely achieved their intended goals and impacted a lot of cases, though they still have a relatively small impact on a massive federal criminal justice system.”
Berman noted that although the “safety valve” change helped about 1,250 additional federal drug defendants, the federal system during First Step Year One.”“any system-wide benefit would seem to be largely eclipsed by the fact that the federal government brought roughly 1400 more drug cases into the system.
He added, “When some federal drug sentences go down slightly, but the overall number of defendants being sentenced for drug cases goes up (and especially if the federal caseload increase involves mostly lower-level offenders), it is hard to get too excited about the impact of reform.”
As a former addict – clean 14 and a half years now – naturally this caught my attention among the hundreds of articles I get monthly. The article reminds me of some philosophy classes – much talk, many questions, no answers! I don’t agree with the characterization of many “likes and dislikes” as “addiction”.
Some of the author’s attitudes are formed by the structure/principles of NA and AA. I have long argued that addiction is not a “disease” – it is a phenomenon, but the creators of AA did not know the science of how drugs affect the brain, so they labeled it a disease. And, it IS curable!
She does hit the nail on the head in saying that to beat addiction you must know yourself.
Excerpts from the Article:
A recovery process is supposed to be a bridge to normal living.
It takes a while – this normal living. It happened for me when I stopped measuring my normalness against others idea of what normal and abnormal is. On reflection, aren’t we all living pretty normal lives? We believe that a normal life is functional, happy, untroubled and balanced.
But if you look around in our society, none of that is normal, and probably never has been. We have created an ideal view of normalcy, perpetuated by a mostly Christian viewpoint that has infiltrated every part of our society without us consciously noticing. This normal is totally unobtainable for most, and leaves us dealing with a lifetime of feeling shame because we don’t measure up. In fact, the normal for most people involves experiencing trauma frequently, struggling to make ends meet and worrying about how to provide our basic needs. Experiencing these everyday events does not make anyone inferior, bad or maladjusted. It makes you human!
Addiction these days is the most normal, accepted and encouraged state of being there is.
Even if our needs are being met, we are consumed by competing. Being the best, prettiest thinnest—and definitely making sure the rest of the world knows we are all those things. Addiction is the most normal, accepted and encouraged state of being there is.
You’re probably thinking I’m exaggerating, and I really wish I was. But in actuality, most everyone on the planet has an addiction to something. Maybe not drugs or alcohol, but definitely other things like money, self-righteousness, sex, being acceptable – the list is endless, and the consequences are as equally devastating.
Everyone has a go to behaviour that helps us distort reality. Nobody is free of addiction. The only difference between one addicted person and another is that one addiction is more attractive to them than another.
Even some people in recovery become addicted to recovery. Is this a good or a bad thing? For me it would be problematic. Segregating ourselves from the rest of the population and labeling others as “normies” and ourselves as addicts—not like them, different, special in some way—is burning bridges rather than crossing them.
Sticking labels on myself made me feel disconnected and abnormal from the general population. Sometimes, in certain situations, it made me feel superior, because I was led to believe people in recovery had a greater understanding of life, God and the world than the rest of the population. It helped me to focus on my very human behaviour, the part of me that needed an addiction. It showed me where I was dysfunctional and fearful, and using obsessive behaviours as coping tools.
But going into meetings and referring to myself as an addict and an alcoholic started to feel very uncomfortable to me. I began to feel like I was lying. I didn’t like the “us versus them” idea because as I grew mentally and emotionally and became compassionate, I saw that everyone is struggling with something. Even the people who had abused me and damaged me irrevocably were attempting to ease their own horrific pain.
I knew I had to widen my experience of the world to truly recover… and actually understand why I had chosen self harm instead of self love. I read relentlessly about human nature and its deepest taboo concepts. People like Carl Jung, Ken Keys and Carlos Castaneda opened up the truth and expansiveness of my humanness. The parts that are too strange for most of us to even look at. I had to be fearless and thorough—a grossly underused and undervalued 12 step concept.
To really recover, I had to learn about the darkest parts of myself and understand that these are the areas that drive my being. I had to have deep conversations with people right across the world who lived authentically, embracing these parts of themselves. People who didn’t pretend that love and light was the way out of addiction, but who understand that making friends with our darkness is the fastest route. Ignoring our own darkness makes us very judgmental, fearful people.
