drug wars

special reports
interview: jack lawn


photo of jack lawn

Lawn was administrator of the DEA from 1985 to 1989. As of October 2000, he is Chairman of the Century Council, a nonprofit group funded by the liquor industry which is dedicated to stopping drunk driving and underage drinking. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
You left the FBI for the DEA in 1982. What did you find when you arrived at DEA headquarters?

My first finding was while I was a fellow law enforcement officer, I was still the enemy. I was the FBI agent coming in to drug law enforcement. And it was difficult to assimilate immediately. Folks were cordial, courteous, but as I began to look into how I could improve what it is drug law enforcement agents do, there were doors closed that I didn't think should have been closed, because my mission was solely to make the Drug Enforcement Administration the best possible agency that I could.

So there was an intense rivalry between the DEA and FBI?

The interagency rivalry, not only with the FBI but with other agency, was very strong. There was no sharing of information, or little sharing of information. And all of those components didn't at all look at issues like task forces. The federal government cannot solve issues involving drug enforcement. We need state and local cooperation. It was 1972 when the first drug task force was formed in New York under Bruce Jensen in order to show that state and local people can work, in this case, with DEA. But the sharing of information was not good.

In what sense do the rivalries date back to the creation of the DEA?

In 1968, President Johnson said we have to do something about getting a coordinated effort in drug law enforcement, and we must put that coordinated effort in the Department of Justice, headed by the chief law enforcement officer in the land, the Attorney General. That was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs, Drug Abuse Control. So there were problems associated with agents being forced to leave an agency to come into a new component. Then when that was working, again, because of rivalries, President Nixon, in 1972, issued an executive order, Executive Order 11641, I think, which created ODALE, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement in the White House. As someone said to me, if you think things work better because they come out of the White House, you're not very astute in dealing with Washington, D.C. That was an 18-month project, to see if coordination could be improved by having drug operations controlled by the White House. It didn't work.

Then in July of 1973, President Nixon issued the Executive Order 11727, July 12th of '73, forming the Drug Enforcement Administration, putting all accountability on the shoulders of the attorney general of the United States. Then the Senate Government Affairs Committee in October affirmed President Nixon's executive order by saying, this new agency, DEA, will become a super agency, will be responsible for all drug law enforcement, drug intelligence, all information will be filtered through DEA, and all drug intelligence will come from DEA. The Customs Service, which had lost persons, never gave up the idea; the Treasury agencies, which had lost authority, never gave up on the idea that they were involved. And then as you take that into the early '80s, when President Reagan declares war on drugs, by then you had some 30 agencies involved in drug law enforcement: Department of the Interior; Department of the Treasury; as well as Justice components.

What about today?

Now there are some I believe 50 agencies involved, not because they have a desire necessarily to do something about drug abuse in the country, their interest in the issue is fostered by budget. If there is money available, organizations that may not be able to get sufficient funding for their own operations will say, well, we're going to form a drug unit. And Congress over that decade was very willing to furnish money to individuals--the Bureau of Land Management received money, Department of the Interior, the Marshals Service. And the difficulty lay in the fact that the attorney general of the United States, the chief law enforcement officer of the land, controlled only the Department of Justice. So if there were an operation in Treasury that might have impacted upon a major, let's say an undercover operation, the attorney general could not step in and say we're going to do it another way.

What we don't have when we have a dozen or two dozen or 50 agencies involved is accountability. If one were to go to an agency, and were to be asked: what are you going to do about the crack problem? Oh, that's not my problem. That's DEA's problem. My problem is marijuana on federal land.

So I attended a meeting about coordination. And someone showed me this training tape. It was a terrific tape of people dressed in camouflage gear, heavily armed, camouflage paint, rappelling out of helicopters. And I said, "That really isn't the image that we want. We don't want to get into a military mode." And they said, "Well, that has nothing to do with us; that's the Bureau of Land Management SWAT team.". . . The effort indeed is getting bigger, and the bigger the effort gets, the more diverse it becomes. More components become involved. And then, the question gets back to who is accountable? If we're spending all of this money, who do we turn to and say, "We're going to give you this money. Can you deal with the problem?"

How about the military?

