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Desperate Over Drugs

Kings of Cocaine recounts these events with much skill, but it is less skillful at analyzing them. For example, the book occasionally refers to “narcoterrorism,” a controversial Reagan administration notion asserting close ties between Colombia’s drug traffickers and its Marxist guerrillas. Some links clearly exist, but the book never examines them in any systematic way, making it hard to assess the accuracy of the term. Similarly, Kings of Cocaine accepts without question the notion that the Medellín traffickers make up a “cartel.” True, the industry is dominated by a handful of cooperating families, but cartels are defined by the ability of their members to control prices, and this the Colombians are unable to do.

Despite such shortcomings, Kings of Cocaine helps us to grasp how immense, and uncontrollable, the cocaine business has become. The most revealing episode occurred in 1984, when the DEA uncovered a huge processing facility in Colombia’s southeastern jungle. Called Tranquilandia, it had fourteen labs, seven airplanes, 11,000 drums of chemicals, and barracks for hundreds of workers—a “cocaine industrial park,” as one agent put it. In all, 13.8 tons of cocaine were seized. Elated DEA agents believed they had dealt the narcotraffickers a crushing blow. Sure enough, soon after the raid, the wholesale price of cocaine—then $14,000 per kilo—began rising for the first time in years. Alas, the celebrating did not last long. Within five months, the price had slid back to $14,000 and was dropping further. The cocaine “poured in like never before,” Leen and Gugliotta write. Clearly, Tranquilandia was but one of many cocaine industrial parks.

The Reagan administration, in retrospect, had one excellent shot at breaking the Medellín operation but botched it out of an excess of ideological zeal. In 1984, Kings of Cocaine reports, the DEA gained its best connected informant ever: Barry Seal, a fat, brash, fast-talking American who was the Colombians’ most trusted pilot. Arrested on smuggling charges, Seal, seeking leniency, agreed to work for the government. At the time, the Colombians were busy establishing Nicaragua as a transshipment point for cocaine, and they asked Seal to fly in to pick up a load. When the CIA got wind of the operation, it arranged to have Seal’s plane rigged with two hidden cameras. On June 25, 1984, Seal took off from Key West and landed at the Los Brasiles military base outside Managua. Seal was met by two of Colombia’s leading drug traffickers and a middle-level Sandinista official, and, as they loaded duffel bags of cocaine onto the plane, the hidden cameras snapped away. Seal then flew back to Florida.

Expecting to return for another pickup, Seal proposed luring the drug kings out of Nicaragua and into Mexico, where they could be arrested. But things never got that far. Word of Seal’s mission to Nicaragua was leaked to The Washington Times, which ran a detailed, front-page story about the operation. The resulting publicity made it impossible for Seal to return to Nicaragua. “The DEA was poised for what might have been a sensational coup,” Gugliotta and Leen observe, “but the case suddenly unraveled. The Sandinista involvement was so politically hot that it burned a hole through the investigation.”

The source of the leak was never conclusively established, but DEA officials believe it was Oliver North, who had closely followed Seal’s mission. North would later incorporate several of Seal’s photographs into his procontra slide show. President Reagan himself displayed one of the photos during a 1986 pitch for contra aid; top Nicaraguan officials, he claimed, were involved in the drug trade. What the President did not say was that his own administration, in its eagerness to discredit the Sandinistas, had undermined a promising DEA operation. Moreover, Gugliotta and Leen point out, any effort to squeeze the drug trade into neat ideological categories is futile:

The cartel had no politics. Governments tied to the cartel included Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Drug-corrupted police and public officials came from almost every nation in the hemisphere…. The Medellín cartel was marching across Central America, infecting governments far more readily than communism ever had.

Mexico should be added to the list of corrupted countries, to judge from Elaine Shannon’s Desperadoes: Latin Drug Lords, US Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win. The book concentrates on the case of Enrique Camarena, the DEA agent who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the police in Mexico in 1985. At the time of his death, Camarena knew a lot about the involvement of high Mexican officials in the international drug trade. According to Shannon, those officials not only helped to plan Camarena’s murder but also created an elaborate cover-up—one that continues to this day. From Shannon’s account, the Mexican government’s involvement in narcotics would seem to be second only to Panama’s.

Shannon’s investigation of the Camarena case has received much attention—it appeared on the cover of Time magazine, where Shannon is a correspondent. Less attention has been paid to her strong criticism of US drug policy. Shannon has developed some excellent sources at the DEA, who have expressed their frustrations to her. William Bennett should spend some time with her book.

