Herb Rothschild Jr: Thoughts on the drug war

Posted Jan. 31, 2015 @ 2:00 am
Updated Feb 2, 2015 at 9:31 AM

Despite historically high graduation rates from our public schools — 81 percent in 2011-2012, the latest for which comprehensive data are available — we often hear elected officials and pundits say the entire system has failed. Conversely, despite the inability of our War on Drugs to curb the availability of recreational drugs, few politicians and pundits openly admit it. Can we explain such inconsistency?
I now digress, but trust me.
In 1985, a mutual friend introduced me to Wendell Seal. Wendell always had lots of cocaine, which he shared generously. The source of Wendell’s supply was his brother Barry Seal. Barry was a big-time smuggler. He owned a fleet of aircraft based at Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport in Arkansas.
Exactly when Barry’s connection with the CIA began is uncertain, but it’s certain that by 1984 he was working for the CIA and the DEA as part of a plea bargain to escape prison. As an informant he helped the DEA bust Colombian cartel members. As a smuggler he helped the CIA fly in cocaine supplied by the Contras.
To Barry’s dismay, in early 1986 a federal judge in Baton Rouge ordered him to serve supervised probation. He had to report to a Salvation Army facility each evening. On February 19 he was gunned down there by three Colombians.
Among the aircraft Barry owned was a C-123K cargo plane he called “Fat Lady.” He sold it shortly before his murder. On Oct. 5, 1986, the Sandinistas shot down Fat Lady over Nicaragua. It was loaded with arms for the Contras. That began the public exposure of the Iran-Contra affair.
There’s a lot in the “infosphere” about the role CIA-sponsored drug trafficking played in funding our not-so-covert war against Nicaragua. Much of it implicates Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and the Clintons. The subject may gain new currency if Ron Howard completes his film about Barry called “Mena.”
My question is this: What happened to all the cocaine Barry brought into the U.S. under CIA auspices besides the insignificant portion that went up the noses of Wendell’s friends? A good surmise is that it joined the tide of cocaine flowing into our ghettos that fueled the crack epidemic of the ’80s.
There’s a lot about this in the “infosphere” as well. The landmark work was an investigative series called “Dark Alliance” by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published in August 1996. The accuracy of Webb’s assertions was challenged, mainly on two grounds: the amount of cocaine CIA contractors like Barry brought in, and whether the CIA intended the product to land in the ghettoes or simply looked the other way. A film named “Kill the Messenger,” released October 2014, has reasserted Webb’s original claims and dramatized the pressure he faced as he conducted his investigation.
Let us now entertain the possibility that the War on Drugs has not utterly failed, but rather paid two large dividends. It has furnished a pretext for continued U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American nations now that the “Communist threat” cannot. And it has put large numbers of young black males behind bars.
Our general population has enormous trouble conceding the futility of criminalizing drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. But with committed political leadership, we could make faster progress transitioning from a criminal justice approach to a public health approach. That leadership won’t be forthcoming, however, as long as Wall Street and Hollywood get a pass on their coke habits and we incarcerate large numbers of people of color.
Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.

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