North Island is home base for this $6.5-million Piper Cheyenne tracker.
  • North Island is home base for this $6.5-million Piper Cheyenne tracker.
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Last year the San Diego Union published an enthusiastic news story that praised the United States Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for their investigation and capture of a San Diego drug smuggler The man was subsequently convicted of trafficking the largest planeload of cocaine seized by San Diego agents.

There are three general areas that smugglers favor: the Guadalupe Valley just south of Tecate; the Laguna Salada, Baja’s great salt lake southeast of Calexico; and the Colorado River itself.

There are three general areas that smugglers favor: the Guadalupe Valley just south of Tecate; the Laguna Salada, Baja’s great salt lake southeast of Calexico; and the Colorado River itself.

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The man's attorney, Edmundo Espinoza, remembers vividly the morning he read the story. “The Union comes out with an article saying how the good cops’ intuition and the hard work of the cops gave all the tools to be able to get my client,” he recalls. “I went over there (to the customs office), and I told them. ‘You guys have got to be kidding!’ I said, ‘You’re talking about justifying your budget, telling the people of San Diego what a good job you did.' That’s the biggest fallacy. Dammit! I knew exactly what the facts were.”

Inside the Cheyenne

Inside the Cheyenne

The facts, according to sources on both sides of the case, illustrate the difficulty and complexity of the government’s aerial drug-interdiction program:

Plane with marijuana crashed in the desert

Plane with marijuana crashed in the desert

• Despite an ongoing investigation by federal agents, Espinoza’s client, Henry Peralta, was not intercepted by customs aircraft when he flew 1208 pounds of cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. on the night of November 25, 1986. Peralta was neither identified nor followed when he crossed the border, even though Espinoza claims he was flying with lights and transponder on at 8000 feet, an altitude easily detected by ground radar.

“If we haven’t picked him up by the time he reaches Palm Springs, he’s gone.”

“If we haven’t picked him up by the time he reaches Palm Springs, he’s gone.”

(Federal agents dispute the attorney’s statement, charging that Peralta never would have flown a load of drugs at an altitude that would have caused him to appear on radar. “I don’t believe that for a minute. There’s no proof of it,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Swan about Espinoza’s statement. “With a load like that. I’m sure he wouldn't fly high enough for radar interception.”)

• At midnight, when Peralta first attempted to meet his connection in a remote spot near Twentynine Palms — a dry lake bed in southern San Bernardino County popular with drug traffickers — federal agents again failed to apprehend him after they spotted his AeroCommander overhead. “They heard the engines of the plane,” Espinoza says. “They heard the plane, and they saw the plane go down close to 400 feet from the ground. They could not distinguish through the [night-vision] goggles exactly what kind of plane it was.” Because of the lack of identification and because Peralta flew away after one pass over the site, an arrest was aborted.

• Peralta finally did land, and he mistakenly unloaded nineteen duffle bags of ninety-percent pure cocaine at Laguna Army Airfield, a restricted U.S. military installation a few miles northeast of Yuma, Arizona. But for the third time in less than twelve hours, agents failed to capture him. In fact, when Peralta was awakened at 6:45 the next morning after having fallen asleep in his plane, he persuaded a U.S. Army major to give him enough fuel to leave the airfield and fly back to San Diego. The cocaine, Peralta figured, would have to be retrieved at another time.

It was not until ten days later, on December 4, that a helicopter pilot on a routine landing at the airfield discovered the cache Peralta had left behind in some bushes. “The agents at the desert happened to be there by a fluke," Espinoza claims in retrospect about the same drug-enforcement operation the Union later dubbed “one of the best-kept secrets in law enforcement in San Diego County.”

