Join the Army, Be a Narc
The government's war on drugs is reaching a fittingly obscene climax. Tots betray their parents to state authorities and are rewarded for their treachery with lucrative movie offers. The first presidential candidate of what promises to be a dreary 1988 lot, Delaware's Pete du Pont, threatens mandatory dope tests for public-school students. Otherwise sensible people are calling for drug traffickers to be put to death. (Even the Soviet Union treats its black-market capitalists better than that.)
Most ominous, though, is that the metaphorical war on drugs has been literalized. Politicians who conjure up the imagery of battle to emphasize the ardor of their cocaine-hating no longer need to feel like literary prigs; this is no wimpy Carteresque "moral equivalent of war"—it's the real thing, with soldiers and helicopters and some day, inevitably, blood.
Enlisting the armed forces in the war on drugs was, one supposes, inevitable. Militarism is the great public-works project of our day, employing well over 4 million Americans. Liberals are enamored of the government-as-employer aspect of it, while conservatives bask in the radiant glory a powerful army casts upon the nation-state. But a military really ain't much fun unless you can use it. Florida congressman Clay Shaw (R) was at least honest when, apropos the anti-drug campaign, he asked: "Why have all of those men and women and machinery and equipment, airplanes, ships, all of that talent, all of that manpower? Why keep it bottled up and suppressed and not use it?"
Well, now we are using it. War is declared, and battle come down, and the site of our first major campaign in the literal war on drugs is Bolivia. The president of that desperately poor South American land, Victor Paz Estenssoro, was made to understand by his sugar daddies in Washington that the price of continued foreign aid was the surrender of national sovereignty. Paz's government was unwilling to risk losing its $50-million annual subsidy from Uncle Sam; moreover, Bolivian drug merchants were gaining political clout throughout the country. So the hemisphere's superpower was invited in.
Six Army Black Hawk helicopters and about 160 troops invaded Bolivia in July, ostensibly for a 60-day operation (which has been, predictably, extended—"indefinitely"). Their mission: help Bolivia's notorious anti-drug squad, the Leopards, destroy the remote cocaine-processing laboratories.
The element of surprise was lost, thanks to Bolivian newspaper reports of the impending raids. (By contrast, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times knew of the raids beforehand but withheld the information until their Bolivian brethren broke the story. The self-proclaimed independent American press didn't want to "disrupt the raid," says the Los Angeles Times's Jack Nelson. Reed Irvine and other baiters of the "liberal press," take note.)
Despite the advance notice, the raids were reportedly a success. Processing labs accounting for 90 percent of Bolivia's cocaine trade have been destroyed, forcing the coke entrepreneurs to shift operations to neighboring countries or go underground for a while.
But consider, for a moment, the true victims of this raid. Bolivia's 90,000-acre coca crop is the second-largest in the world, behind only Peru's. Its cocaine exports totaled $600 million last year—$100 million more than all legal exports combined. Tens of thousands of peasants earn their daily bread picking coca leaves.
Now there is "virtually no market for their crop," according to the Associated Press. The U.S. government has annihilated the most important industry in South America's poorest country and left a goodly portion of Bolivia's population—perhaps seven percent—without the means to support themselves. These people sure can't feed their kids on Nancy Reagan's anti-drug homilies.
Weep not, however, for Bolivian "leader" Paz. This is a superb deal for the Bolivian government. A troublesome source of domestic political opposition has disappeared. A vital (though untaxed) illegal export may be gone, but Paz will be rewarded for his complaisance. Just days after U.S. military forces invaded, the Bolivian planning minister appeared in Washington, hat in hand, begging for $100 million in economic assistance in addition to the $50 million U.S. taxpayers are already sending these mendicants. Just how much of this aid finds its way into the pockets of destitute peasants is a matter left to reader speculation.
Unfortunately, the Bolivian tragedy is but one example of U.S. meddling in the agricultural affairs of her smaller neighbors. A U.S.-backed marijuana-eradication campaign in Jamaica (U.S. aid, $140 million annually) has erased 40 percent of one of that impoverished island's chief cash crops. Again, the victims are poor rural farmers, as well as members of a religious minority, the Rastafarians, who use ganja in their rituals.
The U.S. government's new role as world narc is earning us the hatred of Mexicans, as well. In our cover story this issue, Dale Gieringer documents the outrageous abuses of Americans' rights committed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA is no less assiduous in harassing Mexicans. Its heavy-handed meddling in Mexican police affairs has provoked a new round of anti-Americanism south of the border.
Having deprived Bolivian and Jamaican peasants of their livelihoods and whipped up nationalist resentment in Mexico, the Reagan administration is ready for new triumphs in the war on drugs. Officials are trying to use the promise of increased foreign aid to bribe the governments of Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru into surrendering their sovereignty, just as Paz has given up Bolivia's.
We are already, in Latin America, reaping the bitter fruits of past decades of military intervention to further our own ends. To "send in the Marines" all over again is insanely short-sighted.
Of course, the militarists' thirst is never slaked, and a large number of our statesmen are now clamoring to turn the army loose on the American drug trade. They hide behind the well-worn national-security fig leaf. Thunders South Carolina's Thomas Hartnett (R) of the drug menace: "This threat to national security [is] worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield." (Remember: men who are capable of saying things like this with a straight face make the laws that you have to live under.)
Prodded by Hartnett and legislators of similar stature, the House version of the recently enacted drug law contained an astonishing provision commanding the president to use the armed forces to "substantially halt the unlawful penetration of U.S. borders by aircraft and vessels carrying narcotics within 45 days." This extraordinary proposal—which called for the military to create an Iron Curtain around a free nation—passed the House easily, 237–177.
Cooler heads prevailed—including that of Defense Secretary Weinberger, who called the proposal "absurd." The provision was quietly dropped, but expect it to resurface next year.
Siccing the military on the domestic drug trade is probably not, strictly speakly, illegal. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 forbids using the armed forces to execute the law, but exceptions have been made in the past, notably during riots in the 1960s. (More problematic is the legality of the Bolivian raids, which may have violated the War Powers Act of 1973.)
But beyond the legal issues lies a more basic question that the militarists ought to consider. That is, are we still a republic, with a limited government and a civilian-controlled military whose sole purpose is to defend this nation against attack; or are we to become a huge Banana Republic, where a jack-booted military acts to ensure social control at home and hemispheric hegemony abroad?
The grotesqueries described above certainly confirm the worst fears of the Founding Fathers, who, almost to a man, feared that a standing army could become an instrument of tyranny. James Madison spoke for his Constitutional Convention colleagues when he wrote: "Armies in time of peace are allowed on all hands to be an evil."
That is a lesson we have all too easily forgotten. The people of Bolivia are learning it the hard way, and unless the message sinks in soon, so will we.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Join the Army, Be a Narc".