I had to explore, expand and truly learn about my own magnificence and power without shame. As I grew, I was rejected by those in my recovery community, by lovers, by friends who turned out to be nothing more than acquaintances; some who were using me as their own addiction. I looked at my own ill effective behaviours more deeply than I ever thought possible and I learned to love them and celebrate them as much as my socially acceptable traits. This is the most empowering, spiritual process I have ever encountered.
In my quest to know myself, I found that I am a very normal human being.
Not different. I found that I am unique as a spirit and a soul, but not unique in my experiences. There are strange and exciting parts of myself that anyone can discover, if we are not suppressed with rules and dogma. I opened my mind. And I opened my heart. I went to any lengths and I found my normalcy. I found myself. And I discovered that if I am an addict, then so are you.
Study: Cannabis Use Associated with Reduced In-Hospital Mortality in Patients with Congestive Heart Failure
MORE evidence of the medicinal power of Pot, yet the BOZOS in Congress keep it classified as dangerous as heroin!
RAISE HELL FOR DECRIMINALIZATION OF POT!
Excerpts from the Article:
Heart failure patients with a history of cannabis consumption possess lower in-hospital mortality rates than do those with no history of use, according to data published in the journal Cureus.
Researchers affiliated with Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center in New York City assessed marijuana use and in-patient hospitalization trends for patients with congestive heart failure over a four-year period. Authors determined that cannabis users had “less all-cause in-hospital deaths and shorter hospital stays compared to non-users.”
Prior observational studies have similarly reported that marijuana use is associated with a decreased risk of in-hospital mortality among patients suffering from heart failure and heart attacks. Other studies have reported that cannabis exposure is associated with greater in-hospital survival rates among patients with cancer, pancreatitis, burn-related injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and other types of severe trauma.
Full text of the study, “Congestive heart failure hospitalization trends and cannabis use disorder (2010-2014): National trends and outcomes,” appears in Cureus.
The system is sooooooo fucked up; this is one result. It is not an uncommon injustice, and all of it is due to our “war on drugs”! To learn how, READ How the war on drugs destroyed Justice.
Excerpts from the Article:
Issues facing exonerees and wrongfully convicted individuals have been recurring topics in CLN and PLN. Still, there’s another category of arguably similarly situated citizens that must also be paid some attention: Those who were wrongfully accused of crimes they did not commit.
Even though a great many of these innocents were cleared of culpability and released before trial and others prior to being indicted, consider those whose lives were temporarily disrupted. Some of these victimized citizens’ lives would be all but destroyed just by their accusation and arrest.
Brandon Gonzales, 23, was attending a homecoming party in October 2019 at a Greenville, Texas, event hall. He had left the event and was sitting in a car outside when gunfire erupted from within the venue. He was told by fleeing partygoers that someone was inside shooting a firearm. Two partiers were killed, and many others wounded. Gonzales left the area and went home, thankful that neither he nor any of his friends had been among the dead or wounded, resuming his former life … for a short while. Gonzales would fall victim to an all-too-real (and common) example of an erroneous eyewitness identification. Three days after leaving that party, he found himself under arrest at his job by a phalanx of Hunt County sheriff’s deputies. With more than one death at that party, capital murder was the charge in the state that leads the nation in death penalties assessed and executions carried out. Gonzales had good reason to worry about his future.
With a hurriedly assessed $1 million bond, the former automobile dealership employee could never in his wildest dreams have hoped to make, Gonzales spent nine days in jail, reading his Bible, praying for deliverance, and writing in his journal. Apparently his prayers would be granted.
The investigators looking to actually solve the case rather than just obtain a conviction had cleared him of any involvement, despite a flawed eyewitness statement.
Released from jail, Gonzales found himself facing an entirely new raft of problems. The New York Times had run the story of his capital murder arrest, even to the point of printing his mugshot. His story and booking photograph landed on the web. Gonzales soon found himself to be the object of a great deal of unwanted, unnecessary, and unhelpful attention. When he saw a bystander filming him at a local department store, he moved thousands of miles away to live with relatives in Florida, seeking a fresh start. Even after arriving in Florida, he remained haunted by his false arrest ordeal. After a Google search where his arrest, charge, and mugshot remain, employment door after employment door slammed firmly shut. One prospective employer recently suggested that Gonzales let some more time elapse before trying to find a job.
