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The military’s task is to conquer and annihilate a foreign enemy (as former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it, it’s “to vaporize, not Mirandize”). The police are charged with protecting the public order, but without sacrificing the rights of the citizenry. It’s dangerous to conflate the two. But that seems to be where we’re headed. Our politicians have dressed our police like soldiers, trained them in paramilitary tactics, given them military weapons and armor, and told them they’re fighting a “war.” We shouldn’t be surprised if and when some police officers take that message to heart.
America’s quest to rid the world of illicit drugs knows no boundaries—political or moral. Just months before September 11, we gave $43 million to Afghanistan—a way of compensating Afghan farmers hurt by the Taliban’s compliance with a U.S. request to crack down on that country’s opium farms (as it turns out, the Taliban had merely eradicated the farms in competition with the Taliban’s own producers).
We don’t seem to have learned. The western world’s prohibition on opium makes poppies a lucrative crop for impoverished Afghan farmers, and is a valuable recruiting tool for insurgents and remnant Taliban forces.
At the same time, we have DEA agents and U.S. and United Nations
troops roving the country on search-and-destroy missions, setting
Afghani livelihoods aflame before their very eyes—not exactly
the way to build alliances. Former BBC correspondent Misha Glenny,
author of a book on the global drug trade,
explained last year in the Washington Post:
In the past two years, the drug war has become the Taliban's most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income. The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day, especially in the east and south of the country. The "War on Drugs" is defeating the "war on terror."
But it isn’t just Afghanistan. The U.S. has a long history of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and unintended consequences in the name of eradicating illicit drugs overseas. For example, between 2001 and 2003, the U.S. gave more than $12 million to Thailand for drug interdiction efforts. Over ten months in 2003, the Thai government sent out anti-drug “death squads” to carry out the summary, extra-judicial executions of as many as 4,000 suspected drug offenders. Many were later found to have had nothing to do with the drug trade at all. Though the U.S. State Department denounced the killings, the United States continued to give the same Thai regime millions in aid for counter-narcotics operations.
The U.S.-backed and heavily U.S.-funded drug war has led to a particularly bloody civil war in several provinces in Mexico. Large swaths of Mexican police forces are working for the country’s drug cartels. Meanwhile, U.S. drug agents and politicians have been corrupted in their own way—in their willingness to accept brutal violence in Mexico as collateral damage if it brings hope for a diminished drug supply in the U.S. In one case, federal drug agents looked the other way while one of their confidential informants participated in a series of brutal murders across the border, because they didn’t want to compromise their investigation. Or witness a former federal drug warrior write in an Arizona newspaper that all the death and carnage in Mexico is welcome news—merely a necessary step on the road to “victory.” Just last year, the U.S. Congress approved another $400 million in drug war aid to Mexico, despite concern from human rights organizations that the Mexican military may be killing innocent Mexican citizens in its vigor to crack down on the drug lords.
In Latin America, the “Plan Colombia” drug interdiction effort spearheaded by President Clinton has been a disaster, as our military aid has funded right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for mass human rights abuses and spawned public support for the FARC guerilla organization that periodically rises up to threaten the country’s stability. The other main component of the plan—the mass spraying of concentrated herbicide on Colombian coca fields—has poisoned vast tracts of farmland (and, some say, many people), depriving many Colombians of their livelihood. This, again, isn’t likely to foster warm feelings toward the United States. Three provinces in Ecuador are currently suing the U.S. government and U.S. contractor Dyncorp, alleging that our spraying efforts in Columbia have on several occasions crossed the Columbia-Ecuador border, raining toxic, potent chemicals down on Ecuadorian villages.
Opposition to the U.S. drug war in South America was a
motivating factor in the election of the anti-American Evo
Morales administration in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in
Ecuador. Brazil and Argentina are actually moving toward
decriminalizing drugs, despite the cooling of relations with the
U.S. that would likely come with it. U.S. anti-narcotics efforts
have also fostered instability, corruption, and the rise of
terrorist organizations in Peru.
Incidentally, it was in Peru that, in 2001, the CIA mistook a plane
full of missionaries for a drug plane. U.S. officials ordered the
Peruvian Air Force to shoot the
plane down, killing 35-year old Veronica Bowers and her
seven-month-old daughter, Charity. More collateral damage.
The Rule of Law
“The Fourth Amendment has been virtually repealed by court decisions,” Yale law professor Steven Duke told Wired magazine in 2000, “most of which involve drug searches.”
The rise of the aforementioned no-knock raid is one example, as is the almost comically comprehensive list of reasons for which you can be legally detained and invasively searched for drugs at an airport. In many areas of the country, police are conducting “administrative searches” at bars and clubs, in which an obvious search for criminality is cloaked in the guise of a regulatory inspection, obviating the need for a search warrant.
But the drug war has undermined the rule of law in other ways than its evisceration of the Fourth Amendment. Take the bizarre concept of asset forfeiture, an attack on both due process and property rights. Under the asset forfeiture laws passed by Congress in the 1980s (then reformed in 2000), property can be found guilty of a drug crime. The mere presence of an illicit substance in your home or car can allow the government to seize your property, sell it, and keep the proceeds. The onus is then on you to prove you obtained your property legally. Even the presence of an illicit drug isn’t always necessary. The government has seized and kept cash from citizens under the absurd argument that merely carrying large amounts of cash is enough to trigger suspicion. If you can’t prove where you got the money, you lose it.
The drug war has undermined the rule of law in less obvious ways, too. As was the case with alcohol prohibition, and is the case with the prohibition of any consensual crime, the people we ask to police these crimes often have to break the very laws they’re enforcing. The presence of large sums of unaccounted money can be tempting, as we’ve seen in the countless stories of drug cops gone bad.