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December 17, 2006 - Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (AR)

Column: America's Other Failed War

By Gene Lyons, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

As the nation ponders its lost cause in Iraq, it's past time to reconsider yet another misbegotten crusade: America's 35-year-old "War on Drugs." Conceived by President Richard Nixon in 1971 partly as an attack on the anti-Vietnam war "counterculture," like most governmental efforts to abolish sin and folly, it's a complete failure. For different reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike refuse to acknowledge reality.

I yield to none in my contempt for the romance of narcotics. Like alcoholism, illegal drugs have brought misery, sorrow and death to millions. Few American families are untouched. I used to play Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" for college kids to test the seductive idea that "beauty is truth, truth beauty." To anybody with a feeling for blues-rooted rock, it's paralyzingly beautiful; it's also a bittersweet rationalization of evil.

A recovering addict, Clapton quit playing the song, although he's gone back to it. I'd rather he hadn't.

Prohibition and criminalization, however, have proven a miserable failure, making traffic in illicit substances infinitely more profitable, enriching organized crime, corrupting governments and police and turning drug addiction into a contemporary plague.

The United States now has a higher percentage of jailed citizens than all but a few police states. Yet heroin, cocaine and crystal meth are cheaper and more ubiquitous than ever.

Thirty years ago, I flew into the Sierra Madre on a heroin poppy eradication mission with the Mexican army. Operacion Condor, they called it. Operacion Pato Muerto (dead duck) would have been more like it. Altogether, Mexico had 14 helicopters provided by our Drug Enforcement Agency to patrol a remote area as large as California.

The general in charge spoke of eliminating narcotrafficantes within months. Meanwhile, the lovely city of Culiacan, Sinaloa, about the size of Little Rock, had experienced 300 homicides in a four-month period.

Rival drug gangs fought pitched battles in the streets. Not long after I left, Roberto Montenegro, a courageous Mexican reporter who'd helped me and other American journalists, was machine-gunned to death on Culiacan's main square leaving church one Sunday.

I thought of Montenegro after reading The Observer's astonishing account of U.S. government collusion in mob killings in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. According to the British newspaper, agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Executive (ICE), a division of Homeland Security, hired a corrupt Mexican cop named Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, aka "Lalo," to infiltrate a drug cartel in Juarez, directly across from El Paso, Texas.

Things went wrong from the start. Early on, the Mexican gangsters asked Lalo to prove his loyalty by helping torture, execute and bury a Mexican lawyer named Fernando Reyes.

Possibly fearful of refusing, Lalo did so. Wearing a wire supplied by ICE agents, he also recorded the entire grisly affair down to the last scream.

"They tried to choke him with an extension cord," he said in a subsequent sworn statement "but this broke and I gave them a plastic bag and they put it on his head and suffocated him." Unsure Reyes was dead, Lalo watched an accomplice "hit him many times on the head" with a shovel.

Mindful that its informant had committed first-degree murder, ICE asked Justice Department lawyers what to do. Astonishingly, they were advised to proceed full speed ahead. The U.S. Attorney in charge of El Paso is one Johnny Sutton, a close associate of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. During President Bush's tenure as Texas governor, Sutton served as his director of criminal-justice policy.

Alas, Lalo discovered an appetite for what his Mexican compatriots dubbed "carne asadas" (barbecues). Over six months, claiming he often warned ICE handlers in advance, Lalo participated in many more killings, climaxing in the kidnapping and murder of Luis Padilla, a husband and father of three from his home in El Paso, Texas -- a case of mistaken identity. Mexican authorities eventually exhumed a dozen bodies from a garden in a wealthy Juarez neighborhood.

But it wasn't until Lalo's accomplices bungled the kidnapping of an undercover DEA agent in Juarez that the whole thing blew up in his handlers' faces.

Upon learning of the ICE operation, Sandy Gonzalez, the head of the DEA's El Paso office, expressed outrage. "I have no choice but to hold you responsible," he wrote his counterpart at Homeland Security, for protecting an informant who'd become a "homicidal maniac ... (T)his situation is so bizarre that, even as I'm writing to you, it is difficult for me to believe it."

But Narco News, an online newsletter that did the original reporting, was already sniffing around, and this was the Bush administration. So you know what happened next. Gonzalez, the furious DEA agent, was forced out of his job. Federal agents were sent to grill the Narco News reporter in San Antonio about his sources' identities.

The final score? Thirteen dead vs. one plea-bargained drug-trafficking conviction. Could things possibly get any more upside-down?

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