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Endless Evil: The Drug Wars Continuing Collateral Damage, Part 1

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In September 2009, 28-year-old Jonathan Ayers pulled into a gas station in Stephens County, Georgia, to withdraw money from an ATM. Ayers, a pastor, had just given $23, all the cash he had in his pocket, to Johanna Barrett, a drug addict alleged to be a prostitute to whom Ayers had been ministering. His purpose was to help Barrett pay rent at the motel where she was living with her boyfriend. According to friends and family members, it wasn’t unusual for Ayers to give the money he was carrying to help those to whom he was ministering get out of a jam.

Shortly after Ayers returned to his car from the ATM, a black Escalade tore into the parking lot. Three police officers, all undercover, got out of the vehicle and raced toward Ayers’s car. The startled pastor started his car and attempted to flee the parking lot. As he pulled out of the gas station, his vehicle grazed Officer Chance Oxner. Officer Billy Shane Harrison opened fire, putting a bullet through Ayers’s window that struck the pastor in the stomach. Ayers continued to drive, fleeing down the road for about a thousand yards before eventually crashing his car. He died at the hospital. His last words to his family and medical staff were that he thought he was being robbed. The police found no illicit drugs in his car, and there was no trace of any illegal substance in his body.

The police officers were part of a multi-jurisdictional drug task force. They had been following Barrett, who they say was selling small amounts of illicit drugs to support her own habit. They latched on to Ayers when they saw him hand her money while she was under surveillance. Rather than investigate further, at which point they would have discovered that Ayers was a pastor with no criminal history, they chose to confront him as if he were a violent fugitive on the lam. Subsequent investigations by the DA’s office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the police. It took a lawsuit by Ayers’s widow and some reporting from a local TV news reporter to discover that Harrison, the officer who shot Ayers, had received no training in the use of lethal force. In fact, he had so little training that under Georgia law he wasn’t legally permitted to carry a gun or work as an active-duty police officer. Even now, while Abigail Ayers’s lawsuit is still pending, there has been no disciplinary action taken against the officers involved in Jonathan Ayers’s death. He is collateral damage in America’s drug war.

Ayers’s story is too familiar. Consider Isaac Singletary, an 80-year-old man shot and killed by undercover police in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2008. The cops were posing as drug dealers, soliciting clients from Singletary’s front lawn. When Singletary came out of his home with a rifle to scare off what he thought were loitering drug pushers, the undercover cops panicked and killed him. Once again, no one was to blame. Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford described Singletary as “an honest citizen trying to do good.” Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida called Singletary’s death one of the “challenges in fighting crime.” The officers who killed Singletary were cleared of any blame.

There are more examples, from just the last few years. In January of this year, 68-year-old Eurie Stamps was killed by the Framingham, Massachusetts, SWAT team that raided his home. Stamps wasn’t a suspect and he wasn’t armed. In fact, the police nabbed the two suspects they were looking for — the son of Stamps’s live-in girlfriend and a friend of his — outside the house.

In 2008, Gonzalo Guizan was shot and killed by a SWAT team raiding the Easton, Connecticut, home of Ronald Terebesi Jr. Police were acting on a tip from a prostitute that Terebesi was using (not selling) cocaine. Guizan’s family says Guizan was visiting Terebesi to discuss their opening a business together. Guizan was shot when he ran toward the invading police officers as they broke into the home.

Also in 2008, a police officer in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed 26-year-old Tarika Wilson during a drug raid targeting Wilson’s boyfriend. As one officer shot and killed the boyfriend’s dogs, another officer mistook those shots for hostile gunfire. That officer then emptied his weapon into the bedroom where Wilson was on her knees, holding her infant son, complying with the officers’ orders. Wilson was killed. Her son lost use of his right hand.

