From the front line, tale of failed drug war

April 10, 2000|By Sylvester L. Salcedo

I HAVE SERVED on the front lines of the war on drugs. I am reporting back that it is a failure.

Last year I received a Navy achievement medal for my military service in the drug war. Last month I returned this medal to President Clinton to protest his proposed $1.7 billion special appropriation for Colombia.

Under the guise of fighting drugs, this aid package will dramatically escalate U.S. military involvement in Colombia's civil war. Colombians are exhausted and dispirited after 40 years of civil strife.

In recent months Colombians by the millions have taken to the streets in huge national marches calling for peace.

Representatives of the insurgents and government negotiators have just returned from a watershed 25-day tour of Western Europe, where they explored peace. Increased U.S. military aid to Colombia will derail this peace process. More than 80 percent of the funds destined for Colombia will be spent on helicopters and other military aid. These are the wrong tools to fight a problem that is fundamentally political and economic.

Moreover, the Colombian military is profoundly ineffective and tied to right-wing paramilitary forces that are human-rights abusers and drug traffickers. The U.S. aid package is a recipe for more lawlessness and military failure on the battlefield.

Our drug-war leaders say their goal is a "drug-free America." But three decades of the drug war have shown that goal to be unrealistic, so our strategy must be replaced. Pursuing an unrealistic goal has resulted in insufficient funding for effective programs, such as making treatment available on request and providing after-school programs for our children.

At the same time, we waste tax dollars on ineffective, expensive and dangerous programs such as the massive imprisonment of drug users and the exorbitant military-aid package to Colombia. As a result, today we have more prisoners per capita than any other country, and Colombia receives the most U.S. military aid in this hemisphere.

The best way to help Colombia and to help the United States is to reduce the demand for illicit drugs here at home. This conclusion is reinforced by my work as a Spanish teacher in Roxbury, Mass. -- a low-income, drug-riddled section of Boston -- where I have seen drug abuse among our kids and witnessed the deleterious effects of our domestic drug war.

As an alternative to the drug war, I propose a "Plan USA" to provide treatment, on request, for our hard-core drug-addict population that now exceeds 5 million people. The Rand Corp. has found that treatment is 10 times more cost-effective than interdiction in reducing the use of cocaine. Plan USA would also discourage drug use by adolescents by providing adequate funding of after-school programs and mentor programs. In addition, Plan USA would move to treat and reintegrate the more than 100,000 prisoners imprisoned on nonviolent drug charges.

With the proper programs, these people should be able to return to their families and communities, where they could work and pay taxes.

We need to set realistic goals -- fewer deaths from drugs, less adolescent drug use, less disease and less crime from drug abuse. We can implement a strategy of control. We can achieve a safer and healthier America that is no longer at war with itself. These are not utopian platitudes, but achievable goals.

Other countries, especially in Europe, are more successfully controlling drug abuse through public-health approaches. We should follow their lead. It is time to admit failure and end the war on drugs.

As a first step, Congress should say no to more aid for the Colombian military. Instead, we should take that $1.7 billion and invest it to support the peace plan in Colombia and to provide treatment and prevention programs here at home.

Weapons and war are not the answer. Americans and Colombians both need peace for their families and communities.

Sylvester L. Salcedo, now retired, was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and served as an intelligence officer with Joint Task Force 6, which provides training support to drug law-enforcement agencies.From October 1996 to April 1999, he worked in New York, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, with various federal, state and local law-enforcement groups in the war on drugs.

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