The U.S. Customs Service’s annual budget for air interdiction was $200 million last year, with the figure split fairly evenly between East and West Coast operations. For that price, in fiscal year 1987, air interdictions were responsible for the seizure of more than 22,329 pounds of cocaine and 89,819 pounds of marijuana nationwide. Also seized last year were 53 aircraft, 455 vehicles, 419 vessels, and $1.5 million in cash. The San Diego Aviation Operations unit, a branch of the Customs Service based at North Island Naval Air Station, accounted for seizures of one pound of cocaine, 497 pounds of marijuana, two aircraft, one vehicle, and $700,000 in cash.

Yet even with these apparent successes, the customs air-interdiction rate is extremely low. “The U.S. government claims that it seizes only ten percent [of the drugs being flown across the border], and I think that that’s max,” Espinoza says. “They catch a really minimal amount. That’s why whenever they’re going to handle a case, the U.S. government is going to give a kind of a name to the operation, and it’s going to make a big deal out of the seizure."

Confronted by a mere ten-percent success rate, legislators have responded by throwing more money at interdiction efforts. More money means hiring more people, buying more airplanes and helicopters, and installing more radar systems to keep an eye on more territory. Beefing up manpower and adding high-tech equipment makes it appear, at least on the surface, that the government is doing something to battle what public-opinion polls deem the nation’s number-one problem.

Currently the federal air-interdiction effort in Southern California relies on a three-part operation as defined by the U.S. Customs Service: detection, interception, and apprehension .The operation begins at March Air Force Base, near Riverside, which is the reception site for all ground radar signals in the western United States. There are sixteen federally owned, fixed-base radar systems close to the border with Mexico, such as the one atop Mt. Laguna in San Diego County. Radar information is also collected by military planes that surveil the area regularly. Most airport approach-control radar systems, including those at both military and civilian airports, also feed into the customs control center at March.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, some thirty “detection system specialists" monitor the radar screens at March, watching the blips that cross in and out of Mexico. These blips are checked against flight plans filed with Federal Aviation Administration computers by both commercial and private pilots. If a private pilot is planning to fly into the U.S. from Baja California, for example, he is required to call the FAA and state when he expects to cross the border and at what port of entry. There are two such ports of entry: Brown Field on Otay Mesa and in Calexico. The flight plan is “opened,” or activated, when the pilot is airborne, and it stays open until landing. “They’re looking for your radar when you cross the border, and they know who you are,” explains Rick Severson, airport manager at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. “If they get an unidentified radar blip crossing over, they watch it closely. In this area, it’s almost impossible not to be on the radar. You’ve got to go quite a ways inland toward Tecate, El Centro, that area, and then fly low and stay within the hills.”

Once a suspicious aircraft is detected at March, a call goes out to San Diego Aviation Operations at North Island, one of seven such units in the U.S., where a staff of fifteen agents rotates shifts for duty on the “intercept crew.”

Armed with automatic rifles, the crew responds to a call by immediately going “on scramble,” which means the men have eight minutes to run to their planes, throw on their headsets, check their maps, crank up their engines, and take off. A code word gets them take-off priority from the control tower.

Five aircraft currently are based at North Island, including a Jet Ranger helicopter and two twin-engine Beechcraft King Airs, on temporary stand-in for other disabled aircraft. North Island also is home base for a CHET, one of the agency’s $6.5-million Piper Cheyenne high-endurance trackers, equipped with radar and a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imaging system. Able to seat four armed agents and two pilots, a CHET can fly at more than 200 mph for about seven hours without refueling, roughly the distance from San Diego to Dallas.

Customs agents assigned to the air-interdiction unit say business has been slow for the last few years. In the early Eighties, about a third of the staff was re-assigned to Florida in a concentrated effort to stop aerial drug smuggling there, and for the last four years, the unit’s operations have been slowed as the customs control center was moved from Phoenix to Riverside. (The air-interdiction budget was in fact cut from $200 million last year to $163 million this year, which has caused delays in purchasing new aircraft and repairing older ones. One agent says customs needs twice the number of aircraft it currently has stationed at North Island; it’s all they can do to get one routine patrol up per day. Plus, last November, two agents were killed and a Cessna 441 Conquest was destroyed in a crash near Calexico.)

