Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
by Peter Gorman
In the 33-years since its inception, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has been responsible for the prosecution of nearly 600,000 US citizens on drug violations, the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and the deconstruction of dozens of major drug cartels. On that same watch, however, the governments and militaries of countless countries have been corrupted by the lure of drug cash, the price of hard drugs has dropped worldwide while potency has increased dramatically, and hundreds of innocent US citizens have been the victim of the DEA’s gung-ho style in Wrong Address raids. What’s wrong with this picture?
At roughly 10:30 PM on the night of August 25, 1992, 31-year-old computer company executive Donald Carlson returned to his home in an upscale area of San Diego, California and shortly thereafter, went to bed. An hour-and-half later, in a military style action, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Federal Customs, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and a San Diego SWAT team descended on Carlson’s house. While the SWAT team took the heavy oak front door with a battering ram and tossed a stun grenade through a window, DEA agents swarmed through the garage to enter through the rear of the house. Carlson, woken from his sleep, dialed 911, then grabbed a licensed pistol and came down the stairs from his second-floor bedroom to confront what he thought were invading thugs. In the next few seconds, one agent fired his semi-automatic weapon between 14 and 20 times, missing Carlson, but sending him back up the staircase in fear for his life. He was followed by both DEA and Customs’ agents and shot three times while on his bedroom floor. Incredibly, he survived.
The agents, it was later revealed, had entered Carlson’s house on the strength of a search warrant they’d gotten from a judge based on the word of a DEA informant, Ronnie Edmonds, a convicted drug dealer who was on the payroll for $2,000 monthly. Edmonds had convinced his DEA handlers that Carlson was a vital cog in a major Colombian cocaine cartel, moving millions of dollars worth of coke monthly, and that they would find 5,000 pounds of cocaine and four heavily-armed Colombians in Carlson’s garage. That the agents had had to pass through Carlson’s garage to enter the house and hadn’t seen the cocaine or the guards there didn’t deter them.
When he recovered, Carlson sued the Feds and won $2.75 million. In return, most of the paperwork related to the case was sealed and Carlson was not permitted to discuss the case.
On Oct.2, 1992, less than six weeks later, also in California, the DEA, working with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s office, Customs, and the US Park Service, burst into the estate-home of millionaire Donald Scott in an early morning raid. When Scott, like Carlson, woke from his sleep, he heard his wife screaming “Don’t shoot me. Don’t kill me.” Like Carlson, he grabbed a licensed handgun and came downstairs. Two sheriff’s deputies involved in the raid told him to lower the gun, then, as he did what they said, they shot and killed him.
In the Scott case, the DEA was working on an unnamed informant’s tip that Scott was growing vast quantities of marijuana utilizing a system by which the plants were hung from trees in pots by a pulley system. They were supposedly able to be raised and lowered into the foliage, preventing prying eyes from seeing them. That the agents had spent weeks doing surveillance on the Scott home and never saw the marijuana pots hanging from the trees didn’t deter them either.
In both cases no drugs were found. In the Scott case it was later discovered that federal officials coveted the large estate and had tried to buy it to incorporate into a scenic corridor in the Santa Monica Mountains. When Scott refused the repeated offers to sell, the informant materialized with the ‘hanging pot plants’ story. The District Attorney investigating the case concluded that the real motive for the raid was to seize the estate via asset forfeiture, which would then be purchased by the Federal Parks Department. A settlement of several million dollars was later made to Scott’s widow and heirs in exchange for dropping a ‘wrongful death’ lawsuit.
Nearly everything wrong with the DEA is seen in the examples above: an unflinching belief in the word of informants who are frequently convicted felons and professional liars who make their living off the complicity of simple minded or corrupt DEA agents; a cowboy sensibility in approaching a problem—the gun rather than investigation and negotiation; an inability to admit wrongdoing, a disregard for the rights and liberties of individuals, and an absolute inability to do their most basic job description: Enforce drug law and remove drugs from the street.
In the history of US government agencies and administrations, in fact, it might be argued that the DEA is one of the most inept and least effective ever formed. Since they came into existence in 1973, in fact, the price of every hard drug on the market has fallen by more than 75% while the purity has increased by several hundred percent. The price of marijuana, however, has increased dramatically, a testimony to the DEA’s almost blind fanaticism to the single substance keeping them in business and on the payroll.
