Drug War Inc spends $15bn but the dope keeps on coming

As Britain prepares to appoint a 'drugs tsar', Tim Cornwell reports from the Mexican border on a war the US shows no sign of winning

"Are you worried about your trip to Tijuana, General?" Reports that a Mexican drug trafficker had called the FBI and threatened to fire a missile at America's drug tsar had sent a squad of American and Mexican reporters into a minor frenzy.

"No," Barry McCaffrey answered, stonily, then used the question to launch into his theme of the day: a toll of 400 violent incidents involving US personnel on the border, and 200 Mexican law officers killed. "What about the rocket?" someone called.

For four days last week, General McCaffrey had been doing what drug tsars do best: glad-handing and press conferencing his way along the US-Mexico border, rallying the troops. The death threat was apparently leaked by his own staff, who called it "credible". True, the general was exhorting Mexican-American co-operation against traffickers, but it seemed unlikely that the drug cartels would actually loose off a missile at a top US official.

The four-star general, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran and Gulf war commander, rode around the dry flatlands with his large entourage in a lumbering silver Greyhound bus, tailed by security guards in camouflage gear and goggles. He cast an approving, suitably steely eye over confiscated bales of marijuana, wrapped in plastic and grease in hidden compartments in Subarus and Mercedes, and inspected a whole-truck X-ray system that picks out cocaine concealed in tyres and cargo. Then he slipped into Tijuana to meet Mexican officials at an undisclosed location.

Applications close on Friday to be the British Government's own drug tsar, at a salary of pounds 80,000. British experts are warning against "gung ho" figures leading the new "battle against drugs", but Gen McCaffrey, who led the 24th Armoured Infantry Division in the 100-hour ground war against Iraq, prefers to speak of drugs as a cancer rather than an enemy. He said last week that he would willingly meet a British tsar, but warned that while the title "sounds like a step up from General", the reality of the job "doesn't lend itself to top-down solutions".

"Each country has to sort out on your own how best to deal with this issue," he added, diplomatically. "We think it's preferable to have one office of government with a single focus on this issue." But in the words of John Walters, who served as deputy and later acting drugs tsar in the Bush administration, the job is a "weird hybrid that is difficult to maintain... You are never going to have a Department of Drugs."

Concrete achievements are few: while the Clinton administration now boasts of spending some $15bn (pounds 9.3bn) on anti-drug operations, Gen McCaffrey's office controls less than 1 per cent of it. The rest is funnelled through nearly 60 departments and agencies who run a myriad of programmes, from the FBI to the US Forest Service and the Department of Education.

Gen McCaffrey's power rests largely on his access to the President through the Cabinet, the skill of his 150-strong staff and the force of his personality in a country that puts much faith in military leaders. He has won over Congress, but is reported to have struggled with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other big institutional players in what the Washington Post called "Drug War Inc". Getting the government to do anything, he observed recently, "is like herding ducks with a broom".

The 2,000 mile-long Mexican border captures the current contradictions of US drug policy. Despite the formidable hardware and manpower now deployed there, in scenes reminiscent of Cold War Berlin, the drugs keep coming through. The street price of heroin and cocaine has not appreciably increased in the past 15 years; in fact, according to DEA figures, drugs are purer and cheaper than ever, though US agencies seize about 100 tons of cocaine a year.

Then there are the new US trends in narcotics: high-grade, smokeable heroin, increasingly of South American origin, and the decidedly unglamorous methamphetamine, known as crank or speed, cooked up in kitchen laboratories. (Ecstacy and other "club drugs" barely rate a mention in Gen McCaffrey's 1997 strategy report.)

America seems fatigued by the "war on drugs". A President who has admitted trying marijuana (though not inhaling) dwells more on the evils of tobacco. Reports showing rising drug use by children breathed some fresh life into the issue last year, but after 10 years, crack cocaine killings are receding, and crime is falling. Drug use is still considerably lower than in the late 1970s.

Into this vacuum has stepped the financier, George Soros. His money helped fund ballot initiatives in California and conservative Arizona to legalise medical marijuana, in the teeth of opposition by Gen McCaffrey and the legal establishment. Mr Soros recently told Time magazine that he will give a further $15m over five years to groups that oppose a drugs policy he calls "insane", and which has helped double the US prison population to more than a million.

Soros-funded groups are pushing at the very least for prevention and treatment programs to get a half share of the drugs budget, against the third they get now. Gen McCaffrey, they say, agrees publicly on the principle of reducing demand rather than supply, but has yet to bend the budget figures towards these politically "soft" solutions.

"Would this be your first tsar [in Britain]?" asks Rosalind Brannigan, of Drug Strategies, a Soros-supported group. Seven US states, she notes, now have their own. The advantages, she says, are at least having "a spokesman, a lightning rod, a sense of focus". But the overall experience at the national level has not been a happy one.

The most successful tsar was probably the first man to hold the job, William Bennett. The bullish former Education Secretary came with the political clout and temperament to fight the Washington bureaucratic battles, but he left after two years of unavailing attempts to get the Defence Department and CIA involved in the fight against drugs. Mr Bennett went on to write the best-selling Book of Virtues, establishing himself as a moral force on the Republican right.

"He brings people together,"declared Johnny Williams, Border Patrol chief for the San Diego sector, among the gaggle of people greeting Gen McCaffrey. Trying to explain the role, Mr Williams groped for Americanisms. "Our drug tsar is trying to set some standards that can help consistentise - is that a word?" It was important, he continued, to "deconflict" agency turf wars on the border.

"I hope they give the person some teeth. That's what's missing," said Donald Ferrarone, recently retired as head of the DEA's Texas border operations. "You've had competent people put into a position where no one is compelled to listen. If you are going to have it, make it a real deal, don't fool yourself with some politician unless you just want somebody to be a spokesman. Our experience has been that good people have been basically wasted."

Sport
Romelu Lukaku
sportChelsea striker sends second teasing tweet of the day
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Tax Solicitor

£40000 - £70000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Tax Solicitor An excel...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This is an exce...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns