drug wars

special reports
press reaction


Los Angeles Times Howard Rosenberg

"FRONTLINE stands alone on television as a place inquiring minds can go regularly for smart, tough documentaries that demystify hard-news issues affecting the health of the entire planet. It wears this mantle honorably on PBS.

More evidence arrives in the form of 'Drug Wars,' a collaboration with National Public Radio that examines a multibillion-dollar cancer that has widely metastasized deep within the world economy.

A stunning two-parter produced by Martin Smith and reported by Lowell Bergman - the former '60 Minutes' producer-investigative journalist played by Al Pacino in 'The Insider'-this is surely the most exhaustive and perceptive work on the topic ever to travel the airwaves. To its great credit, it does not isolate international drug trade from the social, cultural and political influences that shape it.

It tracks, step by step with laser vision, the nation's failed 30-year campaign against drug use, locating threads connecting Colombia, Mexico and trafficking inside the U.S. and drawing them together like a corset. Its many fascinating talking heads include first-time interviews with kingpins of Colombia's once-powerful Medellin cartel, in addition to a broad array of humanity with connections to all aspects of the drug issue.

What's more, with narrator deluxe Will Lyman on hand, 'Drug Wars' is magnetic television, told as a slowly crescendoing horror story that should open eyes instead of weighing down lids."

New York Times William McDonald

"...this is an absorbing, illuminating, often provocative presentation - part of a series called 'The PBS Democracy Project' - that would clearly like the nation to rethink its fight against illegal drugs and addiction.

The lead producer, Martin Smith, and the series reporter, Lowell Bergman - the former '60 Minutes' producer whose battle with the tobacco industry was dramatized in the Michael Mann film 'The Insider' - have taken on an old subject with a sense of renewed urgency. And through a well-paced mix of archival images and fresh interviews (some with former major smugglers speaking publicly for the first time) the filmmakers question the federal government's conduct and policies in what is portrayed here as a kind of fruitless American Thirty Years' War.

This is journalism with a point of view, if not an agenda. But rather than stating its case and then defending it, the film lets a brisk chronology and a parade of testimony lead the viewer to an inescapable conclusion: that the drug war is failing, at a cost of billions of dollars and an untold number of lives, and that it will never be won as long as the government continues to focus on stopping the supply rather than the demand."

Chicago Tribune Walter H. Combs

"...The four hours offer a comprehensive look at the history of the war on drugs.

Although the problem had been dealt with as a public-health problem, by the middle of the Reagan administration, William Bennett, the first 'drug czar,' was making drug-control almost wholly a law-enforcement issue, which it has remained to this day.

But the program presents more than a simple overview of the evolution of drug-control policy. As the drug smugglers, awash in money, become increasingly powerful in Latin America, they became increasingly influential politically. As their influence waxed, Latin American politics became increasingly corrupt. Drug lords used the political system to further their own ends. Where they met opposition, they turned to violence. As the violence escalated, the anti-drug forces in the U.S. gained increasing influence.

Lowell Bergman is the primary reporter for 'Drug Wars.' In his view, the program becomes a cautionary tale.

'We decided to tell this story not from the perspective of the users so much, or the victims, the general population, although some of that's in there. We decided to tell this from the perspective of the drug warriors, the veterans. Many of the cops who have been involved in this over the last 30 years are now retired or retiring, so they can talk freely, and reflect on what they did and what's going on. We also wanted to look at the other side of the coin, which is the people who actually smuggle and deal drugs.'

The dealers and smugglers tend to rivet the attention because they are not the usual fodder for documentaries. This intimate view of the drug underworld is unprecedented in American television."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Joanne Weintraub

"Richard Nixon, the first president to pay serious attention to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse, emerges as the unlikely hero of 'Drug Wars.' Almost everyone else in this four-hour FRONTLINE special comes across as somewhere between ineffectual and heinous: grandstanding politicians; law-enforcement officials who lock up petty criminals but can do nothing about the kingpins; the elaborate network of dealers, protected by a vicious paramilitary force that kills with impunity.

This history of the 30-year war on drugs has a definite point of view - that efforts to control the supply have failed because there's never been a concerted attack on the demand - and backs it up with scores of interviews. Listen to these smugglers, growers, users, dealers, doctors and enforcers, then draw your own conclusions."

Boston Globe Mark Jurkowitz

"...In its sweepingly ambitious four-hour examination of the subject, FRONTLINE's 'Drug Wars' succeeds by making a painstaking case that the government's tactics of attacking supply rather than focusing on treatment and education have bogged the nation down in a quagmire that makes Vietnam look like a surgical strike.

...Trying to compress 30 years of collective public policy failure into four hours of television seems an invitation for some journalistic license in 'Drug Wars.' In particular, the dramatic juxtaposition of the 1976 teen pot-smoking party that spawned the Parents Movement and the collapse of Carter's sensible "public health" approach to the problem feels a little too pat. The other unavoidable problem in trying to piece together an oral history from the drug kingpins, the pols, and the cops is that viewers can't quite be sure which of these parties might be taking greater liberties with the truth.

But all that pales in light of the impressive breadth of 'Drug Wars,' which manages to interview what seems like every crucial player in the business, including Jorge and Juan David Ochoa, leaders of the infamous Medellin cocaine cartel. In one understated but remarkable scene, an interviewer attempts to get a reluctant Juan David Ochoa to estimate how much money he's made in the business. Later a smuggler named Steve provides a riveting, detailed explanation of exactly how you move three tons of cocaine from Colombia to California.

'Drug Wars' is at its best simply hammering home the folly of US policy, whether it be through footage of American servicemen in Vietnam using their weapon as marijuana pipes or by quoting cocaine runner Carlos Torro's mocking assessment that the 'DEA was just like the sun. ...We have to live with it, but we are not afraid of it.'

At the conclusion of 'Drug Wars,' when Clinton drug czar retired Army General Barry McCaffrey trumpets progress and unleashes yet another US effort to attack cocaine production in Colombia, one cannot help but recall the famous warning to those who ignore the lessons of history."

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