Hidden victims, hidden costs

By Michael D. Long, Prisoner of the Drug War

This story is not about statistics, or politics. It is about the plight of two of my fellow inmates and friends who, unfortunately, are representative of all too many persons incarcerated here in the United States at huge hidden and direct cost to our society and economy.

Ramon Navarette and Luis Bueno are two examples of the average "criminal" that your Government prosecutes and warehouses with your tax dollars. Ramon and Luis are both Colombian citizens, 56 and 43 years old. They speak no English and understand nothing of the arcane legal system in our country.

Ramon and Luis signed on to work as deck hands on a rundown freighter. They earned about $300.00 per month, an amount that is considered good wages in Colombia. Their earnings supported their wives, children and extended family members. Between the two men there were 16 people financially dependent on them. Earnings of the freighter's crew of nine supported 54 people in Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama.

The crewmen had no way of knowing that the old freighter had become the target of a U.S. Customs and Coast Guard "sting" operation. Life for these men and all who loved and knew them was about to change.

Ramon and Luis worked hard, sometimes 18-20 hours per day doing menial tasks onboard ship. They were never aware of drugs aboard, and all of the crewmen denied any knowledge of drug activity.

About 350 miles from the U.S., while in international waters, the ship stopped in the dead of night. The crew was awakened and ordered by the Captain to load and conceal almost 2000 kilos of cocaine coming from a ship that had drawn along side the old freighter. The shipment had been setup and arranged by confidential informants working for the U.S. government.

The crew was told that if they did not pitch in and begin to help offload the cocaine, they would be killed. They were told to "follow orders," to "keep their mouths shut", and promised a $200 bonus when they returned to port. They chose to take the money and live and helped off-load and store the cocaine. Within a few hours the freighter was stopped and boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard. Drugs were "discovered", all the men aboard arrested, and the ship confiscated.

In true drug war fashion a virtual army of federal prosecutors, federal agents, federal public defenders, private criminal attorneys, court employees, and federal judges (hundreds of thousands of persons in all, costing the U.S. economy many billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs) took over.

Ramon Navarette and Luis Bueno, two hard-working, uneducated, and unwitting victims, were told by their public defenders that if they did not plead guilty they would be found guilty, and would receive 15 to 30 year prison sentences. If they plead guilty, they were promised "light", 3 to 5 year sentences. A fight appeared futile.

With language barriers, and lack of knowledge of U.S. law, these nine helpless defendants' under threat of 15 to 30 year federal prison sentences, pled guilty to the charges. The only thing clear to them was 98% of all persons charged by the U.S. government are deemed guilty. Only 2% are ever acquitted at trial. Three to five seemed a better choice than "not guilty". Ramon, Luis and seven crewmen were sentenced to 7 to 9 years in federal prison. Not one of the foreign nationals was sentenced to the promised 3 ­ 5 years.

The old freighter's captain ultimately went free because he was a Guatemalan citizen, and the U.S. government failed to obtain prior approval of the foreign government to arrest its citizen. There were no other arrests in the U.S. or Colombia.

Ramon and Luis' case is not unusual, and taxpayers face the enormous burden of payment for the warehousing of these "minor players". These long, inhumane sentences have nothing to do with the crimes allegedly committed and everything to do with the money that can be made on their imprisonment.

The suffering may start with Ramon and Luis, but it doesn't end there. There are 16 people who have lost their breadwinners, their support. They have lost wholeness as a family, a heartache they share with their U.S. counterparts. This pain extends to scores of loved ones within the large, extended family. Ramon and Luis will hope that the extended family can lend at least a little aid to their immediate family who are destitute and broken hearted. These women and children face uncertain futures in economically desperate countries. There are no welfare or food stamp programs in Colombia. There are no government-sponsored "free breakfast and lunch" programs in their schools either. The poor in these countries are dependent on U.S. foreign aid.

Our politicians and bureaucrats fail to tell the American people this tragic side of our ill-conceived policy of trying to incarcerate our way out of a social and medical problem. They have failed to tell you how many innocents are being swept up in the groundswell of American hysteria, a delirium we legislate all over the world and upon countless thousands of family members: wives, elderly parents, children and grandchildren of citizens of other nations. They have become victims, too.