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Desperate Over Drugs

The Cocaine Wars

by Paul Eddy, with Hugo Sabogal, by Sara Walden
Norton, 399 pp., $18.95

Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction

by Peter Reuter, by Gordon Crawford, by Jonathan Cave
The RAND Corporation, 155 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel—An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money and International Corruption

by Guy Gugliotta, by Jeff Leen
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $18.95

Desperadoes: Latin Drug Lords, US Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win

by Elaine Shannon
Viking, 499 pp., $21.95

White Rabbit: A Doctor’s Story of Her Addiction and Recovery

by Martha Morrison MD.
Crown, 240 pp., $17.95

Drug Abuse Prevention: Further Efforts Needed to Identify Programs That Work

US General Accounting Office, GAO/HRD-88-26, 62 pp., Free (paper)

The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control

by David F. Musto MD.
Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $11.95


The title “drug czar,” which George Bush recently conferred on William Bennett, nicely suggests the nature of the American drug bureaucracy; like prerevolutionary Russia, it is backward-looking, unmanageable, and feudal. Active in the “war on drugs” are eleven departments and thirty-seven federal agencies, ranging from the Pentagon and the FBI to the IRS and the Secret Service. In Congress, seventy-four committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over narcotics matters. Their latest handiwork, the 264-page Anti–Drug Abuse Act of 1988, contains hundreds of programs addressing everything from herbicides to runaway youth. US drug agents are scattered across four continents, monitoring, investigating, tracking, and training.

Czar” seems appropriate, too, for the person who will fill the position. Like the Russian monarchs, William Bennett brings no particular qualifications to the job. He has no experience with police departments or undercover agents, customs officials or eradication teams, treatment programs or rehabilitation centers. Nor, leaving aside a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, does Bennett know much about the nature of addiction.

Within 180 days of his confirmation, Bennett must submit to Congress a blueprint for fighting drugs. He clearly has much homework to do. Fortunately a number of books have recently appeared on the subject. What, if anything, might Bennett learn from them?

The Pizza Connection: Lawyers, Money, Drugs, Mafia provides a detailed account of the landmark case in which a Sicilian Mafia ring was tried for importing one-and-a-half tons of pure heroin into the United States. The trial, held in Manhattan from October 1985 to February 1987, was the longest and most expensive criminal proceeding in US history. Shana Alexander had previously written three books about trials (including Very Much a Lady, on the Jean Harris case), but none of them quite prepared her for this one. “Despite the colorfulness of this trial, its excitement, challenge, and bravado, it was turning out to be even harder to follow than the others had been,” she writes in her preface. “I found myself gradually sinking deeper and deeper into the legal ooze, swamps of confusion, vast bogs of befuddlement.” To help us keep track of the “ranks of look-alike defendants,” Alexander supplies a seating chart, family tree, and cast of characters eighty-seven names long. If you get lost, she adds, “take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.”

Not exactly what one wants to hear upon opening a 442-page book. Alas, it’s only a matter of pages before we’re knee-deep in “ooze.” No fewer than twenty-two people are on trial here, each with his own lawyer. The government, led by US attorney Rudolph Giuliani, has five prosecutors. Day after day, month after month, the government painstakingly, laboriously, amasses its evidence, attempting to prove that the defendants conspired to import heroin from the Middle East and distribute it in the United States through a network of pizzerias in the East and Midwest. In all, 236 witnesses take the stand. Actors are brought in to reenact phone conversations, and huge charts are set up to track financial transactions. Alexander dutifully records it all, forcing us to plow through one name-clogged passage after another.

The author’s undisguised bias in favor of the defendants does not help matters. In the preface, Alexander notes that she is a close friend of Michael Kennedy, the lawyer for Mafia capo Gaetano Badalamenti, the most prominent of the defendants. Kennedy is portrayed as a valiant “Lone Ranger” going up against a heartless, unmerciful government. Throughout the trial, Alexander sits next to Kennedy’s “brainy, beautiful wife,” Eleanore, who provides a running commentary on the case. (Example: “Eleanore Kennedy fears this entire flap is a stall, a maneuver to permit the government to caucus before Kennedy’s cross-examination. She is unhappy. Her husband, she explains, ‘is like a race horse,’ all prepared to cross-examine, who has now been forced to spend an entire day cooling his heels.”) With Eleanore’s whispered asides, the months of arid testimony, and the inky seas of data, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than a new drug czar or his assistant making it to the end of this book.

In its own way, though, The Pizza Connection is instructive. By its very excess, it shows the lengths to which the government was willing to go in pursuing drug traffickers. Giuliani’s office spent five years gathering evidence in the case. His associates videotaped meetings, gathered airline passenger seat lists, recovered ticket stubs, pored over hotel registers, kept surveillance logs, and retrieved immigration records. Teams of six agents listened to forty-seven telephones around the clock, taping a total of 55,000 conversations; the 900 most important were transcribed and collated in nine bound volumes. So vast was the evidence that it took a full year to be presented in court.

In the end, the government was rewarded for its pains. All but two of the defendants were convicted, and most were sentenced to long terms. Still, as Alexander observes, the case

did not make the slightest dent in the nation’s desperate drug problem. More heroin, and more cocaine, is on the streets today than before Pizza began. The trial severely over-taxed every branch of our legal system—law enforcement, bench, and bar—and taxed the unfortunate jurors worst of all.