A bad eyewitness accusation and the cops’ rush to arrest are not an isolated or even rare occurrence. This is demonstrated by the recent release of a movie about Richard Jewell, a former security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games. He saved many lives yet wound up being falsely accused of planting the bomb himself. Because of that false accusation, Jewell’s life was effectively destroyed due to the false accusation against him.
Gonzales was also vilified. “This really, it ruined my life,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “Everything was going great. I got up to go to work every morning. I provided for my kids. Now it’s like, even though I was set free — they finally found out I was innocent — it’s still there.”
Gonzales credits friends, family, and lawyers for sticking with him. Exculpatory evidence and a contradictory timeline given by an unnamed witness bolstered his innocence. Gonzales, it was revealed, was on a FaceTime call with his girlfriend while the shooting was going on. Others saw him sitting in his vehicle outside the party site.
Who killed Byron Craven Jr. and Kevin Berry, and injured six others, remains a mystery. Who devastated Gonzales’ life isn’t.
Indeed, I have seen this problem for years. The real reason why we have more than 4 million Americans on probation and parole is because there are powerful financial forces opposing needed changes. Sending people back to prison is job preservation for tens of thousands of people in the criminal justice system. Most return for “technical violations”, like being 10 minutes late for curfew (if you think that does not happen you don’t know what is really going on!) It certainly is not for public safety.
Excerpts from the Article:
Probation and parole are often advertised as “alternatives to incarceration” that allow people to largely continue on with their life around a support group. However, a new report released late last week from the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that probation and parole actually drive high numbers of people right back to jail or prison.
Many of these people are disproportionately Black and brown, and the authors say their return to a cell is largely due to the fact that they don’t get the services and resources they need.
“Probation and parole are seen as acts of leniency, but in the states we examined, they often lead to incarceration just for using drugs, failing to report a new address, or public order offenses like disorderly conduct,” said Allison Frankel, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author. “Incarcerating people for failing to meet the overly burdensome requirements of supervision upends peoples’ lives without meaningfully addressing their underlying needs.”
The data shows that over the past 50 years, the use of probation and parole in America has “skyrocketed” — parallel to increasing jail and prison populations. As of 2016, 4.5 million people, or 1 in every 55, were under supervision, often for years.
To better understand this problem, the authors did in-depth research on states where the problem is particularly acute — Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — and interviewed 164 people directly impacted by the probation and parole system.
One man, Earnest Burgess, was convicted of drug possession in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2011. After looking at his conditions of supervision document, he noticed certain conditions like “You shall not have in your possession at any time more than $100.00 in cash without agent’s approval,” felt onerous. With more than 35 rules and conditions, Burgess said he wondered, “Are you trying to rehabilitate me, or are you trying to punish [me]?”
Researchers also spoke with a Black Pennsylvania woman who “cycled through probation and jail,” mostly for shoplifting and drug offenses, which she says “stemmed from a substance use disorder.” “I asked for programs,” the woman told the researchers, “but [probation] didn’t want to hear that I need help; they just gave me time.”
The researchers also found that there are stark racial disparities in supervision, and its resulting punitive enforcement.
Nationwide in 2016, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 1 in every 81 white people was under supervision, compared with 1 in every 23 Black people. They also found that Black Americans are more likely to be arrested and found in violation of their supervision terms compared to any other race or ethnicity.
In 2017, 45 percent of all state prison admissions resulted from probation or parole violations, proving that this problem is pervasive in the system, the authors detail.
Nearly half of all prison admissions in Pennsylvania were for parole violations; and, over the last two decades, Wisconsin prisons have reincarcerated “about twice as many people for supervision violations as for regular criminal convictions.”
In Georgia, during a 5-month period in 2019, between 23 and 43 percent of all jail bookings in 9 counties involved probation or parole violations.
At their root, probation and parole violations “often stem from poverty; a failure by authorities to support people in addressing underlying challenges, such as substance use disorder, housing insecurity, or mental health conditions; and racially biased policing and enforcement.”
Instead, they suggest the governments invest in jobs and housing opportunities while encouraging voluntary treatment for substance use disorders and mental health care for those that need it.
This way, the authors write, you’re treating the criminality at its root, and ensuring that everyone is well equipped to enter back into their life. “By investing in communities over supervision and confinement, governments can work to break the supervision-to-incarceration pipeline, and help people get the resources they need,” Frankel concluded.