So far this year, according to Aviation Group Supervisor Bill Thompson, only two or three busts have been made on “cold” interdictions. That is a term used for aircraft intercepted either when the customs planes are flying routine patrols along the border or as the result of the unit being “scrambled" to intercept a suspicious target seen on the radar screens in Riverside. Thompson says about the same number of apprehensions, two or three, have been made as a result of ongoing investigations this year. He expects that interdictions will increase with the addition of two Cessna Citations and more radar equipment, due to arrive within the next year.

As often as they are called by March Air Force Base, the agents at North Island are also summoned by the Office of Enforcement Air Smuggling Group, an investigative arm of the Customs Service that is alerted to smuggling operations by informants. “I got a call from an informant, someone close to the operation in Mexico, who said there’d be a load coming across the border sometime around dark,” Special Agent Brian Simon says, describing an interdiction mission he flew in December of 1986. "That’s all he said, just that there’d be a plane coming across that’d be loaded.”

The last-minute call from Simon’s informant did not come as a surprise to the agents at North Island, who are accustomed to running interception missions in the early evening, the most common time for smugglers to fly across the border. “We keep track of all the times we detect targets, and we build profiles based on that,” explains Joe Maxwell, West Coast director of aviation operations for the Customs Service. (Maxwell oversees the North Island branch and three other units west of the Mississippi River.) “Basically, [smugglers prefer) dawn, dusk. The moon really doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Weather, of course, does. If it’s bad weather, they don’t do it. Most of it, for whatever reason, seems to be midweek — Tuesday or Wednesday. And generally in the valleys in the desert.... We’ve caught everything from Catholic priests to airline pilots, military pilots, pilots with very minimal number of hours who think they’re gonna make a lot of quick money and retire.... We’ve got men. We’ve got women, old people, young people.”

Special Agent Simon remembers that 1986 mission. “We took off around four o’clock, got up around the general vicinity where we thought the plane would cross, I had my bulletproof vest with me, and I was carrying an AR-15 [automatic rifle] and my flight jacket.”

In a Cessna 421, Simon, two pilots, and an air officer arrived in the El Centro region around 4:30 p.m. and began a series of continuous orbits of the area while they waited for the suspect. The CHET, meanwhile, was on patrol about 2000 feet above them, searching for the target on its radar.

....5490, can you come up on uniform control frequency and give me radar [location]?... He’s about forty-five degrees and about 2.7. We ’re holding pretty good distance-wise.... Now he’s about twenty degrees.... Does he look like a twin?... I can’t really tell... looks like it.... Yeah, he does. I agree....

"Boring is a very good word” to describe the early part of an air-interdiction mission, says Joe Penders, one of the customs pilots who flew with Simon on the mission. Simon adds, “You just kinda sit there, and before it gets dark, you can watch for airplanes, just wait, just watching, keeping notes, just waiting, hoping we pick up the target.” To pass the hours, pilots monitor various radio frequencies to help them sort out legitimate air traffic. Other times they might turn on a ball game on the Automatic Direction Finding radio.

Even if the agents have locked on to the target by nightfall, the games end when darkness sets. “Everybody’s flying with their lights off at night, so you can’t see anything and you don’t want the bad guy to see you,” explains Simon. “There were four airplanes [on the December mission], and every once in a while, you’ll hear ... somebody tells ’em to turn on their strobe [light] so they can see if they’re too close to them or not....

“We came pretty close to the top of a mountain in our airplane. I could see the trees on the top of the mountain [in the nightscope].... You have a lot of adrenaline building up.”

Penders, who has been flying for customs since 1972 when he retired as a navy antisubmarine warfare pilot, agrees that the feeling in the planes is tense, especially at night. "There’s a lot of emotion because you’re so totally involved, especially knowing that you make the slightest mistake and the whole thing’s over and gone. You’ve lost it.”

