Before hemp became known as a mascot for hippies everywhere, it was used as a crop in various civilizations around the world for more than 10,000 years. One of the first crops ever to be spun into fiber, hemp has an astounding number of functionalities, ranging from paper to food to clothing, and it is more environmentally friendly than comparable crops such as wheat or cotton. Starting in the late 1600s, hemp was a fundamental cash crop in the United States, even farmed by George Washington for the production of rope and canvas. But even though hemp seed has a THC level below 0.3 percent, which is not enough to produce a high, industrial hemp production has been banned in the US since the first half of the 20th century after federal laws were passed banning all forms of Cannabis. Despite a rocky history and an uncertain future, a revived hemp industry has the potential to create new growth in the US economy and create jobs for American farmers.

Hemp farming was first outlawed in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a tax on the sale of all forms of cannabis, rendering it economically infeasible to produce. As a consequence, the vibrant hemp industry quickly faded away. Later in the century, hemp was once again grouped with marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970; this time it was declared a Schedule I drug, even though it’s not potent enough to produce a high. Although the importation of hemp was legalized in 1998, it was illegal for hemp to be grown at all on US soil until the 2014 Farm Bill, which included an amendment allowing for research on industrial hemp production by states that have passed legislation to legalize hemp farming.

As a result of this new law, universities, agriculture departments, and licensed farmers in 20 states are able to start pilot programs and conduct new research. Researchers are kept under close watch of the government and DEA to ensure that the yielded hemp has low enough levels of THC to be in compliance with federal standards. On top of this, the DEA is reluctant to allow licensed researchers to import hemp seed in the first place, which means that it can take months before they can actually get the seed in the ground and begin doing fieldwork.

Despite the longstanding roadblocks facing the hemp industry, it has still managed to achieve some success:  The total value of hemp products in US is $581 million and growing. With this economic potential in mind, there exists widespread, bipartisan agreement that hemp farming could net large gains for the agricultural and manufacturing industries in the US. Hemp is multifunctional, able to be used in a wide range of products manufactured or sold in the US, including natural soaps, clothing, and even cars. It’s also a nutritious source of fiber, and it’s found in brands such as Hempzels, Living Harvest, and Nutiva. All of these manufacturers, however, have to import their hemp instead of buying it domestically.  If hemp were available domestically, which would probably be cheaper than importing it, both manufacturers and American farmers would benefit.

More companies might consider using hemp in their products if locally sourced hemp was available. Since legalizing the commercial production of industrial hemp in 1998, Canada has seen an increase in small businesses finding new ways to use and market hemp products – and most of these businesses have experienced growth. Food products especially have high potential in the US market: Manitoba Harvest, a Canadian hemp-based food company, reported 500 percent growth in sales over the past five years with about half of the sales coming from US consumers.

Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

The legalization of industrial hemp could also seriously help American farmers: hemp seed is valued at anywhere from $477 – $900 per acre, compared to wheat, which is valued at $485 per acre. Support for this issue by organizations of local farmers has lead to bipartisan support in Congress: Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul represent two of industrial hemp’s biggest supporters, largely because they believe in this industry’s potential to create jobs for their constituents in Kentucky, where the soil and landscape is a good fit for the crop. Paul argues that the new industry could help replace unproductive land that was previously used for tobacco farming and coal mining.

The growth of the hemp industry would also be a win for the environment. Compared to comparable crops like rye, wheat, and cotton, hemp tends to be more pest-resistant, friendlier to biodiversity, more beneficial for the soil structure, and more conservative of water. Hemp is a pioneer plant, which means that planting hemp in a damaged ecosystem can improve the quality of the soil and make way for new biodiversity. The industrial products of hemp are also more environmentally friendly than their alternatives: for instance, hemp can be used to create a renewable plastic compound that is much greener than non-renewable plastic compounds.

Although measures to legalize the production of hemp are supported on both sides of the aisle, Congress has been unable to make much headway. Progress has stalled on a bill Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed to remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act; a previous version of this bill died in committee in 2014. An increase in lobbying efforts by agricultural and business organizations could put pressure on Congress to pass a more expansive law, but investors are apprehensive about investing in the industry because of the tight federal regulations and skepticism on the part of the DEA, creating a political Catch-22 that prevents any strong legislation from even getting a vote. New research about the potential impact of industrial hemp on the economy might motivate more lobbying by agricultural and business groups to legalize commercial hemp farming, which could put an end to the negative feedback loop. But in the meantime, law enforcement groups are actively fighting against legalization efforts.

