drug wars

special reports
interview: bill alden


photo of bill alden

Alden is a retired special agent for the DEA. He was DEA Chief of Congressional and Public Affairs from 1986 to 1993. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
When did you get into the drug war, and why?

After I finished my college degree, I started in the US customs service in Cleveland, Ohio. The old Federal Bureau of Narcotics was located in the same office building . . . and they asked me to work undercover in Akron, Ohio, actually, at Kent State. And so I worked undercover for the old Federal Bureau of Narcotics and bought some marijuana at the time. I enjoyed the work very much. I was very challenged by it.

What did you think of the job?

I found it very fulfilling, very satisfying, from purchasing the drugs to infiltrating an organization. It was challenging and rewarding, and I thought I was really contributing something.

But this was a period when people your age were smoking marijuana, and were listening to rock music. You were going against the grain.

Being a narc in the late 1960s was not a popular profession, quite frankly. Rarely did any of us tell our neighbors, friends, or associates. As a result of that, unfortunately, I think most of us at that time stayed within the law enforcement culture, where we felt relatively safe amongst our own, because people did not understand. If you were at a social event in the late 1960s or


young alden
early 1970s and admitted to the fact that you were an agent, there was usually an argument, a debate. It was rarely positive. So what often happened is that you would appraise a social situation. If you thought there was potentially some kind of drug involvement there, for the most part, you just didn't go. You were very cautious about admitting to the fact that you were a law enforcement officer in those times.

How did you justify what you were doing?

I thought if the war was fought properly, there was absolutely no doubt that we could be successful. We couldn't ever eliminate it completely. But I thought that we could have a significant impact on trafficking in the United States. If you would have told me or my fellow agents back in the 1960s that there would be tons of drugs, and there would be millions and millions of people using drugs, we never would have believed it. When we started in the 1960s, most of the drug use was in the lower socioeconomic pockets of the major metropolitan cities.

You started in 1966. What did the first big drug increase look like at your level between 1966 and 1969? What happened?

It wasn't instantaneous, where you'd wake up and go, "Oh, look at that." . . . It just sort of blossomed and exploded spontaneously. Before you knew it, instead of going out and dealing with traffickers who were dealing in pounds and kilos, they were dealing in hundreds of pounds and tons, because the market had grown so dramatically.

Before you knew it, instead of dealing with traffickers who were dealing in pounds and kilos, they were dealing in tons. The real height of the drug epidemic in America--when the most number of Americans were using drugs--was 1979, 1980. And we didn't learn about those numbers until even later. Drug experimentation and drug use continued to escalate in the 1960s. . . . A lot of drugs were promoted. In the middle 1970s, Time magazine talked about how benign cocaine was . . . about how de rigueur it was to serve lines of cocaine on silver trays at posh Hollywood parties, and it wasn't any more dangerous than marijuana, or less dangerous, anyway. It wasn't later till we learned . . . .

What was it like, being a narc back then?

It was frustrating at times, especially dealing in the early 1970s with the LSD culture. You had to have a lot of patience, because they didn't act or react normally.

I was undercover in L.A. one time, and I was dealing with this hippie who was dealing in acid. Obviously he'd ingested a lot of acid. And we were getting ready for him to deliver some acid that I was going to purchase undercover and he says, "I got really good vibes, man." I go, "That's great." Well, he says, "Wait a minute. The last time I had good vibes I sold to 'The Man'." I said, "Hey, I'm out of here. Forget it. You're nuts. I'm leaving." And I left. I contacted him later, and you know, we were successful. Ultimately that investigation took us to San Francisco, which got even wackier in a way, because then you were dealing with roomfuls of people who had taken too many trips on acid. You had to have a lot of patience to deal with it, and you had to take some wild guesses about which direction they were heading. You never really knew, because I don't think they knew. But it was really an interesting time.

Different than in Mexico?

A lot different than Mexico. It was almost like "no harm, no foul," with LSD organizations, and sort of the hippie culture. In Mexico, it was a lot more serious, because a mistake could be fatal.

When did you start seeing the violence in the United States?

