Photo I shot during January 1985 coca plantation raid by Peruvian forces.

Endless war, Scenes 1 and 2

On one of my most reckless reporting trips, I traveled to Peru’s Amazon jungle and accompanied an American-backed paramilitary unit on a raid of remote coca plantations. The same crew suffered more than a dozen deaths on its previous mission. Barely thinking of the risks, I was thrilled to be allowed to witness the resumption of the raids. Soon after I returned safely, I wondered what I could have been thinking β€” why I would risk my life for any story, especially a story that asked whether such drug eradication efforts were futile.

Reporter_notebook
My notebook from a January 1985 reporting trip to Tingo Maria, Peru.

That was 29 years ago this month. I and many others still wonder about the futility of it all (and about what I was thinking). And that’s the main point made by this feature in The New Yorker by Mattathias Schwartz. He opens with a flawed cocaine-interdiction raid in Honduras, and then zooms out to provide historical perspective on our nation’s costly and failed war on drugs, particularly that aspect of the war that attacks supply without putting a dent in demand. “What is remarkable,” Schwartz writes in the nut, “is how many times the U.S. has tried such militarized counter-narcotics programs and how long it has been apparent how little they amount to.”

After citing various depressing statistics and quoting former Reagan drug warrior George Shultz (“β€œThe war on drugs has simply not worked”), Schwartz returns to the story of the botched drug raid that turned into an international controversy after a joint Honduran-American team fired on Miskitu fishermen in Ahuas, killing several. Schwartz details his struggles in obtaining information from the Drug Enforcement Administration, including filing suit for access to records, thus far unsuccessfully. His story of a country at war with its own people, aided by the DEA in an endless war on a supply chain that feeds American demand, ends on an especially bleak note. It’s a powerful narrative delivering essential context to understand current drug-enforcement policy.

I would like to think that if I could have seen into this future β€” in January 1985, when I risked my life to describe the warfare that already marked U.S. involvement in the region, had I had known how it would play out β€” my stories back then would have struck an even more skeptical note. One thing is certain, though: If I had died trying to tell that story, it would have been an even more futile gesture than I knew at the time.

8 thoughts on “Endless war, Scenes 1 and 2”

  1. The main photo of the soldiers and field is a photo I took in January 1985 during a raid on a coca plantation near Tingo Maria, Peru.

  2. I have long said that the drug issue is a demand problem not a supply problem. The same is true of illegal immigration. We will not be able to stop the supply until we stop the demand.

    1. Thanks for reading, Win. I think the policy pendulum is finally swinging back in the health-treatment direction, which is a plus. As complicated as that shift is, I wonder how we’ll ever address the injustices that have occurred in the meantime.

  3. Glad you survived and sharing that experience of yours. The movement is changing regarding war on drugs we are all learning and admitting, long time overdue. As far as another’s comment comparing drug supply and demand to illegal immigration, legalizing immigrants would be a good thing because there will always be a demand for skilled and unskilled laborers, they helped and continue to build the U.S.

      1. Win, appreciate your reply. Wasn’t sure about your correlation between war on drugs and illegal immigration. Sadly, it’s been unsuccessful combating legal and illegal drugs. Hopefully some sort of regulation will take some of the criminal element out of drug war. Legalizing immigration hopefully will do the same for that problem, too, both for immigrants risking their lives for better way of life and stopping criminal element in U.S.

  4. Vanessa, thanks for challenging me to think about what I say. The correlation I was attempting to make is that we are trying to cut off the supply of drugs and illegal immigrants (laborers) when I believe the issue is the demand for both of them. Reducing the demand for drugs is a difficult task, and at the same time, we are investing most of our resources in reducing the supply. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. The immigration issue is similar, but different. The demand for the laborers will always drive up the supply. Under the present system we use the label “illegal.” I don’t like labels! We need the laborers and they take amazing life threatening chances to fulfill OUR demand. We need to fix this.

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