Any idea what kind of speed he's doing, 95?... Yeah, we’re showing 150 to 160 [knots].... He hasn't busted [the border] yet?... Not yet....

Besides tracking the target aircraft and surviving in what to an outsider looks like a game of aerial chicken, customs pilots constantly struggle to keep their aircraft steady in shifting winds. ‘‘When you’re out over the desert," one agent explains, "you have what they call thermals — different areas where more hot air is rising than others. When you get into a thermal, that'll lift the aircraft, and then you’ll drop out of the thermal. There’s a lot of going up and down like that”

All units from 85, we have intruder who is just about to bust the border at 800feet, 150 knots, heading 330. He’s a twin-engine and no lights that we can see.... Nice job, CHET.... 82, copy that we're proceeding direct to Thermal.... Looks like a long AOR, Harry.... Just keep comin!

At about 5:30 p.m., the CHET located its target just south of the border and radioed the Cessna with the suspected smuggler's heading and vectors. Within minutes the Cessna moved in behind and above the plane and was following it northward. Agents have followed planes as far north as Reno. Sometimes, if the contraband pilot spots the customs aircraft or hears the agents’ conversations on the radio (which used to be a common problem, before the customs radios got frequency scramblers), the smuggler turns around and returns to Mexico. Customs officers are prohibited from entering Mexican air space.

If the plane doesn't turn around, the agents say they follow him until he lands or runs out of gas or crashes. At speeds of close to 200 mph, it is a tension-filled chase that often leads customs pilots to perform sudden maneuvers to track the target closely without being seen. "It takes a lot of skill to maneuver to keep the target in contact,” Joe Penders explains. "(The forward-looking infrared imaging system) is not a 360-degree system. You have to stay behind him. He has to be in front of you. If he’s going slower than you, you’ve got a real problem.... To stay behind him, you have to S-turn first to the left, then the right. We have to cover more ground than him because we’re going faster.”

Drug traffickers typically fly single- or twin-engine planes that are slowed considerably by large loads. Also they often rely on makeshift parts to stay aloft, such as filling a waterbed mattress with fuel and pumping it into the tank through a garden hose. One of the most reliable ways for customs officers to gauge how much aerial smuggling is taking place is the number of crashes reported on both sides of the border. “We’re hearing of quite a few crashes in Mexico now,” says Penders.

85 from 81... 85... Okay, to 85, I want you to relay to 91. I have a case officer onboard, and this is what he wants. If the aircraft lands at a civil airport in the Vegas area, he wants everybody to back off, and he wants to go in after he lands, a short time after. He doesn 7 want to bum this thing, so 91 is calling the shots....

Many smuggling flights end up at commercial airports, from Ramona to Las Vegas, including Lindbergh Field. About a year ago, Penders chased a smuggler to the Hemet airport, but after the smuggler landed, he spotted the customs planes coming in behind him. and he took off again from the taxi way. He disappeared back into Mexico.

By now, two customs planes from Arizona had joined the two San Diego aircraft over the desert. As the hour grew later and the four customs planes trailed the target northward. Brian Simon radioed to Riverside to launch the Blackhawk helicopter. The Blackhawk is an apprehension helicopter with long-range fuel tanks that can keep it airborne for five and a half hours carrying six armed agents. Its job is to land behind a smuggler’s aircraft and unload the arresting officers. Should the suspects try to escape on the ground, the Blackhawk can hover over the area and light up the sky with a 12,000-candle-watt searchlight called the Night Sun.

Gunplay has occurred only once between aerial smugglers and customs agents in the West. One agent said that while following a smuggler’s plane in 1978, he fired shots after the target plane made threatening maneuvers. Even though almost all the smugglers who are apprehended are armed, they “are a little better educated than your average dope dealer,” operations director Joe Maxwell explains. “They know the consequences of trying to shoot it out with federal agents.” Adds Bill Thompson of the North Island unit, “They’d rather take their chances in court than in a shootout.”

