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Fighting the Drug War at Homeland Security

The drug war, declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, is a prohibition campaign that began in the United States and has since spread around the globe, often with U.S. assistance and under U.S. direction. It started more as a backlash movement against the spread of recreational drugs by America’s youth in the 1960s, when the use of marijuana and hallucinogens became associated with the protest movement against the Vietnam War and against the dominant culture.

At first, the drug war was largely regarded as a war on the home front, although what may be regarded as one of the opening forays of the soon to-be-declared war was Operation Intercept, a short-lived initiative to search all northbound traffic from Mexico to intercept the inflow of marijuana. Over the past four decades the drug war has become a global war fought by the United States to eradicate drug production and to interdict narcotics shipments. The initial primary focus on treatment, especially for heroin addiction, quickly gave way to the prevailing focus on suppression and imprisonment.

As the U.S.-supported drug war in Mexico rages, rising concern that the related violence may spill over the border has led to new calls to reinforce border security. Although expressing concerns about militarizing the border, the Obama administration is responding by beefing up the presence of ICE, CBP, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other federal agencies along the embattled southwestern border. At the same time, the Obama administration has restated its strong support for Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s decision to deploy the army to fight the drug war, and for the Merida Initiative, which provides U.S. military support for that “war.”

Immigration restrictionists have jumped on the issue of drug-related violence in Mexico to renew their demands for more border security in the form of an extended border fence, more Border Patrol agents, and the deployment of the National Guard. On March 9, 30 anti-immigration Republican congressional representatives signed a letter to President Obama requesting more border fencing.

“Contiguous fencing is an effective and proven enforcement mechanism that will serve to directly reduce cross-border traffic and drug violence by closing the smuggling corridors exploited by drug cartels,” the letter states. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), were the lead signatories of the letter.

Along the border the drug war and the immigrant crackdown are already one and the same. When the CBP says it is protecting the homeland against “dangerous people and goods,” it in effect is talking about illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. The Border Patrol is as much a drug enforcement agency as an immigration control force. At the CBP ports of entry and at their proliferating highway checkpoints, drug-sniffing dogs, car searches, and billboards announcing the quantities of drugs seized at each location sends the clear message that illegal drugs are regarded as a serious threat to homeland security.

On both sides of the border, marijuana holds the most prominent place in the drug war. During its nearly year-long deployment in the border state of Chihuahua, the Mexican Army points to the tonnage of marijuana seizures as the best evidence of its success in its campaign against the drug organizations. The army regularly stages photo-ops of bundles of seized marijuana going up in flames.

Forty years after President Nixon’s Operation Intercept, the Border Patrol is still hailing the quantity of marijuana it seizes as evidence that it is winning the drug war. The Tucson Sector Border Patrol recently announced that it had seized more than 500,000 pounds of marijuana since October 1—a 22% increase over the same period last year.

In the same period the Border Patrol reported having seized only 53.13 ounces of heroin, 65.25 pounds of cocaine, and 6.39 pounds of methamphetamines. Marijuana, which ignited the drug war four decades ago, remains central to the war as it plays out in Mexico and along the border. According to the DEA, the smuggling of marijuana into the United States from Mexico has increased over the past two years to meet a new surge in U.S. demand.

CBP explains its drug war mission this way:

“Drug interdiction is a priority undertaking encapsulated by CBP’s overall mission to secure the nation’s borders and prevent unlawful entry of dangerous people and goods while facilitating the legitimate flow of travel and trade. CBP’s border and border nexus drug interdiction activities contribute to the National Drug Control Strategy by disrupting the flow of drugs into the United States.”

