In the Drug War, a Stalemate?

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The sign, which reads

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

The sign, which reads “Las Drogas Crucifican” (Drugs Crucify) is a symbol of the city's struggle with illegal drugs—past and present—in the Bronx.

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” —Sun Tzu

Over the past decades, illegal drugs have made their way into New York City in every conceivable fashion. Human couriers called swallowers or mules choke down condoms filled with heroin or cocaine and pray the “pellets” don’t rupture inside their intestines. Drugs are hidden in aerosol cans, sewed into the lining of purses and suitcases, taped around stomachs, hidden in the bottom of cages carrying animals, pressed into bread shapes, sliced to look like Pringles potato chips. Drugs are placed in automobile tires, hidden in toys like Lego boxes, put inside banana peels, hidden in shoes, made to look like furniture, liquefied and soaked into clothing then extracted through a complex chemical process. Heroin dealer Frank Lucas bragged that he smuggled heroin into the city in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam. And in one particularly unique and cruel smuggling attempt, drug dealers even surgically implanted three kilograms of liquid heroin into purebred puppies, then shipped the dogs to the city.

But while it’s the unusual smuggling attempts that get the headlines, most of the drugs New Yorkers consume regularly—marijuana, cocaine and heroin—arrive in a very mundane way: They’re driven in. “Tractor trailers,” says the DEA’s Gilbride, “and passenger vehicles using hidden compartments or traps.”

About 90 percent of today’s drugs come to the city through the U.S.-Mexico border, Gilbride says. The feds try to stop it, but it’s a numbers game whose odds overwhelmingly favor the traffickers. According to federal statistics, last year nearly 84 million personal vehicles, 4.9 million trucks, 2.7 million buses and 10,262 trains entered the United States through the Mexican border. Short of shutting the border down, there is no way to stop the flood of narcotics into this country and subsequently into its drug capital, New York City, Gilbride says.

That is why in recent years, DEA officials like Gilbride have shied away from the term “war on drugs.”

“It’s antiquated, if it was ever an accurate term,” Gilbride tells City Limits Investigates. “A war indicates there is going to be a beginning and an end. There’s always going to be individuals who abuse drugs. I don’t think one day it’s all going to end, and no one’s going to be addicted to anything anymore. And as long as people abuse drugs, there will be individuals looking to profit by selling drugs,” Gilbride says. “Our job is to try to stop drug trafficking, but it’s also drug awareness, it’s drug education. Those things don’t have an end.”

The Rockefeller drug law reforms passed in March, have wiped out some of New York’s most punitive anti-narcotics measures and ostensibly started a dialogue about rethinking the current strategy of addressing drug addiction with a pair of handcuffs instead of treatment. Some celebrate the reforms as a first step toward a cease-fire in the long-running offensive that President Nixon declared in 1969 and a move to a more sensible balance of law and medicine for dealing with addiction and the impact of the drug trade.

But others believe that the drug war in New York City has never really been about reducing drug abuse or the drug trade. Instead of concentrating on the large suppliers or those causing violence, as the police once did, local drug enforcement in New York increasingly has concentrated on the least serious offenders. With no public case being made for these arrests and no rationale given for their steady increase, it is unclear whether they will level off or if—like a junkie—the NYPD will simply do more and more.

The costs of New York’s war on drugs add up at an astounding rate every day. City Limits Investigates estimates that the yearly cost to government for investigation, contraband seizures, arrests, judicial processing, incarceration, parole hearings and probation services for all those arrested in drug cases in New York City could run somewhere between $825 million and $1.7 billion.

Of course, there are other costs, generated both by the war on drugs and the drug trade itself: the teenager whose drug arrest keeps him from finishing high school or makes him ineligible for college loans, the mother whose night in jail costs her a job, children who grow up without their father, people who waste their lives behind bars, inmates who return to society with no job skills or employment contacts, junkies who droop on park benches and nervous parents who pull their children down the sidewalk away from the dealers wearing “Stop Snitchin” T-shirts suggesting that no one should cooperate with the cops.

A few years removed from the frontlines now, Casimiro “Caz” Torres, the longtime addict turned drug counselor, still can’t figure out what the point is of a drug war that plays catch-and-release with addicts like him—-unless you subscribe to some controversial theories.

“I don’t know about conspiracies but there are certain financial reasons for people to maintain the system like it is. I know that people (upstate) have to live, that their economy is built around these prisons and they need the jobs,” he says. “But we have to come up with another alternative to this.”

In the Bedford Park section of the Bronx, there are crosses hanging from light poles. They read, “Drugs Crucify.” They’re old, weather-beaten. Some are broken. But even after 40 years, it does not quite feel like the time has arrived to take them down.