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Stephen Downing: From drug warrior to anti-prohibition activist

Honduras Cocaine

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Forensic personnel prepare about 400kg of cocaine to be burnt in Tegucigalpa on May 11, 2012.

Retired Deputy Chief Stephen Downing spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, many of them heading up the Narcotics Division. That's where he was when President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971.

Downing said he remembers hosting media conferences in the early days of drug raids, when police would display their seizures: "two kilos, a few thousand dollars, a couple of handguns. In the past, that was a big show-and-tell for the press," Downing says. "Today it's warehouses full, it's piles of money, it's tens of thousands of war-level weapons."

The war on drugs, Downing says, hasn't worked.

"When we started, our objective was to reduce the flow of drugs into this country and to reduce addiction," Downing says. "We’ve done neither."

Now, Downing's a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that wants the government to legalize and regulate drugs. He's also a member of the Caravan for Peace, led by Mexican activist Javier Sicilia, travelling across the country to draw attention to cartel violence in Mexico. 

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Caravan for Peace, drawing attention to drug violence in Mexico, received by LA City Council

Caravan for Peace

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Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, shakes hands with a supporter after a press conference on August 13, 2012. Since the murder of his 24 year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, last year, Sicilia has become the leader of a movement calling for the end of the U.S. sponsored Drug War. For the next month, he is leading a "Caravan for Peace" across the U.S. to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about the human costs of the violence and crime affecting the U.S. and Mexico.

On Tuesday, a "Caravan for Peace" that's travelling across the U.S., drawing attention to drug violence in Mexico, visited a Los Angeles City Council meeting. They had been invited by Councilman Jose Huizar, who pointed out that L.A.'s Mexican population is second only to Mexico City's.

Clearly emotional, Huizar, who was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, said he and other immigrants are scared to visit their hometowns because of cartels.

"Zacatecas, Mexico used to be one of the safest cities in all of Mexico," Huizar said. "There's hardworking, humble people who live there, day in and day out, making a living. But today, many people live in fear. And something must be done. I want to thank the caravan for standing up. It's not easy."

Huizar plans on introducing a resolution recognizing the caravan for its work. 

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Caravan for Peace asks for an end to the drug war

Caravan for Peace

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Zacario Hernandez y Hernandez, from Chiapas, Mexico, is participating in the Caravan for Peace to raise awareness about political prisoner, Alberto Patishtan Gomez.

Caravan for Peace

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Maria Herrera Magdaleno, of Michoacán, Mexico, has four sons who disappeared in recent years while traveling in Mexico. The Mexican authorities have done nothing to help her find out what happened to them.

Caravan for Peace

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A member of the caravan places photos of the disappeared at an impromptu memorial at La Placita Church near downtown Los Angeles on August 13, 2012.

Caravan for Peace

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On August 13, 2012, families who have lost loved ones in recent years to violence and kidnapping in Mexico came to La Placita Church in downtown Los Angeles. Led by Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, the "Caravan for Peace" is traveling across the U.S. to raise awareness about the human costs of the U.S. led Drug War.

Caravan for Peace

Bear Guerra/KPCC

Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, speaks to the press on August 13, 2012 while surrounded by members of the "Caravan for Peace." Since the murder of his 24 year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, last year, Sicilia has become the leader of a movement calling for the end of the U.S. sponsored Drug War. The Caravan for Peace is traveling across the U.S. to Washington D.C. during August and September to raise awareness about the human costs of the violence and crime affecting the U.S. and Mexico.

Caravan for Peace

Bear Guerra/KPCC

Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia, shakes hands with a supporter after a press conference on August 13, 2012. Since the murder of his 24 year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, last year, Sicilia has become the leader of a movement calling for the end of the U.S. sponsored Drug War. For the next month, he is leading a "Caravan for Peace" across the U.S. to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about the human costs of the violence and crime affecting the U.S. and Mexico.

Caravan for Peace

Bear Guerra/KPCC

Alberta Guerrero, originally from Morelos, Mexico, and a resident of Los Angeles for 30 years, came to support the Caravan for Peace because she fears for the lives of her son and grandchildren who still live in Mexico.

Caravan for Peace

Bear Guerra/KPCC

Maribel Asención Gonzalez, holds a photo of her brother, Andres Asención Gonzalez - a U.S. resident who has not been seen since March 27, 2011, when he was kidnapped near the Texas-Mexico Border. She says neither the Mexican, nor the United States governments have done anything to help find out what happened to him.

Caravan for Peace

Bear Guerra/KPCC

"Hasta la madre" is slang in Mexico for "We have had it!" and has become the cry of protesters and activists calling for an end to the Drug War and violence in Mexico.


The rally was a swarm of dates like "April 13, 2011" and "September 22, 2010 in Veracruz." Those were signs held up by family members of the dead and missing in Mexico's drug violence.

On Monday, the Caravan for Peace, calling for an end to the war on drugs, docked in downtown L.A. The event was part of a month-long tour of the U.S. by Mexican peace activist Javier Sicilia. Sicilia hopes to draw attention to the drug violence that's been felt heavily in Mexico, but not so much in the U.S. — at least not yet. 

Between 2006 and Sept. 2011, the U.S. State Department estimates 47,515 people were killed in Mexico. During the same period, the Mexican Human Rights Commission estimated about 5,400 people went missing.

Sicilia paraphrased the famous poem about the Nazis, saying, "they came for the Colombians and I didn't say anything because I wasn't Colombian, and then the Mexicans, but I wasn't Mexican." When the violence hits the U.S., he said, no one will be left to protest.

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