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Military Plans End to Armed Border Patrols

By Kevin B. Zeese, President, Common Sense for Drug Policy

A Department of Defense report has recommended that the military stop all armed border patrols related to the war on drugs. The recommendation comes as a result of a review of the Pentagon's policy after a US Marine fatally shot a high school student in Redford, Texas.

This recommendation is a good first step toward a drug policy not based on military force. However, armed soldiers on the border is only the tip of the iceberg in our militarized drug war.

For this recommendation to become reality, Secretary of Defense William Cohen must approve it. Then we have to wait and see what Congress does in reaction. This is a congressional election year and the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, says he plans to make the drug war a high priority so anything is possible.

For most of US history the military has been kept out of police activity. This was consistent with our founding fathers who complained that King George kept standing armies among us and with constitutional debates which opposed the use of the army domestically. In 1878 we passed a federal law which made it a crime for the military to be involved in civilian law enforcement.

But in 1981 that tradition began to change. Over the protest of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, the United States put in place the first of several amendments that allowed the military to become involved in civilian law enforcement activities. Secretary Weinberger was concerned that blurring the distinction between civilian policing and military action would risk our democratic principles; that soldiers were not trained to be police officers and that involvement of the military in an unwinnable drug war would result in lost respect for the Armed Services.

Since the early 1980s the military role in drug enforcement has rapidly escalated.

  • The DoD drug enforcement budget approaches a billion dollars each year.
  • Army Special Forces units have conducted urban warfare drills in at least 21 cities across the United States.
  • Each day the National Guard is involved in 1,300 counter drug operations, involving 4,000 troops.
  • Eighty nine percent of police departments now have paramilitary units, 46 percent have been trained by active duty armed forces.
  • The military has been designated the "lead agency" under federal law when it comes to drug interdiction.
  • The US military provides weapons and training to foreign military and police units, many of which have been involved in human rights violations; including slaughters of civilians.
  • The drug czar, (ret.) Four Star General Barry McCaffery says that the metaphor "war on drugs" is misleading because drug abuse is a "continuous challenge" where we can never be victorious. The non-drug war rhetoric is a positive change, but the reality is that we have made the drug war, more and more into a real war.

By militarizing our drug enforcement efforts we change the relationship between the government and its' people. When I visited Redford, Texas, the town where the fatal shooting by the Marine occurred, the residents were confused and terrorized. They did not understand why they were treated like an enemy merely because they lived on the border. They felt like the Marines had taken one of their best and brightest from them. Children in the town were afraid to go outside. Military helicopters continue to circle overhead.

The DoD has yet to apologize for the fatal shooting. Instead, they hide behind a grand jury that refused to indict the Marine. They don't mention that a majority of the jury were people who received pay checks or retirement checks from the federal government, including the deputy border patrol chief for the sector - from the very agency which called in the Marines and was responsible for their supervision. One town resident said the grand jury reminded him of the complaint in the Declaration of Independence against England for using mock juries to cover up the murders of colonists by British soldiers.

The next step the Pentagon should take is to formally apologize to the family of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., the slain high school student.

If the drug war is a "continuous challenge," as General McCaffery says, then we have two choices. We can continue down the path of the last decade and a half, and involve the military, national guard and para-military police forces in civilian law enforcement. More and more towns will feel like that border town in Texas. In fact, many urban communities already see the police as an invading force.

Or, we can recognize that our brief experiment with military policing was a mistake. We can begin to remove the military from civilian policing. We can return to our roots and separate the military from civilian police functions.

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