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Narcotics, interdiction and Columbian drug lords - 08 September 1989

Among the more bizarre anniversaries that were celebrated this summer is an event that happened 20 years ago and which I find is no longer mentioned in the indexes of encyclopedias, almanacs and the like.

Yet it seems to me it marked a turning point in American social history and powerfully affected the behaviour and the beliefs of the succeeding generation.

The original event was that gathering, as of pilgrims to Mecca, of 100,000 or more young people of college age in a great stretch of pasture land, a hundred miles or more north of New York City where the mountains begin by the Hudson River.

A small, old artists' colony, which was alarmed by the promised invasion and made the pilgrims move several miles out of town. The town was Woodstock. The gathering was intended as a vast lament for the war in Vietnam and a protest against what were called "middle-class" values by a new, sensitive generation calling itself the "counterculture".

Mostly, they were middle-class couples or partners who assembled to deride the generation of their parents, many of whom had scraped to send their children to college so they could become more sensitive. The lament and the protest were expressed with waving banners for a while but soon settled into a huge rock festival, the bands pounding through the night while from the stage to the far horizon, the legions of hippies swayed and thumped in ecstasy, amid the rattle of beer cans and an atmosphere dense with marijuana.

Now this was a time, remember, at the peak of the insurgent '60s when the campuses erupted in riots, when Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles, when the Democratic convention in Chicago turned into an obscene rumble on the streets between taunting student radicals and the police gone beserk.

It was a despairing decade but time and history moved on, the student revolts wore themselves out. The bewildered middle-class, so long called "the silent majority" found a voice, it's own protest, and elected a conservative president – twice. The Supreme Court followed the election returns and began to assert a conservative bias which we thought had gone forever.

But one element of the youth movement, the "counterculture", remained, and was passed on, in the next generation up into comparatively placid middle-class youths, down into the ranks of the poor, black and white. That element was drugs, which the hippies had told us "raised your consciousness, could give you a sense of mastery and wellbeing, beyond anything procurable by cigarettes and alcohol".

And indeed, the lonely or insecure young of any class, the rich, the comfortable, the pinched, soon found it was so. To the poor blacks of the cities, the drop-outs and the abandoned, the fatherless, the chronically unemployed, drugs were a magical gift that could, for a short time, and then for another short time, and then every day, and for keeps, give them the undreamed-of feeling of being on top of the world.

First it was marijuana and then LSD and other variants. And in the ghettos, in the streets of dark town, heroin.

As early as the end of the '60s, the mayors of the big cities and the congressmen who represented them were disturbed enough by the steadily rising numbers of heroin addicts to wait on the White House. And in October 1968, President Johnson established the first grants for building and staffing drug treatment centres.

Two years later, President Nixon signed the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. And two years after that, he signed the first bill to advance international narcotics control.

Down the next decade, these and other federal agencies went more briskly about their job of going after pushers, arresting drug dealers, trying to break, without much success, the hold on the increasing drug traffic of organised crime.

In 1983, President Reagan created what he called the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System. And that, throughout his two terms, was to be his policy. "Interdiction" was the watchword, which meant to stop the importation, by sea, by land, by air, of the drugs pouring into this country now from the countries of Central America. There is, alas, no need to trace the story, the methods of interdiction. It has been a calamitous failure.

Today, even the Republicans who believed in interdiction as fervently as Mr Reagan did, concede that despite the controlling of the American borders, the alertness of the coastguard, the diligence of the tax people, the Internal Revenue Service, the deploying of helicopter teams to catch stuff coming in by air, about 1% has been intercepted. Ninety-nine per cent coming in from the offices of the Colombian drug lords is delivered somewhere in the United States.

In the meantime, between Nixon's first efforts and Reagan's last, marijuana is almost forgotten, along with LSD. Cocaine has been, and is now the irresistible invader. And through the Reagan years, the "me" decade, the age of the yuppy, cocaine ceased to be the secret vice of movie stars, rock bands, the jetset.