Okay, looks like he may be landing.... He’s on the deck right now, and we’re showing the 200-degree radial at 69.4 miles from Daggett. He’s on the deck....

In a procedure that on radio sounds very much like an Apollo lunar landing, the CHET radar operator guided the Blackhawk to the target’s landing site on a dirt runway in the darkness. If all had gone well, within minutes, the helicopter would have landed and the agents made the arrests. But in this case, the Blackhawk could not find the target for well over fifteen minutes because the helicopter was flying behind the CHET and therefore not showing up on its FLIR imaging system. “It was hard for us to direct him. We could only tell him where we were,” Penders recalls.

Listen, everybody turn their lights on, and get this thing lit up so we can get Dick in there. If he doesn't see us. we're not ever gonna get on him.... 85, are there any lights on the ground?.... 1404, ...I can't see any.... We don't see you guys at all.... 85, I don't even see you. You sure you got your lights on?

“There’s a lot of people talking at the same time, and in the dark, you don’t know what’s going on,” Simon cautions. “They’re all monitoring the same frequencies. It’s kind of like organized chaos.” Indeed, the seizure was delayed long enough to allow the ground crew to unload the drugs and permit the smuggler to take off again. (The plane was followed and apprehended later that evening; the ground crew was also arrested.)

Even with over a billion dollars’ worth of equipment, aviation operations director Joe Maxwell acknowledges the difficulty in intercepting illegal drug flights coming into the western United States. Apprehensions are complicated by the desert topography that runs from eastern San Diego County to Arizona and north into Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Pilot Joe Penders says there are three general areas that smugglers favor when crossing into the U.S.: the Guadalupe Valley just south of Tecate, which gives way to the In-Ko-Pah and Sawtooth mountains heading north; the Laguna Salada, Baja’s great salt lake southeast of Calexico, where planes can stay below the summits of the Sierra Juarez range on the west and the Sierra de los Cucapas on the east; and the Colorado River itself, which is rimmed by hills. These avenues allow smugglers to stay below radar range and evade detection.

And once they pass the border area. Southern California’s mountains, deserts, and dry

lake beds definitely favor the smuggler. “If we haven’t picked him up by the time he reaches Palm Springs, he’s gone,” Penders says.

The smugglers land on those dry lake beds, as well as roadways, dirt airstrips, abandoned military airstrips, and at small airports that are closed after dark. Rick Severson, airport manager at Palomar, acknowledges that he has only one guard on duty at night to cover the entire airport; landing and unloading an illegal load is easy to do.

No one staffs the control tower after 8:00 p.m., although the airport is open and runway lights stay on all night. “There’s no requirement [about announcing one’s position on the tower frequency],” Severson adds. “You can get out, taxi down the runway, and take off and not get noticed. You can take off and fly wherever and never talk to anybody.”

The Customs Service used to station men on mountain tops with binoculars who would look into Mexico and send back radio messages when they spotted suspicious aircraft. Today customs has two portable radar stations situated on mountains near Jacumba, but these systems are only effective up to the nearest obstruction on the horizon; at the next mountain top, they are rendered useless. According to Joe Maxwell, “If you have a radar sitting [on a hilltop] looking out this way, it can’t see through the mountains. This radar goes out and hits this mountain and reflects right back, so you don’t see anything beyond that mountain.”

To combat the gaps in radar detection, the Customs Service is installing a series of tethered balloons along the length of the border to carry down-looking radar systems specially designed to track low-flying aircraft in the desert valleys. Called aerostats, the huge blimplike balloons, about two-thirds larger than the Goodyear blimp, will float at 15,000 feet. A cable, marked every 500 feet with flashing strobe lights, will tether the balloons to the ground. “[The aerostats] will cover every mountain, valley, everything,” Maxwell explains. “And we’re going to put a bunch of these along the [entire] border to do this, and then there’s no way anybody can fly under the radar coverage.”