Opponents of a domestic industrial hemp market are concerned that the new industry would allow farmers to illegally grow and sell illegal marijuana because law enforcement officials would be unable to differentiate between the two different plants. This problem has not arisen in Canada, which requires a criminal background check on farmers applying for licenses to farm hemp and controls the production, sale, transportation, and processing of the crop, all without overwhelming local police forces. Additionally, researchers are working to produce a variety of certified hemp seed that guarantees a THC level below .3 percent, which would make the crop much easier to regulate.

Despite the federal ban, fifteen states have already passed pro-hemp legislation. Even though these laws are largely symbolic, they send the message to Congress that the country is starting to accept the idea of American industrial hemp production. Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

Industrial hemp farming in the US would benefit American farmers, manufacturers, consumers, and the environment. Unfortunately, because of its association with marijuana, there are still misconceptions about hemp and a serious stigma that is quite hard to overcome for some members of law enforcement – former DEA administrator Michele Leonhart commented that the lowest point in her 33 years at the DEA was when she learned that a hemp flag had flown over the Capitol on the 4th of July.  But the attitude about hemp seems to be slowly changing, and both the federal government and various state governments have taken major steps forward in restarting an industry that has been in hibernation for almost a century.


On September 11, 2015, 75-year-old Lee Carroll Brooker, a disabled war veteran with chronic pain, received the news he had been dreading for months; his Supreme Court petition, challenging his life sentence for growing three dozen marijuana plants, had been denied. “[If the court] could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would,” said trial Judge Larry Anderson of the draconian sentence. But, as Judge Anderson’s comments indicate, he could not. His hands were tied by an Alabama state law that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for anyone caught with more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana who had been previously convicted of a felony. That was the case for Brooker, who had been convicted of a felony more than three decades prior. In contrast to Brooker’s sentence, on October 12, 2016, Martin Joseph Blake was sentenced to 60 days in jail for repeatedly raping his 12-year-old daughter.

This shocking comparison offers an illuminating insight into the convoluted nature of the United States criminal justice system: a nonviolent marijuana grower with no ties to gangs or drug-trafficking organizations, merely growing the plant for his own personal use, can receive a sentence exponentially longer than a man who caused irreversible trauma to an innocent young girl. The issue at hand is mandatory minimum sentencing laws, standards set by legislative bodies that require a minimum number of years in prison for people convicted of certain crimes. In the US, the most controversial examples of these laws apply to drugs. Mandatory minimums effectively strip the judge of any discretion he or she might have to impose a sentence that is proportionate to the crime committed, and that is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment for the offense.

The modern story of drug-related mandatory minimum sentencing in the United States began with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In the wake of the cocaine overdose death of Len Bias, the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft, Congress swiftly passed the act, bypassing the usual deliberative steps of committee hearings. Although the “War on Drugs” began rhetorically with President Nixon in 1971, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 marked the first major legislative effort since his declaration to give teeth to this claim. The basic premise of the Act was to make the punishment for drug-related crimes harsher, which, in turn, would deter the proliferation of drug abuse throughout the Country. The legislature did this by introducing mandatory minimum sentences. In so doing, Congress changed the nature of drug related criminal justice from rehabilitative to punitive.

Over the years, Congress has passed a variety of legislative initiatives modifying these mandatory minimums, changing the number of years required for certain quantities and particular drugs. One of the most punitive of these laws was Section 851 of United States Code 21, which allows for a person charged in federal court to face an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence if he or she has a prior felony conviction, and the prosecutor chooses to file what is known as a “prior felony information” or “PFI.” This is an extremely powerful tool for prosecutors. A first-time marijuana grower facing 5 or 10 years might decide to try his luck at trial. But that same man with a prior felony, facing the threat of 20 years or life, might have a different viewpoint. The use of PFIs became so prolific that in 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo instructing federal prosecutors to use PFIs only in the most severe cases, where the defendant has exhibited violent behavior, is among the leadership of a gang or drug trafficking organization, or has a significant criminal history.

Mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug infractions turns the criminal justice system into a machine for chewing up and spitting out those who suffer from addiction, punishing them instead of rehabilitating them.

