The 18-year war in Afghanistan, begun after 9-11, is not America’s longest war. The ‘War on Drugs’ was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and has cost some $2.5 trillion. In Afghanistan over 4,000 Coalition forces and 62,000 Afghan national security forces have died over 18 years, along with 31,000 civilians and uncounted Taliban fighters.
In 2017 alone there were over 70,000 U.S. drug deaths, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC).
For the length of time of the Afghan war, there have been over half-a-million U.S. deaths caused by legal and illegal drugs, and the number is rising. And Afghanistan continues to be the major source of opium paste, the base of heroin, from the poppy fields, smuggled to Western Hemisphere processors hidden on container ships. Heroin accounts for over half of that country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
A dozen years ago my spouse and I were part of a team monitoring a wildlife camera in the Atascosa Mountains, near the border, on the fringes of territory roamed by the jaguar known as Macho B before he was killed by Arizona Game and Fish. We got lots of interesting photos – nursing mountain lions, curious bears, and men with backpacks trudging the wildlife trail north.
A few years later we were monitoring Avra Valley archaeology sites in Ironwood Forest National Monument for the state site steward program and were aware of ATV activity and empty backpacks. We took the backpacks, often new, washed them, and gave them away. Once we stumbled on some of the transporters resting and eating; they hid up in the rocks, leaving a broken half-kilo of what we believed to be methamphetamine behind. I wrapped the meth, and once home (never bothered by anyone) called the local sheriff’s station. A deputy came and said it was “probably foot powder” for the migrants’ long hike, and that it wouldn’t be tested (which is not the protocol, I later found out – suspected drugs are always tested).
And that raises the big issue: there is so much money in illegal drugs because of the huge U.S. market – many billions of dollars – that bribery and corruption are rampant. The Rand Corporation estimates that cocaine generates $28.3 billion a year in the U.S., heroin $22.1 billion, meth 13 billion, and marijuana almost $41 billion. Illegal drugs are a $64 billion industry in the United States, not as big as Walmart, Exxon Mobil or Apple, but more profitable than any of the Fortune 500 companies.
“Drug mules,” mostly Mexicans either employed by the cartels or temps using that network to get across the border, were at their peak when marijuana was illegal. The legalization in a number of states of medical marijuana, and in some cases, recreational pot as well, has caused a decline in illegal imports. People were used because pot has a distinctive odor and trained border dogs could easily sniff it out in vehicles at border crossings. There has always been a home-grown pot industry and Big Pharma is moving aggressively to take over the market.
And there is more money to be made from heroin, cocaine, meth and fentanyl, which can be well-wrapped in smaller bundles and easily hidden in the 150 million vehicles legally crossing the border each year. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, which monitors the often backed-up ports-of-entry, is woefully understaffed and their requests for more resources have been ignored, with money directed instead to The Wall.
Expansion of the Mexican port of Guaymas, Trump’s new NAFTA (which requires only that goods be manufactured in North America), a new interstate 11 in Southern Arizona (and its sister Sonoran Corridor) to accommodate the increased truck traffic, will simply create more avenues for more drugs to enter the U.S., where demand shows no signs of letting up. If Americans stopped buying illegal drugs, the cartels would soon disappear, or diversify into legitimate businesses – as they are already doing.
Fentanyl comes mainly from China hidden on container ships, as do the chemicals for making meth.. Cargo ships also deliver Afghan opium paste to make heroin. The sheer volume of container shipping and truck transport make it almost impossible to carry out the number of inspections necessary to make a serious dent in drug trafficking. The focus on a relative handful of drug mules and lack of federal budget support for such inspections almost looks like a diversion.
In order for the cartels’ billions to be spendable, money laundering is necessary, involving corrupted financial institutions, real estate developers, and construction companies. One bank alone, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, laundered over $378 billion over three years. A report from the Organization of American States lays it out in “The Economics of Drug Trafficking:”
“A variety of approaches can be used to launder drug proceeds into the formal financial system. These include over-invoicing imports, purchasing open system prepaid cards, exchanging digital currencies, sending money through more than 200 secure online payment systems, and laundering money through cash-intensive businesses — such as hotels, casinos, and construction—that are controlled by organized criminal groups.
“Additionally, drug purchases can be laundered through purchasing and reselling real estate, vehicles, and other luxury goods. Even when various financial regulations are in place, records of property transactions often remain scattered across public notaries and are difficult to trace, making real estate a favored method both for consuming and laundering drug proceeds.”
The OAS estimates the world-wide illegal drug trade to be $320 billion a year, $150 billion in the Americas, and most of that in North America. To see the full OAS report on “The Economics of Drug Trafficking,” go to: http://www.cicad.oas.org/drogas/elinforme/informeDrogas2013/laEconomicaNarcotrafico_ENG.pdf.
It’s big business, and the young Mexican trying to make a buck carrying a load of dope across the desert is the smallest part of it. While politicians point fingers at them, Big Pharma is finally being called to account in law suits for underplaying opioid dangers and pushing their highly-profitable products. With some 50,000 opioid death yearly in the U.S., it’s about time.
