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ACTTing Out in Arizona

Ground Zero in the Drug War

by TOM BARRY

Arizona and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are the “ground zero in the war on drugs.”

That’s the assessment of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC), the state office that receives federal criminal-justice grants — and which then redistributes these Justice Department grants to Arizona’s multiagency drug task forces and other counternarcotics programs.

Making the same threat assessment of the border’s frontline status in protecting the U.S. against the transnational threat of illegal drug flows, the Obama administration launched its Southwest Border Initiative in March 2009, calling it the “way ahead” in combating drug trafficking.

As part of that 2009 initiative, which brought together the resources of the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ), DHS launched the Arizona-based Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT) in September 2009, calling it an “innovative” and “unprecedented” multiagency assault on crossborder drug trafficking.

Two years after ACTT’s startup and 24 years after ACJC entered the state’s “war on drugs,” there has been no official evaluation of the progress in this drug war at ground zero. Yet the Obama administration, along with two border states (Texas and Arizona), continue to channel more revenues and personnel into border counternarcotics operations.

ACTT claims to be directing allied forces against the transnational threats emanating from the Sonora-Arizona drug corridor. The loose alliance pulled together by DHS represents the latest manifestation of the federal-state drug war strategy – one that began taking shape after the declaration of the “war on drugs” in 1971 and became institutionalized in the late 1980s especially after congressional approval of Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

Multi-Agency Drug Task Forces as Drug War Instruments

ACJC was established in 1987 to serve as a funding reciprocal for the expected flood of federal dollars for drug task forces and other counternarcotics operations that would issue from the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

When ACJC began receiving grants from the Justice Department criminal justice assistance program for counternarcotics operations that was created by the 1988 anti-drug abuse legislation, Arizona had four multijurisdictional narcotics task forces. Known commonly as narc squads, these are undercover units of police and sheriff deputies that form the vanguard of the domestic drug war.

Today, Arizona has sixteen such multijurisdictional counterdrug forces. Despite the 24 years of drug war grants and narc squad expansion in Arizona, drug consumption and drug flows in the state have boomed, as year after year of ACJC’s own statistics show.

The other nexus for drug war funding and operations is the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) group. Like ACJC and other similar state offices, HIDTA, which has affiliates throughout the nation, was also a creation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. HIDTA is overseen by yet another drug war bureaucracy created by the 1988 drug prohibition act, namely the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Like ACJC, the HIDTA in Arizona has also depended exclusively on federal funding for counternarcotics operations targeting the state’s vibrant drug market and the drug trade through the state. HIDTA’s longtime goal has been to “disrupt and dismantle” the drug trafficking organizations and the market for “drugs” that the federal government prohibits.

Since the late 1980s the Justice Department, which includes the Drug Enforcement

Administration, has provided the main financial and logistical support for the war on drugs in Arizona. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the drug war bureaucracy expanded with the creation of DHS, whose border and immigration agencies (CBP and ICE) stepped up their counterdrug roles as part of their new security mission. Through is Joint Task Force Brave and its Counternarcotics Programs unit (CN), the U.S. Northern Command, also created after 9/11, is also a drug warrior on the Arizona border.

According to ACJC, the ACJC-supported drug “task forces operating along the border are the first line of defense in marijuana, drug-trafficking operations.”

In 2007 marijuana seizures rose to 276,906 pounds, up from 221,205 pounds in 2004. Nonetheless, ACJC acknowledges that “marijuana remains readily available and is considered the most widely used illegal drug throughout the state.”

Drug War to Transnational Combat in Arizona

The Obama administration is on the same page as the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission in viewing the Arizona-Sonora border as the frontline in fighting illegal drugs. But the war on drugs has evolved into what the Obama administration calls the combat against transnational organized crime.

No longer will you find the federal government pronouncing about drug war’s role in protecting U.S. national security.

Having dropped the drug war terminology and substituted concerns about transnational organized crime, the Obama administration, the Obama administration seems, at first glance, to have made a welcome shift in framing counternarcotics from military to law enforcement terms — from war to crime, from national security to public safety.

Officially, there is no longer a “war on drugs.” But as White House’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime stays true to the militaristic spirit of the four-decades old drug war. Interlaced throughout the strategy statement and the declarations of administration officials is the same military and conflict terminology such as “combat” and “transnational threats,” the same alarmist assessments that drug trafficking constitutes a threat to national security, and the same involvement of the U.S. military and national intelligence apparatus.