In 1982, I was the assistant special agent in charge in San Diego. Just prior to that time, San Diego had been one of the action field divisions because of its proximity to Mexico and the Mexican border . . . . All of a sudden, the East Coast, the southeast coast, and Miami became the place, particularly in terms of cocaine: smuggling, trafficking, distribution, transportation, and marijuana. There were mother ships off the Atlantic coast, and out in the Caribbean. And it was a major, major shift in trends. At the same time, we were beginning to see violence, and the violence was something that we hadn't dealt with previously in the cities of America. We got stories got from Miami, from our office, about the cocaine cowboys, the tremendous amounts of money that was being spent locally by traffickers, about the guns and the shooting. . . .

By the mid-1980s, tons of cocaine were flowing into the United States from Colombia. When did you realize how big the coke industry really was?

In March, 1984, the Colombia national police along with DEA in Bogota made the Tranquilandia seizure, which was the single largest cocaine seizure of that time. It was 22,000 pounds of finished, refined cocaine. Tranquilandia was a city that was carved out of the jungle. The closest road was 250 miles away. The traffickers built a runway that could handle a DC-3.

Later that year, I made a presentation to the California Narcotic Officers Association in San Diego. I remember alluding to Tranquilandia, and insinuating that we might have turned a corner. I really always wanted to go back and apologize for that later on. There was no impact. Almost twelve tons of cocaine was seized, and that had absolutely no impact on the market at all, on availability. It continued just as it did, as ferocious as it was before. And then we really began to realize how big it really was.

We realized that if you could seize that amount of drugs and not have an impact on the traffic, then you better start doing something else besides focusing solely on the law enforcement aspects of the problem. And that's why, as a law enforcement agency, we spoke out about the fact that we had to do something about preventing the drug-using population from beginning--prevention is what we are talking about. So as a direct result of that, we actually began doing some prevention work--sort of setting the stage for prevention.

If Tranquilandia woke the DEA up, what woke the American people up?

I think, for the most part, communities and families were feeling the consequences of drug use. It was magnified by NBA player Len Bias's death, and by Guy Rogers, who was an NFL player. . . . and by a lot of famous overdose deaths that took place around the mid-1980s. That all sort of crystallized the issue, and it changed America's attitude toward drugs and towards DEA.

What do you mean "towards the DEA?"

Being a narc in the 1960s was very, very unpopular. Being a narc in the 1980s was extremely popular to the point where it was embarrassing. I would make presentations across the United States. People asked for my autograph. People wanted DEA agents in their neighborhood. They wanted them around. They wanted them to be there. It was a whole change in attitude.

Didn't the death of Len Bias have a direct impact on DEA policy?

We were in New York that day. We walked out of a meeting that we had spent six or seven hours in, talking about a drug that frightened us because of its potential. We found out that somebody with as much talent as a Len Bias, with so great a future, had apparently died of a cocaine overdose. At the time, it really impacted us. It impacted all of us. It sent a sort of shrill of emergency, potentially. But it still wasn't easy to resolve internally exactly how we would deal with the situation.

And then crack happens.

Yes, right in the middle of that, in the mid-1980s, one of the most devastating drugs that I've ever seen comes on the horizon--I mean explodes on the horizon. What made it so devastating was not only its potency, and the extreme need for the drug, but the price. It was the ultimate high that everybody could afford. It was cheap. It was affordable. It wasn't like cocaine hydrochloride had been for years. Crack was five or ten dollars. But the problem was, by the time you got through bingeing, you'd spent $500. Because once you began utilizing, it just was so seductive. I've had crack addicts talk about seduction. It's almost impossible to describe.

How did crack affect the war on drugs?

Crack did change everything in terms of the consequences of drugs on the streets of America. It did so for two reasons. Number one, because of its incredible potency: its addictive capabilities, the need to binge, the violent behavior it created, the out-of-control behavior it created, the insatiable appetite it created for its users. Combine that with the fact that it was so inexpensive. It was affordable for everyone. A drug finally with incredible potency and effect, and everybody can afford it. There wasn't anybody who couldn't afford to just take five bucks, ten bucks, initially, to smoke crack.

We had never experienced anything like that in law enforcement and drug law enforcement. The other drugs didn't have the same impact. They weren't quite as addictive. The high wasn't quite as intense. And they weren't as affordable. Whether you were on the street in a lower socioeconomic portion of a major city; whether you were a stockbroker or a CEO; it seemed like if you were exposed to crack cocaine, you more than likely became addicted to it. You developed an intense craving for it. And it fairly quickly destroyed everything else around you.

How did the DEA respond to crack?