When Richard Nixon first uttered the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971, he didn’t choose those words by accident. Government declarations of war signal to the country that the threat it is facing is so perilous, so grave, so existential, that in order to defeat it, Americans should prepare to give up basic freedoms, make significant sacrifices, and accept the inevitable collateral damage they may endure on “their” way to victory. Whatever one may think about the justness and morality of America’s actual wars, they were at least all predicated on the idea that the United States faced an enemy that threatened its very way of life. (Of course, that was true only in a small number of cases.) The drug war doesn’t even put up that sort of pretense. Elected officials argue — and Americans have mostly played along — that all of this sacrifice, erosion of civil liberties, and collateral damage are necessary to … keep people from getting high.

The “war on drugs” metaphor grew increasingly literal during the Reagan administration. And through Reagan’s, Clinton’s, both Bushes’, and Obama’s administration, both major political parties have only inflated and doubled down on what has arguably been the most destructive and wasteful government policy of the last 40 years. The drug war touches nearly every area of American life, and distorts nearly all facets of American public policy. But there are a few examples of where drug prohibition has done more damage than others.

Police militarization

In May 2010, a video of a drug raid in Columbia, Missouri, made its way to the Internet and went viral. In it, a SWAT team uses a battering ram to force its way into a home after nightfall. Within seconds, shots ring out. You next hear the screeches of a dying dog, followed by the protesting wails of homeowner Jonathan Whitworth upon learning that the police had shot and killed one of his dogs and wounded the other. The video then shows police rounding up Whitworth, his wife, and their young son at gunpoint. Whitworth is handcuffed and arrested. The police found only a small amount of marijuana in the home, not even enough to charge him with a misdemeanor. (Marijuana had been decriminalized in Columbia.)

Reaction to the video was fascinating. People from all over the country — indeed the world — condemned the Columbia Police Department for the violent tactics. The department was inundated with email, phone calls, and faxes. Within days, more than a million people watched the video on YouTube. But the interesting thing is that there was nothing unusual about that video. Everything about it was standard procedure, from the battering ram, to the paramilitary gear to the perfunctory slaughter of the dog. Raids just like it happen dozens of times each day in the United States. It was as if America had suddenly realized just how militant its war on drugs really was. The outrage was encouraging, but such invasions have been going on for a generation. And while reaction to the video did effect some modest reforms in Columbia, it had almost no substantive effect outside the city.

The proliferation of SWAT teams began in the 1980s. America’s long (and wise) constraint on using the military for domestic policing, codified in the post–Civil War Posse Comitatus Act, began to blur as states deployed National Guard troops to search for marijuana hidden in fields and forests and, in some cases, to patrol drug-riddled inner cities. The line between cop and soldier further blurred when Ronald Reagan authorized active-duty elite military units to train with narcotics police.

But the most significant threat to Posse Comitatus may not come from the use of soldiers as cops, but from the increasing tendency of cops to act like soldiers, a troubling trend best seen in the 30-year rise in the use of paramilitary SWAT teams in America. SWAT teams are ubiquitous now, thanks in large part to a number of bad federal incentives, including a Pentagon program that since the late 1980s has given millions of pieces of surplus military gear to local police departments for free or at a steep discount.

In the 1970s, only a handful of police departments had SWAT teams, and they were deployed only a few hundred times per year across the entire country. That number soared to around 4,000 per year by the early 1980s, and to an incredible 50,000 per year by the mid 2000s. There are now 130–150 SWAT raids per day in America. In most, police force their way into private homes, usually at night, then violently secure the premises at gunpoint. They sometimes deploy flash grenades, which are designed to cause sensory paralysis of everyone inside. And the purpose of the vast majority of these raids is to serve search warrants on people suspected of nonviolent, consensual drug crimes. According to my own research, at least 48 innocent people have died in such raids. That is, people who weren’t caught with — or even suspected of having — any illicit drugs. Dozens more nonviolent drug offenders have been killed, as have about 30 police officers.

Politicians have dressed police like soldiers, trained them in paramilitary tactics, given them military weapons and armor, and told them they’re fighting a “war.” And as everyone knows, sometimes in a war, innocent people die.

