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Bad Neighbor Policy
Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America
By Ted Galen Carpenter
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Ted Galen Carpenter
All rights reserved.
Forging the Bad Neighbor Policy: The Drug War From Nixon to Reagan
It was perhaps appropriate, given his image, that Richard Nixon would be the president to explicitly declare a "war" on drugs. Although Nixon's announcement to the press on June 17, 1971, and his subsequent message to Congress on the same day generally are viewed as the key events, his strident policy should have come as no surprise. Nixon's election campaign in 1968 had stressed the need to restore "law and order" in America (an especially ironic promise, given that his administration turned out to be the most lawless in the nation's history), and cracking down on narcotics was an important subtheme of that message. In a September 1968 speech in Anaheim, California, Nixon addressed the issue in emotional and uncompromising terms, describing illegal drugs as "a modern curse of American youth" and promising to "take the executive steps necessary to make our borders more secure against the pestilence of narcotics."
Of course, Nixon did not invent the drug prohibitionist strategy or even the nation's commitment to strike at the source of illegal drugs outside our borders. The domestic prohibitionist strategy received its initial impetus from the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, and the U.S. involvement in international antidrug efforts dates from its adherence to the Hague Convention for the control of opium sales in 1912. In addition, the United States had pursued a variety of antidrug initiatives throughout the Western Hemisphere during the decades prior to the 1970s. But by proclaiming that the fight against illicit drugs was the functional and moral equivalent of war, Nixon escalated the stakes.
Although the Nixon administration's efforts to curtail the supply of illicit drugs focused on such heroin-source countries as France and Turkey, one of the earliest coercive measures was applied against Mexico. In fact, it predated Nixon's celebrated declaration of a war on drugs. In early 1969 Nixon established the Presidential Task Force Relating to Narcotics, Marijuana and Dangerous Drugs (otherwise known as Task Force One), which attempted to combine the talents of the Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Treasury Department's customs bureau for a joint operation against Mexican drug traffickers. (It was also apparently a mechanism to try to end the turf fights between the two departments over which group would have the lead role in efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.) Task Force One's report, submitted in June of 1969, recommended that the highest priority should be "an eradication of the production and refinement in Mexico of opium poppies and marijuana." Not only did the report contend that Mexico was a crucial source of heroin entering the United States, but it asserted that marijuana was a critical "stepping stone" to heroin addiction. As usual, the report cited no evidence to support its assertion that marijuana was a gateway drug leading users to move on to more potent — and addictive — drugs.
The resulting confrontation with Mexico is recounted vividly by Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who was at the time a special assistant to the secretary of the treasury. Task Force One, on which Liddy served, wanted to obtain Mexico's consent for U.S.-directed aerial reconnaissance of Mexican drug fields and for "chemical crop destruction" efforts. At a bilateral meeting in June 1969, Washington's "request" was presented to Mexican officials. Liddy describes Mexico's resistance in his own inimitable style: "When the United States and Mexico met ... the Mexicans, using diplomatic language, of course, told us to go piss up a rope. The Nixon Administration didn't believe in the United States' taking crap from any foreign government. Its reply was Operation Intercept."
Operation Intercept was the concerted application of a maximum-right-to-search policy. Two thousand customs and border patrol agents were deployed along the Mexican border for what was officially described as the nation's largest peacetime search-and-seizure operation. Technically, both Mexico and the United States have the right to carefully search individuals and vehicles crossing the border, but normally inspections are brief or nonexistent. Given the amount of traffic crossing the U.S.-Mexican border each day, comprehensive inspections would create monumental traffic snarls and create havoc with commerce — as they did in the weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That is precisely what happened with Operation Intercept. The results, according to Liddy, were "as intended: chaos."
Indeed it was. Automobiles and trucks crossing the border were delayed up to six hours in 100-degree temperatures. Travelers who seemed suspicious — or who dared complain — often were strip-searched. Thousands of Mexican workers lost their jobs in the United States because of the customs delays at the border. Ultimately more than 5 million citizens of the United States and Mexico were caught up in that nightmarish dragnet before it finally ended.
Liddy was quite candid about the administration's motives for Operation Intercept, although he conceded that for "diplomatic reasons" the true purpose was not revealed at the time: "Operation Intercept, with its massive economic and social disruption, could be sustained far longer by the United States than by Mexico. It was an exercise in international extortion, pure and simple and effective, designed to bend Mexico to our will. We figured Mexico would hold out for about a month; in fact they caved in after about two weeks and we got what we wanted."
