In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Medical, Politics, Social commentary on March 28, 2023 at 12:10 am

It’s time to seriously reexamine America’s decades-long “War on Drugs” from a fresh perspective. 

And an excellent starting point is three gripping novels about that war—and the horrific violence it has spawned in Mexico.                           

The author is Don Winslow, a former private investigator. And he has grounded his works in solid research among addicts, narcotics traffickers and the law enforcement agents who pursue them.

His first novel, The Power of the Dog, introduces readers to Art Keller, a dedicated agent of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Although a Vietnam vet, this is his first outing into Mexico—and he’s an innocent in the ways of Mexican drug traffickers.

Drug Enforcement Administration - Wikipedia

When Miguel Angel Barrera, a high-ranking Mexican police official, seemingly befriends him, Keller enthusiastically signs on for the ride. Only to discover—later—that he’s been used.

When the “Mr. Big” dealer he’s pursuing is shot to pieces by corrupt Mexican police, the man waiting to take his place is none other than Barrera. 

For the next 40 years, Keller wages all-out war on Barrera—and his nephew, Adán, who succeeds him as the godfather of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

Two more novels follow: The Cartel and The Border. All three vividly portray the violent costs of an unwinnable conflict. 

In Dog, Winslow explains how America’s “War on Drugs” has actually made the crime cartels that produce them ever richer. He does so from the viewpoint of Adán Barrera:

Winslow in 2015

Don Winslow 

Malarrama, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

“…While Keller’s revenge obsession might cost me money in the short run, in the long run it makes me money. And that is what the Americans cannot seem to understand—that all they do is drive up the price and make us rich.

“Without their help, any bobo with an old truck or a leaky boat with an outboard motor could run drugs into El Norte. But as it is, it takes millions of dollars to move the drugs, and the prices are accordingly sky-high.

“The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity. Without them, cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges, and instead of making billions smuggling it, I’d be making pennies doing stoop labor in some California field, picking it.

Power of the Dog Book Series

“And the truly funny thing is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling protection against him, charging the independent contractors who want to move their product through La Plaza thousands of dollars for the use of our cops, soldiers, Customs agents, Coast Guard, surveillance equipment, communications….

“This is what Mexican cops appreciate that American cops don’t. We are partners…in the same enterprise.”

Looking at the “War on Drugs” from DEA agent Keller’s obsessive viewpoint, Winslow writes: 

“I’ve fought it my whole goddamn life, and for what? Billions of dollars, trying unsuccessfully to keep drugs out of the world’s most porous border? One-tenth of the anti-drug budget going into education and treatment; nine-tenths of those billions into interdiction?

“And not enough money from anywhere going into the root causes of the drug problem itself.  And the billions spent keeping drug offenders locked up in prison, the cells now so crowded we have to give early release to murderers. Not to mention the fact that two-thirds of ‘non-drug’ offenses in America are committed by people high on dope or alcohol.

“And our solutions are the same futile non-solutions: Build more prisons, hire more police, spend more and more billions of dollars not curing the symptoms while we ignore the disease. Most people in my area who want to kick drugs can’t afford to get into a treatment program unless they have blue-chip health insurance, which most of them don’t.

“And there’s a six-month-to-two-year waiting list to get a bed in a subsidized treatment program. We’re spending almost $2 billion poisoning cocaine crops over here [Mexico] while there’s no money at home to help someone who wants to get off drugs. It’s insanity.”

In short: For all their differences, police and traffickers share one thing in common: The conclusion that the “War on Drugs” is a futile waste of time and resources.

In a February 18, 2019 interview with Rolling Stone, Winslow underscored his comments:

“Addiction will always be with us, albeit not at this rate, right? Criminality will always be with us. But the first thing we can do to fix it is [to] legalize drugs. Period. Across the board. Take the enormous profit out of the drug.

“That would be the first absolute major step. We’ve done that with marijuana. The problem is, of course, the balloon effect. It’s a theory in criminology: if you squeeze the balloon in one place the air goes to another. And so we squeezed the balloon in the marijuana place and the air went to heroin.” 

Winslow sees the drug problem not as one being inflicted on Americans by outsiders—such as the Mexican drug cartels—but as one that Americans are inflicting on themselves.

No matter how many drug dealers are imprisoned, Americans’ insatiable demand for illicit drugs will keep the supplies flowing.

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