Absolutely. The military became involved. Military became very involved. There was a proliferation of intelligence centers. We had the El Paso intelligence center in El Paso, Texas, with components from nine, ten federal agencies involved. As intelligence would filter in, let's say from Latin America, it would go out to 10 different agencies who then developed 10 different intelligence centers. And as the information continued to be disseminated, changes were made in the information. It's like the rumor in a building. If you start a rumor on the first floor, by the time it gets to the tenth floor, it was reached tremendous proportions.

Is there a kind of self-perpetuating bureaucracy that's been created?

It is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, and will continue to be as long as money is available for funding such bureaucracy.

Throughout this period that you were in drug law enforcement, about the last 30 years, how has the narcotics industry itself expanded?

Oh, it has proliferated 100 fold. The cultivation certainly has increased. Coca cultivation, opium poppy has increased. And the demand for drugs in our streets has also increased. A former governor of New York said the answer is to send B-52s to level Colombia. Then my question is: well, what about all the clandestine laboratories in the United States that take drugs manufactured in the United States, use them to create designer drugs in the United States, that's not Colombia's fault; it's not Peru's fault or Bolivia's fault. Let's start addressing that problem internally.

And as I said before Congress in 1982, it was before Senator Joe Biden, he asked me if I was satisfied with the budget because I had been nominated by a Republican president, and he of course was on the other side of the aisle, he said, "Do you have enough?" I said, "Well I have enough for this year, but we will have to build more jails, because we're going to arrest more people, we're going to convict more people, we're going to seize more drugs, we're going to seize more assets. But until someone gets serious about education, prevention and treatment, we're the last line of resistance." And Joe Biden said, "Jack, that's heresy coming from a law enforcement officer." I said, "No, ask law enforcement people. The other components are indeed missing."

But isn't it unlikely that someone give up enforcement money for education?

I'm really not sure that's the case. When we began drug education in DEA I didn't have an allocation for drug education money. But I had the conviction that someone should be educating young kids, that illicit drugs are not bad because they're illegal, they're illegal because they're bad. And unless someone were to sit and tell young people about problems associated with marijuana use, with cocaine use, with heroin use, they weren't going to hear it necessarily from their parents. Their parents, who graduated as the marijuana users of the '60s, didn't realize that the marijuana of the '80s was an entirely different product from what they were used to. I've had so many parents say to me, "Jack, we used marijuana in the '60s; we'd rather have our kids using marijuana than being involved in some other activity." And education just wasn't there.

What was your first exposure to Mexico's drug trade?

Well, indeed from the time I first arrived at DEA in 1982, Mexico had my attention. Because while I was still special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Antonio, I was asked to visit Mexico in my new hat - my DEA hat. I visited their eradication program. I saw the eradication effort there. I had a sense at that point that what I saw was staged for the new kid on the block, that this really wasn't a strong effort on the part of the government of Mexico. I began talking to a number of the agents who had served in Mexico. What I heard was that arrests can't be made on demand. That seizures can be made, but when it comes to impact, there was little or no impact. The government of Mexico either is unable to deal with the problem or has been so corrupted by the problem that they will not take action against major drug traffickers. As we continued to pursue that, we saw that was the case. No major trafficker had been arrested in Mexico.

How did all that crystalize with the death of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena?

That was the culmination of the foreboding. I was at the Army/Navy Club - received a call from headquarters that Camarena had been taken. By the time I got back to the office, additional information had been developed by an eyewitness who said the individuals who took Camarena were driving in a given vehicle. We determined that the individuals who at least took Camarena off the street were law enforcement personnel. That was particularly galling to me and to law enforcement throughout the nation, because when you send an agent overseas, he does have an in-house support mechanism, and that is a fellow law enforcement officer. When the system becomes so corrupted that the law enforcement community in the host country upon which you depend are part of the problem, then nothing is safe.

What happened?

We tried to pursue the investigation. Every effort we made to pursue the investigation was halted by the government of Mexico, who continued to say you've just lost one person - he may be sunning himself in Guadalajara. This is not a major issue.

There was a sense of betrayal?