The full ACLU/HRW report can be accessed here.
The Whole Story:
This young entrepreneur is ahead of her time! Go. Rylie GO!
Excerpts from the Article:
In a field in rural Northampton County, thousands of green hemp shoots raise their spiky leaves toward the sky.
The fledgling plants belong to 14year-old Rylie Maedler, who says medicine made from plants like these gave her a renewed chance at normal life, childhood and a beautiful smile. Now, she wants to help do the same for others.
Rylie is CEO of Rylie’s Sunshine, a cannabis research and development company, and the founder of the Rylie’s Smile Foundation nonprofit. With her new Virginia hemp farm, she hopes to improve the quality of medicine available to pediatric patients who can benefit from medical cannabis, just like she did.
In 2013, when Rylie was seven, her painful, shifting teeth seemed at first to only indicate that she’d need braces. When her teeth started rapidly falling out and her face started changing shape, her parents realized something was very wrong. Numerous doctor’s visits later, Rylie had a diagnosis: aggressive giant cell granuloma, an ultra-rare degenerative bone disease that behaves similarly to cancer. With the tumors threatening to cause facial deformities and her daughter experiencing painful seizures, Rylie’s mother, Janie, was desperate for solutions.
After learning that cannabis oil could help with bone regeneration, the Rehoboth Beach family began giving Rylie cannabis oil. Though Delaware has allowed medical uses of marijuana since 2011, administering the drug to children was illegal at the time.
The bones in Rylie’s face began to show signs of regeneration and her seizures significantly dialed back. Today, the teen continues to take cannabis oil several times a day and is maintaining good health.
In the aftermath, Rylie and Janie successfully lobbied the Delaware state legislature to legalize cannabis oil for the treatment of several intractable illnesses in children and to make it legal for children taking medical marijuana to do so on school property.
Now, Rylie is embarking on a new mission: Through her nonprofit and forprofit, Rylie and Janie have set their sights on several research and development targets that will improve the world of medical cannabis and help other sick children. The mother-and-daughter duo acquired the farmland in Birdsnest and, this month, they oversaw the planting of Rylie’s first full field of hemp. The 4,884 plants that went in the ground July 3 were donated by Front Range Biosciences, a Colorado agricultural biotech company, and will be used for research and to make CBD oil that will be donated to children in need.
Hemp, a plant in the cannabis family, is bred to have much lower levels of THC — the active ingredient that gives people a high. Hemp is legal to grow in most states under strict rules and can be used for a variety of industrial applications in addition to its medical uses.
The term “medical cannabis” encompasses the medicinal applications of a variety of compounds contained in the cannabis plant, including both CBD and THC.
“It gave me my life back, my childhood back and my smile,” Rylie said. “I am living proof that cannabis is a real medicine that can save lives.”
Cannabis-based medicine can be effective on a number of conditions, though most of what is known is based on anecdotes or observation of patients, said Dr. Patricia Frye, medical director of Takoma Park Integrative Care and one of nation’s top physicians specializing in medical cannabis. The reason why has to do with how various compounds in cannabis interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, a modulating system the body uses to stay healthy, Frye said.
“It’s present in everything from jellyfish to humans,” she said. “And, really, the whole purpose is to maintain what we call homeostasis, so it interacts with almost every neurotransmitter and hormone — every regulatory system — in the body.” Cannabis contains about 500 different compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids and omega fatty acids. About 150 of them are unique to the cannabis plant, said Frye, who is also associate professor of medical cannabis science at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. The compounds THC and CBD are usually the most abundant, and, therefore, also the most well-known, but other major types include CBG, CBC and THCV. So far, the only compound found to be psychoactive is THC — and then only if it is heated, Frye said.
Beyond her new farm, Rylie has her sights on more policy changes on pediatric use of medical marijuana.
“I want Rylie’s Law to be a federal law,” she said, referring to her Delaware namesake regulation that extends medical marijuana use to pediatric patients. “I don’t want children to be overlooked, and everyone deserves to have a medicine that helps them the best.”
She says the current programs shown to her annually in school health class rely on scare tactics, like saying that cannabis causes people to lose IQ points, to convince kids not to try recreational drugs. “The current scare tactics they’re using, it can give children the wrong idea about children who take it as a medicine,” Rylie said.