Genealogy of the DEA
“The long, proud, and honorable tradition of federal drug law enforcement began in 1915 with the Bureau of Internal Revenue,” begins the DEA’s Department of Justice web page history. In fact, the Bureau of Internal Revenue—initially created to collect taxes from US citizens as well as enforce the Harrison Act of 1914, the first federal laws against opium—was not proud or honorable at all. The bureau was so rife with corruption that in 1924, just nine years after it came into existence, Senator James Couzens of Michigan introduced a resolution in the Senate to create a committee to investigate its operations. He cited reports of inefficiency and waste, as well as allegations that tax refunds created a vast opportunity for fraud. In particular Couzens charged that oil companies were getting away with paying far too little in taxes based on inept and corrupt supervision in the Bureau. One year later, in 1925, Couzens was hit with a back-tax bill of $10 million. Andrew Mellon, then Treasury Secretary, was thought to personally be behind the retaliation against the Senator. Mellon was also the principal owner of Gulf Oil, one of the companies Couzens had said benefited from the Bureau’s corruption.
Passage of the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 1919, which prohibited alcohol in the US, gave the Bureau of Internal Revenue additional responsibilities, until 1927 when the Bureau of Prohibition was cloned from it, with its primary goal the enforcement of anti-alcohol laws. They were aided in their duties by the US Coast Guard, Customs, the FBI and US Marshals. Prohibition saw the rise, for the first time, of well-organized, well-run gangster organizations. Among the most prominent heads of those early organized crime outfits were Meyer Lansky and Al Capone.
In 1930, the Bureau of Narcotics was carved out of the Bureau of Prohibition with its sole directive being to combat illegal drugs. Put in charge as the new Bureau’s director was Andrew Mellon’s son-in-law, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger, who had little to contend with in terms of opium and heroin, and few headlines to grab in light of what Elliot Ness was doing with the Bureau of Prohibition, understood how bureaucracies operate: they’re either perceived as useful and grow or useless and get eliminated. With that in mind, shortly after his fledgling Bureau was formed he set out on a campaign to relentlessly demonize ‘marihuana’, which until that time was essentially an unknown commodity. He talked about its perils until a movement formed nationally to ban the evil weed, which was effectively outlawed with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Thereafter he talked up a new heroin scourge, a cocaine epidemic, and anything else he could find to keep his Bureau in the news and growing. He was very successful, as the budgets for the FBN were increased annually. Anslinger continued to head the Bureau until 1962.
In 1966 the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control, run by the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare was created to regulate, for the first time, the sale and possession of amphetamines, barbiturates and hallucinogens, particularly LSD. In addition to regulation, it effectively curtailed vital research into psychoactives by requiring Food and Drug Administration approval for that research, approval that was essentially never given.
Two years later, in 1968, the Bureau of Narcotics was combined with the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control into a single agency called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. It was charged with “consolidating authority and preserving the experience and manpower” of the two agencies which formed it, working with “state and local governments in their crackdown on illegal trade in drugs and narcotics,” and maintaining “worldwide operations…to suppress the trade in illicit narcotics and marijuana.” It also had regulatory control over the licenses of physicians and others who prescribed or distributed legal narcotics. By 1970 the new Bureau had nearly 1,400 agents and offices in the US and nine other countries, from Turkey to Panama to Mexico and Thailand, and by 1972 it its initial budget had quadrupled.
But while the BNDD, under the aegis of the Department of Justice, rather than Treasury, was primarily responsible for enforcing drug law, several other offices also had a similar charge. The Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI), the Narcotics Advance Research Management Team (NARMT), the Drug Investigations division of the US Customs Service, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE)—as well as the FBI and state and local authorities often found themselves tripping over one another’s investigations. Worse, there was outright hostility between the BNDD and the US Customs Service
In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon, who had won the 1968 and 1972 elections with his Tough on Crime talk and his declaration of a War on Drugs, delivered to both houses of the US Congress his Reorganization Plan Number 2, which “proposed the creation of a single federal agency to consolidate and coordinate the government’s drug control activities.” The plan was accepted and in, 1973, the BNDD and the US Customs Drug Investigations Division, along with ODALE, ONNI and the NARMT were combined into a single superagency: The Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA’s mission is simply to “enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States, and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.”