The first aerostat was installed at Ft. Huachuca, near Tucson, in late 1987 and is becoming operational this week. The Customs Service has funding for five more, at about $17 million each. In October of 1989, one is expected to go up above the Yuma Proving Grounds to cover the Southern California border. Maxwell’s radar has not yet been put to the test in the West, although two aerostats are in use in Florida and have proved extremely effective. Yet even if it makes a dent in the drug problem, he admits, “Our information is [the smugglers] are already aware of what we’re doing, and they’re looking for other ways to [smuggle their cargo]. They won’t fly it. They’ll bring it up to within the proximity of the border and off-load it in Mexico onto vehicles or boats.” Drug traffickers in Florida already are making more frequent air drops to avoid being detected by the radar balloons installed there.

For all their anticipated (though perhaps short-lived) successes, aerostats and additional high-tech solutions offered by the American military are also very expensive propositions. In Congress last month, Ohio Senator John Glenn, a Democrat, estimated that the cost of enforcing a pending Senate bill to authorize the use of military equipment in the drug fight would be $6.2 billion, plus another $14 billion to purchase a minimum of sixty-six additional AWACS radar planes. Republican Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut cited a more conservative figure of $5 billion.

The diversion of military equipment and personnel from the nation's defense is also a hotly contested cost and one that Joe Maxwell feels will be unnecessary once the aerostats go up. “I told the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago that we will not need military support the way we do now,” Maxwell says. “I told them we need to get the aerostats fully operational, and then leave us alone.”

Along with the controversial, much-publicized zero-tolerance program, recent outgrowths of the fight against drugs are the election-year attempts on Capitol Hill to amend the fiscal year 1989 defense-spending bill to beef up the role of the military in pursuing and apprehending traffickers along the border. A House amendment, written by San Diego Republican Duncan Hunter, gives the president forty-five days “to substantially halt the unlawful penetration of the United States borders by aircraft and vessels carrying narcotics” and requires the military to monitor by airborne radar all vehicles approaching the nation’s southern border. A similar measure had passed in the House in 1986, but it was struck down in the more conservative Senate on the grounds that it would be too costly.

On May 5, Hunter’s amendment passed in the House by a 385-23 vote. It also seeks to permit U.S. military personnel to pursue and arrest suspected drug traffickers by revising the Fosse Comitatus Act, a law prohibiting the military from enforcing civilian laws (in 1878 the act was inaugurated to keep federal troops from interfering in Southern state elections after the Civil War).

This year’s Senate bill, which passed 83-6 after two days of negotiations with Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and Attorney General Edwin Meese, again is less sweeping than the House version, but it also seeks to permit the military a greater role in fighting drugs along the border. In the Senate amendment, the president is mandated to select a federal agency to oversee all anti-drug trafficking operations. Passed on May 13, about a week after the House’s bill, the amendment also authorizes $30 million to the Coast Guard and, for the first time, gives the navy the authority to arrest drug traffickers in international waters, eliminating one handicap that local customs officers say is particularly hampering in San Diego. (Maxwell says this issue has been discussed each time the presidents of Mexico and the United States meet and claims that recent signs of an agreement are encouraging. Such an agreement would also permit aerial chases of suspected drug runners a certain distance back into Mexico.)

Actually, the military has been a part of the drug war since 1981, when President Reagan lobbied for and was successful in loosening up restrictions on the Posse Comitatus Act, so that it went from banning military intervention in civilian law enforcement to permitting the Defense Department to assist indirectly in drug interdiction by providing intelligence, equipment, and training to civilian agencies. The value of that help was estimated at $67 million last year.

The role of the military in interdiction continued to deepen in the Eighties, according to published reports. In 1983 two air force special-operations helicopters were assigned to assist authorities in the Bahamas in interdicting traffickers there. In 1985 the air force reportedly flew more than 10,000 hours in support of drug-interdiction efforts. The army has been running two programs on the Arizona/Mexico border to train personnel to use OV-1D Mohawk surveillance aircraft and ground radar systems to cover that region.

