Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, by Mark Bowden, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 295 pages, $25
Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever, by David Harris, Boston: Little, Brown, 394 pages, $26.95
Stay away from drugs, kids. They'll suck every filament of moral fiber from your soul and set your brain afire with insane delusions. In the end you'll be murdering, kidnapping, and torturing, and you'll be rationalizing it all for the sake of the drugs. Don't believe me? Just look at what drugs have done to the U.S. government.
George Bush I invaded Panama, burning down entire neighborhoods of the capital and killing hundreds of people, to collar a single two-bit narcotrafficker. The Clinton administration embarked on a nutty $1.5 billion intervention in Colombia's civil war -- not because the guerrillas there are Stalinist butchers, but because they sell cocaine. And when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mistook a plane full of American missionaries for drug runners and helped the Peruvian air force shoot it down, George Bush II administration officials, sounding eerily like Soviet apparatchiks explaining how that damn Korean airliner had only itself to blame, snapped that the missionaries should have filed a better flight plan.
In some ways, this reefer madness is not exactly news. Drug policy has been inducing dementia in U.S. social policies for nearly a century (though Clinton's drug czar Barry McCaffrey plumbed new depths when he argued that letting dying cancer patients smoke marijuana would just turn them into addicts). But it was only recently, after the end of the Cold War, that we began letting the vice squad run foreign policy. Faster and faster, the national security state is evolving into the narcosecurity state, which promises to be even more ruthless.
Two new books illuminate the growing ugliness of a War on Drugs that is rapidly losing its metaphorical status. Alas, the main revelation of David Harris' account of Washington's confrontation with Manuel Noriega's Panamanian mafiacracy is that the '60s left's alleged anti-imperialism was strictly situational. As long as no communists get killed, old New Lefties can be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for unleashing the U.S. military against foreign narcotraffickers. (The fact that their own butts are no longer in danger of getting shot off, I suspect, is also relevant.)
Harris was among the most famous members of the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, and he paid the price for it. At Stanford, fraternity boys jumped him and shaved his head; after graduation, he went to prison for refusing to register for the draft. (Admittedly there were compensations; Harris became a Hippie Chick Magnet and even got to boink Joan Baez.) That makes his loud applause for the fanatic cops and prosecutors who goaded the Bush administration into invading Panama all the more appalling. Of the half-dozen or so books published over the past decade detailing the build-up to the invasion, Shooting the Moon is by far the most gung-ho.
To hear Harris tell it, Panama is a simple postmodern cop thriller: Noriega the Pusher was protected by his buddies at the CIA and Pentagon, who admired his fascism, until a handful of gumshoes in Miami brought him down through simple hard police work.
The real story was considerably more complex.
In two decades of covering Latin America, I've yet to speak to a single U.S. official who defended Noriega. They all thought he was a liar, a brute, and a sleazeball. Sure, he provided good intelligence on his trading partners in Havana, but he was also a double-dealer who was passing Fidel Castro who-knew-how-many secrets of ours. Worse yet,by early 1986, virtually everyone in the U.S. government who paid attention to Latin America was seriously worried that his schoolyard-bully government was going to trigger a leftist insurrection that would jeopardize the security of the Panama Canal.
The problem was, what could you do about it? Panama was not exactly brimming with democratic traditions. The most popular politician in the country was Arnulfo Arias, an anti-Semite who openly sympathized with Hitler during World War II and who, during one of his three abortive presidencies, rewrote the Panamanian constitution to call for the deportation of its entire black population. (His widow, Mireya Moscoso, was elected president in 1999. "Dr. Arias has been misunderstood," she told me. "It's just that these men came to Panama from the West Indies and then they didn't send home money to their families. Dr. Arias wanted them to go home so they would support their wives and children. It was a pro-family policy.")
There simply weren't any good options in Panama. So first the Reagan and then the Bush I administration lurched along, looking for either a coherent political movement or, failing that, a nicer military faction to support, while simultaneously leaning on Noriega to behave himself. Nothing worked, least of all the pressure on the general, who seemed to become ever more flaky as the crisis developed. By the end, Noriega was making speeches where he smashed furniture with machetes and pounded his chest, shrieking that he was all that stood between the gringos and their dream of the complete plunder and rapine of Latin America. One of the few really instructive bits in Shooting the Moon is when Harris recounts a conversation between Noriega and a couple of U.S. marshals who be-friended him after his jailing in Miami. What were you thinking? asks one of the marshals. Replies a sheepish Noriega: "I guess I fucked up."
He picked a bad time for it, going round the bend just as a handful of fanatic Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and federal prosecutors got wind of some cocaine flights coming through Panama. Say what you will about the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the rest of the U.S. government -- and certainly there is much to criticize in the way they dealt with the Noriega problem -- at least their worldview went beyond old episodes of Hawaii Five-O. They understood that when you're dealing with a guy who has his own army and controls the Panama Canal, it's a little more complicated than barking, "Book 'em, Danno."
The cops suffered under no such intellectual restraints. There was a war on drugs, that's what they'd heard, and they were going to fight it. Their attitude can be summed up fairly in the words that Harris admiringly quotes from Kenny Kennedy, the No. 2 man in the DEA's Miami office: "The taxpayers hired me to put fuckin' dope peddlers in jail, and that's what I do." Yup, that's the kind of guy we want dictating U.S. foreign policy.
Or at least Harris does. He ridicules the Reagan officials who complained that fighting communism in Central America might be more important than eliminating a single cocaine smuggling route. (That's all Panama was, a transshipment point that the Colombian cocaine cartels could and did map around when it was eventually shut down.) He sympathizes with the federal prosecutor who complains bitterly that Washington won't twist Spain's arm for the extradition of a Colombian narcotrafficker because it might mean the loss of all U.S. air bases in Spain. Basically, he agrees that no price is too high to pay to fight drugs.