Examples of the harsh effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws are not hard to find. On May 9, 1999, Tyrone Taylor sold $20 of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. Unfortunately, Taylor had been caught selling the drug twice earlier in his life, and was required to serve a life in prison. Joseph Tigano III, a non-violent man living peacefully in rural Western New York, was caught operating a marijuana grow house, for which he received a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence based on a prior conviction, more than a decade earlier, for growing 10 marijuana plants. Indeed, the judge described the sentence as “much greater than is necessary” and lamented that she had “no choice.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug infractions turns the criminal justice system into a machine for chewing up and spitting out those who suffer from addiction, punishing them instead of rehabilitating them. Rather than treating those affected by their toxic grasp as enemy combatants to be thrown in prison in a “war on drugs,” drug addiction should be treated as a public health problem, and treatment given to those affected by it. Legal scholar Mark Osler frames the situation well: “If we take a rapist away from society and stop him from raping women, that is a good thing. If we take a very low-level crack dealer out of the society and imprison him for life, that’s not solving any problem because it’s a market. And you don’t solve a market problem by sweeping up low-wage labor.”

Fortunately, unlike many controversial and partisan issues that tend to split Congress and the nation, public opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing is strong, with 77 percent of citizens stating they were against it in 2015. It is also generally agreed upon as an ineffective deterrent to crime. A report from the Federal Judicial Center stated, “Trends in criminal victimization rates and drug availability for the periods before and after the mandatory minimums took effect fail to demonstrate any reduction in crime that can be attributed to the mandatory minimums.”

Regrettably, Congress has been incapable of passing the necessary criminal justice reform to put an end to this issue. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bill presented to Congress in the fall of 2015, would have been a step in the right direction, reducing many of the mandatory minimums for many drug related crimes. Unfortunately, the Republican party has been heavily split on the issue. Spearheading the movement against the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform is Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, who argues that, despite the United States having the largest prison population in the world, “we have an under-incarceration problem.” He rejects the notions that those convicted of crimes should be given sympathy, also stating “As for the claim that we should have more empathy for criminals, I won’t even try to conceal my contempt for the idea.” Sadly, to date, the bill has yet to pass. Cotton’s efforts, collaborating with others, have succeeded enough to cause majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to not yet make a commitment to bring the issue onto the table, and key authors of the bill like Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) have declared it to be “over.”

Given this legislative inaction, it’s important to consider the role and powers of the executive. Former Attorney General Holder took the right step by asking prosecutors to pursue mandatory minimums enhancements only in the most severe cases. In addition, the President has the power to commute or pardon federal prisoners. President Obama has already begun to take the necessary steps towards reversing the injustice caused by mandatory minimum sentences by making use of his clemency power more than any other President before him. Thus far, he has commuted the sentences of 673 inmates – 325 in this August alone. But that is not enough. Directives need to be given to law enforcement to shift focus away from petty drug crimes. The United States boasts an exorbitant 192,170 inmates in its federal prison system alone, with 46.4 percent jailed for drug offenses. While certainly not all of these inmates deserve exoneration, many of them are unjustly serving sentences that they would not even receive if they were sentenced today.

With the 2016 election looming in the foreground, the future of clemency initiatives is uncertain. President Obama has taken good first steps, but momentum for progress could be lost if the next administration scales back clemency efforts. Secretary Clinton has come out in favor of reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which would both continue to give presidential support for Congressional action and would indicate that she would be amenable to continuing President Obama’s actions on clemency. Donald Trump has emphasized law and order, and has expressed support for mandatory minimum sentencing laws for immigrants convicted of illegal entry. These combine to suggest that Trump is unlikely to a partner with those who seek to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums for drug crimes

Above all, one thing is clear: until the legislature can unite to address this issue, the executive remains the most effectual branch in producing change on mandatory minimums. Across the country, judges’ hands are tied as they are forced to hand severe sentences that bear no relation to the crime committed. With only a few weeks until the 2016 election, voters should keep criminal justice policy central in their minds as they consider for whom to vote up and down the ballot. As this administration has shown, executive action can have some positive impact, but it cannot provide a structural fix to this problem. This election has so far only stalled progress on what was once a promising effort to address this irrevocable injustice; it would be a welcome turn of events for the results of this election to harken a new era of bipartisan criminal justice reform that restores justice into our perhaps inaptly-named “justice system.”