When it was created, the DEA had 1,470 Agents and a budget of $74.9 million dollars. Two years later the number of agents had grown to 2,135 and its budget had nearly doubled to $140.9 million. The pattern—put in place by Harry Anslinger with the FBN—has maintained itself. In 1980 there were nearly 2,000 agents and a budget of $206 million; by 1990, there were 3,191 agents and a bloated budget of $769 million. In 2003, the last year for which figures are available, the DEA had 4,841 agents and a budget of $1.9 billion dollars.
Yet for all that manpower and money, drug use has not declined. Retired DEA Agent Richard Amos, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition tells this story in his LEAP biography: “In 1998, (DEA) Administrator Thomas Constantine addressed the Retired DEA Agent’s Annual Conference in Houston, Texas. He looked out at the gathered agents and said, ‘I have good news and bad news. First, the good news—Congress has approved a $17 billion budget to fight the Drug war…Now the bad new—drugs are cheaper, the purity is higher and we need to work harder.’
“When the Administrator was finished, he invited questions from the audience. Amos stood to ask a question that had been troubling him for years. ‘Sir, if America legalized drugs: Wouldn’t we remove distribution of those drugs from the Cartels? Wouldn’t we reduce the size of our prisons and stop criminalizing drug users? We have used the same tactics since the beginning of the DEA; yet you tell us, more drugs cross the border than ever before and they are cheaper than they were in 1973. It is not time to try different tactics?’ The Administrator had no answer and was not amused.”
Amos, who remains staunchly against drug use, did not want to discuss his years with the DEA with Cannabis Culture.
Neither did any of the other agents—wiith the exception of Celerino Castillo—contacted by CC, at least not for attrition. To a man, however, they all started out with a firm, deeply felt belief that drugs were wrong, and that waging a war to eliminate them from our streets was a good and honorable thing to do. Some arrived at the DEA by request: they were local cops culled to work on task forces that included the DEA and impressed their federal cronies. Others went directly into the Administration. At least one came via the Secret Service.
Celerino Castillo’s story of getting involved with the DEA is fairly typical, even if its outcome was not. Born in South Texas, Castillo served in Vietnam where he saw wide-spread heroin and marijuana use and came to hate it because he felt that when one soldier was not on point he risked the lives of everyone else. Additionally, he watched soldiers he knew dying of overdoses and vowed that when he returned to the US he’d fight drug use.
Back home he joined a South Texas police force. As it was near the border and Castillo spoke Spanish, the newly created DEA frequently asked him to work with them “going across into Mexico.”
Castillo found out early that rules were different for the DEA than they were for ordinary South Texas peace officers. For Castillo, an informant was generally an ordinary person who came to the police to complain about something a neighbor was doing: Beating his wife or children, having wild parties, dealing in stolen goods. With the DEA, the informants were paid. And nearly all of them were criminals who were able to get out from under prison sentences in return for using their ability to move about the underworld as the eyes and ears of DEA agents.
Castillo found out how different the DEA was in another way. “When we did a raid with the Federales, the Mexican Federal Police, we didn’t just have guys arrested. We watched, and sometimes participated, in the physical abuse—torture, really—of the suspects. The Federales were known for beating information out of people and the DEA didn’t object.”
Six years after becoming a cop, in 1979 Castillo applied to work for the DEA full-time. He was accepted, went to the DEA Academy in on the US Marine base in Quantico, VA, where one of the most-preached lessons was ethics, considered the “Golden Thread” of DEA training. And where student-agents were told that they were to adhere “to the highest moral and professional standards of conduct at all times.”
Castillo says “they drilled that ethics stuff into us all the time.”