It had spread throughout society and is the narcotic of choice in cities, towns, villages, the middle-class, the upper middle-class, and in its cheap, crude and most addictive form, crack, it has begun to ravage the black sections of all the cities.

There are by now a quarter-million black babies who, at birth, were cocaine addicts. For the first time in the polling of the American public, drugs have become the most urgent national issue. More people, one in three, believe it to be of greater concern than the deficit, poverty, Nicaragua, housing, foreign affairs, medical costs, the homeless, whatever.

So while President Bush, while he was inaugurated, confidently proclaimed that drugs were a "scourge we shall wipe out", the admission that interdiction was a hopeless effort and the verdict of the latest poll moved him to devise and announce, in his first television talk from the White House, a new strategy under the command of Mr William Bennett, his appointee as the first national drug director.

First I ought to try and sketch a rough, very large outline of the problem as the government has learned to see it. Interdiction – it was doomed by the stark facts of geography. The American border, from the east coast of Florida to the coast of California wriggles along something like six to seven thousand miles. The coastline of the Florida Peninsula alone is 1800 miles long.

The stuff, we believed, used to come in in job lots in regular airplanes or single-engine planes or by boat into Miami and points north, and some far to the west, through the Texas/Mexican border towns and from Mexico into Los Angeles.

But we discovered – a little late in the day – that the Colombian drug lords, who we thought of as a small, ruthless family, shipping everything into a few airfields in the east, now fly it in by circuitous routes into small towns, village airstrips, pastures, lonely highways, deep in the south, the Midwest and the west.

We discovered that the Colombian drug lords have a government all their own. They have their own air force, their own army, their own undercover diplomats, so to speak, in several states. Their own legion of agents, down from impeccable businessmen who make discreet deliveries in toney drawing-rooms and hotels, down through many echelons to the street-corner privates who waylay a simple black boy with a menial job and a struggling mother and suggest he becomes a salesman at $1,000 a week.

To break this continental network, Mr Bush has put up to Congress $8 billion, about 30% more money than Congress voted earlier in the year. The Democrats say it's not nearly enough and compare it derisively with the $166 billions voted to bail out the bankrupt thrift companies, the savings and loan associations.

The new tactics, in what Mr Bush calls "a grand strategy" are to double, almost, the number of federal jails, to go after the middle men, to punish drug users, to compel them into treatment. Not much more money yet – the big complaint of the Democrats – for addicts who seek treatment.

The first big move of men and money has been to the Colombian government for helicopters, security services, money and equipment for their police and their army. And, it should be said, that the first really direct and massive attack on the drug lords has been done by the Colombians themselves.

They have a good government, a good army, a desperately busy police force and, in the light, the murky light, of the assassination of 70 judges, a core of men and women staying on in the justice department, not least the minister herself, whose bravery ought to make them the admiration of the world.

They appear to be breaking and terrifying the drug-running families but they will scatter, find other bases. And, anticipating this assault, they, some time ago, shifted their sights to the greatly growing market of Europe.

But most effective of all the machinations of the drug lords is their highly sophisticated system of disposing of their profits. Obviously by the transfer of the monies into overseas bank accounts but less obviously, and more alarmingly for us, by their setting up in this country, in swift and subtle ways, of real-estate firms, insurance companies, car rental services, office buildings, pizza parlours. Once these businesses are established, their revenues, the money from their clients, is as clean as any other, and effortlessly loses its identity on the computers of the best banks.

We have focused all along on Colombia. But the plain, visible fact, if you look at a map, is that Colombia, while it is the processing centre of the raw coca, produces only 10% of the coca crop. Bolivia produces 60%, Peru 30%.

Somewhere down the line where, at the moment, we don't care to peer, is the awful root of the problem. The need to subsidise several million peasants in those infamously poor countries, by way of asking them to destroy the crop they live by. And grow something else.

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