For me it was a sense of betrayal that continued to evolve. When we asked for help, no help was given. When we tried to develop information, there was no information available. No one seemed to know what happened, why it happened. It was as though that was a law enforcement holiday day when there were just no law enforcement personnel around at a time when we could not send additional personnel into Mexico.

As it turned out, the Mexican government knew exactly what had happened.

Indeed, they did. The Mexican government knew what happened, and it became more clear to us that the government of Mexico indeed was covering up the assassination, the killing of Kiki Camarena. When we talked [to them about finding the body], they said, "Well, we have Mexican officers killed all the time. You may never get the body back." And our response was, "Just look how we feel about the MIAs." At that time, we had some 3000 MIAs missing from Vietnam. It continues to be a major issue.

So then, we began to get information. We found a body here - we found a body there - we found another body here. They were finding bodies left and right, right - none of which were, were the right bodies. And they said, "No, we know that Camarena is, is at this particular site." Was not at the site. "And we found him, he was found by a Mexican peasant in a gully." The body had not been, been eaten by insects. We knew it was buried. We were able to have the FBI laboratory tell us about soil samples, where the body had been buried. There was no cooperation. We then asked for the clothing that, that Kiki had on. That was all destroyed. The destruction of evidence was everywhere.

At the same time, you were getting heat out of Washington, right?

We were running into opposition - that the Drug Enforcement Administration was trampling over the rights of the neighboring country, and that there were Americans missing around the world, and, how dare I put such pressure on a country, when this is only one American. State Department was very concerned that I was going to damage the relationship with Mexico by bully tactics in calling the law enforcement community corrupt and saying they were corrupting officials in Mexico City not doing what they were doing. And I said, well, indeed, in Mexico, it was more than one American missing, but the American who was missing was there because he worked for me. And I at least owed it to Kiki - to the other agents who were there and elsewhere around the world - that they had to know that if they were endangered in harm's way, that this agency would do something about it.

In the end, the Mexicans were driven to take action. They would say they arrested everybody involved.

They, they would say that. I'm sure they'd say that. But then when it came to the sharing of evidence? "Mr. Lawn, we destroyed all of that material because it was putrid." I said, "How can you, as a law enforcement officer, destroy evidence pertinent to a trial?"

At one point the DEA arranged to have suspects brought to the border and handed over to the United States. There were extraterritorial efforts made - unprecedented extraterritorial efforts that some people would call kidnappings to pursue this case.


Which, is sort of when a drug war . . . became a real war.

Well, indeed during that it was a real war.

You were willing to cross international boundaries to grab people - or arrange to have them [conveniently] delivered?

Indeed, we were. If we had individuals within the country who were willing to cooperate with law enforcement - as law enforcement officers - we certainly would've done that, certainly did do that.

Would you have authorized going in and seizing someone like Noriega?


As a law enforcement operation?


Why not? Could've done it, right?

We have to draw the line, I believe, in law enforcement. You have a set of guidelines you must use in, in conducting law enforcement efforts. If a law enforcement officer crosses the line and thinks that the end justifies the means, that can generate chaos within our society - because then, we become law enforcement analysts for our own good. It can't work that way.

But it's okay to ask or pay others in another country to grab someone in the case of the Camarena case and make sure they're delivered to you as authorities? That was an exception?

It was not an exception on a Washington D.C. level. What we were told was that an arrest can be effected by law enforcement individuals. The law enforcement personnel will turn the individuals over to a law enforcement component in the United States and we may have to pay expenses.

Do you think we needed to do a military invasion to get Manuel Noriega?

Do I think so? No, absolutely not. The Noriega chapter in drug law enforcement is an interesting chapter, because when Noriega took power - I think 1983 - there were so many individuals saying, well, isn't he corrupt; isn't he corrupt. Law enforcement goes upon information that can lead to a grand jury - an indictment. We at that time had no information of anyone who was close to Noriega who could say that Noriega was involved in murders and drug traffic . . . in whatever else, in whatever else he was doing. When the State Department came to us and said, "Don't you know that Manuel Noriega is corrupt?" And I said, "We have researched our files. What we have is anecdotal information - someone said that someone said that someone said." I said, "You can't take that to a grand jury." It took one of the pilots who was directly involved in Noriega to come in and say I can give you some direct information.