But the essential problem with the DEA is that despite the good, if misguided, intentions of the people who become agents, and all the talk of taking the moral high ground that’s drilled into the students at the academy, on the street their work demands a different sensibility. Drug deals don’t usually have disgruntled parties, and even when they do, no one complains to the authorities. Which means the DEA, like narcs everywhere, have to insert themselves into drug deals and criminal organizations in order to expose them. To do that they have to depend on criminal snitches desperate to have jail time disappear or professional snitches desperate to keep their DEA-paychecks coming,
Castillo found that out on his first assignment after graduation, New York City. “As soon as I got there the other agents told me that whatever I learned in the Academy was out the window. They told me they had their own rules there, street rules. So much of what we did was illegal. We’d flash unsigned parking tickets as search warrants, then go get real warrants later. We’d lie, we’d use informants we knew were lying, and we’d justify it all because our job was to get drugs and the scum bags selling them off the streets. And you couldn’t do that if you played by the rules. Not in New York, not anywhere. We bought and sold drugs, entrapped people, all sorts of things.”
One former agent, now a defense attorney in the Midwest put it this way when asked why he would stay on the job when he realized he was breaking as many laws as the guys he was chasing: “Well, I was a 23-year-old gung-ho cop. Then I move to the DEA. And suddenly I’m moving guns and drugs, selling broads, driving around in Cadillac’s and smoking Cuban cigars—and it’s all legal for me so long as I sometimes catch a bad guy. What 23-year-old in the world wouldn’t want that job and keep it, even if there was something inside him that said it wasn’t supposed to be that way?”
Not to mention the adrenalin rush, which one retired agent said was the best high of all. “You are undercover. You’ve been friends with these guys for weeks, maybe months. You’re their best pal and now the big deal is about to go down. It might get blown any second. You’ve got to be a little smarter, a litter quicker than the other guy or you’re dead. Man, you get high on that adrenalin and that rush lasts for years.”
Beyond the obvious problems that arise when dealing with snitches who lie for a living—see the Carlson and Scott stories above—the second big problem is that living in a world of deception, always being the deceiver, leads to a lot of corruption rubbing off on guys who started out being straight arrows. Most corrupt DEA agents are dealt with quietly—the Feds do not like headlines screaming when one of their men goes bad—but an occasional case makes the news anyway. In one famous case, from 1989, Edward O’Brien, a high ranking and decorated DEA agent was arrested at Logan Airport with his passport, a ticket to the Canary Islands and 62 pounds of cocaine that’s he’d taken from the impound without authorization. He was sentenced to 8 years in prison.
In a second DEA corruption case from the same year, DEA agents Daniel Garcia, Wayne Countryman and John Jackson stole 150 kilos of heroin from the Los Angeles County evidence room and shipped it to New York for sale. All three were convicted and sentenced to substantial time.
Ed DeLattre, a consultant with the FBI on ethics discussed the second case on Nightline at the time and was asked how the corruption begins. DeLattre responded: “It’s a slippery slope. Once you put yourself outside the law, it tends to be corrosive of your respect for the law. So today, it’s a search that goes a little too far. Then it’s a false report to cover up the fact that the search went a little too far. Then it’s perjured testimony in a trial in order to get the conviction and safeguard the false report and to protect yourself from the fact that you went farther than you had any right to in the first place. And then, perhaps, it becomes a case of skimming a little of the drug dealer’s money…”
Beyond those cases where individuals are corrupted, there are also those cases where whole agencies get corrupted, not for personal gain, but because of an end-justifies-the-means mentality in the Drug War. The Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s was a perfect example, as is the current acceptance of wholesale slaughter being committed by the paramilitaries in Colombia.
In the Iran-Contra affair, then-President Ronald Reagan, who was terrified of communism, was desperate to topple the leftist government that had just been democratically elected in Nicaragua. Initially, he simply supplied weapons to the right-wing Contra mercenary soldiers who were doing his bidding. But when the US Congress cut off funding to the Contras the Reagan administration needed another route. A Marine Lieutenant-Colonel named Oliver North supplied the answer: Weapons sales to Iran produced cash that was used to purchase cocaine which was then shipped from Central America to the US. Though it didn’t originate as a DEA-op, the DEA was involved none-the-less. And Celerino Castillo was in the thick of it.
Castillo, who was assigned to South America following his New York assignment, was sent to El Salvador in 1985. On his first day’s briefing, the DEA Station Chief mentioned an operation being run by Oliver North at El Salvador’s Ilopango airport, near the Nicaraguan border.