Then came Operation Alliance, announced in August of 1986 and spearheaded by Vice President George Bush. A $266 million program designed expressly to combat trafficking from Mexico, Operation Alliance added close to 550 law-enforcement officers and federal prosecutors to government posts along the 2000-mile border (including ten additional agents at the North Island Aviation Interdiction Unit). Operation Alliance also promised a bevy of new equipment, including the five radar balloons, four E-2Cs, six Blackhawk helicopters, and two C-130 transport planes.

Also in 1986, local customs officials announced that private aircraft could no longer land at Lindbergh Field without first stopping at either Brown Field or Calexico, the two customs checkpoints near the border. Later that year, private flights from Mexico were banned completely from landing at Lindbergh because, according to Representative Hunter, it was too easy for smugglers to unload their cargo in the congestion of a major airport.

Media attention to the drug issue along the border waned in 1987 in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, yet the year was to see some action in the formation of the National Drug Board, chaired by Attorney General Meese. In May of last year, the board named the Customs Service the "lead agency to interdict drug shipments at the nation’s borders.” That decision was made to avoid the bitter interagency disputes that were slowing progress. (Presently, the drug war is being waged by the Customs Service; the DEA; the FBI; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the IRS; the Coast Guard; the border patrol; and the U.S. Marshal.)

The problem remains, however, as Director Joe Maxwell insists, that ”as long as there’s a demand, people are going to smuggle.” Interdiction is not only an expensive strategy, it may also prove ultimately powerless against an enterprise that is extremely profitable — if risky — for the people engaged in it. "Interdiction makes use of alluring ... technology: radar aircraft, helicopters, and custom-built pursuit craft,” wrote attorney James Lieber, author of several pieces on the nation's drug crisis back in 1986 for The Atlantic Monthly. “Interdiction is highly visible, inspiring confidence that, yes, a war on drugs really is in progress,” while the truth is, "We’re getting clobbered.”

Lieber argued that interdiction captures only the pilot or courier. (Such was the case with Peralta, his lawyer maintains, although federal agents have called Peralta a big-time smuggler whom they had suspected of drug-running for ten years.)

“Interdiction has led law-enforcement officials into an unwitting symbiotic relationship with drug traffickers,” Lieber wrote. "The smugglers understand Washington’s need to see a steadily rising number of arrests and confiscations. As a result, a smuggler sends into the country not less cocaine but more — divided among several boats [or small airplanes], one of which the smuggler considers expendable... [since they] involve not the drug trade's linchpins, but its lowliest laborers....”

That statement has been disputed by every federal employee interviewed for this story, some of whom add that they are not at liberty to state publicly their own opinions of air interdiction. But Lieber's point is supported by fellow journalists, including conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. who wrote in 1985 that drug smuggling and interdiction “would not exist, except that in the United States there is a market for the stuff and that the stuff is priced very high.” The high price resulting, in part, from the government’s own drug-interdiction efforts.

Similarly, national and local Libertarian candidates have embraced the belief that government intervention in the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. not only fails to stop it but in some ways encourages it by making it a more dangerous venture that, as a result, increases costs and makes it more profitable. “We are providing price supports for drug dealers," Forty-first District congressional candidate Dick Rider said in a recent interview. “The more successful we are [with interdiction), the more it will drive the cost of drugs up. It will increase the frenzy of addicts to buy drugs, and it will increase crime. Interdiction is only going to exacerbate the problem. Addicts have to steal more to support their habits."

For Maxwell, the answer lies in continuing to push ahead with the mainstream view that interdiction is an integral part of an anti-drug war that includes eradication of drug crops in South America and reduction of consumer demand for marijuana and cocaine in the U.S. “As far as interdiction being successful, we have had problems in the past,” he admits. Nonetheless, Maxwell insists that "with the assets coming on-line, we’re gonna be very good at it. As far as pros and cons, if you don’t interdict it, what is the other option? Just let it come in?”

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