Here, then, was the government’s single most sustained law-enforcement effort against a drug-trafficking ring, and it had absolutely no effect.

Law enforcement is also the principal concern of The Cocaine Wars, written by a team of reporters headed by Paul Eddy, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. The Cocaine Wars is every bit as dense as The Pizza Connection. Its cast of characters is 120 names long. Obscure persons pop up, vanish, then reappear pages later, swirling amid the other dim players. The venue continually shifts, from Miami to Colombia to Miami to the Bahamas to Miami again to Colombia to Miami once again, with such abruptness as to produce motion sickness.

Hidden among the mass of facts are a few interesting details about the limits of law enforcement in the war on drugs. The book’s title refers to the bloody period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Colombian traffickers were muscling their way into Miami’s cocaine trade, long dominated by Cuban-Americans. Here the war is shown through the eyes of local police officers. “The foot soldiers of Reagan’s war in Miami are the under-cover narcotics detectives of the Miami and Metro-Dade police departments who, day after day, fight their battles on the streets,” the book states. We are introduced to two such detectives, Preston Lucas and Luis Fernández, who are said to be real-life models for the detectives in Miami Vice. The two men spend their days prowling the streets of the city, identifying dealers by their “uniforms”—designer clothes, a roll of quarters (for pay phones), and telephone beepers. These detectives are very good at what they do, racking up one arrest after another without ever having to fire a shot. Nevertheless, they regard the whole enterprise as a charade. Like all “soldiers at the front,” The Cocaine Wars observes, they saw “no winning strategy nor any real evidence of a will to win from the top.”

Of the 120 characters in The Cocaine Wars, the most colorful is Kojak, an immensely successful smuggler. Kojak (so called for his shaven head) directs a fleet of high-powered speedboats that, traveling ninety miles an hour, run cocaine from remote islands in the Bahamas to hidden drop-off points along the Florida coast. To win the cooperation of Bahamian officials, Kojak resorts to extensive bribery. To evade the Coast Guard, he sets up an elaborate radio network enabling him to direct his boatmen as they near the Florida coast. Kojak’s unmatched knowledge of the waters off Miami, together with the Coast Guard’s limited resources, makes his chances of being detected close to nil. Overall, he estimates, 98 percent of his shipments get through. As The Cocaine Wars shows, drug traffickers are so ingenious in their smuggling techniques that they can foil even the most determined efforts to stop them.

Anyone who doubts this should examine a recent RAND Corporation report, Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction. The study was commissioned by the Defense Department in response to growing demands that it become more involved in the antidrug effort. Some believe that the armed forces, by deploying advanced surveillance aircraft, could construct an impenetrable electronic net around the country. To test that presumption, a team of RAND analysts, headed by Peter Reuter, devised a mathematical model to estimate the impact that increased spending on interdiction would have on domestic drug consumption. The results were striking: a more stringent interdiction policy, RAND calculated, would cut cocaine consumption by not even 5 percent. Our borders are too porous and the smugglers too adaptable. In one case, a ton of cocaine was found hidden in a cargo of frozen fruit pulp arriving from Ecuador; in another, four tons were uncovered in a shipment of Brazilian lumber.1

Four tons! A decade ago, cocaine was shipped here a few kilos at a time. Now it’s arriving in silo-sized quantities. How the cocaine business went from a cottage industry to an international conglomerate is the central question of Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín CartelAn Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money and International Corruption. Despite its overheated subtitle, the book, by Miami Herald reporters Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, seems sure to become the standard account of the origins and expansion of the Colombian drug trade. Well paced and crisply written, Kings of Cocaine reads like a suspense novel, pitting the heroes of the Drug Enforcement Administration against the villains of the drug trade. Unfortunately, the bad guys win.

The most fascinating bad guy is Carlos Lehder, one of the principal architects of the Colombian trade. Lehder learned about cocaine smuggling at, of all places, the minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where he served a sentence for marijuana trafficking in the mid-1970s. Gugliotta and Leen have tracked down Lehder’s cellmate, George Jung (one of more than 300 people interviewed for the book). Jung tells of Lehder’s ambitious reading habits (everything from Plato to Hemingway), his fanatical anti-Americanism (he idolized Che Guevara), his megalomania (he wanted to become president of Colombia), and, finally, his dream of importing cocaine by the bushel. At the time, cocaine was small-time stuff, brought into the United States in suitcases or concealed on the bodies of smugglers. Lehder and Jung, in “the kind of inspiration that serves as a pivot for history,” recognized that cocaine could be smuggled into the United States the same way marijuana was—in small airplanes carrying hundreds of pounds at a time.

After leaving prison, Lehder proceeded to set up such a delivery system. The main challenge was to locate a site at which small planes traveling from Colombia to Florida could refuel. (The trip was too long to be made directly.) Lehder found it on Norman’s Cay, a remote island in the Bahamas with its own 3,000-foot runway. Lehder bought a house on the island and, using armed guards and Doberman pinschers, cleared it of all residents. He then hired some half-dozen pilots and set them to work. The pilots flew to clandestine airstrips in Colombia, loaded the cocaine, and returned to the Bahamas, where they refueled and, after dark, slipped into American airspace. The cocaine was unloaded and driven to Miami for delivery to Lehder’s distributors. Before long, America was swimming in cocaine.

  1. 1

    A summary of the RAND report, “Can the Borders Be Sealed?” by Peter Reuter, appeared in The Public Interest (Summer 1988).

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