Special thanks to Attorney Andrew Gladstein of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP for his professional perspective and advice.


On March 20, 2012, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department pulled over Nelly Moreira’s car. Moreira was not present; her son was the only person in the vehicle. When police conducted a routine search of him, they found an unregistered handgun in his waistband. He was arrested and the car was duly impounded: All of this was protocol.

After the incident, Nelly Moreira inquired about her vehicle. She depended on it to get to her two jobs and was already struggling to make ends meet. Four months and a $1,020 bond later (which she was told to pay in exchange for a hearing), she had received neither a hearing nor her property. Moreira’s case was taken up by a public defender, and seven difficult months after her son was arrested, the police were forced to relinquish the car.

All of this was protocol.

Nelly Moreira was the victim of a policing mechanism called civil asset forfeiture. In this common practice law enforcement can confiscate property connected to an alleged crime, even if the owner has not been charged with any wrongdoing. The use of civil asset forfeiture is widespread; it is currently legal in 42 states and at the federal level, prompting the ACLU to note, “[e]very year, federal and state law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians … simply by asserting that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity and without ever pursuing criminal charges. Under federal law and the laws of most states, they are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize.” The last condition is the most pernicious, allowing police departments to derive a meaningful source of funding from people like Moreira. Cash and sellable assets thereby form a perverse incentive for police to confiscate anything in the vicinity of a crime.

As traumatic and burdensome as Moreira’s experience was, her run-in with civil asset forfeiture seems moderate in comparison to other horror stories. Sarah Stillman, author of a groundbreaking 2013 New Yorker article on civil asset forfeiture, demonstrated as much with the experiences of Jennifer Boatright and her two children. Boatright, her sons and her boyfriend were driving through Texas in 2007 when they were pulled over. The officer asked if he could search the car, and having nothing to hide, Boatright and her boyfriend agreed. The officers “found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. According to the police report, Boatright and [her boyfriend] fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, ‘a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,’ to Linden, ‘a known place to receive illegal narcotics.’ The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana.” No marijuana was ever found, but that didn’t stop the local prosecutor from offering them a choice: they could either sign over their cash or possibly be charged with money laundering and child endangerment. Boatright and her boyfriend were forced to give into highway robbery.

Abuse surrounding civil asset forfeiture statutes can be indirect like in Moreira’s case or obviously coercive as in Boatright’s. Such a wide range of experiences illustrates the expansive leeway given to police departments and their agents. As the Institute for Justice details, property can be seized without a warrant as long as it is plausibly connected to a crime. Thanks to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in proceedings to defend civil asset forfeiture, the connection between property and the crime need not be definitive. In contrast to criminal asset forfeiture, which uses a “reasonable doubt” metric, “preponderance of the evidence” makes the burden of proof significantly lower for the state in civil proceedings. Since police departments have much less difficulty meeting this bar, they are more likely to confiscate capriciously. Furthermore, if the property owner decides to try and reclaim the confiscated items, the burden is on them to prove that they had no connection with the alleged crime. The government, rather than the accused, is given the benefit of the doubt, making people like Nelly Moreira and Jennifer Boatright guilty until proven innocent.

Structural disadvantages in the legal system do not stop with the burden of proof or a lack of warrants. Poor people and racial minorities are disproportionately targeted because of their particular inability to seek restitution. Most civil forfeiture statutes give officers a much wider berth for property of low monetary value, so the wealthy’s possessions are generally safe. However, someone who doesn’t have the financial clout or know-how to access a lawyer and navigate the opaque property-reclamation process is basically at the mercy of the police. Hence the authorities target the vulnerable portions of society; the median value for a civil forfeiture in Georgia, for example, hovers at a paltry $647. That money is being taken from those who need it most.

Most civil asset forfeiture victims face an uphill slog when trying to reclaim their property, so many don’t. The police know this, which is why they are not squeamish about confiscating the possessions of people who are never going to be charged with a crime. The numbers validate this problem: 80 percent of the individuals whose property is confiscated under civil asset forfeiture are never prosecuted. What innocent people lose through arrogation, police departments and local governments gain in funding. The most egregious abuses of civil forfeiture laws are in states that allow the police to use what they confiscate to top off their coffers. In a survey for the Journal of Criminal Justice, John Worrall found that 40 percent of law enforcement executives held civil asset forfeitures as “a necessary budget supplement”. When state regulations don’t permit the police to fund themselves with their ill-gotten gains, local departments often circumvent the rules by taking advantage of equitable sharing provisions. These statutes enable local and federal operatives to split the value of those assets they confiscate in joint operations, thereby sidestepping prohibitions on using seized funds. In sum, there exist few safeguards against lucrative, heavy-handed policing.

