Thugs and Drugs


The Contras aren't even dead yet, and already constitutional government in neighboring Honduras is reeling.

Hondurans riot in the streets of Tegucigalpa. Five have been killed. Basic rights to assembly, travel, and a free press have been restricted. Police have been given broad powers to search houses, make arrests, and hold people without trials.

The Sandinistas couldn't ask for a happier hunting ground for their revolution. And they didn't have to lift a finger to produce it.

No, it is we, the would-be defenders of democracy in Latin America, who are undermining the rule of law in Honduras and elsewhere, giving aid and comfort to hoodlums and Marxist guerrillas, and wrecking for our southern neighbors the constitutional protections that we take for granted. All in the name of keeping cocaine out of the noses of Americans who are determined to snort it.

The most recent episode in the increasingly disgraceful war on drugs involves one Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, whose alleged crimes are numerous and—varied-specifically, involvement in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a DEA agent in Mexico, as well as running a multibillion-dollar drug operation in Honduras. Such actions, even if "alleged," do not ordinarily qualify anyone for hero status.

But U.S. behavior in apprehending Matta has given him just such status in Honduras. Since his country's constitution inconveniently forbids extradition—pesky things, those constitutions—U.S. agents, with cooperation from Honduran authorities, basically kidnapped Matta, hustled him sans passport to the Dominican Republic, and brought him here for trial.

Hondurans didn't approve of our turning their country into a banana republic, and they took to the streets in protest. In response, we preached at them about democratic institutions:

"We think it is terrible that Hondurans would show their support for a notorious drug dealer by attacking a U.S. government building," said State Department spokeswoman Ellen E. Bork after a riot at the U.S. Embassy compound. "This man is a greater threat to them than to us. He represents a class of drug trafficker who wants not only to make a profit, but also to subvert democratic institutions." If subversion is his aim, Matta has friends in Washington.

As though trampling on the Honduran constitution weren't enough, U.S. agents allegedly tortured Matta with a two-pronged stun gun. His lawyer says he "counted 27 little burn marks" on Matta's lower back and that Matta told him he had similar burns on his testicles and feet.

The torture charge may not be true—if Matta is half of what they say he is, he's not likely to have strong scruples about lying—but I'd feel a lot more comfortable if somebody, anybody acted like they gave a damn and investigated.

Have we gone bananas? Toddlers are being gunned down on the streets of Los Angeles. Bribery and corruption are reaching Prohibition-level proportions in the justice system. Guerrillas, from the Maoist Sendero Luminoso in Peru to the garden-variety Marxists in Colombia, are piling up guns and money from the drug trade. Gangsters threaten Colombia's government and control Panama's.

But all anyone ever suggests to stop this corruption and bloodshed and aggrandizement of thugs is more of the idiocy that created them in the first place.

Americans want to buy drugs, lots of drugs. Gross revenue runs somewhere between $60 billion and $120 billion a year, putting the drug business between number-one General Motors ($102 billion) and number-four IBM ($54 billion) on the Fortune 500. This passion for chemical highs may be a character flaw, but that doesn't make the market any less real.

And, thanks to one of the world's most effective price-support programs—a.k.a. the War on Drugs—a lot of very unattractive individuals are getting very rich. Agricultural subsidies are always a bad idea, but at least when we raise prices on Farmer Jones's sorghum crop Americans get a warm, happy glow from nostalgia for the good old family farm.

Keeping drugs illegal, on the other hand, artificially raises prices for folks like Matta, people who do want not only to make a profit but also to undermine democratic institutions. People who kill Colombian cabinet officers and terrorize South-Central L.A. with drive-by shootings.

Drug price supports are especially effective because demand is relatively inelastic, especially among addicts—if the price goes up, revenue also rises. Cutting drug supplies by intercepting shipments or destroying coca plantations only raises prices and increases the profits of the other suppliers. The drug laws make a lucrative business even more so, then systematically screen out all but the most ruthless and risk-taking individuals.

Get rid of the drug laws, and you cut the cash flow that gives drug criminals their power. Instead of Capone or Matta, you get Seagram's and Jack Daniels. Besides, when was the last time you heard about somebody knocking over a liquor store to get money for cigarettes or, for that matter, liquor?

To restore the safety of our streets and the security of our neighbors, we must do the paradoxical. We must legalize drugs.