A Splendid Little Drug War

Tragedy, farce, and fake brass cojones south of the border


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.

And in the end, that's the situation that developed. The single-minded agenda of the cops pushed aside everything else, the dithering State Department policy makers and the Pentagon's caution and any number of White House officials who knew better but were crippled by allegations of involvement in other scandals like Wedtech or Iran-contra and were afraid to say no for fear they would be accused of quashing a dope case. At a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives—the majority of them civilian bystanders—the United States invaded Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega.

As it turned out, Kenny Kennedy's claim that he didn't go for "no sweetheart deals and that kinda shit" was, like so much drug-cop talk, merely the clanking of phony brass balls. To convict Noriega, the strike force had to make a flurry of deals with other accused narcotraffickers, bargaining a collective 1,435 years in prison down to 81. And by the time Noriega went on trial, official U.S. estimates of the cocaine flowing through Panama were higher than ever. Some victory!

We may get another crack at it. Cuban-American organizations in Miami are spending millions right now to lobby prosecutors to indict Fidel Castro for murder for sending his MiGs to shoot down a couple of little unarmed exile planes patrolling the waters off Cuba in 1996, looking for rafters. Thus far the exiles have had no luck pressing their case. Sooner or later, though, it will occur to them that the drug issue is more potent.

Compared to the invasion of Panama, Killing Pablo, the tale of how the U.S. government used a death squad to hunt down and murder Colombian drug traffickers, is probably just a footnote in the story of official counternarcotics mayhem. But what a footnote!

In brisk prose and compelling detail, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden (who chronicled U.S. military misadventures in Somalia in Black Hawk Down) documents the murderous impulse that lies at the heart of U.S. counternarcotics programs in Latin America. Down there among the little brown people, freed of the nettlesome constraints of meddling judges and pesky American Civil Liberties Union attorneys and nosy reporters, America's drug warriors could make their sanguinary dreams come true.

The story begins in 1989, when Washington sent a top-secret Army intelligence unit known as Centra Spike to help the Colombian government corral the leaders of the mighty Medellin cocaine cartel—especially its top man, a pudgy little psychopath named Pablo Escobar whose fondnesses included teenage hookers and roasting enemies alive. Using small spy planes to intercept communications—particularly cell phone calls—Centra Spike was able to pinpoint the locations of cartel leaders and pass them along to the Colombians.

That sounds like innocent enough police work, but it wasn't. The first time Centra Spike produced a narcotrafficker's address, the Colombians didn't try to arrest him. They sent a squadron of T-33 fighter-bombers to annihilate him.

Washington neither complained nor backed away. Instead, it dived in deeper. Eventually the FBI, CIA, DEA, the National Security Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Army's Delta Force, the Navy, and the Air Force would all be lending a hand. At one point, there were so many American spy planes circling overhead in Colombia that the Air Force had to assign an airborne warning-and-control center (AWACs) just to keep track of them all.

The American aid to Colombian security forces continued even when the U.S. operatives saw them torturing suspects. Even when U.S. soldiers concluded that the Colombians were flinging captured men out of helicopters. And even when the Colombians organized Escobar's rival narcotraffickers into a death squad known as the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, or "Pepes" for short.

The Pepes murdered not just suspected drug barons but their lawyers, cab drivers, real estate agents, apartment building managers, horse trainers, and maids—perhaps as many as 300 people in all. There was overwhelming evidence that they were using intelligence supplied by Centra Spike and other U.S. agencies to target their killings, but the Americans never blinked. An American DEA agent, Javier Peña, was so chummy with the Pepes that one of them presented him with a gold watch. Peña is now in charge of the DEA office in Bogota.

It's a complicated tale that might have overwhelmed a lesser writer, but Bowden skillfully weaves a narrative studded with anecdotes that are hilarious, horrifying, and tragic, sometimes simultaneously. No magical realist could have imagined Escobar's young daughter wandering the lobby of a deserted Medellin hotel, singing her own lyrics to an old Colombian Christmas hymn: "The Pepes want to kill my father, my family, and me."

Pablo Escobar was eventually killed,though not by the Pepes; he was probably murdered by a Colombian cop as he lay on the ground, helpless from a leg wound. His death and the destruction of the Medellin cartel barely caused a blip in Colombia's cocaine trade, which passed into the hands of the country's Marxist guerrillas, who now pose a threat to the security of the entire region.

But then, the American drug warriors were never under any delusion that they were going to stop cocaine from flowing into the United States. "The Americans had signed on for this job believing that it was about something bigger," writes Bowden. "It was about democracy, the rule of law, standing up for justice and civilization."

That is, by trampling Colombia's constitution and subverting its already shaky criminal justice system, by executing criminal suspects without trials or convictions, by murdering cab drivers and housemaids, the American government sought to civilize Colombia. As we used to say in Vietnam, sometimes you've got to destroy the village in order to save it.

That's why nobody should have been surprised in May when a Peruvian jet, guided in for the attack by a U.S. intelligence aircraft, mistook a plane full of missionaries for drug smugglers and shot it down, taking the lives of a young Michigan woman named Roni Bowers and her infant daughter. It's only a small step from killing Pablo to killing Roni.