Tall Tales from the Drug Wars

The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Governments Embrace

by James Mills
Doubleday, 1165 pp., $22.95

A story—perhaps apocryphal—goes that when J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI, his agents would tell him when they were hot on the trail of a fugitive. Certain that the capture was just a matter of time, Hoover would immediately place the fugitive—no matter how obscure or unimportant he might be—on the “Ten Most Wanted” list. When the small-time criminal was then captured, the FBI press office would announce the news of another big capture. The image of the FBI was thus enhanced, and the nation felt safe in the knowledge that Hoover always got his man.

The Underground Empire reminds me of that public relations device. We are assured by the author that the subjects of his investigation into what he claims to be a formidable international drug conspiracy are the biggest, smartest, richest, and most awesome criminals “in the world.” Their influence extends to “the highest levels of government.” And the amount of money they make is so astronomical that it could “alter” the “balances of power” among nations.

But there was, until recently, a little-known organization within the Justice Department fully capable of neutralizing this threat to our continued survival. The name of that organization—which allowed Mills to see its secret files (in exchange, of course, for their being allowed to read the manuscript in advance) was “Centac.” Its leader, perhaps inspired by Hoover’s sense of public relations, was looking for “a sexy name,” considered a variety of abbreviations, and decided upon an acronym for Central Tactical Unit, because it “sounded like something that would be marketable” if “properly wrapped.”

Marketability and proper wrapping seem very much on the mind of the author of The Underground Empire. He tries hard to make Centac’s war on drugs sound like an Ian Fleming thriller or an episode from Miami Vice. The very concept of an Underground Empire—which “flies no flag,” but has “larger armies” and “more power, wealth and status than many nations”—is reminiscent of one of the international villains who threaten to destroy the world in a James Bond movie.

Mills’s supervillains are aligned with governments: he is “convinced”—though his proof is sparse—“of the participation in the drug traffic of high officials in at least thirty-three countries.” In addition, “the PLO and various revolutionary and terrorist groups” are involved. In “many cases,” the finger points directly at “the chief of state.” Nor are the leading countries without an ideological plan: the “troika of narco-nations” who run “a de facto Communist-controlled Latin Cocaine Pact”—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama—have “intentions” that may include “the undermining of American values and will.” Perhaps, if they fail in the “narco” approach, they may try to fluoridate our water.

Now comes the tricky part. Throughout the book, the author tries to put words in the mouths of his sources, so as to have them announce that there is really one central conspiracy and one major conspirator:

[Author]: In other words …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.