It won’t necessarily be pleasurable. Shannon has virtually emptied her notebooks into Desperadoes, and the book sags with facts. At 499 pages, it seems at least one hundred pages too long. Moreover, Shannon is too kind to her sources. Over the years, the DEA has come in for a lot of criticism. Its agents, rough-and-ready types, tend to be preoccupied with specific results—arrests and seizures—at the expense of more concerted global strategies. They also tend to support extreme measures against offending governments, regardless of the long-term diplomatic consequences. According to Desperadoes, however, the DEA can do no wrong.

That said, the book contains a lot of interesting material. It tells, for instance, of fierce interagency battles over narcotics policy, rivaling in their intensity anything that occurred over Central America. The FBI fought with the DEA, the DEA with the attorney general, the attorney general with Customs, and Customs with the State Department. The latter comes in for particularly harsh treatment. “When meeting with reporters and Congressional delegations,” Shannon writes, “State Department officials responsible for narcotics aid were vague and cheerful, like Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, always saying that something would soon turn up—if Congress kept the money coming.” In the case of Mexico, the department kept insisting that its marijuana eradication program was a “model” success, even as DEA agents in the field were filing reports about its breakdown. After reading Desperadoes, it’s hard to put much faith in the assessments of the State Department.

President Reagan does not come off well, either. “Federal officers responsible for drug enforcement and interdiction were overjoyed when Reagan took office,” Shannon writes. “They were soon disappointed: Reagan talked a good game, but despite his speeches bemoaning the threat of violent crime, when it came to more money for fighting crime, including drug traffickers, Reagan was as parsimonious as Carter.” In 1981, Reagan, under the prodding of David Stockman, declared a 12 percent across-the-board cut for all federal agencies except the Pentagon. Drug enforcement was not spared, and the effects were felt immediately. “DEA and Customs cars and airplanes were grounded,” Shannon writes. “Money to make undercover buys ran out. One DEA office held a bake sale to pay for gasoline so night stakeouts could continue.” And so it went throughout the Reagan years, the resources always lagging behind the rhetoric.

Typical of the Reagan approach was the South Florida Task Force. Set up with much fanfare in 1982, it brought together representatives of the DEA, Customs, the Coast Guard, the FBI, and other federal agencies in a concerted effort to drive the traffickers from their base in Miami. Despite all the tough talk, though, the administration allocated little money for the program; instead, it simply reassigned agents from existing projects. The DEA office in Florida, already understaffed, now found its men taken off their ongoing investigations and reassigned to the task force. Drug seizures that the DEA would have made in any case were now credited to the task force, which held periodic press conferences to show off its loot. It was all “smoke and mirrors,” as one DEA official put it.

In the end, the task force made hundreds of arrests and seized many tons of cocaine, but the drugs kept flowing in. The traffickers, scared away from Florida, simply began flying their cargo to northern Mexico, where they transferred it to land vehicles and drove it across the border. “We could have the whole country surrounded, and people who want to get drugs are going to get drugs, even if they have to manufacture them themselves,” John Lawn, the current DEA administrator, told Shannon. The only solution to America’s drug problem, Lawn believed, was a “dramatic change in attitude on the part of the American people.”

By now, most Americans would probably agree. The clear failure of interdiction and law enforcement to do anything about the supply of drugs has created new support for policies aimed at demand. In 1988, Congress for the first time earmarked as much money for programs for treatment, prevention, education, and research as for programs designed to reduce the supply of drugs.


For readers interested in how the demand for drugs might be reduced, two kinds of publications are available. On the one hand are works of a scholarly nature. These generally take the form of abstruse technical papers written by professionals for professionals. For instance, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the research organization of the federal government, issues a regular monograph series with such titles as Biological Vulnerability to Drug Abuse and Needle Sharing Among Intravenous Drug Abusers. Beyond that, though, little is available. In contrast to alcoholism, about which there is an abundant literature, drug abuse has yet to produce even a good textbook; the field is still too new and too small. Nina Peyser, director of planning for “substance abuse services” at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, says that, aside from chapters on intravenous drug users in books on AIDS, “I can’t think of anything on the subject that’s less than ten years old.” For current information, Peyser relies heavily on newspapers, newsmagazines, and TV, which, she says, contain “a lot of breaking news.”

On the other hand are popular books directed at people with drug problems. Among the most eye-catching are firstperson accounts written by former addicts. Though lurid at times, these books provide a hair-raising glimpse into the horror of addiction. A good example is White Rabbit: A Doctor’s Story of Her Addiction and Recovery, by Martha Morrison, MD. In it, she describes how she went from being a twelve-year-old who stole her mother’s Darvon to being a “junkie doctor” whose daily intake included codeine, Dilaudid, Demerol, Seconal, pentobarbital, morphine, cocaine, Preludin, Desoxyn, amphetamine sulfate, MDA, STP, THC, and PCP. Such a diet left Morrison feeling paranoid and suicidal, but, as is inevitable in such books, salvation eventually comes—in this case, by way of God:

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