Many of those addicted legally, after a crisis was declared and restrictions adopted, have turned to the cheaper alternative of heroin. Laced with fentanyl for a bigger and better high, heroin on the streets today is extremely dangerous, and the death toll is rising. Even so, in some upscale communities drug dealers do home deliveries. And the cartels rake in the cash. And kill each other by the thousands in “hostile takeovers” or battles for territory, an estimated 50,000 killed in Mexico alone.
There is another aspect, not directly related to immigration, that has to be raised in any discussion of the “War on Drugs.” That is the profound impact on the African American community, and the exponential growth of the private prison system. First, we have to look at the roots.
“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a (San Jose) Mercury News investigation has found. This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the “crack” capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America….”
“There is a saying that the ends justify the means,” former (Nicaraguan Contra) FDN leader and drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes testified during a recent cocaine trafficking trial in San Diego. “And that’s what Mr. Bermudez (the CIA agent who commanded the FDN) told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money for the Contra revolution….” — San Jose Mercury-News, August 1996.
It became known as “The Iran-Contra Affair” and fourteen Reagan Administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, were indicted and eleven convicted. Some won appeals, and the rest were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. All this while the “War on Drugs” continued. That “war,” was aimed primarily at the African American and Latino communities, with mandatory harsh sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes while upscale white communities had coke parties free of law enforcement concerns.
There are about two million people in U.S. prisons, a half-million more than Communist China which has nearly five times the population. That has spawned the growth of privately-owned and run prisons which have a vested interest – profits — in keeping their cells full. There are reports that some states have made agreements with the private prisons to keep them at capacity, targeting minorities and poor whites. Black males ages 18-19 are 12 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males of the same age, and black women are jailed at twice the rate of whites.
Fifty-five percent of federal prisoners and 21 percent of state prisoners are in for drug-related crimes. One-quarter of the nearly 4 million probationers were convicted of drug-related crimes. They are 75 percent male, 55 percent white, 30 percent African American, and 13 percent Latino. In Chicago 55 percent of African American men are legally labeled “felons for life,” losing voting rights and access to public housing and other assistance. Blacks are ten times – 10X – more likely than whites to go to prison for drug offenses.
In a nutshell: In the name of “fighting communism” U.S. officials allowed or facilitated drugs to pour into the African American communities in Los Angeles and spread out from there, and then targeted those same people to fill for-profit private prisons. Big Pharma unleashed opioids on America, minimizing addiction risks to increase profits, and when so many middle class Americans got hooked that a crisis was declared, government restricted sales and heroin was a handy, and cheaper, substitute. The South-of-the-Border drug cartels are so rich they are diversifying into real estate and other investments with the collusion of financial institutions, developers, and bribed politicians. Immigrants seeking asylum – safety — from those cartels and their ultra-violent gangs, are not the source of America’s drug problems; we have to look closer to home.
(Sources: Rand Corporation; Fortune Magazine. San Jose Mercury-News; Forbes Magazine; Organization of American States; U.S. General Accounting Office; Jesus-is-Savior.com; Drug War Facts; U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency; U.S. Dept. of Justice; Democracy Now!, Center for Disease Control.)
POSTSCRIPT: My spouse tells me, “That’s fine – now what are you going to do about it?” “What,” she rightly wants to know, “are the solutions?” I think the first step is shining a light where the powers-that-be don’t want you to look, and that’s what this series was about. Certainly comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform is necessary and overdue, but there seems little appetite for that from either party or the White House.
Meanwhile, asylum seekers fleeing violence whose root is the American appetite for drugs should be processed with compassion, and not treated as invaders. We know how to set up emergency camps, so bring in FEMA and the Red Cross. Most of those asylum seekers, please note, are trying to enter at checkpoints. Denying them that opportunity – and separating children from their parents – only forces the desperate to try and cross illegally.
Using the billions of dollars The Wall will cost to expand and improve port-of-entry checkpoints and add many more inspectors would do more than any barrier to slow down drug trafficking. Perhaps the U.S. could partner with Mexico in adding inspections at the loading points, with training and compensation enough to counter the rampant bribery. Forcing, as New York’s successful law suit against Purdue Pharma does, Big Pharma to pay for rehabs and treatment centers, is a step in the right direction. Some suggest simply legalizing all drugs, as we do alcohol. That would take the super-profits out of illegal drugs (until Big Pharma moves in), but I’m not sure that the potential human costs would be worth it.
“War on Drugs” laws that require mandatory long sentences for non-violent offenses need to be revised, and the circumstances of those now in prison reviewed for possible commutations. Economic opportunity needs to be available in poor and minority communities so that drug dealing loses its appeal as the only option to the neighborhood Mickey D’s.
Sometimes fiction can give us a better picture of something, making stories out of statistics. Novelist Don Winslow has spent 20 years researching and writing his border trilogy about the cartels and drug wars: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and current bestseller, The Border, with FX-TV planning a series.. For good reads packed with good information and characters as complex as they are in real life, moving from villages in the jungles to Washington and back, these are worth reading. And thinking about. And moving us to speak truth to power.
Finally, something in the American psyche needs to change to fill the need that so many people turn to drugs to fill. Whatever is missing in the present reality needs to be identified and a national effort developed to truly make America great – and sane – again. As Rosie the Riveter said in WW2, We Can Do It!