One Year of Narco News
Narco News 2001
Reel to Real
A Narco News Movie Review
Bernstein and Larry Everest
Narco News Publisher's
Note: We saw the movie, "Traffic," in a theater
South of the Border, where the English-speaking parts of the
movie had Spanish subtitles and the Spanish-speaking parts had
none. We've wanted to see this film since folks started talking
about it. It premiered in Mexico on March 20th.
The following review,
by Dennis Bernstein and Larry Everest, best captures our view
of the motion picture "Traffic." This review is an
unabridged longer form of a review that appeared in the Boston
Globe and the San Francisco Examiner in late March. We thank
Bernstein and Everest for making the longer version available
for publication on Narco News, because, for us, "Traffic"
is not a movie. It is a reality that we live every single day,
reporting on the drug war from somewhere in a country called
Reel to Real
Bernstein and Larry Everest
for five Academy Awards including best picture, has been hailed
as the real-deal on America's "war on drugs." But how
real is it?
Traffic is slick. The performances are
compelling, the action non-stop, and the cinematography riveting.
It captures some narco hypocrisies, like the fact that the war
hasn't stopped the drug flow. Traffic doesn't discriminate against
illegal drugs, but reminds us that legal drugs like tobacco,
alcohol, and tranquilizers are also drugs with devastating impacts.
We certainly wouldn't argue with the movie's theme that, as screenwriter
Stephen Gaghan put it, "drugs should be considered a health
care issue rather than a criminal issue." And we can understand
why so many, who have been so deeply harmed either by drugs or
the war against them, are glad that the official story is finally
But real deal? Not by a long shot. For
every drug truth Traffic portrays, it ignores, obscures or distorts
deeper ones. Two stand out: the role of the U.S. in fueling and
profiting from the drug trade, and the targeting of youth and
communities of color in the domestic war on drugs.
In Traffic's world, the sordid underbelly
of the drug trade lies across the border in Mexico. There, a
corrupt and ruthless General runs Mexico's war on drugs, cartels
wage war on each other for market control, torture is routine,
and bodies litter the streets. It's all shot in sepia tones,
as if Mexico is dirty with drugs.
Across the border in El Norte, however,
life is lived in technicolor. The U.S.'s anti-drug war may be
bumbling, inefficient, and hampered by inter-agency rivalries,
but it's sincere -- without a hint of corruption or complicity.
America's drug czar Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas)
is a naive but ultimately honest and caring family man -- in
stunning contrast to his Mexican counterpart.
CIA, Drugs and Contras
who is, in reality, corrupting who?
A real-deal Traffic could have begun like this:
Nancy Reagan in the White House introducing her "just say
no" campaign against drugs.
Scene 2: Cut to the nearby offices of attorney general William
French Smith, who is signing a memo assuring the CIA that it
will not be held criminally liable for working with drug traffickers.
Cut to CIA operatives working with traffickers in Central America
to fund the illegal Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Cut to South Central Los Angeles, where some of these same traffickers
are selling cocaine.
This may seem more fictional than Traffic,
but it's reality. Neither the media nor Congress ever took on
the Contra drug connection in the 1980s, but it's well documented
that the Bill Casey-Oliver North network included selling drugs
to arm the Contras.
A July 1985 entry in North's notebook
reads - $14 million in Contra money from drugs. Jack Blum, the
Special Council for Kerry Subcommittee investigating the Contra-drug
connection told the Senate Intelligence Committee that U.S. officials
were "quietly undercutting law enforcement and human-rights
agencies that might have caused them difficulty...policy makers
absolutely closed their eyes to the criminal behavior of the
Former DEA agent Michael Levine, who was
working in Latin America at the time, says he had his own evidence
of the CIA's drugs-for-arms dealing: a DEA report stating "the
CIA stopped us from indicting the same people who were selling
the Contras drugs." Levine adds, "If I was working
North's case, I would have tracked him and the rest of them,
from the time they got up in the morning until the time they
went to bed at night."