According to Frye, the brain is still developing up until about age 25, and too much THC exposure has been found to interfere with brain development, which is why there is so much emphasis on protecting young people. However, moderate amounts of THC have not been found to be detrimental, she said — and for patients with very serious medical conditions, the medicinal benefit of THC is weighed against the risk of developmental problems, Frye said.
“Rylie is an honors student who has full (CT) scans regularly to make sure her brain is developing normally,” Porter wrote.
“She’s living proof that there exists a place in modern pediatrics medicine for cannabis and that so much of the information out there is just plain inaccurate.”
“I almost cried that day,” she said. “But, every year that I’ve seen it, I get used to it, sadly. I can’t really cry about it any more. I just want to fix this for everyone else who’s going through this.”
The Whole Story
Survey: Majority of Health Care Professionals Endorse Cannabis Use Instead of Opioids in Chronic Pain Patients
Sure; it just makes sense!
Excerpts from the Article:
Nearly three in four licensed health care professionals in Washington state endorse the use of medical cannabis as a substitute for opioids in patients with chronic pain, according to survey data published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
Researchers with the University of Washington School of Nursing surveyed a random sampling of actively licensed health care professionals legally permitted to provide medical cannabis authorizations in the state of Washington.
Seventy-two percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Medical marijuana should be used to reduce the use of opioids for non-cancer pain.” Several studies – such as those here, here, and here – report that pain patients enrolled in state-sponsored cannabis access programs reduce or eliminate their use of opioid pain relievers over time.
Sixty-three percent of respondents also agreed, “The DEA should reclassify marijuana so that it is no longer a schedule I [prohibited] drug [under federal law]” – a finding that is consistent with that of prior surveys of health practitioners.
Over 80 percent of respondents expressed interest in receiving additional medical training with respect to cannabis – an opinion that is also consistent with prior surveys, such as those here and here. Among those who had never provided a medical cannabis authorization, more than half (58 percent) reported that “they did not feel they had the knowledge” to do so. Respondents reported that they were likely to “rely most on other health care professionals” when seeking information about the use of medical cannabis. According to data published earlier this year in the journal Complimentary Therapies in Medicine, most medical students report receiving no formal education about the therapeutic use of cannabis during their time as undergraduates.
The survey’s authors concluded: “Patients expect their clinician to provide information on the effects, risks, and benefits of cannabis. Health care professionals must be prepared to meet their expectations and to do so within the letter of the law. Now more than ever, a rational approach to medical cannabis is needed to assure that unforeseen consequences are mitigated while responsibly promoting the use of cannabis for medically appropriate symptoms and conditions.”
Full text of the study, “Knowledge, practices, and attitudes of Washington health care professionals regarding medical cannabis,” appears in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
The Whole Story
Every prosecutor’s office in America should do this!
The Office of the District Attorney for Nevada County (population: 99,000) has filed a motion to dismiss hundreds of low-level marijuana convictions dating back to the 1970s. Several other felony marijuana convictions will be reduced to misdemeanors.
Nevada County joins Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and several other counties in the state that have recently reviewed and expunged tens of thousands of past cannabis convictions.
A state law signed in 2018 requires officials to review and identify past marijuana convictions that may be eligible for dismissal. To date, officials have identified nearly 200,000 Californians eligible to have their convictions either dismissed or resentenced.
The Whole Story
Practical Tip – Do a Demand Letter instead of a Lawsuit – This works great and SAVES YOU A LOT OF AGGRAVATION – kra
Even when I was practicing full time, I often suggested to a client who came in saying “i want to sue X” that we do a Demand Letter first.
Recently, I have helped folks with Demand Letters, with great results – One person got a check from the insurance company which was giving her a run around, another got a check from the lawyer for his malpractice … and several more.
To discuss the possibilities and answer any of your questions concerning any legal dispute, CALL me. No charge, and you will know all your options.
Ken Abraham 302-423-4067
The Guatemalan rainforest: Lush jungle, Mayan ruins and narco jets full of cocaine – Of Course! – kra
Of Course! The War on Drugs is a whopping disaster, and should end. We all know it, but lawmakers are idiots, who pander to the many forces contributing to their campaigns to avoid needed reforms. For every 1 person arrested, 29 benefit financially, yet most of them are helping neither society nor the individual arrested.
