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How America Lost the War on Drugs

After thirty-five years and $500 billion, drugs are as cheap and plentiful as ever. An anatomy of a failure

March 24, 2011 2:44 PM ET
Members of Columbia's elite special forces in the jungle region of Guaviare, Columbia.
Members of Columbia's elite special forces in the jungle region of Guaviare, Columbia.
Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty

1. After Pablo

On the day of his death, December 2nd, 1993, the Colombian billionaire drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was on the run and living in a small, tiled-roof house in a middle-class neighborhood of Medellín, close to the soccer stadium. He died, theatrically, ridiculously, gunned down by a Colombian police manhunt squad while he tried to flee across the barrio's rooftops, a fat, bearded man who had kicked off his flip-flops to try to outrun the bullets. The first thing the American drug agents who arrived on the scene wanted to do was to make sure that the corpse was actually Escobar's. The second thing was to check his house.

The last time Escobar had hastily fled one of his residences — la Catedral, the luxurious private prison he built for himself to avoid extradition to the United States — he had left behind bizarre, enchanting detritus, the raw stuff of what would become his own myth: the photos of himself dressed up as a Capone-era gangster with a Tommy gun, the odd collection of novels ranging from Graham Greene to the Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, arriving after the kingpin had fled, found neat shelves lined with loose-leaf binders, carefully organized by content. They were, says John Coleman, then the DEA's assistant administrator for operations, "filled with DEA reports" — internal documents that laid out, in extraordinary detail, the agency's repeated attempts to capture Escobar.

This article appeared in the December 13, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

"He had shelves and shelves and shelves of these things," Coleman tells me. "It was stunning. A lot of the informants we had, he'd figured out who they were. All the agents we had chasing him — who we trusted in the Colombian police — it was right there. He knew so much more about what we were doing than we knew about what he was doing."

Coleman and other agents began to work deductively, backward. "We had always wondered why his guys, when we caught them, would always go to trial and risk lots of jail time, even when they would have saved themselves a lot of time if they'd just plead guilty," he says. "What we realized when we saw those binders was that they were doing a job. Their job was to stay on trial and have their lawyers use discovery to get all the information on DEA operations they could. Then they'd send copies back to Medellín, and Escobar would put it all together and figure out who we had tracking him."

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The loose-leaf binders crammed in Escobar's office on the ground floor gave Coleman and his agents a sense of triumph: The whole mysterious drug trade had an organization, a structure and a brain, and they'd just removed it. In the thrill of the moment, clinking champagne glasses with officials from the Colombian police and taking congratulatory calls from Washington, the agents in Medellín believed the War on Drugs could finally be won. "We had an endgame," Coleman says. "We were literally making the greatest plans."

At the headquarters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, staffers tacked up a poster with photographs of sixteen of its most wanted men, cartel leaders from across the Andes. Solemnly, ceremoniously, a staffer took a red magic marker and drew an X over Escobar's portrait. "We felt like it was one down, fifteen to go," recalls John Carnevale, the longtime budget director of the drug-control office. "There was this feeling that if we got all sixteen, it's not like the whole thing would be over, but that was a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs."

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Man by man, sixteen red X's eventually went up over the faces of the cartel leaders: killed. extradited. killed. José Santacruz Londoño, a leading drug trafficker, was gunned down by Colombian police in a shootout. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the heads of the Cali cartel, were extradited after they got greedy and tried to keep running their organization from prison. Some U.S. drug warriors believed that the busts were largely public-relations events, a showy way for the Colombian government to look tough on the drug trade, but most were less cynical. The crack epidemic was over. Drug-related murders were in decline. Winning the War on Drugs didn't seem such a quixotic and open-ended mission, like the War on Poverty, but rather something tangible, a fat guy with a big organization and binders full of internal DEA reports, sixteen faces on a poster, a piñata you could reach out and smack. Richard Cañas, a veteran DEA official who headed counternarcotics efforts on the National Security Council under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, can still recall the euphoria of those days. "We were moving," he says, "from success to success."

This is the story of how that momentary success turned into one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered. It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a piñata, swung to hit it and missed.

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