Reporter Gary Webb's much maligned - but
accurate - San Jose Mercury News series "Dark Alliance,"
found that some of these same traffickers were supplying cocaine
to dealers in U.S. inner cities at the dawn of the 1980's crack
It's not surprising that none of this
was in Traffic's storyline. "Best Director" Soderbergh
worked closely with the U.S. government on the film -- the Customs
Service and the DEA in particular. The DEA felt so comfortable
with Soderbergh that they allowed him to shoot inside their top
secret El Paso Intelligence Center. When one Customs official
complained about part of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite
it. And the film's credited consultant was Tim Golden of The
New York Times. Golden managed to miss the Contra cocaine connection
while covering the war in Nicaragua for the Miami Herald and
later was the New York Times' pointman in attacking Webb's Mercury
who worked as a drug enforcement agent
for over 20 years, calls the Contra drug connection "small
potatoes" compared with U.S. actions in Mexico. Levine's
real life storyline goes like this: on assignment in Mexico in
the late 1980s, he's part of a drug sting that leads to the highest
levels of the Mexican government of Carlos Salinas de Gotari.
Just when he and his fellow DEA agents were going to put the
bite on Mexico's top drug dealers, the U.S. Attorney General,
Edwin Meese, warned Mexico's attorney general of the DEA operation.
The whole operation went up in smoke, so to speak, and the U.S.
maintained close relations with the Salinas government.
Former President Salinas' brother Raul
is now in prison for drug trafficking and there is evidence that
the former President himself amassed some $600 million in drug
profits stashed in some 60 banks around the world.
Such official collaboration with drug
traffickers has been repeated in many other countries such as
Peru and Colombia. In Peru, the U.S. and CIA worked closely for
over a decade with Vladimiro Montesinos, the number two man in
Lima, who was closely linked with Peruvian drug traffickers.
Montesinos' drug connection -- not to mention his reign of terror
with President Alberto Fujimori -- was no problem for the U.S.,
even as Peru continued to be a major coca producer. Drug Czar
Barry McCaffrey even had his picture taken with the reclusive
Montesinos as a sign of U.S. support. Montesinos lost U.S. favor
not for selling drugs, but for selling arms to Colombian rebels,
threatening "Plan Colombia."
Levine recalls being hot on the trail
of heroin dealers in Thailand only to be told by U.S. officials
there that the U.S. had "other priorities" than stopping
drugs. "Drugs are never a U.S. priority," Levine concludes
from his years working in Southeast Asia, South America, and
Banks, and Financial Markets
are these "other priorities?"
How about the stability of many U.S. allies, not to mention the
global financial system itself? As "Deep Throat" reputedly
said during Watergate, "follow the money." And there's
hundreds of billions of dollars of drug money to follow every
Global capitalism has fueled -- and profited
from -- the Third World's dependence on the drug trade. It's
an open secret that without drug money, the economies of many
U.S. allies such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia would collapse
and be unable to repay their billions in debt to Western banks
and international lending agencies. And if Third World nations
defaulted on their loans, the ensuing panic would make the recent
stock market plunge look positively bullish by comparison.
Market prices for the agricultural goods
and raw materials these countries have traditionally depended
on have declined, while competition from cheap food imports from
the U.S. and other industrialized countries has have ruined millions
of peasant farmers in the developing world. It is estimated that
some 500,000 farmers in Mexico will eventually be forced off
the land because NAFTA opened Mexico up to U.S. corn imports.
This has pushed many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America
deeper into debt. In the face of these trends, the IMF and World
Bank have demanded these countries shift agricultural production
to cash crops. And what's the most lucrative cash crop around?
That's right, illegal drugs.
How much money is involved in the global
drug trade? Last year a minority report from House Democrats
on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations stated, "Despite
increasing international attention and stronger anti-money laundering
controls, some current estimates are that $500 billion to $1
trillion in criminal proceeds are laundered through banks worldwide
each year, with about half of that amount moved through United
States banks." An estimated $250 billion of those criminal
proceeds can be traced to the cocaine trade.