READ How the War on Drugs has Destroyed Justice. I remember when the system worked well; justice nearly always was the result. Today it is a total train wreck – perhaps the most vivid manifestation is that we are imprisoning hundreds of innocent people every year. This is WHY it is a train wreck!
Excerpts from the Article:
The makeshift airstrips are sliced into the jungle, clearings carved out of the oaks and palms wide enough to land jets full of cocaine.
The planes arrive in the middle of the night, their lights off, guided by drones, unsteady under the weight of the drugs. They descend over Mayan ruins, over camps of jaguar researchers and ornithologists, over illegal settlers and ranchers.
The cat-and-mouse game between the United States and the leaders of Latin America’s drug trade has shifted to this wild stretch of Guatemala, one of the most inhospitable landscapes in the Western Hemisphere. Jets can carry more than $100 million worth of cocaine, to be ferried swiftly out of the jungle, through Mexico and on to the United States.
Over the 50-year U.S. drug war, one truth has prevailed: When one trafficking route closes, another emerges to take its place.
Not long ago, cartels moved more drugs in submarines and fishing boats through the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Coast Guard vessels narrowed that route. Cocaine-filled jets once flew mainly to Mexico and Honduras, until those countries developed aerial interdiction teams.
But Guatemala’s northern border remains a no man’s land, a wildlife reserve that has become a criminal playground. This newest route runs through the largest rainforest in Central America, an expanse the size of Delaware that was once the cradle of the Mayan civilization.
Guatemalan security forces found 50 abandoned narco jets in the country last year. Dozens more landed and then flew away, authorities say. Ninety percent of the cocaine now consumed in the United States transits through Guatemala.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a mixed impact on drug trafficking in the Americas. The increased difficulty of moving the product across locked-down borders has crashed the price of coca leaf in South America. But cocaine seizures in the United States have been largely flat.
In this undefended stretch of Guatemala, authorities here say, the planes have kept coming. A slick twin turboprop was found in a clearing in the jungle on June 21. The burned remains of a jet, apparently set on fire by traffickers after the drugs were removed, were found June 19. Another crashed south of the Laguna del Tigre National Park in April, scattering thousands of pounds of cocaine in tightly wrapped bricks throughout the brush.
In recent months, the park has been ravaged by more than a dozen large-scale fires, many set by drug traffickers who are burning tracts of jungle to build “illicit landing strips for the transportation of drugs,” President Alejandro Giammattei said in an address to the nation this spring. A team of firefighters was captured in the park this month by a group of armed men.
But even as Guatemalan officials acknowledge the transformation of this protected land into a drug trafficking corridor, its security forces say they are outmatched by the far better resourced cartels. On a flight over Laguna del Tigre earlier this year, a Washington Post journalist counted more than a dozen landing strips across the park — and several jets sitting on them.
“We are talking about an industry that has enough money to abandon million-dollar planes in the jungle,” Guatemalan Army Col. Juan de la Paz said. “Their resources are infinite, and we are just trying to keep up.”
Many of the jets come from Venezuela. Between 2012 and 2017, cocaine flows through the country rose by 57 percent, according to the U.S. government’s consolidated counterdrug database; the Justice Department this year charged President Nicolás Maduro with narcoterrorism. Still more cocaine comes from Colombia and Ecuador.
“Colombian and Venezuelan drug trafficking organizations often partner with Mexican cartels for significant cocaine shipments,” said Michael Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “The cocaine shipment is most often destined for Guatemala.”
The Pentagon sent Navy and Coast Guard ships to the Caribbean this year in its largest ever deployment to confront the drug trade there. But Attorney General William P. Barr has acknowledged: “Our pressure has led to an attempt for an air route out of Central America.” That air route has proved more difficult to block. Enforcement in Guatemala’s remote corners is almost nonexistent and access to Mexico’s porous southern border is unobstructed.
The 15,000-square-mile department of Petén is protected by a brigade of 1,200 soldiers with no air support, de La Paz said. By the time soldiers bushwhack through the jungle, the planes have departed or been destroyed.
“It’s an impossible task,” said one soldier, who was not authorized to speak to journalists. “We hear the planes fly in and we just say, ‘There goes another one.’ ”
The troops climbed the stairs and found 1,700 individually wrapped kilos — roughly 3,700 pounds — of pure cocaine. It would be worth roughly $160 million in the United States.