In 1987, I testified before Senator Carey, and it was the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism and Drugs. And Senator Carey said, "Have you ever asked for any information?" I said, "We've asked the military countless times. We've asked, the intelligence community countless times if they had any information on Manuel Noriega, to give it to us, so that we could put an indictment together, if indeed, there was enough for an indictment." Senator Carey said, "Why is it I have all that information and you don't? I will see to it that you get all of this information." I went back to the office. I called the Director of the CIA and said, "I've just been told that you have a host of information on Manuel Noriega. I've been burned substantially at this hearing for being ignorant of the fact that this individual is corrupt. What information do you have?" I was told they would get back to me. A staffer called and said, "We put a file together for you." I sent our chief counsel over to review the file. And it was a file of press clippings about Manuel Noriega.

What happened when an indictment was finally placed on Noriega?

Then we began to hear, that the State Department was talking with Noriega and telling Noriega that if he would be willing to leave the country to accept the invitation of Spain to go and live in Spain, that we would quash the indictment. And, I said, "If you develop information, you pursue the information. You don't say, 'Hey, you've been involved in corrupt activity, but we'll forget about it.' It's not the way it works." For the agents who worked, in part, over five years to develop this information, what kind of a message would I be giving, other than a message that, "You worked hard, but this is a political issue and we shouldn't be going after major figures. We should be back arresting people on the street."

How did crack change your ideas, your understanding of how to fight drugs?

The crack epidemic, as we talk about it, was one that focused initially in New York City - when crack appeared in New York City. But crack really struck a lot earlier. It struck in Los Angeles. And the office in Los Angeles began to talk about this new drug, this derivative of, cocaine hydrochloride. But when it struck New York and we began to see increasing violence, we began to see the scope of the problem just expanding incrementally, we went up to New York. We met with the commissioner of police; we met with the treatment persons in the New York area. And one of the things I found was important to me during my time in DEA, was to talk to treatment experts, to go to treatment facilities, to sit in at a conference of recovering addicts to hear what it is they were abusing. So we went to New York. Our lab people create crack cocaine for us. We saw the simple process it took, and we saw that rather than becoming a very expensive drug, it was going to become a very inexpensive drug, because, for the conversion from cocaine hydrochloride to crack, you could get a substantial amount of crack which you could sell very cheaply.

What did you do?

Our immediate reaction was a typical law enforcement reaction, I guess, "Let's get a task force together to deal just with the issue of crack. I had the budget people put a proposal together which we gave to the Department of Justice about this new epidemic called crack, asking if we could get some additional money to fund some task forces to deal with it before the problem expanded. The response I got was, "This is just another attempt to get more money for your budget - handle it with, with current funding." We tried to do that. But with the cocaine epidemic expanding the way it was and, and then the proliferation of crack and then the escalating violence, it very, very quickly went out of control. It went out of control at a time when heroin was making a comeback, when domestic cultivation of marijuana was increasing, when the THC of the marijuana that was being cultivated was increasing, when domestic laboratories were proliferating. We went one year from 30 to 60 to 300 to 600 laboratories. So, the same 2000 agents who had been working, are now being asked to do a host of other things.

Did that realization and the changes you enacted to deal with crack become permanent? Have they changed the realization that to fight drugs - whether it be crack or meth - we're going to have to do it differently?

I would like to say that it had a lasting impact, but my, my gray hair would be lying if I told you it would have a long term impact. Law enforcement reacts to the immediacy of the situation. And while our reaction to the crack epidemic was not immediate, at least there was ultimately a reaction.

Crack was widely publicized and was all over the media. Drugs became the number one political issue. There seemed to be a period where suddenly money was available for anybody to do whatever they could on drugs. Describe what that was like, because that's such a change from what you described early on of what you were up against fighting a drug war.

The reaction on the Hill was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of [1986] where we'll have stiffer penalties for individuals involved in crack - different from cocaine. So the good news was that there were mandatory minimums. That if someone were involved in the distribution of crack, their penalty would be higher than if it were cocaine. We'd rapidly fill up the jails. We'd have no room at the inn because crack now has filled the jails. So then, the issue becomes, well now we need more prisons and now we need more prosecutors. So the money that's going into drug law enforcement is really going into building prisons, going into prosecutors. It's not there on the thin line of resistance. It's not really there with law enforcement. Is that a necessary evolution? Indeed it is, but as the money is funneled from enforcement into the other aspect of enforcement - which is prosecution and conviction - the money has to come from somewhere, so it is drained from the enforcement side. A vicious cycle.

