Time to fight a smarter war on drugs

This Washington Post story points to one of the major flaws in the United States’ war on drugs—law enforcement agents deeply involved in the smuggling business, and the enforcement agencies’ inability or refusal to crackdown on corrupt agents. 

“La Estrella” was for years a double agent employed by Customs and Border Patrol, but earning significantly more money from a Mexican smuggling cartel for aiding the trans-border shipment of drugs, firearms and people. Martha Garnica earned the kind of money to buy multiple homes, a fleet of high-end vehicles and lavish European vacations impossible to afford on her Border Patrol salary. Despite her nearly decade long lavish lifestyle and the suspicions of her coworkers that she was “dirty,” Garnica was allowed to continue her betrayal of her country and her sworn oath to uphold the law. 

Now serving a 20-year sentence for her crimes, Garnica’s role in aiding and abetting the smugglers has undoubtedly been filled by one or more Americans similarly placed to help the smugglers move their “product” across the border. There can be little doubt that the actions of people like Garnica lead to the deaths of other law enforcement agents, turncoats and innocents. She got off lightly and probably has money from her smuggling days stashed away awaiting her release from prison. 

Ultimately, victory in the war on drugs is an illusion. One promoted by government and law enforcement to keep their budgets flush with big dollars and jail cells packed with casual users and small time dealers. I am not an advocate of legalizing drugs. I can personally attest to the destructive harm caused by a better living through chemistry lifestyle, but a major step in combating the nation’s drug problem is to get law enforcement out of the drug smuggling business. 

In the 1970s and 80s, my primary business revolved around professional skydiving in the American Southwest. I don’t deny being a recreational user then, but I was never involved in the smuggling business. Keeping the smugglers and the anti-drug agencies off my dropzone was a constant struggle. Skydiving utilizes the same types of aircraft that were the mainstay of the smuggling fleet in those days. In fact, some skydiving centers in the southeast and southwest were little more than covers for active smuggling operations. 

In the 70s, jump planes such as Cessnas, Twin Beechs, and DC-3s could be paid for from the proceeds of one flight across the border with a load of marijuana. The profits were huge and the consequences of getting busted relatively minor. At the dropzone I ran for eight years there were more than a dozen attempts to steal our airplanes. After investing in training pilots to fly jumpers, it was common to see them lured away by smugglers offering lucrative pay—and sometimes by law enforcement agents who would entrap naïve pilots and use them to get at the smugglers. 

Up until the late 70s, drug smuggling was a big game for both sides. Nobody got shot and very few smugglers were busted. The anti-drug LEOs knew almost everyone in the business and the smugglers knew most of the narcs chasing them. Bribes were, and remain so, commonly used to ensure shipments made it through without trouble. The Smuggler’s Inn, a Tucson bar that eventually burned down mysteriously after the game turned violent, was a party spot where smugglers and DEA people socialized. It was also a place where meetings to discuss operations, introduce new players and payoffs occurred regularly. 

As a dropzone manager and pilot, I was regularly offered princely sums to supply airplanes, pilots and other equipment, such as parachutes and cargo bags, for the smuggling business. I stayed clear of all of it because I had no desire to go to jail or end up dead. As I said, it was a big game, but it turned into a deadly game as the amounts of money involved went from a few thousands to multi-millions. Ripoffs pulled by smugglers or law enforcement people turned the game deadly. Since the early 80s the violence associated with drug smuggling increased dramatically, along with the profit margins and the competition. What a way to mark Mexico’s 200th bicentennial.

Today, the government of Mexico, already corrupted by cartel influences, is at risk of falling under total control of smuggling cartels. The violence that has killed more than 25,000 Mexicans over the past year is spreading north of the border. Gunfire from the Mexican side directed at Border Patrol agents is a regular occurrence in Texas and Arizona. Cartels, while at war with other smugglers, have already made death threats against a number of police, sheriff and federal agents. It is a matter of time before one of those blood vendettas is carried out. 

Decriminalizing the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana is the first step toward breaking the cartel operations. Remove the value of their cash crop and the marijuana smugglers and dealers are out of business. Forget about legalizing and taxing marijuana as California is attempting to do. Sin taxes never generate the revenues predicted by the governments that impose them. Compare the projected revenues of all the tax increases levied on tobacco and you will find that actual revenues fall far short of predictions and the taxes actually made the tobacco black markets thrive. Canada proved that to be true when that country’s tobacco taxes hit punitive rates. Canada’s solution was to roll back the taxes which greatly reduced the black market demand with no increase in the number of smokers. 

There is ample proof that law enforcement cannot stop the black market marijuana trade. The war on drugs drives the majority of illegally imported marijuana for the same reasons that Prohibition, essentially a war on alcohol, spurred the gangland activity of that era. The war on drugs is a futile strategy that is an immensely expensive failure that continues to waste taxpayers’ money, fills jails and prisons with people better treated by drug rehabilitation programs, and draws a large percentage of law enforcement resources away from the pursuit of other criminals. 

After a period of adjustment settling restrictions similar to liquor laws for driving under the influence or supplying marijuana to minors (which are already in place), the number of marijuana users will moderate, just as they have done in countries that have already decriminalized pot. The bonus is that it ends the profitability of one product of the cartels’ lucrative trade. Harder drugs (cocaine, meth, heroin, etc.) remain proscribed. Harsher penalties for importing, distributing and possessing large quantities of those substances might be considered.

Secondly, mandatory life in jail with no parole sentences for corrupt law enforcement officers convicted of abetting drug smuggling operations should be legislated. The death penalty could be imposed for those officers whose corruption causes the death of addicts, casual users or law enforcement officers. 

The way to win the war on drugs is to fight a smarter war, but we need smarter politicians willing to look at changing policy for that to happen.

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About zingstrom

Journalist, free-lance writer, photographer and aviator.
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