The above title is the headline on an AP story by Curt Anderson filed on 4/27/06. It’s very informative.
It begins like an action movie. An Army Blackhawk helicopter patrolling the waters 30 miles south of Nassau spots a boat dropping five large bundles into the ocean. It radios "Hawk’s Nest," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s headquarters on Great Exuma Island, Bahamas. The top official takes the cell phone call, shouting "We’ve got dope in the water!"
The DEA gets its own helicopter into the air. The Royal Bahamas police launch a speedboat to the area. By now both U.S. Coast Guard and Army helicopters are circling the area, holding the target boat at bay.
An army Blackhawk helicopter costs taxpayers about $6 million at a minimum. It’s a huge helicopter that weighs over 5 tons and can carry over 1 ton of cargo or 14 troops inside and over 4 tons outside. It’s armed with at least two 7.62mm M60 machine guns or M134 miniguns and possibly 16 Hellfire missiles and other weaponry. The Coast Guard uses the HH-65 Dauphin and the HH-60 Jayhawk, which cost around $3 million. They’re now being equipped with sniper rifles and machine guns and many other enhancements such as heavy armor. Maintenance, personnel, buildings, utilities, land, etc., multiply the costs, not to mention training and a number of aircraft mishaps and accidents.
But this is the war on drugs, and it seems our armed services, among others, are fighting it. If they run out of missions on far continents, they always have the drug war to fall back on. Only cheapskates and skeptics would mention the costs of making this real-life version of a movie. The results are worth it, aren’t they?
They’re worth it to the players. It’s great fun and games to roam the seas, flying one of these great machines, waiting for the adrenaline rush of spotting a suspicious boat casting dope into the ocean. It’s even more fun shouting through bullhorns, or buzzing a boat, or letting loose a volley of machine gun fire to pin down the enemy.
This is so much fun that one website after another offers models of these mighty machines. Kits cost anywhere from $29.95 to $299.95. Men and boys (I assume) get their jollies by building and displaying these items of beauty. I used to collect chewing gum cards of navy and air force planes. I know. Even getting into a flight simulator and simulating a takeoff and bank in these rugged beasts thrills the would-be pilot. Is this the thrill one gets from riding horseback? I think I shall never know, having done neither.
Let’s not forget the speedboat. It’s a 43-foot job breaking 50 miles per hour against the surf. It could be put to good use smuggling Cubans to Florida. Here it is bearing down upon the hapless boat in the seagoing version of the DEA busting down an apartment door, men bristling with M16s or Colt ARs or maybe Rock River LAR-15s. They’re almost as much fun to handle as a helicopter, I have to imagine, given my limited experience with .22 rifles, 16 gauge shotguns, and a .25 Mauser. Perhaps a man could learn to feel a similar thrill at the pull of a fishing rod or a kite being taken by the wind.
Police board the boat and two divers jump into the shark-infested waters. More thrills! And bravery!
Sorry, false alarm, no dope today. The boat has launched large sheets of metal in an effort to attract lobsters.
Not to worry. This episode still illustrates the uphill struggles of "U.S. and Bahamian officials" as they "battle" drug traffickers among 700 islands covering an area the size of California. These are brave men and women doing a service for someone, although it’s not me. I shouldn’t complain. My neighbor with all his flags for every occasion is happy knowing that cocaine is being kept from our shores.
Or is it? Our intrepid AP reporter goes on to inform us of more. The fight in the Bahamas has been going on since 1982, almost 25 years now. It’s "credited with driving many cocaine and marijuana smugglers towards Mexico’s border with the United States." Clearly a measure of success, except that now U.S. officials fear that their increased efforts in Mexico are driving the smugglers back to the Caribbean. One official is sure "these folks will look at the original route and come back this way." You just can’t win, nor can you learn.
Here is success: Since 2000 these operations in the Bahamas have seized 25 tons of cocaine and arrested 786 people. The cost is put at only $180 million.
How much is 25 tons of cocaine? Estimates are that U.S. cocaine consumption runs 330 tons a year. You be the judge.
The top U.S. DEA agent in the Bahamas is Kevin Stanfill. He says "We’ve been successful here. We always want to maintain that presence." He and others will have to stand guard over every lightbulb over every seeded piece of soil and every flask containing a chemical reaction to be what is called successful.
A success story in his view is defined as reducing the drug traffic from the Bahamas. Only 10 percent of the total entering the U.S. now comes from the Bahamas, or about 33 tons of cocaine a year. Two decades ago, 80 percent of the then (estimated) 100-ton consumption came through the Bahamas.
The DEA has a broader perspective. It says that cocaine is "widely available throughout the nation." So are DEA agents and police who are busy arresting and jailing drug users. So are DEA agents and police who are being corrupted by drug money.
Who sees the DEA efforts as a success, in the Bahamas or elsewhere, other than those who have an interest in saying that it is? Very few. One does not have to go very far to find polls in which 70—80% of the public believe that the drug war is ineffective, or in which large majorities think that addiction is a health problem, not a legal one, or who consider the drug penalties as too severe.
Polls are talk. Although the drug laws are worse than any medieval superstitions or practices, they are not being repealed or even altered substantially. Attempts to do so run up against well-organized and well-financed campaigns that reinforce the public’s inclination to fear the ravages of drugs and enforce collective action against drugs. The bureaucracies that deem the drug efforts a success come out swinging in force and beat down the reform efforts.
They must be a success. The AP tells us so.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.