drug wars

special reports
picture of siezed drugs, helicopter



This two-part FRONTLINE report examines the people, policies, and struggles behind America's 30-year battle against illegal drugs. Despite the U.S.'s multibillion dollar effort, heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs continue to thrive on America's streets. And drug-trafficking has become a global $300-$400 billion dollar industry--one that's now an integral part of the world economy.

Through interviews with the 'drug warriors'-- senior government officials setting policy and the DEA, FBI, and Customs drug agents on the ground--as well as interviews with the drug traffickers they hunt, this four-hour series probes the history of America's drug war from both sides of the battlefield.

Part I begins in the Nixon years, showing how the war on drugs evolved from the law-and-order president's war on crime and how U.S. service men returning from Vietnam hooked on heroin shocked Nixon's men into responding with controversial methadone treatment programs. However, this would be the last time treatment commanded the lion's share of attention and anti-drug dollars.

"Drug Wars" next profiles the rise of the cocaine business and the inability of a growing law enforcement establishment to counter the increasing flow of marijuana and cocaine feeding America's burgeoning recreational drug habit in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. FRONTLINE presents exclusive interviews with the men who headed Colombia's once powerful Medellin cartel, including Jorge and Juan David Ochoa, who tell how they entered the business and Carlos Toro, who helped run cocaine for Colombian smuggler Carlos Lehder. This report chronicles the cartels' terror campaign against Colombia's government and how the cartels subsequently moved their operations to places like Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, narco trafficking became part of the tangled story of the U.S./CIA involvement in Central America's wars. Part 1 ends with the early signs that a new, more powerful illegal drug--crack cocaine--was about to change everything.

"Drug Wars" Part II begins with the story of crack. Crack forced DEA agents in New York City to confront not just a new, more deadly drug but an entirely new order of drug dealers. "There were no top three or four people," says former DEA agent Bob Stutman. "The 'organization' was a twenty-year-old guy and three ten-year-old kids."

The New York DEA office had trouble convincing the feds that crack was a threat. It took the death of a talented young basketball player, Len Bias, and reports of his involvement with cocaine, to help change the nation's perception about cocaine.

Fighting drugs again became a top priority at the federal level. Politicians jumped on the drug war bandwagon, passing laws that set disproportionately harsh sentences, greatly impacting--and increasing--America's prison population

The final hour of "Drug Wars" investigates the Mexican drug connection and how U.S.efforts in the 1990s to stem the flow of Mexican drugs were hindered by systemic corruption and collusion by high-level Mexican officials with the country's drug smugglers. DEA agents recount how their reports of corruption fell on deaf ears in Washington, where first the Bush and then the Clinton administrations were focused on increasing trade with Mexico. On camera, a former commandante in the Mexican Federal Police describes how the system of corruption works and how it reached into the halls of Mexico's presidential palace. And American drug agents describe the vicious and powerful organizations like the Arellano-Felix cartel, that continue to control Mexico's drug trade.

In the end, the international drug economy has become a part of the legitimate economy, accounting for much of U.S. trade in the Caribbean region, as well as a factor in the destabilization of nations. A series of exclusive interviews with drug-traffickers and money launderers provides an inside look into how the business works and thrives despite a vast law enforcement, military, and intelligence community effort to wipe it out.

Perhaps the most surprising thread running through "Drug Wars" is the agreement by virtually every drug enforcement official interviewed that the decades-long strategy of fighting drugs through interdiction and tough sentencing should be replaced with a policy emphasizing drug treatment, education, and prevention--hallmarks of the original drug strategy begun under President Nixon.

"Let's create an organization that says, 'Well, this year ninety percent of this budget is going to go into education and prevention,'" says Jack Lawn, former head of the DEA in the 1980s. "Would that work? We won't know unless we try it. But twenty years of doing it the other way certainly has not worked."

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