James F. Sloan, the Director of the Treasury
Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, calls money
laundering the "lifeblood of narcotics trafficking....These
criminal organizations now dwarf some of the world's largest
legitimate business enterprise." As the unquestioned "kingpins"
of the world financial system, U.S. banks are a prime beneficiary
of world drug trafficking.
U.S. banks have consistently opposed efforts
to impose tighter regulation on their dealings with unregulated
private or offshore banks, through which much drug money is laundered.
U.S. banking giant Citibank recently admitted that it had been
receiving laundered drug money from one shell bank in the Cayman
Islands. In 1998 U.S. officials seized $1.8 million in Citibank
accounts, but over the next 2 years it is estimated that another
$300 million moved from the Cayman through Citibank accounts.
To date, no U.S. banker has ever been indicted or served time
for laundering drug money.
much for Traffic's "realism"
south of the border, what about in the U.S. itself? In a movie
whose theme is supposedly the decriminalization of drug use,
why not show who is really being criminalized in America's war
on drugs - the hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly
of color, locked up for non-violent drug offenses?
The so-called "war on drugs"
has really been a war on the people. According to the Justice
Policy Institute, the population of U.S. prisons has nearly doubled
over the last decade to 2 million, one of the highest incarceration
rates in the world. One in four are in jail for drug-related
offenses. While the number of violent offenders in jail has doubled
in the last 20 years, the numbers locked up for drug offenses
has gone up eleven times! There are nearly as many people locked
up on drug charges today -- around 458,000 -- as the entire US
prison population in 1980.
This incarceration boom has had undeniable
racial dimensions. While there were twice as many whites in jail
for drug offenses in 1996 as a decade earlier, there were five
times more African Americans, and six times more African American
youth. Last June, Human Rights Watch reported that the U.S. war
on drugs has been waged overwhelmingly against African Americans.
These racial disparities are well known,
yet year after year lawmakers uphold discriminatory laws that
punish crack possession -- mainly found in impoverished inner
cities - hundreds of times more severely than powdered cocaine
- the drug of the white and affluent.
This points to another ugly reality of
the U.S.'s war on drugs - urban counterinsurgency. Waves of downsizing,
restructuring and relocation have stripped many inner cities
of the factory jobs which used to support more stable communities.
Like Latin American peasants, many urban dwellers have been left
with drugs as the best option for survival. What better way for
the establishment to contain this explosive population -- remember
LA circa 1992? -- than by locking away hundreds of thousands
via the war on drugs?
Traffic shows little understanding and
no sympathy for the jolting economic and social changes that
have ravaged the U.S. inner city. Beside DEA hero Montel Gordon
(Don Cheadle), only one African American is portrayed and he's
one of the film's most unsavory characters -- a drug dealer who
pimps the good Judge Wakefield's drug-addicted daughter. Isn't
this just repeating the latest stereotype of African Americans,
which is designed to terrify middle class white people and justify
racist repression of people of color?
In Traffic, law enforcement brutality
exists only south of the border. In reality, what Amnesty International
calls an "epidemic" of police brutality has accompanied
the war on drugs in the U.S. And recent police scandals in Oakland,
Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, where cops have been
caught planting drugs on suspects, stealing drugs from suspects,
and selling drugs for their own profit, show there's plenty of
In a recent interview, Michael Douglas
remarks that the cooperation Traffic received from government
officials demonstrated that "even the government was willing
to say, 'Let's open this discussion up.'" Indeed, there
are many in the establishment who want to modify the war on drugs,
fearing it's hurting the system more than it's helping. But such
a revamping of official policy is a far cry from dealing with
the full scope of American's drug war -- much less reversing
it. That's something that neither the powers-that-be, nor Traffic,
are going to touch.
Dennis Bernstein, an award-winning
investigative reporter, is the host/producer of "Flashpoints"
on KPFA radio in Berkeley, California. Larry Everest writes for
the Revolutionary Worker newspaper and other publications,
and is the author of Behind the Poison Cloud: Union Carbide's