About once a week, soldiers and rangers said, they heard drones fly over their jungle base. Then, often in the middle of the night, the planes arrived.
Some appeared to be almost new. Guatemalan officials say pilots are paid up to $500,000 per flight — a wage that appeared to take the risk into account. De la Paz said Guatemalan forces last year recovered the bodies of 10 pilots killed in crashes. One crashed into the getaway vehicle waiting next to the airstrip.
Judge Karla Hernández was held hostage for three days in 2018. She’s been assigned two bodyguards.
In 2018, Hernández sentenced Lester Ovidio Gallegos Mayorga to four years in prison for illegal cattle grazing in Laguna del Tigre. The next year, police charged him with transporting 70 kilos of cocaine through the park in a pickup.
One ranch in Laguna del Tigre was long registered to Waldemar Lorenzana, a well-known recipient of government contracts, even as he ran one of the country’s largest cocaine trafficking organizations. Extradited to the United States in 2014, he was eventually convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced this year to 23 years in federal prison.
Dozens of airstrips identified by the Guatemalan military remain active, fueling suspicions of government complicity or participation in the trafficking. In some cases, the military has refused to destroy the airstrips until it receives dynamite from the Guatemalan Justice Department.
“Guatemalan forces disabled 16 suspected clandestine airfields in 2019, though many returned to operational use within days or weeks,” the State Department reported this year. The DEA has found that air traffic controllers have been bought off by drug traffickers.
“It’s a combination of official corruption and a lack of institutional capacity,” said Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. “There’s money to do more, but there’s not a political will.”
Two millennia before Laguna del Tigre came under the control of drug traffickers, it was the cradle of the Mayan civilization, home to a road network that linked hundreds of Mayan cities in an ancient jungle metropolis. “This was New York City at the time of Jesus Christ,” said Roan McNab, the Guatemala program director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, as he flew over the jungle. Below him was the Mirador basin, where archaeologists are uncovering signs of one of the world’s most sophisticated pre-modern civilizations. A pyramid swelled in the jungle, larger than the Egyptian pyramid of Giza.
Those rangers have focused on preserving one 143,000-acre tract of the park, about a sixth of its total area, because they don’t have the resources to protect more. Criminal organizations have razed much of the land outside that area. In the last year, McNab said, man-made fires have swept through tracts roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia.
“Demand for cocaine in the Northern Hemisphere leaves a trail of wreckage across the Americas,” McNab said. “The ecological devastation of Laguna del Tigre is just one example. Farther south, other Mesoamerican protected areas face similar challenges.”
At nearby El Mirador, a towering Mayan ruin deep in the jungle, archaeologist Richard Hansen has hired 28 private armed guards to fend off traffickers. Much of his funding comes from private donors, including actors Mel Gibson and Morgan Freeman. Sens. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and James E. Risch (R-Idaho) introduced a bill last year that would devote $72 million to fund “archaeological research, law enforcement, and sustainable tourism” around the ruins.
Hansen envisions trains full of tourists winding through the jungle to the remote site.
“We have to outsmart the narcos,” he said.
The drug trade has had a devastating environmental impact, a phenomenon Science Magazine dubbed “narco-deforestation.” Laguna del Tigre has lost more than a fifth of its tree cover since 2000.
Rarely have U.S.-funded conservationists worked so dangerously close to some of the world’s most powerful traffickers.
The unarmed park rangers in Laguna del Tigre come face to face with them regularly. A group of 30 men arrived on horseback in one of the rangers’ camps last month and ordered them to stop patrols, McNab said. Rangers have been kidnapped and beaten. Last week, armed men carjacked a park ranger’s government vehicle and left it torched in the brush.
At least 12,000 people live illegally in the park. Many were displaced during the country’s long civil war. Others came in search of land, rare in a country where vast amounts of property are controlled by a small political and economic elite.
But many end up working the illegal cattle farms of wealthy landowners, many of them linked to the drug trade. Informal settlements inside the park have grown into small towns, with schools and clinics and convenience stores. Many are close to illicit airstrips. But residents insist that they are poor farmhands, not traffickers.
McNab thinks often about the Mayan empire. It collapsed in part because it overused the forest’s resources. But after that collapse, the forest slowly returned to life. “Maybe that’s what happens here again,” McNab said. “The jungle returns to life after mankind is forced to leave.”