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April 2001

Celebrating One Year of Narco News

Narco News 2001


From Reel to Real

A Narco News Movie Review

By Dennis Bernstein and Larry Everest

Narco News Publisher's Note: We saw the movie, "Traffic," in a theater South of the Border, where the English-speaking parts of the movie had Spanish subtitles and the Spanish-speaking parts had none. We've wanted to see this film since folks started talking about it. It premiered in Mexico on March 20th.

The following review, by Dennis Bernstein and Larry Everest, best captures our view of the motion picture "Traffic." This review is an unabridged longer form of a review that appeared in the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Examiner in late March. We thank Bernstein and Everest for making the longer version available for publication on Narco News, because, for us, "Traffic" is not a movie. It is a reality that we live every single day, reporting on the drug war from somewhere in a country called América...


From Reel to Real

By Dennis Bernstein and Larry Everest

"Traffic," nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture, has been hailed as the real-deal on America's "war on drugs." But how real is it?

Traffic is slick. The performances are compelling, the action non-stop, and the cinematography riveting. It captures some narco hypocrisies, like the fact that the war hasn't stopped the drug flow. Traffic doesn't discriminate against illegal drugs, but reminds us that legal drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and tranquilizers are also drugs with devastating impacts. We certainly wouldn't argue with the movie's theme that, as screenwriter Stephen Gaghan put it, "drugs should be considered a health care issue rather than a criminal issue." And we can understand why so many, who have been so deeply harmed either by drugs or the war against them, are glad that the official story is finally being questioned.

But real deal? Not by a long shot. For every drug truth Traffic portrays, it ignores, obscures or distorts deeper ones. Two stand out: the role of the U.S. in fueling and profiting from the drug trade, and the targeting of youth and communities of color in the domestic war on drugs.

In Traffic's world, the sordid underbelly of the drug trade lies across the border in Mexico. There, a corrupt and ruthless General runs Mexico's war on drugs, cartels wage war on each other for market control, torture is routine, and bodies litter the streets. It's all shot in sepia tones, as if Mexico is dirty with drugs.

Across the border in El Norte, however, life is lived in technicolor. The U.S.'s anti-drug war may be bumbling, inefficient, and hampered by inter-agency rivalries, but it's sincere -- without a hint of corruption or complicity. America's drug czar Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a naive but ultimately honest and caring family man -- in stunning contrast to his Mexican counterpart.

The CIA, Drugs and Contras

Yet who is, in reality, corrupting who? A real-deal Traffic could have begun like this:

Scene 1: Nancy Reagan in the White House introducing her "just say no" campaign against drugs.

Scene 2: Cut to the nearby offices of attorney general William French Smith, who is signing a memo assuring the CIA that it will not be held criminally liable for working with drug traffickers.

Scene 3: Cut to CIA operatives working with traffickers in Central America to fund the illegal Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Scene 4: Cut to South Central Los Angeles, where some of these same traffickers are selling cocaine.

This may seem more fictional than Traffic, but it's reality. Neither the media nor Congress ever took on the Contra drug connection in the 1980s, but it's well documented that the Bill Casey-Oliver North network included selling drugs to arm the Contras.

A July 1985 entry in North's notebook reads - $14 million in Contra money from drugs. Jack Blum, the Special Council for Kerry Subcommittee investigating the Contra-drug connection told the Senate Intelligence Committee that U.S. officials were "quietly undercutting law enforcement and human-rights agencies that might have caused them difficulty...policy makers absolutely closed their eyes to the criminal behavior of the contras."

Former DEA agent Michael Levine, who was working in Latin America at the time, says he had his own evidence of the CIA's drugs-for-arms dealing: a DEA report stating "the CIA stopped us from indicting the same people who were selling the Contras drugs." Levine adds, "If I was working North's case, I would have tracked him and the rest of them, from the time they got up in the morning until the time they went to bed at night."

Reporter Gary Webb's much maligned - but accurate - San Jose Mercury News series "Dark Alliance," found that some of these same traffickers were supplying cocaine to dealers in U.S. inner cities at the dawn of the 1980's crack epidemic.

It's not surprising that none of this was in Traffic's storyline. "Best Director" Soderbergh worked closely with the U.S. government on the film -- the Customs Service and the DEA in particular. The DEA felt so comfortable with Soderbergh that they allowed him to shoot inside their top secret El Paso Intelligence Center. When one Customs official complained about part of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite it. And the film's credited consultant was Tim Golden of The New York Times. Golden managed to miss the Contra cocaine connection while covering the war in Nicaragua for the Miami Herald and later was the New York Times' pointman in attacking Webb's Mercury News series.

Supporting Narco Regimes

Levine, who worked as a drug enforcement agent for over 20 years, calls the Contra drug connection "small potatoes" compared with U.S. actions in Mexico. Levine's real life storyline goes like this: on assignment in Mexico in the late 1980s, he's part of a drug sting that leads to the highest levels of the Mexican government of Carlos Salinas de Gotari. Just when he and his fellow DEA agents were going to put the bite on Mexico's top drug dealers, the U.S. Attorney General, Edwin Meese, warned Mexico's attorney general of the DEA operation. The whole operation went up in smoke, so to speak, and the U.S. maintained close relations with the Salinas government.

Former President Salinas' brother Raul is now in prison for drug trafficking and there is evidence that the former President himself amassed some $600 million in drug profits stashed in some 60 banks around the world.

Such official collaboration with drug traffickers has been repeated in many other countries such as Peru and Colombia. In Peru, the U.S. and CIA worked closely for over a decade with Vladimiro Montesinos, the number two man in Lima, who was closely linked with Peruvian drug traffickers. Montesinos' drug connection -- not to mention his reign of terror with President Alberto Fujimori -- was no problem for the U.S., even as Peru continued to be a major coca producer. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey even had his picture taken with the reclusive Montesinos as a sign of U.S. support. Montesinos lost U.S. favor not for selling drugs, but for selling arms to Colombian rebels, threatening "Plan Colombia."