CBP has “performance metrics” to measure its contribution to the drug war. Although it doesn’t set target goals, it does measure the quantity of drugs seized annually. Its “performance objective” is “using a risk-based approach, [to] deploy and employ the most effective inspection and scanning technology available at designated land border ports, airports, seaports, permanent Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, and international areas …”

Despite this “risk-based approach,” marijuana, a non-addictive plant and the least harmful of the targeted illegal drugs, has for the past four decades consistently topped the list of “dangerous goods” seized. In 2008 CBP seized 2,471,931 pounds of marijuana. That’s up from the 1,339,492 pounds seized in 2005 but down 11% from 2007 seizures. It also reports cocaine and heroin seizures in its annual performance reports. In 2008 CBP seized 178,770 pounds of cocaine and 2,178 pounds of heroin.

Outdoing even the DEA in announcements of drug-war victories, the Border Patrol issued a flood of press releases about its drug seizures. The Border Patrol has announced a string of seizures in 24-hour drug-seizure “busts.” Over a 24-hour period in Hidalgo County, Texas, the Border Patrol boasted that it had seized more than $3.6 million worth of marijuana. About the same time on the northern border, Border Patrol agents at the Sweet Water port of entry in Montana seized $284,000 worth of “drug paraphernalia” in the form of 5,380 assorted pipes and bongs. “I’ve never seen so many shipments at a time,” said Sandy Owens, chief of the Sweet Grass Port of Entry for 16 years.

One of the hot spots for marijuana interdiction is in the Border Patrol’s Yuma, Arizona sector. As elsewhere along the border, Border Patrol agents aren’t arresting many illegal border crossers lately. On some days, the immigrant arrest count is in the single digits. But all along the border BP agents are still focused on their drug war mission, especially at the dozens of permanent and temporary checkpoints that are mounted along roads within the 100-mile wide swath of borderlands in which they operate.

The merger of the drug war and the immigrant crackdown is on vivid display throughout the borderlands at an increasing number of CBP highway checkpoints. These checkpoints—33 permanent and numerous “tactical” or temporary ones—are raising the ire of borderlands residents who are being repeatedly stopped, interrogated, and having their vehicles searched. Borderlands residents complain that the permanent and tactical checkpoints are violating their constitutional rights and victimizing legal U.S. residents, while smugglers avoid the permanent checkpoints and deploy scouts to notify them of the tactical ones.

Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a March 4 statement to the Homeland Security Subcommittee questioned the need and purpose of the new Border Patrol checkpoints along the northern border and told a story about when he was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint:

“It was about 125 miles from the border. In a car with license plate one on it from Vermont. With little letters underneath it that said U.S. Senate. We were stopped and ordered to get out of the car and prove my citizenship. And I said ‘What authority are you acting under?’ and one of your agents pointed to his gun and said ‘That’s all the authority I need.’ Encouraging way to enter our country!”

An investigative report in the Phoenix New Times (March 13) found that a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint in the Yuma sector was reaping thousands of recreational drug users. While vehicles passing the checkpoint on Interstate 8 are not routinely searched by Border Patrol agents, K9 dogs go up and down the line of stopped traffic sniffing for traces of illegal drugs.

Over the past year, the Border Patrol has mounted a joint operation, called Operation Citation, in conjunction with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Department, to issue local-jurisdiction fines for drug possession. In a twist of the “interoperability” promoted by DHS’ Criminal Alien and Secure Communities programs, instead of having local police certified as immigration enforcement officers, immigration and border control agents are certified to enforce local drug laws. In the past 11 months, the two Border Patrol checkpoints along the Arizona-Sonora border—”the biggest weed traps in the country”—have nabbed more than 1,200 people for marijuana possession.

Before Operation Citation, Border Patrol agents confiscated drug paraphernalia and small quantities of personal-use drugs and then sent the subject’s information to the county attorney’s office for prosecution. Now, BP agents are cross-certified by the sheriff’s department to issue citations and fines, which has netted the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year.

It’s a zero tolerance policy, as Border Patrol spokesman Jeremy Schappell told the New Times: “If we get just a pipe, they are getting written up. If it’s a seed, they are getting written up.”

TOM BARRY directs the TransBorder Project of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC. He blogs at borderlinesblog.

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Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

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