As long as police departments have all the advantages on their side when it comes to confiscating property — as well as the financial incentive to use them — civil asset forfeiture will not go away. The United States’ most marginalized residents will continue to chafe under arbitrary expropriation, and law enforcement officials will continue to violate their mandate to protect and serve. For these reasons it’s essential to turn up the focus on this policy, lest more individuals end up like Nelly Moreira, Jennifer Boatright and the many others whose stories are beginning to surface. It’s clear that they are only the tip of the iceberg, and that is deeply worrisome.

To South Koreans, the city of Hamhung is known as the birthplace of Hamhung naengmyun, a popular cold noodle dish. However, to those living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the city is synonymous with a different kind of delicacy: crystal meth. Methamphetamine is at the heart of a flourishing black market in North Korea. The growing volume of material goods funneling in and out of the country may be a sign of grassroots market reform, but in the short run it raises grave concerns about structural weaknesses that paint a grim picture of the country’s future.

Goods traded on the country’s burgeoning black market are not limited to drugs; everything from household necessities to luxury electronic gadgets can be purchased illegally. The increasing amount of economic activity performed under the table is a reflection of poor economic conditions, fueled by a lack of foreign currency. With the virtual worthlessness of the North Korean won (KPW) and the huge disparity between official and black market rates for many products, the North Korean economy is hostage to its foreign currency supply. A basketball produced in China may cost the KPW equivalent of USD $500 in official stores, but only USD $6 on the black market, where buyers are expected to pay in U.S. dollars. Likewise, a five-KPW metro ticket is so cheap by black market rates that an American penny exceeds the price of one ticket. Because of the disparity, many North Koreans buy a significant portion of their goods outside state-sanctioned channels, but these markets are also the distribution mechanisms for items that, unlike a basketball or metro ticket, are illegal independently of how they are acquired.

Meth production took off in the 1990s as a civilian solution to the economic destruction wrought by a famine that killed over one million people. Speculation inevitably surrounds any discussion of North Korea, but according to reports, former President Kim Jong-il set out to punish the private producers when he first learned the extent of the meth epidemic in 2003. However, meth proved too profitable for him to shut down its trade. The government soon allowed the industry to grow, going so far as to order the construction of state-sponsored meth labs in cities like Hamhung for the mass production of the drug. But the government’s inability to meet soaring black market demand — both domestic and international — has seen production shift back towards private, amateur “chefs” working in underground labs or even home kitchens.

Meth has become so prevalent in North Korea that even children consume it. The drug’s popularity is explained largely as a relief from the daily hardships of life under a repressive dictatorship. Meth’s painkilling properties have made it popular among the elderly and chronically ill. Because of its ability to suppress the appetite, the drug can temporarily alleviate the hunger pangs that are endemic in a country in which one in every three children is malnourished. For others, meth is simply the easiest and cheapest available escape — the drug of choice when needles for injecting heroin are too hard to come by.

High demand means that the number of professional drug dealers and freelancers across the country has multiplied. They are often looking to supplement their official sources of income: There are reports that civil servants, who have stable jobs but make a monthly salary of 6,000 KPW — barely enough to buy a pack of cigarettes and a lighter — have found facilitating cross-border drug trafficking to be a lucrative side job. Illegal and semi-legal black markets are widespread, with unauthorized economic activities accounting for 40 to 70 percent of citizens’ daily lives. Many doubt that the government will tackle the problem. Shutting down the meth industry or curbing the drug’s distribution would be such a major undertaking for the troubled state that the DPRK seemingly has no choice but to tolerate illicit market activity. Even if North Korean politicians wished to shut markets down, there is little indication that the government would have the wherewithal to do so. Past policy failures have become warnings to the state not to meddle in the expanding free market. State policies on agriculture, electricity and health care have been a series of disastrous experiments. The Public Distribution System, designed to distribute food to North Korea’s urban populace, is notoriously ineffective, leaving many in the country without food and necessities.