In the short run, Operation Intercept did attain the desired concessions. Mexican leaders swallowed their pride and acquiesced in the notorious Paraquat marijuana eradication project (spraying plants with the herbicide Paraquat). The long-term repercussions of U.S. intimidation, however, may have been less favorable. Mexican leaders complained heatedly at the time about the operation, with President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz stating bluntly that the episode had created "a wall of suspicion" between the two countries. A Mexican expert on the drug issue concluded more than two decades later that "Operation Intercept entailed high political and diplomatic costs." It was certainly apparent to international observers that relations between the two countries were cool at best throughout the 1970s. While it would be too much to suggest that resentment over Operation Intercept was entirely responsible for that situation, it would be naive to assume that residual anger was not a contributing factor.
Although Richard Nixon officially declared a war on drugs, that "war" was waged only sporadically during his administration. Moreover, most of the administration's efforts focused on disrupting the heroin trade. Despite the impression created in the aftermath of Operation Intercept, marijuana was distinctly a secondary concern, and cocaine was barely on the policy radar screen — a situation that would remain largely true through the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The emphasis on fighting heroin received a major boost in the spring of 1971 when evidence emerged about the extent of addiction among U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam. Robert DuPont, director of the Narcotics Treatment Administration from 1970 to 1973, describes the influence of that development: "Two congressmen, [Robert] Steele and [Morgan] Murphy, went off to Vietnam, and they came back with explosive news, and that was that 10 to 15 percent of the servicemen were addicted to heroin and that they were coming back to this country by the thousands." According to DuPont, "that was what moved this issue to the front burner." Indeed, Nixon then ordered his senior staff to make the issue of drug abuse their top priority. That, in turn, led to Nixon's announcement to Congress and the public of the war on drugs. As former Nixon aide Bud Krogh put it, "In terms of the narcotics program, this was really D-Day." Congress passed Nixon's antidrug legislative proposal the following year without a single dissenting vote.
Matters continued to escalate. In March 1973 Nixon authorized the formation of a new law enforcement agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA combined the narcotics agents from various departments to make a single federal entity responsible for the enforcement of drug laws.
Despite the "war" metaphor, a surprisingly large part of Nixon's anti-drug measures were devoted to treatment. Throughout his administration more money was spent on demand reduction than on law enforcement. Even the law enforcement component concentrated more on domestic aspects than international interdiction and eradication measures. Although there were efforts to get at the supply of narcotics, and some of those efforts sought to enlist the aid of drug-producing countries, the massive international supply-side offensive against drugs that is now such a major part of U.S. policy was still more than a decade away when Nixon left the presidency in disgrace in August 1974.
THE FORD AND CARTER INTERLUDE
Nixon's successors seemed even less committed to substantive action, especially on the domestic front. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did use perfunctory antidrug rhetoric. Ford even called the abuse of hard drugs "a clear and present threat to the health and future of our nation" and urged Congress to authorize "minimum mandatory prison sentences" for high-level hard-drug traffickers." Yet Ford's chief drug policy adviser, Robert DuPont, openly advocated the decriminalization of marijuana. Even Ford himself made an implicit distinction between the purveyors of "hard" drugs and those who trafficked in marijuana. Moreover, there is little evidence that he regarded the campaign against illicit drugs as a high-priority item.
That lack of emphasis was even more evident during the Carter administration. The New York Times noted that law enforcement officials across the nation saw the administration "as being uncommitted to fighting drugs." Criticism on that score even came from Carter's own appointees to the White House Council on Drug Abuse Strategy. David Musto, a research professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School who had served on the council, admitted: "We were supposed to establish drug abuse policy for the Federal Government, and we did not do it." He added that during this period when drug imports were rising sharply, "the council, which was supposed to devise a strategy to deal with it, did not meet, despite our frequent requests for meetings."
Key members of Carter's White House staff operated under a cloud of suspicion that not only did they regard drug use with indifference but that some of them indulged personally. There were, for example, persistent rumors about White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan. Dr. Peter Bourne, Carter's adviser on drug policy, resigned in July 1978 after admitting that he had written a prescription for Quaalude tablets using a phony name for a White House aide who sought the drug. At the time of his resignation, Bourne alleged that there was "a high incidence" of marijuana use — and even some cocaine use — among White House staffers. President Carter issued a warning to his staff against the use of illegal drugs, yet he himself was quoted saying that he was "sure many people smoke marijuana, but I'm not going to ask about it." Carter earlier had told Congress, "Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself."
