Part Hieronymus Bosch, part P.T. Barnum

September 23, 1996|By George F. Will

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. -- Before uttering a syllable about ''winning'' the ''war'' on drugs ''at the border,'' politicians should spend a day here, a 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego. They should join the men and women of the Customs Service on the broiling concrete, in the fog of exhaust fumes, as they struggle with a 24-lane, 24-hours-a-day crime wave in plain view. These people lead arduous lives of honorable frustration, leavened by frequent successes that can be spectacular without being quite calculable.

At this, the world's busiest land border crossing (40 million people a year; think of screening the population of Spain in a traffic jam, every year), about 130 cars per hour per lane pass into the United States. Recently one of them, a ramshackle red Nissan, attracted a trained American eye. The driver was nervous. Should have been. The 43 pounds of heroin under the floorboard had a street value of $20 million.

But how to estimate what is not being interdicted? Various indices, from satellite photos of crops in the Third World, to emergency-room reports of overdoses in America's inner cities, make possible rough estimates of the quantities of drugs being produced and reaching America's streets. If the war waged on the supply side were being won, drug prices would be rising and drug purity would be falling. The reverse is true.

Successes short of victory

However, there are successes short of victory. For example, calculate the consequences for price and purity if 110 tons of cocaine had not been interdicted around the nation last year.

Seventy percent of the cocaine sold in America comes across the Southwest border. Two sights near here -- a tunnel and a building -- prove the siphoning power of billions of dollars of American demand for compact, concealable packages of cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

The 1,467-foot tunnel under the border, large enough for a man to walk through in a crouch, was dug to carry drugs north and cash south. Before it was discovered, a rash of murders of engineers and construction workers helped keep it secret. The building is a huge vault -- its steel-reinforced walls are 16 inches thick -- in which the stale air has the sour reek of drugs, sometimes $2 billion worth, seized nearby.

High technology is employed against the poor people and lowlifes who smuggle. A $3.5 million X-ray machine for vehicles can spot a brick of cocaine secreted among thousands of regular bricks on a flatbed truck. Every license plate at the San Ysidro crossing is scanned electronically and in 1.5 seconds a computer spits out pertinent information, if there is any, about each.

But the best law-enforcement weapon is a dog's nose, which LTC has an olfactory acuity 700 times as great as a human nose. Back and forth through the congealed traffic the dogs scamper, drawn by the slightest drug scents in the cones of air behind cars. The dogs cannot even be consistently defeated by smugglers who hide drugs in truckloads of fish or rotting leather. The rule is that any especially rank load is a reason for searching a truck.

Sixty yards into Mexico, smugglers' accomplices with cell phones communicate with cars creeping with contraband through the congestion, directing drivers away from lanes that look problematic. And on the U.S. side, officers watch the northbound pedestrians, looking for those walking awkwardly. The hollowed-out soles of Nikes can carry enough heroin to buy a Mercedes to drive back to Mexico.

The scene at the border -- part Hieronymus Bosch, part P.T. Barnum -- is a brew of fear, cunning and animal spirits, and is not what anyone intended when the nation decided that one recreational drug, alcohol, was providing as much devastation as American society could stand, and so proscribed heroin and cocaine.

Today we understand the irreducibly tragic dimension of the decision, as Mark Kleiman of the Kennedy School of Government describes it: The choice between criminalization and legalization of drugs is a choice between a serious but localized crime problem (in certain shattered urban neighborhoods) and a general public-health problem.

Having reasonably chosen the former, interdiction -- attempts to control supplies -- is implicit in drug policy. But any politician who watches the craftsmanship and stamina of the men and women doing the interdicting will understand this: The only way to cut supplies substantially is by dampening the demand that draws the supplies to and, inevitably, through the border.

Indignation is a natural response to what is seen here -- America under assault. But our rich nation makes it economically rational for poor nations to grow the crops from which drugs are produced. Blame Americans first.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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