This difficulty is compounded by previous state efforts to bring the underground economy under control. During a failed experiment with currency reform in 2009, the state seized all privately held foreign currencies in an attempt to centralize their use and force citizens to use the near-worthless KPW. Without foreign money, the black market shrank, leaving merchants in distress and citizens without affordable goods. Today, foreign currencies, which provide the purchasing power that the KPW cannot, have returned as the primary means of exchange on the now abundant black markets.

These markets resurfaced because of the lack of legal trading options. Politics surrounding the DPRK’s numerous sanctions and its only trading partner, China, have made it difficult for legal trade to exist — other than with North Korea’s tightly controlled state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The dearth of legal channels for commerce has pushed many merchants underground.

Meanwhile, unofficial trade with China has actually bolstered the illicit economy by providing an influx of cash and high demand for North Korean drugs. China’s northeastern province of Jilin is home to two Korean autonomous zones, Yanbian and Changbai. These provinces have become major transit points for the North Korean drug trade as they flow through these points to inland China and eventually abroad to South Korea and Japan. The profits are then deposited in South Korean and Chinese banks and later delivered in cash by middlemen to the North Korean producers. Although the statistics are murky, border patrol agencies in these provinces have, since the late 2000s, repeatedly seized large shipments of meth. In July 2010, Yanbian border patrol seized over three pounds of meth and USD $19,300 of drug money and arrested a North Korean drug kingpin known as “Sister Kim.” The occasional effectiveness of law enforcement does not seem to have stemmed the tide of drugs.

China tolerates this illegal trade out of fear that instability in North Korea will produce a refugee crisis in its northeastern provinces. Given the region’s history of political volatility, the Chinese government tends to handle it with caution. But China has an economic reason to tolerate the black markets as well. Despite China and North Korea’s official trade relationship, North Korean SOEs often fail to pay for Chinese goods. Black market operations mean a quicker — and sometimes more reliable — payoff. Small-scale Chinese businesses are better off trading outside the government’s purview, because they can avoid North Korea’s cumbersome customs procedures.

While the North Korean government certainly has an economic incentive to turn a blind eye to black markets, their prevalence represents a threat to the authoritarian regime. Underground trade is the antithesis to North Korean official economic policies. Black markets, with their streamlined distribution systems rooted in free market principles, ultimately signal a desire for change in economic policies. Additionally, the wealth accumulated by these traders can be read as an early indication of the emergence of a middle class. Once emboldened by success, these merchants push even harder on the boundaries of commercial activity and form a market economy.

South Korea’s government has, for years, aimed to catalyze political reform in its northern neighbor at the grassroots level by filling gaps and correcting inaccuracies caused by the North’s propaganda machine. There are radio stations dedicated to providing news for the North Koreans and television shows and e-books smuggled in on USB sticks. The illegal distribution of these goods has not only been crucial for the material well-being of DPRK’s citizens, but also for the spread of information and ideas into the Hermit Kingdom.

But there is little in the way of a reform mentality in Pyongyang. When President Kim Jong-un emerged as his father’s successor, the world was hopeful that the young, Western-educated leader might enact state-orchestrated reform. It was widely hoped that his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and other key military figures would also form a behind-the-scenes power elite that would implement more modern economic policies, comparable to those of Deng Xiaoping in China during the 1970s. However, Jang was executed last December after a Shakespearean power struggle over the military’s control of lucrative state-owned fishing grounds. With his death, there remains little hope for top-down economic reforms.

The hope that the emergence of this grassroots economic reform movement will spearhead political change in the near future is premature, as today the North Korean people lack the means for protest or uprising. Widespread meth addiction illustrates desperation within the status quo. However, the stage is being set for change. Citizens can’t alter the oppressive regime, but by using black markets, they can certainly subvert it. Poverty, the failures of centralization and an influx of outside information have all led to a dissatisfied populace, while the expansion of black markets hints at the beginnings of a liberalized economy and an accompanying middle class, even if it’s a middle class of drug dealers and black market merchants. For now, these are structures that the regime is tolerating — a stance which it may one day regret.