Foreign policy

Just months before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government gave $43 million to Afghanistan — a way of compensating Afghan farmers hurt by the Taliban’s compliance with a U.S. request to crack down on that country’s opium farms. (As it turns out, the Taliban eradicated only those farms in competition with the Taliban’s own producers.)

Americans don’t seem to have learned. The Western world’s prohibition on opium has made poppies a lucrative crop for impoverished Afghan farmers, and is a valuable recruiting tool for insurgents and remnant Taliban forces. At the same time, DEA agents and U.S. and UN troops rove the Afghan countryside on search-and-destroy missions, setting the livelihoods of Afghan farmers — their poppies — aflame before their very eyes. That is not the way to build alliances. As Misha Glenny, author of a book on the global drug trade, explained in a 2008 article for the Washington Post,

the drug war has become the Taliban’s most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income…. The “War on Drugs” is defeating the “war on terror.”

But it isn’t just in Afghanistan. The United States has a long history of turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses and unintended consequences in the name of eradicating illicit drugs overseas. Between 2001 and 2003, the United States gave more than $12 million to Thailand for drug interdiction efforts. Over 10 months in 2003, the Thai government sent out anti-drug “death squads” to carry out the extra-judicial executions of as many as 4,000 suspected drug offenders. Many were later found to have had nothing to do with the drug trade. Though the U.S. State Department denounced the killings, the United States still continued to give the same Thai regime millions in aid for counternarcotics operations with little control over how that money was spent.

Then there’s the bloody civil war in Mexico, where the U.S.-backed and heavily U.S.-funded drug war has wreaked incomprehensible carnage. An estimated 15,000 people were murdered by drug cartels in 2010 alone. Some 30,000 have been murdered since 2006 when, at the urging of the U.S. government, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico called up the Mexican military to put more war in the country’s drug war. Five years later, the policy has produced enough bodies to populate a small town. And yet the drug trade still flourishes. News reports indicate that astonishing numbers of Mexican police forces, politicians, and customs agents are now on cartel payrolls. Drug lords brazenly murder journalists, pop singers, and sports stars. The border town of Praxedis G. Guerrero recently hired 20-year-old college student Marisol Valles García as its new police chief. The previous chief, like those in nearby towns, had been assassinated. Garcia was the only one to apply for the job.

Meanwhile, U.S. drug agents and politicians have callously dismissed all of this brutal violence in Mexico as collateral damage in the quest for a drug-free America. One former federal drug warrior wrote in an Arizona newspaper in 2008 that all the death and carnage in Mexico is actually good news — Mexicans slaughtering one another is a sign that “we’re” winning. Other U.S. officials have since echoed that horrifying claim. This cynical, ends-justifies-the-means mentality isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less immoral. If thousands of Mexicans have to die in order to stop Americans from getting high, well, that’s a sacrifice U.S. anti-drug officials are willing to make. How noble of them. In 2009, the U.S. Congress approved another $400 million in drug-war aid to Mexico, despite concern from human-rights organizations that the Mexican military may be killing innocent Mexican citizens in its vigor to crack down on the drug lords.

In South America, the “Plan Colombia” drug interdiction effort spearheaded by Bill Clinton has also been a disaster, as U.S. military aid has funded right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for mass human-rights abuses and spawned public support for the FARC guerrilla organization that periodically rises up to threaten the country’s stability. The other main component of the plan — the mass spraying of concentrated herbicide on Colombian coca fields — has poisoned vast tracts of farmland (and, some say, many people), depriving many Colombians of their livelihood. That, again, isn’t likely to foster warm feelings toward the United States.

U.S. citizens occasionally get picked off in U.S. overseas anti-drug efforts, too. In 2001, the CIA ordered the Peruvian Air Force to shoot down what they thought was a drug plane. They were mistaken. Instead, they had shot down a plane filled with U.S. missionaries. Veronica Bowers, 35, and her seven-month-old daughter Charity died in the ensuing crash. Just more collateral damage.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Radley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post.