"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."Reuse content