Art by Emily Rief

The news of the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — the most wanted drug lord in the world — has been received by many as a crucial success for the Mexican government. The fall of the Sinaloa’s Cartel leader, the world’s largest and most powerful trafficking organization, has been presented as a reaffirmation of both Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s commitment to the War on Drugs, and as evidence of the close communication between the Mexican and American governmental intelligence agencies. Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001, had been impressively evading the Mexican security forces for the past 13 years. However, on February 22, the Mexican government proudly announced his capture in a condominium in Mazatlán, Sinaloa in an operation coordinated between the Mexican Marines and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Guzman’s capture has been applauded internationally as another gold medal for Peña Nieto, who, after one year in office managed to bring down America’s Public Enemy #1, a task that his predecessor Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, could not accomplish in six years.

While the arrest of “El Chapo” is indeed a remarkable event in the Drug War, not everyone has welcomed the news. In fact, the recent developments in Mexico suggest that the apprehension may have unexpected consequences. Perhaps the most immediate concern for Mexico (and the rest of the world, actually) is whether or not Guzman’s arrest will result in a backlash of violence between cartels. Furthermore, last week’s protests in rural Mexico requesting the liberation of Guzman call for an evaluation of the impact the drug cartels have in Mexicans’ lives.

Mexican Security Forces in Michoacan, Mexico. Diego Fernandez. Wikimedia Commons.
Mexican Security Forces in Michoacan, Mexico. Diego Fernandez. Wikimedia Commons.

Most security experts agree that even though the fall of “the Chapo” is a significant blow to the Sinaloa Cartel, the criminal organization will continue operating without him. After all, while Guzman was imprisoned from 1993 to 2001, the Cartel kept functioning thanks to Ismael “el Mayo” Zambada, who took over the lead role during those years. However, while some analysts believe that Zambada will be Guzman’s successor, others are concerned that Guzman’s son, “el Chapito,” will seek to become the new cartel’s leader. Experts worry that an internal power struggle could result in an escalation of violence in Mexican towns. However, it is important to indicate that such a weakness in the cartel’s structure could provide a golden opportunity for the Mexican government to advance in its quest to dismantle the powerful cartel.

As to the possibility of experiencing an increase in violence between different cartels, analysts have indicated that the obvious dominance of the Sinaloa Cartel would discourage others’ attempts to overpower it. Yet, recent events show that the situation is not so simple. For instance, it is widely commented that Michoacan’s Self Defense Forces (which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) actually received their high-range weapons from the Sinaloa Cartel. The past clashes between the Self Defense Forces and the Knights Templars have proven beneficial for the Sinaloa Cartel, but the current instability could be used to the Knight’s advantage to get even. Thus, while it is unlikely that the Sinaloa Cartel will lose power with the capture of “el Chapo,” we are yet to see whether or not other cartels will try to dispute territorial dominance.

Another issue that requires careful attention is why numerous locals in Sinaloa protected “el Chapo” for the past decades. On February 26, approximately 2000 people marched in Culiacan (the capital of Sinaloa state,) demanding the liberation of Guzman. Many posters in the march showed messages such as “We love Chapo” and “Chapo free.” When asked why he supported the drug lord, agricultural farmer Pedro Ramirez responded: “We support Chapo Guzman because he is the one who gives us jobs and helps out in the mountains.”

Even though some reports have argued that Guzman’s family organized the protest, the drug lord’s popularity is still extraordinary. For many, the idea that drug lords inspire admiration among rural young Mexicans, and that countless folk songs and books have been written in their honor, can initially seem nonsensical. However, considering that the drug industry has meant an agricultural boost in many states of Mexico, and that thousands of farmers have been employed through this illegal industry, the idolization of the drug lords seems more justified.

The Mexican government has not been able to win much of the countryside’s loyalty in the way “el Chapo” did. It seems evident that, if Peña Nieto aspires to dismantle the rest of the Sinaloa Cartel, the local support will become key to capture the other members. This is evidently a complex process, but Peña Nieto should bear in mind that as long as his administration does not prioritize giving legal incentives to agriculture, building infrastructure in rural areas and controlling corruption, his drug war mission will be extremely more difficult than it already is.

For now, Guzman has been taken to a high-security prison in Mexico City, and it remains unclear whether or not he will be extradited to the United States. In any case, the recent success of the Mexican Marines has resulted in worldwide praise to Peña Nieto’s government and the Mexican security forces. The attention that they have received is very well deserved. After all, when it comes to the Drug War, they are the most affected and involved group of the Mexican population… right?

