The president of the United States went to San Antonio last week to talk about winning the war against drugs. Bad move. He should have come to Baltimore to learn how we're losing it.
In San Antonio, where the president met with Latin American leaders, he offered much grand talk of stopping drugs at the border and ridding the American cities of this modern plague.
Such humor! Such levity!
Such empty talk.
Did the president of the United States think no one was paying attention?
In Baltimore, the president could have sat in Judge John Hargrove's courtroom at the U.S. Court House on Lombard Street, and heard talk of amoral men swallowing heroin in balloons, and imaginary voodoo witch doctors improving your manhood, and he'd have realized a simple truth he has never been frank enough to mention in public:
In the great American war on drugs, drugs are winning.
Take the case against an ex-truck driver, ex-car salesman named Alvin Jack, whom a jury here found guilty last week of trafficking in heroin. To make its case against Jack, the federal government brought in a couple of characters named George Eronini and Emmett Bielby-Russ.
Such witnesses you wouldn't want for job references, but in the world of narcotics cases, you don't find witnesses who are members of the clergy.
Although, according to Eronini, you might find witch doctors.
"Heroin?" he told a jury in Brooklyn, N.Y. Backtrack for a moment to December 1990. Eronini testified he had no idea he was smuggling heroin from Nigeria into the United States. It was all a terrible mistake, he said, and right there on the witness stand he concocted this wonderful story about a witch doctor, and depression, and his, ah, manhood problems.
"This witch doctor," said Eronini, "said some of the things like, 'Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch.' He had a lot of things like candles, bamboo, skeletal animals, a bell, gongs."
The witch doctor, Eronini explained, seemed to understand him, seemed to know all of his problems. Manhood problems, mainly.
In fact, said Eronini, it was so remarkable how well the witch doctor understood him that, when he suggested he ingest this substance inside a series of 106 balloons, why, naturally, Eronini did exactly as he suggested.
And, by the way, the witch doctor allegedly said: Don't go to the bathroom until you reach this guy's place in America -- and don't flush when you're done.
When Eronini arrived in America, though, U.S. Customs agents grabbed him, X-rayed him and found all these balloons in his tummy, and chained him to a bed until he "reproduced" what he'd ingested.
And that, Eronini told this New York jury, was all that had happened: a simple mistake, a suggestion from this witch doctor who turned out to be transporting heroin, and certainly no attempt on Eronini's part to cooperate with him.
The jury quickly found Eronini guilty.
But, if the story sounds preposterous, how's this? In order to make its case against Alvin Jack in Baltimore, the federal government is reduced to calling in the likes of Eronini, this model of truthfulness, as a witness, declaring he'd been a courier for Jack.
Eronini was doing fine until he was cross-examined by defense attorney Mark Gitomer, who mentioned the old witch doctor story from New York.
"I made up a story," Eronini admitted now. He bowed his shaved head. "I said I was given these fruit-like objects by a voodoo priest to improve my manhood."
"Was it true?" Gitomer asked.
"You committed perjury?"
"Yes," said Eronini. "Unfortunately."
"But you pleaded not guilty," said Gitomer. "What does it mean to take an oath to tell the truth?"
"To tell the truth," said Eronini. "But the oath I took was misguided. I was in an environment I hadn't been in before, and I was misguided. I didn't understand the high implication."
"When did you understand?"
"Right after I stepped off the witness stand."
Eronini got five years in prison, but then came the offer of a deal: Testify against Jack, and maybe you can get out early. The same deal went to Emmett Bielby-Russ, a U.S. Army veteran who made the trip to Nigeria to swallow balloons filled with heroin.
"Little egg capsules," Bielby-Russ testified. "They were pressed, compacted. Plastic wraps, with electrical tape. Condoms. I was supposed to swallow 110 of these with okra soup. It was slippery, slimy. It's very difficult to swallow.
"I swallowed 30 of them, and they said, 'Not enough.' They were mad. If they'd have had guns, they would have shot us. They were running short of time. The plane was about to leave. So they bought us shoes."
In court now, Bielby-Russ showed the shoes. They had false bottoms, into which heroin was shoved.
"They do it all the time," he declared now. "Inside suitcases, belts, shoes."
Or inside balloons which are swallowed against all human instinct to gag, and against all human instinct to run to a toilet and void the stuff. The money's too big.
George Eronini mentioned a $10,000 payment for his one little trip abroad.
He swallowed 106 balloons containing 670 grams of heroin, worth about $100 per gram on the street. That's $67,000 from one trip from one man.
And the words of Emmett Bielby-Russ are remembered: "They do it all the time."
If the president of the United States goes to San Antonio to talk of winning the war against drugs, that's his business.
But if he'd sat in this courtroom in Baltimore, he'd have spoken RTC otherwise. They got Eronini and Bielby-Russ, and Alvin Jack, too. But look at the streets of any American city, and you'll see how many they didn't get.