Castillo, who heard that a lot of drugs were being run out of Ilopango, developed an informant who was a cargo inspector there. In months, Castillo had records of hundreds of flight leaving Ilopango carrying drugs, and an equal number returning with guns and other weaponry. In 1986, when he thought he had sufficient evidence, Castillo presented it to the US Embassy but his accusations were dismissed. When the drugs-for-guns finally broke, Castillo got to present his evidence before the US Senate but says his records were again dismissed—in large part because all of the other DEA agents who abetted the program denied it.
A similar ends-justify-the-means mentality has wreaked havoc in Colombia for more than a decade. While the US, including the DEA, in Colombia preach that they are training troops and working toward eliminating the drug trade there, a blind-eye is generally turned to the drug-trafficking of the right-wing paramilitaries who are fighting the leftist insurgents in the country’s long-running and brutal civil war. The US State Department’s annual reports repeatedly blame most of the atrocities committed in that war, as well as most of the drug-running, on the paramilitaries, and the US Federal government has recently declared the paramilitaries a ‘terrorist’ organization—yet they continue to fund themselves with the proceeds from drug trafficking that is tacitly accepted—if not worse—by both the DEA and other US agencies there, because the paramilitaries are fighting ‘leftists’.
Personal corruption and even administrative corruption does not affect all agents, of course. One agent with 31 years in government service as a pilot—many working with the DEA—retired recently and told CC that he personally refused to accept corruption. “When I started I wanted to work with drugs, of course, because that’s where the glory was. That’s what it was all about. Every one of us believed that we were going to win the war on drugs. And I wouldn’t put up with corruption on any level. I was bringing some agents home from Iqiutos, Peru one time and this agent was bringing some boar skins. I told him they were illegal and to leave them. He said he wouldn’t. And I told him I would not fly the plane with those skins on board. So he finally got rid of them.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t corruption, but the fellows knew not to let me know about it.”
None the less, he couldn’t altogether avoid it. He described one occasion when he was told to make a connection in the open sea with some drug dealers, and then he and his team would arrest them after they showed the drugs. “But somebody asked what we should do if the bad guys didn’t come into international water. Our Chief said ‘well, go in after them and make them show the drugs, then arrest them.’ And I said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t do that. We cannot enter another country’s water and force people to make a drug deal. That’s just illegal.’ And he just laughed. But I wouldn’t be part of it. No sir. I didn’t go on that run. You start breaking rules, pretty soon you are on the wrong side.”
He, like former DEA Agent Richard Amos, came to see that the drug war was not the right way to go, and now speaks out against it. “Over the course of years, my team—I was a pilot, and we located and tracked narcotics and then other teams brought them down—caught 240,000 pounds of coke. And there was a second team doing the same work out there on the west coast of Central and South America. And that didn’t make a dent. How much do you have to catch to make a difference in price? You can’t win the war the way we’re fighting it and nobody will change it so it will persist. We’ll continue to have lower prices for stronger products and continue alienating our own population. How in the hell is that winning the war on drugs?”
Asked what he thought of the DEA’s involvement in the Marc Emery seed bank case, he said he hadn’t heard of it. But when told that the US DEA had allegedly ordered cannabis seeds from Emery that were shipped across the Canadian-US border in order to make a case against him, and that the DEA had requested Emery’s extradition in connection with those seeds, he was appalled.
“Well, now, first there’s entrapment by ordering the seeds. Secondly, if seeds came over not to the entrapping DEA, then it’s a Border and Custom’s issue, not a DEA issue. So what the DEA were doing with that at all is beyond me. It’s got nothing to do with them except for the entrapment, for which they ought to be fired, as importing seeds into the US is illegal.”
The DEA, he makes clear, are not supposed to have any power or do anything in foreign countries. “They are there in other countries working out of the US Embassy in those countries, to gather information. Nothing more. There are other agencies in place to go ahead and work with that information, but not the DEA.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. The US is generally giving money to these countries, and the threat of withholding it can make foreign powers give some guys much more power than they are supposed to have.”
Castillo goes further on the issue. “What we had and still have are rogue agents out there breaking the law. They continue to pressure the foreign country locals to do their work. Back in Guatemala once we had an illegal wiretap going on a man we were after. Well, he got caught and the Guatemala government was going to send him back to his own country. We kidnapped him instead and put him on a flight to Houston so he could stand trial in the US.
