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 — why I would risk my life for any story, especially a story that asked whether such drug eradication efforts were futile.
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 (““The 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 — 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 — 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.