Nearly two decades later, drug warriors still regarded the Carter years with loathing. The late Representative Gerald Solomon (R-NY) asserted that "during the Carter administration, drug policy visibility softened," and he sought to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between that approach and the soaring use of illegal drugs during that period. Solomon noted that marijuana use among high school seniors at the end of the Carter presidency increased to the point that 50 percent of seniors admitted to having used the drug in the previous year and 10.7 percent were daily users.
Government policy (especially at the state and local levels) as well as the trend in public opinion appeared to be moving toward a more tolerant approach to drug use throughout the mid-and late 1970s. That trend was most evident regarding the use of marijuana. Eleven states effectively decriminalized private marijuana use during the decade. For example, California passed legislation providing that anyone caught with one ounce or less of marijuana would merely pay a $100 fine. The Alaska supreme court even ruled that personal use of marijuana in one's own home was protected under privacy rights guaranteed by the state constitution. Other jurisdictions substantially reduced penalties for drug offenses, and the legalization option was increasingly discussed. Contrary to the mythology fostered by drug prohibitionists that decriminalization or legalization would produce an explosive increase in drug use, there were negligible effects on the general level of consumption in the eleven states that pursued the decriminalization option.
Americans, and especially American youth, also appeared to be drifting toward a more tolerant attitude toward drug use and a cautious acceptance of the drug culture. From 1975 to 1979 the number of high school seniors reporting that they did not disapprove of occasional use of marijuana increased from 53.1 percent to 65.8 percent. The number who thought that "using marijuana should be entirely legal" increased from 27.3 percent to 32.1 percent. There was even a softening of attitudes regarding the use of harder drugs; the number of high school seniors expressing no disapproval of occasional use of cocaine rose from 18.7 percent in 1975 to 25.3 percent in 1979.
The Ford and Carter administrations did not deemphasize the international phase of the drug war to the same extent that they let the domestic phase wane, however. During those years, the United States continued to apply significant pressure on Mexico to eradicate its marijuana and opium poppy crops. And efforts to encourage crop eradication and interdiction measures in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia actually increased. But those efforts paled in comparison to the policies Washington would adopt in the 1980s and 1990s.
THE DRUG WAR RESURGENT UNDER REAGAN
The trend toward a more tolerant domestic attitude on drug use reversed dramatically during the Reagan years, as actions taken by the administration created an unprecedented antidrug hysteria. But there were signs of a backlash even before Reagan took office. During the final two years of the Carter administration, a nationwide network of parents groups, concerned about the rising incidence of casual drug use among minors, began to work with the DEA as well as state and local law enforcement agencies to pass new antidrug measures. That network, the Parents Movement, had more than 1,000 chapters by 1980 and was pushing (with the enthusiastic cooperation of the DEA) for a national law to ban the sale of "drug paraphernalia." Keith Stroup, president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the largest organization lobbying for decriminalization, later recalled ruefully, "We very much underestimated the power of that movement." He noted that the decriminalization movement scored its last victory in 1978, when Nebraska voted to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana. "And for the next 20 years, we didn't win a single significant victory."
Ronald Reagan's attitude on the drug issue became clear early in his tenure as president. His September 1981 speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police launched a new and decidedly militant phase in both the domestic and international components of the drug war. The president placed illicit drug use and the international drug trade in the context of a larger "crime epidemic" afflicting the United States. Mapping a comprehensive assault on the drug problem, he declared his intention to strengthen domestic law-enforcement and educational efforts to stem consumer demand and stressed the need to discourage international production and distribution. Reagan's proposed "narcotics enforcement strategy" included "a foreign policy that vigorously seeks to interdict and eradicate illicit drugs, wherever cultivated, processed, or transported." The president also announced the formation of the Special Council on Narcotics Control — consisting of the attorney general and secretaries of state, defense, and the treasury as well as other officials — to coordinate efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. In June 1982, the president, speaking from the Rose Garden of the White House, declared, "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts. We're running up a battle flag."
Excerpted from Bad Neighbor Policy by Ted Galen Carpenter. Copyright © 2003 Ted Galen Carpenter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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