“When you’re down in the Third World as a DEA you can get away with murder. You do what you have to do and nobody is going to question what you’ve done. And everybody knows what’s going on. People claim they don’t but that’s nonsense.”
The former pilot, when told of Castillo’s story, admitted that that sort of thing went on with some regularity with the DEA in foreign countries. “What I found was that a lot of men of good character, when they discovered that sort of stuff, or realized that we were not really trying to win the war on drugs, well, they quit.”
THE DEA’S WAR ON POT
Of all the drugs the DEA has gone after, from cocaine in Colombia to heroin in Afganisthan, to meth, amphetamines, barbiturates and LSD—and lately steroids and GHB—none has occupied a larger place on their radar screen that marijuana. Their 33-year history is filled with major operations aimed at eradicating the harmless cannabis plant. When Richard Nixon first declared a War on Drugs, and then created the DEA, it was really maryjane that he was talking about. All of the users of all other currently illegal substances combined could not have enticed—and couldn’t today—an entire country into waging a war on its own citizens that would damned near tear it apart. Eliminate marijuana from the equation and there might be 4-5 million people who regularly use and/or abuse illegal drugs. Add marijuana to the equation and politicians can stand up and call for $17 billion budgets to fight the war on drugs and get it because they can talk about 20-30 million regular users. A figure like that absolutely terrifies the average US citizen, who’s encouraged to picture droves of drug-crazed maniacs out to find their next fix, maniacs who would just as soon sell your children if that’s what they need to do.
“The Dea treats marijuana as if it’s the biggest danger America faces because that’s what keeps the DEA important,” says Keith Stroup, founder and current National Director of NORML. “Now I don’t believe they really fel that and I’ve never met anyone in the DEA who feels that way. I believe most of them know it’s not a dangerous drug. But it’s in their interest to keep up the reefer-madness myth because it justifies those gigantic budgets. And it’s a lot easier to chase marijuana smokers than it is to go after other drugs.”
Stroup doesn’t believe the DEA’s position on marijuana is personal. He sees it going back to the Anslinger understanding of bureaucracy. “You’ve got to look valuable and keep your budgets at current levels or higher to build your empire and keep your jobs. And the DEA is a master of that logic.”
One of the first major operations against marijuana in the modern era occurred in 1973, just prior to the formation of the DEA. Operation Grasshopper was a US Customs’ op aimed at closing off the Mexican border and the marijuana that was coming into the US from there. It might just be a footnote in the history of the Drug War if not for the fact that the operation included the use of US Marines, one of whom was Michael Hooks. Hooks, 10-years later, would be the worlds’ number one pot smuggler—moving as much as 50 tons monthly— and the man who ran the growing operation for Quintero clan in northern Mexico. “They had no idea that what they really were teaching me were the blind spots on the border,” Hooks said recently. “Smuggling is not really hard if you know where you can enter and not be seen.”
During the 1970s and early 1980s, there were major and repeated DEA operations aimed at shutting down Colombian pot—which resulted in Colombia’s traffickers switching over to the much more easily concealable and far more expensive cocaine—Jamaican pot—which resulted in Jamaica becoming a key transit point for Colombian coke—and finally Mexican pot. Mexico had been one of the roots of the drug war: William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate, had produced dozens of major stories of blacks and Mexicans driving white girls crazy with their marihuana, stories parlayed by Harry Anslinger into reefer madness and finally the effective criminalizing of the plant. But despite Anslinger’s best attempts, Mexican’s liked their marijuana and so did people in the US, once they tried it, and the business was never shut down there. In the early 1980s, the Quintero family began growing pot in Sonora. Typical of most Mexican pot, the Quintero’s grew cheap marijuana pressed into brickweed and transported over the border into Arizona. One of the mid-level smugglers of the era was Michael Hooks, who was moving maybe a ton or two a month in cars and trucks with secret compartments. But Hooks was introduced to the Quinteros, and a partnership quickly evolved. Hooks switched his modus operandi to airplanes, and began moving a couple of tons monthly. Within a year he was allowed to see the fields and was surprised to find that though large, none of the growers seemed to know anything about really growing good marijuana. The Quintero’s put him in charge of teaching their crews, and within a year, by 1984, the clan had expanded their operation to the point where the 10 fields at El Bufalo, their largest growing area, were gigantic. The largest single field was over 1,000 acres. And all of it was protected by the Mexican government.