There was a real problem internally within DEA about what crack really was, and about what impact it was having in our streets. We were charged at DEA with attacking the larger global organizations, and there were a lot of people within the infrastructure who felt that crack was a local problem.

Doesn't that point out, in a way, a problem that DEA faces--that it's always sort of fighting the last war, fighting the last drug? The drug market is so fast at adapting.

The changing dynamics in drug trafficking can happen instantaneously. The problem isn't recognizing it, which DEA is pretty good at. But how do you communicate that to your appropriators . . .to convince them that that's where the resources must be placed, in advance of the problem? That has been a problem in the 28 years that I was at DEA. It continues to be a problem.

Is it a fatal flaw in fighting drugs?

Oh, it absolutely is. And it takes talented leadership, with vision, committed to doing whatever is necessary to make sure that that mistake isn't made again. . . .

Politicians--and I don't think it makes a difference whether they're local politicians or at the state level or at the national level--always want to find easy, simple answers, as easy and simple as possible. So oftentimes, it's easier to appropriate money for helicopters, than it is to institute or support or pilot prevention and treatment programs in certain areas. It's just easier to buy toys than it is to construct a comprehensive long-term prevention, treatment, and supply strategy over the long term.

So, then, what should we be doing?

We should, as a nation, be doing much more in the field of prevention and treatment than we have. And we're doing more and more.

But you come from law enforcement. Aren't you supposed to favor tough laws and jail time for drug offenders?

In the early-to-mid-1980s, I was convinced by a lot of the work I did at DEA, and the experience I had at DEA, and the work I did in Washington, that there had to be a larger commitment to preventing drugs. We were never, ever going to arrest, seize and forfeit our way out of it, or treat our way out of it. Ultimately, the biggest bang for the buck was in preventing it, and in providing the right information to kids, and working with kids, so that they would make right decisions and see the consequences of their behavior. A lot of us in law enforcement saw that. And I had an opportunity to manage our prevention initiative, and I became a huge proponent of it. As a result, I chose to do that after I retired, because I believe so much in it.

Some say we should do away with mandatory minimums, which force judges to put small-time pushers behind bars for decades. Have longer jail terms made any kind of difference, other than boosting the budgets for prisons in this country?

Well, now there is an attack on minimum mandatory sentences, but that is because crime is going down. When crime is escalating, going way up, and every community is affected by crime, minimum mandatory sentences are implemented, not attacked.

As a DEA agent, did you feel any guilt about helping to put people away for long sentences?

No, I don't feel any guilt about that. People violated the law with premeditation. It's not a crime of passion. You think about what you're going to do. You really need to think--I have to think about the consequences of my actions daily. I know that I'm accountable for what I do, and I have to calculate what I do based on that.

What, then, are some of the difficulties of being a DEA agent?

To be an effective agent, you have to be able to adapt to the street culture. You have to be able to work at that level. But then at some point, you have to break that off every night, and then you have to go home. You have to be a father and a husband, and do the kind of things that everybody else does. And that's the difficult part about being a DEA agent, quite frankly. Because it does take a lot of effort to develop the street expertise, and the street sense, and the ways of the lawless, when most of us come from lawful communities and lawful families. Being a DEA agent oftentimes is like being an actor. You have to portray roles undercover to be successful . . . .

What is the current landscape of drug use today?

Right now, there are fewer Americans using drugs [than] we've had in the last 15 or 20 years. Unfortunately, some of the chronic users are more chronic than they have been in the past, but we're seeing at least reduced or stabilizing numbers. And in adolescent areas, we're seeing significantly reduced abuse and use in the last year, year and a half. So there are encouraging signs as time goes on. But again, it takes that application of a consistent policy over time to have an impact, especially with our foreign counterparts.

What changed during your tenure? Where did the DEA succeed, and where did it fail?

I think people need to understand that over the last 30 or 40 years in the drug war in America, there have been many successes. Although drugs are still available, I think we can look back at things that were very effective. We've been able to significantly reduce overall usage. So we're moving in the right direction. If we had been attacking this issue for the past 30 or 40 years, and it was stagnant, or it continued to escalate, and we didn't see reductions, or didn't have successes, then it would be significantly more frustrating.

But it's not an easy solution. There are so many components to it that have to be dealt with. We seem to have success as long as there is recognition at the highest levels that you need a long-term, comprehensive approach. . . But unfortunately, again, it's not easy. It's not short term, and there are no easy solutions. Nobody is going to come up with a magic bullet.

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