Levine recalls being hot on the trail of heroin dealers in Thailand only to be told by U.S. officials there that the U.S. had "other priorities" than stopping drugs. "Drugs are never a U.S. priority," Levine concludes from his years working in Southeast Asia, South America, and Mexico.

Drugs, Banks, and Financial Markets

What are these "other priorities?" How about the stability of many U.S. allies, not to mention the global financial system itself? As "Deep Throat" reputedly said during Watergate, "follow the money." And there's hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money to follow every year.

Global capitalism has fueled -- and profited from -- the Third World's dependence on the drug trade. It's an open secret that without drug money, the economies of many U.S. allies such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia would collapse and be unable to repay their billions in debt to Western banks and international lending agencies. And if Third World nations defaulted on their loans, the ensuing panic would make the recent stock market plunge look positively bullish by comparison.

Market prices for the agricultural goods and raw materials these countries have traditionally depended on have declined, while competition from cheap food imports from the U.S. and other industrialized countries has have ruined millions of peasant farmers in the developing world. It is estimated that some 500,000 farmers in Mexico will eventually be forced off the land because NAFTA opened Mexico up to U.S. corn imports. This has pushed many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America deeper into debt. In the face of these trends, the IMF and World Bank have demanded these countries shift agricultural production to cash crops. And what's the most lucrative cash crop around? That's right, illegal drugs.

How much money is involved in the global drug trade? Last year a minority report from House Democrats on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations stated, "Despite increasing international attention and stronger anti-money laundering controls, some current estimates are that $500 billion to $1 trillion in criminal proceeds are laundered through banks worldwide each year, with about half of that amount moved through United States banks." An estimated $250 billion of those criminal proceeds can be traced to the cocaine trade.

James F. Sloan, the Director of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, calls money laundering the "lifeblood of narcotics trafficking....These criminal organizations now dwarf some of the world's largest legitimate business enterprise." As the unquestioned "kingpins" of the world financial system, U.S. banks are a prime beneficiary of world drug trafficking.

U.S. banks have consistently opposed efforts to impose tighter regulation on their dealings with unregulated private or offshore banks, through which much drug money is laundered. U.S. banking giant Citibank recently admitted that it had been receiving laundered drug money from one shell bank in the Cayman Islands. In 1998 U.S. officials seized $1.8 million in Citibank accounts, but over the next 2 years it is estimated that another $300 million moved from the Cayman through Citibank accounts. To date, no U.S. banker has ever been indicted or served time for laundering drug money.

Drugs and Prisons

So much for Traffic's "realism" south of the border, what about in the U.S. itself? In a movie whose theme is supposedly the decriminalization of drug use, why not show who is really being criminalized in America's war on drugs - the hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly of color, locked up for non-violent drug offenses?

The so-called "war on drugs" has really been a war on the people. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the population of U.S. prisons has nearly doubled over the last decade to 2 million, one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. One in four are in jail for drug-related offenses. While the number of violent offenders in jail has doubled in the last 20 years, the numbers locked up for drug offenses has gone up eleven times! There are nearly as many people locked up on drug charges today -- around 458,000 -- as the entire US prison population in 1980.

This incarceration boom has had undeniable racial dimensions. While there were twice as many whites in jail for drug offenses in 1996 as a decade earlier, there were five times more African Americans, and six times more African American youth. Last June, Human Rights Watch reported that the U.S. war on drugs has been waged overwhelmingly against African Americans.

These racial disparities are well known, yet year after year lawmakers uphold discriminatory laws that punish crack possession -- mainly found in impoverished inner cities - hundreds of times more severely than powdered cocaine - the drug of the white and affluent.

This points to another ugly reality of the U.S.'s war on drugs - urban counterinsurgency. Waves of downsizing, restructuring and relocation have stripped many inner cities of the factory jobs which used to support more stable communities. Like Latin American peasants, many urban dwellers have been left with drugs as the best option for survival. What better way for the establishment to contain this explosive population -- remember LA circa 1992? -- than by locking away hundreds of thousands via the war on drugs?

Traffic shows little understanding and no sympathy for the jolting economic and social changes that have ravaged the U.S. inner city. Beside DEA hero Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), only one African American is portrayed and he's one of the film's most unsavory characters -- a drug dealer who pimps the good Judge Wakefield's drug-addicted daughter. Isn't this just repeating the latest stereotype of African Americans, which is designed to terrify middle class white people and justify racist repression of people of color?

In Traffic, law enforcement brutality exists only south of the border. In reality, what Amnesty International calls an "epidemic" of police brutality has accompanied the war on drugs in the U.S. And recent police scandals in Oakland, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, where cops have been caught planting drugs on suspects, stealing drugs from suspects, and selling drugs for their own profit, show there's plenty of corruption too.

In a recent interview, Michael Douglas remarks that the cooperation Traffic received from government officials demonstrated that "even the government was willing to say, 'Let's open this discussion up.'" Indeed, there are many in the establishment who want to modify the war on drugs, fearing it's hurting the system more than it's helping. But such a revamping of official policy is a far cry from dealing with the full scope of American's drug war -- much less reversing it. That's something that neither the powers-that-be, nor Traffic, are going to touch.


Dennis Bernstein, an award-winning investigative reporter, is the host/producer of "Flashpoints" on KPFA radio in Berkeley, California. Larry Everest writes for the Revolutionary Worker newspaper and other publications, and is the author of Behind the Poison Cloud: Union Carbide's Bhopal Massacre.

We Live It