But while it was a heyday for Hooks and the Quinteros, El Bufalo also spelled the darkest day in the history of the DEA. In late 1984, a seasoned Agent, Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena, decided to defy the Mexican government and go looking for the legendary fields. He found them and flew over them with a partner from the Mexican government. Later stories suggest that Camarena had gone undercover and infiltrated the Quintero clan; the Quinteros denied that. In any event, not long after Camarena’s fly over, the DEA and Mexican Army raided El Bufalo, and claimed to have found 8,000 tons of marijuana bailed and ready for shipping. Hooks says that’s a wild exaggeration because the operation was always done in phases, and there was never that much cured at one time. “There might have been that much there, but some was still growing, some was drying, some was being cleanes….In any event, nearly all of it was returned to the Quinteros within a week or so by the Mexican government. And it was probably returned with apologies.”
Nonetheless, someone high up in either the DEA or the Mexican government told the Quinteros who was responsible, and on February 7, 1985, Kiki Camarena and his Mexican counterpart were kidnapped from in front of the US Embassy. The largest manhunt in DEA history followed, with the discovery of the two bodies occurring some weeks later. An audio tape of the torture inflicted by the Quinteros on the two agents was later discovered, and those who have heard it say it is chilling.
Unfortunately for the DEA, what the raid on El Bufalo did was two things: It made the Quintero clan switch from marijuana growing to cocaine smuggling, and it made enough of a dent in the US supply of inexpensive weed that it gave a boost to the fledgling indoor-growing industry.
During the next few years indoor pot growers, schooled by Tom Alexander’s Sinsemilla Tips, High Times, and Ed Rosenthal and Mel Franks’ grow books expanded wildly and led to two other major anti-pot DEA operations: Operation Green Merchant and the hunt for Nevil Shoenmakers, the Dutch seed specialist.
Operation Green Merchant was a 1989 DEA op in which agents asked the United Parcel Service to turn over the records of anyone who had purchased any indoor growing equipment from companies who advertised in either High Times or Sensimilla Tips. Over 80,000 UPS records were poured through, with Agents then getting in touch with local police and asking whether the people who’d purchased the equipment were ‘probables’ for growing pot. In cases where the buyer fit a pot-profile, busts were made. Though only about half the people who were busted were actually growing pot, the DEA was not deterred. On October 26, 1989, DEA agents raided 46-retail stores and warehouses that sold indoor grow equipment. They seized sales records and embarked on a two-year spree, during which thousands of homes were seized for forfeiture, and thousands of people wound up in jail. They also carried out thousands of raids against innocent people, a number of whom died during the busts, several of which were carried out at wrong addresses.
The DEA simultaneously went after the famed Dutch botanist Nevil Shoenmakers, whose work at Cannabis Castle with Ben Dronkers, had produced seeds of incomparable quality. Shoenmakers was caught on a visit to his home in Australia, but fortunately, a judge who had power over his being granted bond—which the DEA fought fiercely—had a wife with a heart. The wife, apparently, liked to smoke a little pot before sex and suggested to her husband that if he had Shoenmakers kept in jail so that he could be extradited to the US, his sex life would run dry. The judge saw the light, granted bail and gave Shoenmakers his passport and a 24-hour head start before notifying US authorities, who were livid when they discovered that Shoenmakers had disappeared.
The DEA continues to spend resources on major operations against marijuana—some of them laughable. The most recent “Major Operation” listed on the official DEA Department of Justice web page was Operation Cartoon Network, in which agents spent several years getting a bead on an operation in the New York area in which indoor growers were sending out high-quallity eighth’s and quarter-ounces to customers via messenger services. When the arrests were made in the operation, DEA Special Agent-in-Charge John P. Gilbride announced: “Drug trafficking at all levels impacts the residents of New York and the surrounding area, especially the young and defenseless. Operation Cartoon Network targeted a significant number of drug traffickers who made millions of dollars by luring the weak into drug dens where traffickers pushed their poison for monetary gain.”
Unfortunately, Agent Gilbride was not only lying, he was serious. And as long as the lying about ‘luring the weak into drug dens’ is used to justify the aims and often illegal actions of the DEA, the War on Drugs will continue.