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The unlikely winner in the war on drugs? Iran

As Barack Obama arrives in Mexico for the first visit of his second term in office, talk has inevitably turned to the United States' floundering war on drugs in Latin America. And as efforts are made to scrutinize what the United States and Mexico are doing wrong, it's worth looking at where things are going right. In recent years, one unlikely victor has emerged in the global war on drugs: Iran.

It's a favorite topic for Iran's state-run news outlets. The Islamic Republic has been lauded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for having "one of the world's strongest counter-narcotics responses." While the country continues to have one of the highest rates of opium addiction, Iranian security forces seize a larger volume of heroine and opiates than any other country, according to a 2012 U.N. report.

In October, Italy's U.N. representative Antonino de Leo said the praise is warranted. He even drew a direct comparison to Latin America's war on drugs when he told the New York Times that Iran's success is all the more impressive because "[t]hese men are fighting their version of the Colombian war on drugs, but they are not funded with billions of U.S. dollars and are battling against drugs coming from another country."

Iran has also cooperated with the U.N., dispatching thousands of police officers to tightly patrol the border with Afghanistan and devoting vast resources to the problem of addiction inside the country. In an April article for Foreign Affairs entitled "How Iran Won the War on Drugs," Amir A. Afkhami discussed how a recent turn to preventative methods has vastly improved Iran's drug addiction problem, noting that by the year 2002, "over 50 percent of the country's drug-control budget was dedicated to preventive public health campaigns, such as advertisement and education."

Iran's latest effort to curtail drug trafficking came as recently as Wednesday, when the government signed a memorandum of understanding with Armenia on a counternarcotics campaign. "Iran, located at the crossroad of international drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe leads international efforts in fighting drug networks and narcotic traffickers," the country's Fars News Agency boasted in its report on the bilateral agreement.

But Iran's victory has come at a steep price. According to Human Rights Watch, the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in drug-related executions in the Islamic Republic. In 2011 alone, 81 percent of the country's over 600 executions were due to drug-related offenses, including the use of narcotics.

For this reason, Faraz Sanei of Human Rights Watch warned in a 2011 Guardian op-ed that we should be careful about crowning Iran a victor in the global effort to combat trafficking:

In praising Iran's "strong" anti-narcotics response, [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yuri] Fedotov focused on Iran's seemingly effective supply-and-demand reduction programmes, including innovative treatment and rehabilitation measures for more than 150,000 people in communities and prisons.

Yet he said nothing, publicly at least, about the other human tragedy that is unfolding – the dozens of prisoners Iran has hanged and unceremoniously buried following flawed trials, or the hundreds of others who await a similar fate. The silence is especially puzzling since the UN agency opposes the death penalty for drug-related offences.

If this is what victory in the war on drugs looks like, it makes you wonder whether it's a battle that can ever be truly won.

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What's it like to do 'hard labor' in North Korea?

On Thursday, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor for committing "hostile acts" against the government. The severe punishment raises a pertinent question: What's it like to do "hard labor" in one of the world's most repressive countries?

The answer, based on testimonies of former captives, ranges from slight discomfort to nightmarish torture, so it's unclear what may become of the North's latest detainee. Bae, who ran a China-based tourism business, was apprehended in northeastern North Korea after taking a group of businessmen to the region from China in November. When considering how he may be treated, let's start with the best-case scenario.

About four years ago, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, found themselves in a similar predicament. They had slipped across the North Korean border from China and were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for committing "hostile acts."

Despite the punishment, they never spent a second in a labor camp for the five months of their captivity and were treated fairly gently despite a violent confrontation that occurred when they were first apprehended. "I was never sent to one of the notorious labor camps," Current TV reporter Laura Ling told CBS News. "I was in a room that had a bed and a bathroom and an adjoining room that had two female guards."

Fortunately for Ling, her sister Lisa Ling was a quasi-famous U.S. journalist, and her employer, Current TV, was partially owned by former Vice President Al Gore, who was able to get his old boss Bill Clinton to fly to the country and free them.

Others have been less fortunate. According to a Newsweek story by New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya, an American named Aijalon Mahli Gomes was imprisoned in a "brutal labor camp" in 2010 and "tried to commit suicide" due to the poor conditions. "Swedish diplomats, acting on behalf of the U.S.-which has no diplomatic relations with North Korea-are aware of his condition," reported Somaiya. Aijalon's release was eventually secured by former President Jimmy Carter. Another American, Robert Park of Los Angeles, saw the inside of a labor camp that same year after he crossed the Chinese-North Korean border via the frozen Tumen River. He was only held for six weeks, but when he returned to the United States he was institutionalized "resulting from severe sexual abuse he was subjected to in jail," according to Somaiya.

We know more about the treatment of Korean political prisoners. A 2009 Korean Bar Association report based on testimony from survivors and former guards detailed the daily misery of the 200,000-some political prisoners estimated to be inside the country's labor camps.

"Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist," read the report, according to the Washington Post.  "Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins."

In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty International gives a similarly horrific depiction. "The combination of hazardous forced labor, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release," said the group. "We received 120 grams of rotten corn for daily food," said one former prisoner. "So many people with the same year and a half sentence as me didn't survive their term and died of hunger."

Needless to say, let's hope Bae's treatment is similar to Ling's, not your everyday North Korean political prisoner's.

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