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Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Diplomad Goes On A Drug Raid

I complain about the State Department and the Bozos who have run it for years--through Republican and Democratic Administrations--but a career in the Foreign Service allows you to do some pretty neat things.  If you want to get ahead in the FS, of course, you stay in DC as much as possible, never say anything controversial, think only within the box, be extremely politically correct, and work your way up the ladder via one staff job after another. If, however, you don't worry too much about your next promotion, or about ingratiating yourself with the Acting Deputy Assistant to the Special Assistant for the Assistant Secretary of  . . . you can do some weird and wonderful things.

In the late-1980s, for reasons known but to God and the personnel system, I had control of our counternarcotics program in a rather raucous Central American country. I got to wear Kevlar, carry a gun, usually my Colt Government Model .45, but also the best handgun ever made, my S&W 4 inch .357--that baby never fails!--you can keep your sissy Glocks and overpriced SIGS . . .  I got to ride around in jeeps, on river craft, in helicopters, direct spray planes, and work with the DEA and others on picking targets and organizing big operations with the local police and military. It was heady stuff for a confirmed glasses-wearing nerd. I also thought, for awhile, that I was doing something useful for my country. As it came to pass, however, and as Borat would say, "That one, not so much."

I recall one operation in particular. We had two helicopters and a column of paramilitary cops with a few truckloads of macheteros to do the dirty and backbreaking work of hacking the drug plants.  In this case we were going after a big marijuana "plantation" (please do not conjure up images of Tara) that was close to this country's border with a neighbor, and was causing international incidents as the marjuaneros moved back-and-forth over that border. There had been some shoot-outs between the cops on the other side and "our" drug dealers, and some hot pursuits which had crossed the border. That raised the possibility of clashes between the drug forces we were training on one side of the border with those we were training on the other side. While I was sure that my guys could beat those of my Foreign Service colleague in the other country, a war between US-funded drug forces was, for some reason, frowned upon by the stodgy and unimaginative State Department. Anyhow, our little air fleet took off very early in the morning and headed out to rid the jungle of marijuana! I love flying in helicopters with the doors open. With a gun in your holster, the headphones crackling in your ears, the air rushing in as you swoop over trees, rivers, and farms, you feel like the Master of the Universe! Thor! Mars! Odin! Zeus! Rufus T. Firefly on his way to battle evil Sylvania!

The trouble began soon after launch. We discovered that our column of trucks, cops, and machete men was late in setting off because of rain and, well, because this was Latin America, and "late" is how everything works. The main force would arrive well after the choppers did. The DEA liaison (more on him later) flying with me urged that we  go ahead; we could land near the marijuana plantation in an open field we had scouted some days before. The other helo had several well-armed local cops on board and they could secure the area for us and we would wait for the trucks. So we flew on. More trouble. We arrived over the plantation--a giant expanse of marijuana plants on land hacked out of the rain forest--and the open field that was to be our LZ now had a very old Caterpillar bulldozer in the middle of it and lots of junk, e.g., tree trunks, logs, and--I swear--a bathtub, covering it. The evil ones apparently had figured out that this field would serve nicely as an anti-drug LZ, and had decided to prevent that development. So we buzzed around for awhile until we saw our lumbering truck column approaching. Not exactly a Patton or Rommel blitz, or a Ulysses Grant enveloping pincer movement, but anyhow, they had arrived. They pulled up, cleared a spot for us and we landed.  By this time, of course, all evil drug dealers within 100 miles knew what was up, and were long gone. In fact, they probably knew about the raid before we took off.

The cops secured the area; the machete men began hacking away and piling up marijuana plants.  We stood around taking pictures and filming our glorious feat. I took lots of notes for the cable I would send back to Washington, and smoked a cigar. We grabbed a few marijuana plants and threw them into our helicopter as booty to be shown off back in the capital. The cops set the pile of plants on fire, along with  a small shed.

Then a shout went up! O sweet victory! A prisoner! The cops had caught an evil one snooping around on the edges of the plantation. They brought him over to us much as a cat drops a dead rat at your feet. A real live drug dealing monster! Well, maybe more of barefoot, dirty, wizened and elderly peasant who apparently had been the caretaker but, foolishly, had come back to get a few things out of his now burning shed. The poor idiot was terrified of us, could hardly speak Spanish, and kept holding his hands up in prayer to the gringos. He seemed to know nothing, and we couldn't see much point in holding him. He was apparently paid a few dollars a month to "watch over" the plants, mostly to prevent impoverished Indians in the area from stealing them. The local cops wanted to beat him just as a demonstration of what would happen to drug dealers, but our DEA agents and I said no, that would not happen. We took some pictures of him, lectured him on the perils of drug trafficking, and cut him free. He then asked me for one of my cigars. No way!

With the smokey smell of victory still in our nostrils, we climbed back into our choppers and headed back to showers, steaks, beer, and bragging about our deeds. The whole thing cost tens-of-thousands of dollars, I can't remember the exact number, and basically accomplished nothing. I decided I would go on no more of these excursions as I saw little point to them. A few days later, on another one of these raids, this time going after opium plants, our people ran into considerably more difficulty. The same DEA agent who had flown with me, found himself and his party, as he eloquently put it, "Surrounded by a shit-load of pissed off Indians with guns." The raiding party had to withdraw. We eventually brought in the spray planes and achieved, I guess, "success," defined as, "If we sprayed it, it was amapola (poppy)."

It was all interesting and fun, and has provided endless stories with which I can bore glassy-eyed neighbors at barbecues, but the war on drugs is a hoax. It is King Canute ordering the tides to recede.

I was just reading that the State Department has been allocated about $1 billion to "fight" drug trafficking this year--and State is not, by a long shot, a big player in this silly war. Those $1 billion will be wasted. I guarantee it. They will go to contractors' salaries, equipment, fuel, and a whole host of silly programs that will have no discernible effect on the drug supply or on drug prices in the US.

Legalize the crap and be done with it.

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