It was in 2006 when former Mexican President Felipe Calderon first ordered the National Army to combat the drug cartels operating in Mexico, beginning the infamous “War against Drugs”. Seven years, over 80,000 deaths and about 6,000 reported cases of Human Rights abuses later, the conflict does not appear to be waning. In addition to the war between the Army and the cartels, clashes between different cartel groups have intensified. Furthermore, the astounding corruption throughout police ranks, as well as the cartels’ struggle to maintain their territorial markets, has placed rural residents in the worst position: it is common for them to become victims of extortions, kidnappings and robberies, among other abuses. Feeling that the government was incapable of offering them the security they needed, Mexican society was dominated by insecurity, fear and helplessness. That is, until various groups of citizens decided to take the issue in their own hands.

Civil vigilante units

In the past month, at least 14 new self-defense units have emerged in rural areas, particularly in the States of Michoacan, Veracruz and Jalisco. Considering that they have been active for several months now, the number of total units is likely to approach 100 at the very least. Seeing that the police and the government were either absent, corrupt or themselves working with the criminals, these self-defense units (which amount to 20,000 men, according to self-reports) have taken their AK-47 and R-15 rifles and have gone out to the streets. Their purpose is not to support the Army in its crusade against the cartels and stop drug trafficking, but rather to protect their families from local abuses. Most of these civil vigilantes work with masks and civil clothes, and so far their principal clashes have been against the Knights Templars and the Michoacan Family cartels. On February 8, the self-defense forces successfully entered Apatzingan, Michoacan, a town long-held by the Knights Templar cartel.

In light of the increasing presence of the self-defense forces in the war arena, and the extensive media coverage they received, current President Enrique Peña Nieto was pressured to officially recognize them. On January 28, the Mexican government signed an agreement with the self-defense units, legalizing them and arranging their integration into the quasi-military units called the Rural Defense Corps. According to the pact, their existence will be “temporary,” and each self-defense unit will submit a list of their members to the Defense Department. In regards to armament, the self-defense members will be allowed to keep their weapons as long as they register them with the Army.

Friends or foes?

The rise and legalization of these self-defense units has sparked fierce debates in different sectors of society in Mexico. For many, the upsurge of such self-defense units is a break-through of civil empowerment in the face of the abuses residents have had to endure since the war started. However, some politicians are concerned that the recognition of these groups would suggest an admission of state failure, while other analysts have expressed that their anxiety relates more to the murky records of vigilante groups in Latin American history.

Supporters of the self-defense forces often argue that their guerrilla tactics have proven to be extremely effective in combating corruption and drug cartels. The fact that they know the local terrain better than the Army, and that they have de-facto legitimacy in their towns, gives them a clear advantage in confrontations. Moreover, if handled correctly, Peña Nieto could even use these units to assuage the civil apathy towards the war and dredge up some support. In this aspect, supporters’ interests depend principally on whether or not the self-defense groups will receive a salary for their services. This topic should not be overlooked, for it will make the difference regarding the members’ commitment and loyalty to the movement.

However, several alarming concerns regarding the civil vigilante forces remain. For instance, history calls for caution. Bearing in mind that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia progressively stopped fighting the FARC and became another violent cartel, it is understandable that analysts are wary of the Mexican counterparts’ intentions. For those who believe that Colombia does not necessarily exemplify Mexico’s future, it is enough to recall that the Familia Michoacana cartel also claimed to be fighting the Zetas cartel… before joining drug trafficking itself.

Moreover, there are disturbing questions regarding the sources of the self-defense forces’ weapons. Reports indicate that the high-range assault rifles that many members have been carrying can only be accessed through drug cartels. To put it nicely, it would be an unfortunate move for Peña Nieto’s government to stimulate arms-trade relationships between civilians and the cartels. Thus, Peña’s administration should definitely research these risks thoroughly to avoid tightening a noose around their necks.

The war must go on (?)

As of today, the self-defense forces continue battling in Tierra Caliente, Michoacan, and other States of Mexico. Even though they have achieved some impressive  progress in the past weeks, the units remain to be a wild card for Mexico. While Peña Nieto has been wise to keep a friendly relationship with them, he obviously cannot rely on them for the war or to maintain public support. If he continues with the war (which, shockingly, has not been reconsidered in the first place) he will have to deliver the 10,000 elite forces promised in 2013. Regarding the civil vigilante groups, his administration now has the responsibility of ensuring that they remain defense-oriented only, that they do not become yet another criminal organization and that their presence remains, in fact, temporary.