Except for the actual use of the term “war on drugs,” the lexicon of domestic counternarcotics operations has, if anything, become more pervaded by military jargon, including the now common use by the Border Patrol of such military terms as deconfliction, situational awareness, operational control, and defense-in-depth.

The Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats represents one of the first institutional manifestations of the Obama administration’s reconfiguration of the drug war as a combat against transnational threats.

DHS describes ACTT as a “multiagency operation” involving more than 50 law enforcement agencies that aims to “deny, degrade, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle criminal organizations and their ability to operate” and to “engage communities to reduce their tolerance of illegal activity.”

What makes ACTT distinctive, according to DHS, is that it undertakes “intelligence-driven operations” against transnational threats that are directed by a Unified Command comprising the leaders of the participating agencies.

ACTT has a clear drug war focus. In June 2011 the White House’s Office on National Drug Control Policy released its biannual National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which poses drug control policy as an integral part of U.S. national security strategy.

Although officially a DHS initiative, ONDCP also claims a role in deploying four counterdrug alliances along the southwestern border, beginning with the one targeting what DHS and ONDCP call the Arizona-Sonora drug corridor and following with three others, each with their own United Command, that focus on the drug corridors into Southern California, New Mexico/West Texas, and Southeast Texas. According to the counternarcotics strategy, ACTT is a counternarcotics “framework” in which “agencies should develop and maintain frameworks that address the coordination, integration, deconfliction, and synchronization of Federal, state, local, and tribal border security and law enforcement activities along the Southwest border.

In Arizona ACTT’s Unified Command comprises ten officials from DEA, ICE, CBP, US Attorney’s Office, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Arizona High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), and the Arizona border sheriffs. According to the Border Patrol, ACTT has all the counterdrug actors in Arizona “sitting around the same table and sharing information” to meet the “common goal.”

While visiting the Arizona border on Feb. 11, 2011, Alan Bersin, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), hailed the accomplishments of ACTT, pointing to, as the top-listed achievement, “the seizure of more than 1.6 million lbs. of marijuana,” along with relatively small amounts of cocaine and methamphetamines. Bersin had nothing, however, to explain how ACTT had in any way contributed to the dismantling of the transnational criminal organizations supposedly targeted by ACTT.

Praising ACTT, the CBP commissioner declared: “We will force smuggling organizations out of their entrenched positions here in Arizona north of the border and south of the border with the help of Mexican law enforcement.”

Old Drug War Numbers and Body Counts

ACTT can point to a large number of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures, as ostensible evidence of its progress against transnational threats.

The Border Patrol and allied sheriff’s departments provide post-ACTT operation reports of the numbers of illegal aliens arrests, marijuana seized, weapons confiscated, and assets seized and forfeited.

Typically, ACTT boasts of the number of “illegal aliens” apprehended and thousands or even million pounds of marijuana seized.

The title of a May 27, 2011 CBP release reads:  “ACTT Operation Yields More than $4.4 million in Marijuana.”

With the accompanying subhead:  “Intelligence Drive Operations Continue to Yield Results.”

The total results of this 60-day operation in Pinal and Pima Counties were: “732 illegal aliens arrested, one U.S. citizen, 8,925 pounds of marijuana, and 17 firearms.”

Another “intelligence-driven operation” by ACTT aimed to “counter transnational criminal organizations in the Arizona corridor” called Operation Trident Surge targeted TCO traffic on Forest Service and BLM lands over three months. The headline of the May 27 CBP media release about this ACTT operation read: “1,759 people arrested; 23,650 pounds of marijuana seized.” There were no other results, and nothing about how any of the arrests or marijuana seizures related to government intelligence about transnational criminal organizations.

Marijuana seizures also headlined another ACTT operation in Pinal County, which boasted “more than 5,900 pounds of marijuana seized.” The operation also reported 55 illegal aliens apprehended, five U.S. citizens arrested, $115,000 in illicit currency seized, four firearms confiscated, and five stolen vehicles recovered.  Typically, no other illegal substances except marijuana were seized and there was no attempt to show how the operation targeted transnational crime.

For the Border Patrol, which compiles the alliance’s stats, ACTT operations and reporting constitute a continuation of the agency’s decades-long tradition of measuring progress by regular reports of immigrant arrests and drug seizures. What is new with respect to ACTT is that DHS and the Border Patrol now deploy the same categories of statistics as evidence of progress in combating “transnational organized crime” and deterring “transnational threats.”

What Command? What Intelligence?

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/