The other part that was not working was treatment for people who were in prison. At one point, it was said that 70% of the Federal prison population was somehow involved in drugs. Does 'involved with drugs' mean just conspiracy to distribute? Or does it mean individuals who were also addicted themselves. Our prison system has done nothing to deal with that whole addiction issue. If a person goes into prison addicted, they can certainly to a degree, feed their addiction while in prison. Prison is not a monastery. There's still an underground economy in prison. With the individual not being treated for their abuse, they leave the prison cycle and go right back to where it is they knew how to earn a living -- that's right back in struggle, back into drug conspiracy.

We've had 15 years of experience with mandatory minimums and increase of population and we've seen crime and drug use go down in that period. Why?

I guess I would question drug use going down. On a certain level within our social strata there is less cocaine use. Heroin is making a major impact again on our society. We as a society used to inject heroin - the rest of the world was smoking heroin. Now our population is increasingly smoking heroin. Heroin is prevalent on our college campuses. That was not the case 20 years ago. Heroin was confined along the lower elements of the socioeconomic population. Now it's a major problem throughout the society.

Do you question the effectiveness of the expansion of the prison system & lengthening of sentences as a way of controlling the drug problem?

Conviction, incarceration is very important. Treatment is also very important. What I question, more than anything, is the lack of accountability in the process. How do you measure the success of prevention? You can say that fewer people are involved in cocaine. Is that a result of prevention? Is it a result of education? Is it a result of treatment? You don't know. So what people measure for success are the easy statistics. If law enforcement arrests more people in 1999 than they did in 1998 for drug issues, we're doing a terrific job because arrests are up, or convictions are up. There should be some accountability. Well if arrests are up and convictions are up, are we doing a better job in education? Are we doing a better job in treatment? But we don't measure success that way. We measure it in that old antiquated numbers counting about people and arrests and prosecutions. And that's where we have failed.

Where do you see the role of law enforcement in the war on drugs compared to the role of treatment?

Enforcement is the last line of resistance. That's at the very end of the spectrum. We must do a better job all the way along, so that the folks who come down into the last line of resistance are the ones then who must then be prosecuted and sent away because they have announced that ... they're not ready to, to change their pattern of behavior.

Consistently in the last 30 years after the Nixon Administration, the budget has been 70% for enforcement and 30% for these other things.

Yes. I've said it to Congress, that ratio has to change. The ratio must be expanded in treatment and in education and in prevention. And that expansion can only come with monies taken from enforcement.

Can you talk about Colombia for a moment? Part of the DEA's "Kingpin" strategy in the 1980s was an attempt to extradite Colombian drug lords to the United States for trial. Was it successful?

It took quite a battle in Colombia for extradition. It was a controversial issue. It was a day to day struggle. And when one looks at the history of the violence in Colombia - the editor of a newspaper who wrote an editorial about the importance of extradition was found on the street murdered - that has a way of changing a society's mind about the value of something as important as extradition. Who speaks for extradition? You don't want to raise your hand and say, "I speak for it" because that immediately becomes a target.

Was it hard to convince the Colombians that was the good course?

Our discussions with Colombians took very little persuasion. The Colombians recognized that the system as they had it, was broken. And that getting the individual, the defendant out of the country, would minimize the risk of retaliation. And so extradition became a much easier sell than people thought. The authorities in Colombia believed this would help them to deal with a difficult problem in a way far better than incarceration in Colombia.

Is it fair to say some authorities felt that way and other times those same authorities changed their mind?

There was a flipping and a flopping. Was that brought about by conviction or was that brought about by outside pressure? That's something I couldn't tell you. But I can say that in our discussions with the authorities in Colombia, we would leave there with a sense that the authorities in Colombia were trying to do what was the very best for drug law enforcement and what was the very best for their own government.

Not long after Carlos Lehder was extradited the treaty was cancelled. The compliance with the treaty was cancelled. Do you remember that? Do you remember being disappointed? How did you react?

I certainly remember being disappointed because voting for extradition took an incredible amount of courage. Because of substantial threats. The director of the narcotics branch of the Colombian national police had been a friend. When his tour was over, he came to us and said, "I'm a target because of my work against the cartel." And we brought him to the United States - and his family - where he did a year in the United States. And then, he said that since he was no longer involved in drug law enforcement, he could safely go back to his own country. He was there a very short time when he, his wife and his children were machine gunned. The message again went out, be very careful about trying to fight this disease called drug trafficking, because we can get you wherever you are. Or whoever you are.

Some Colombians today - former presidents or chiefs of staff or Congressmen - who really feel the extradition policy was a mistake for Colombia. It resulted in too much bloodshed. How do you answer that?

It certainly did result in bloodshed. In, in Colombia, on the one hand, it showed the fantastic courage of the members of government in Colombia even to vote for it. But the results showed the results of their courage. As they tried to do the courageous thing, and suffered major consequences for it, they found then in the accreditation process that folks in the United States were saying, "The Colombian government isn't doing enough." And looking internally at their sacrifices, I'm sure they began to question, well, until someone faces the tally sheet that we face - the tragedies that we're living with day to day, don't judge us on how well we're doing in this war on drugs. So did they have second thoughts? Indeed, they did. Should they have had second thoughts? Based upon on subsequent action in the United States, indeed, I think they should.

Certainly the killing of many policemen, journalists and judges was due to Pablo Escobar and his campaign of violence to forestall extradition.

Yes, a great part, that's absolutely right. The killings of the judges, of the editor of the newspapers, was indeed triggered by the major cartels.

I guess the question is, in reflection was pursuing extradition - which caused a lot of the violence - a wise policy?

Was it a wise policy? It, it's hard . . . it's hard to say it was a wise policy, when lives are lost as a result of the policy. Was it an effective policy? I believe that extradition was an effective policy and its effects were that the cartels were so afraid of extradition that they had to retaliate to show they were afraid of it. So the good news is extradition did have an impact on the traffickers. The bad news is the impact on the traffickers was to create violence so that the persons making that decision would change that decision. I was very disappointed, when the government of Colombia decided not to continue the extradition. But I also saw that in changing their extradition policy, they suffered fewer casualties. Is what they did the prudent thing? Certainly speaking for drug law enforcement, I thought extradition was effective. Speaking from the mind the Colombian government, the losses did not warrant their [condoning] that policy.

Is it fair to say that the violence of the drug cartels won the day?

I clearly believe that the cartels, in voicing their outrage over the extradition policy by using their muscle, by using terrorist tactics, clearly won the day. They succeeded in forcing individuals and the government of Colombia to back away from what could've been a very effective policy. That being said, the officials who made that decision, uh, were in the line of fire and they did the prudent thing.

So after all this, if you were CEO of the international narcotics industry 30 years ago, and now it's 30 years later, has it been a growth business?

Yes, narcotics certainly has been a growth business. Even if in the United States, there has been some positive enforcement action, it has continued to be a growth business because Latin Americans have a direct link with Europe. With all of our efforts, with the military in their aircraft and Coast Guard cutters, the organizations will just move to a third country to get things done. They don't lose money, they don't lose hours. As a CEO, I don't think they have lost anything substantial in the past 20 years.

They just keep growing.

Just keep growing as the problem continues to grow. In 1987 with the government in Britain I expressed concern about cocaine becoming a problem in Great Britain. They said no, that's U.S. problem. Cocaine has become a substantial problem in Europe, and they were not ready for it. They indeed thought this was a U.S. problem. It's become a substantial problem. Crack has become a major problem in Mexico, for example. It's a disease that one cannot inoculate itself against. You can't say, I'm a source country not a user country, because the source country will become the user country. The transit country will become a user country. Insidious.

A perpetual war.

Perpetual until the effort is made to change the temper of the individuals who are involved to change patterns of behavior. And that can be done. We can certainly look at the last 30 years with tobacco. We have changed the patterns of behavior in the use of tobacco. So it can be done.

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