The War on Drugs Is a War on People

Fearful Symmetry in Bolivia

Can theater succeed where diplomacy has failed? In August, artists from Skid Row Los Angeles teamed with Bolivian actors to perform a play about the War on Drugs throughout Bolivia. Drug issues have strained relations between the United States and Bolivia in recent years. And the “war” against drugs has claimed many victims in both countries. The idea of the tour was to see if the drug war play might stimulate ordinary citizens of the two countries to find common ground and create a more constructive dialog than their governments.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, the first indigenous leader of any South American country, has been for many years, and remains, head of the federation of coca growers. The Bush administration accused Morales of failing to stem the tide of cocaine production and distribution. In turn, Morales accused the U.S. of meddling in Bolivian affairs and plotting with his political enemies to overthrow his government.

Both countries expelled each other’s ambassadors. The U.S. ended its preferential trade terms with Bolivia, citing the country’s lack of drug enforcement cooperation. In retaliation, Bolivia threw out U.S. government employees of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Peace Corps. Morales and some U.S. officials have expressed a cautious optimism that relations between the two countries may improve in the Obama era. But the Bolivian president has accused the United States of complicity in the Honduras military coup. Emotions remain raw and official relations, tense.

The California group – named the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) – has been doing radical, politically incorrect street theater for twenty-five years. Made up of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, ex-convicts and formerly homeless men and women, the group voted to name itself with the same initials of the police force with whom many of them had sparred.

LAPD founder and director, John Malpede, wrote the play, Agents & Assets, based on a 1998 hearing transcript of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. The Committee examined allegations of CIA complicity in the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged minority communities in California cities. As journalist Gary Webb detailed in an explosive 1996 newspaper series, “Dark Alliance,” the CIA enabled huge shipments of cocaine to enter the United States to raise money for the anti-government forces in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.

The U.S. Congress had denied funding to the Contras. But President Reagan called them freedom fighters and compared them to America’s founding fathers. So Oliver North and the CIA found a way to get money for Contra military actions, though it meant creating a huge new class of crack addicts among America’s ethnic urban poor.

As Malpede told a Bolivian audience after one performance: “We work in the poorest part of Los Angeles, where people come when they have no place else to go and end up living in the streets. LAPD lives and works in an area affected by drugs. It was the anger of Los Angeles citizens – that the CIA might have been involved in smuggling crack cocaine into the country – that sparked these legislative hearings. These hearings are also a metaphor for all things the U.S. government does all around the world that they shouldn’t, instead of taking care of their own people.”

Malpede edited the hearing transcript for length and clarity, but did not change a word of it. Each performance is unique, since the “second act” is a discussion among local expert panelists, the actors and the audience about how the issues raised in the play are relevant to the “here and now” of each production.

Agents & Assets began its long run of performances during the uncertain post-presidential election period of 2000, touring many cities throughout the United States. With different drug reform laws up for votes in various states, the play showed its political potency. Agents & Assets also proved relevant in Europe – in England and Holland and Belgium – which suffer their own intransigent problems with drugs and drug laws. For its South American premiere, the play, titled Agentes y Activos in its Spanish language version, toured a country where much cocaine originates.

As the play shows, in 1998 CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz denied and obfuscated the CIA connection to Contra drug smuggling. Just this month, under pressure from the ACLU, the Agency released a highly redacted CIA Inspector General’s report about CIA torture techniques. Some of the same players were involved in both episodes. Porter Goss, chairman of the dramatized hearing, played down the allegations of CIA malfeasance in the 1980s. Later, as CIA Director under George W. Bush, Goss lobbied for keeping the torture report secret to avoid damaging America’s reputation and CIA morale. The Agency’s history of immoral, illegal acts and its failure to accomplish anything except slime the U.S. reputation is the best argument for its dissolution.

Agents & Assets reveals the hypocrisy of lawmakers who decry illegal drugs, even as they refuse to sanction the CIA for enabling millions of Americans to become cocaine addicts, in order to pay for an illegal war. LAPD actors and others who play the twelve committee members and the CIA inspector general called to testify, are men and women who have been personally affected by illegal drugs and the “war” against them. Some have suffered addiction or incarceration. By speaking the words of lawmakers who permit systemic abuse, the actors bear witness against them.

Bolivian media and government officials expressed interest in a project combining the efforts of Americans and Bolivians. After rehearsals and performances in Cochabamba, the show played Oruro, La Paz, El Alto, Sucre and Santa Cruz. Questions and comments in every city reflected the intense emotions the issues of the play raise about the drug war, notions of justice and international relations.

As Bolivian historian, activist and ex-government official Rafael Puente reminded audiences, though events in the play might seem remote, the same sorts of things were happening here in Bolivia at the same time. In 1980 the CIA enabled the violent narco golpe de estado (drug coup) of General Luis Garcia Meza. As Puente noted, former DEA agent Michael Levine wrote about these events in his book, The Big White Lie.

Ex-Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie emerged from his Bolivian hiding place to oversee the arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances of the narco dictatorship’s political opponents. Cocaine exports reportedly totaled US$850 million in the 1980-81 period of the García Meza regime, twice the value of official government exports. Puente described the huge CIA cocaine processing plant at Huanchaka, in eastern Bolivia, where the drugs were produced to help finance this repressive regime.

The United States has always maintained a duplicitous drug policy. Officially the United States expresses moral outrage about the manufacture and importation of illicit substances. For thirty years the “war on drugs” has consumed enormous human and financial resources. But the CIA has an even longer history of dealing drugs to finance covert wars around the world the U.S. prefers not to acknowledge publicly. (see The Politics of Heroin by frequent Agents and Assets panelist Alfred McCoy). Most Americans seem unaware of this dark history. But, as one Bolivian audience member put it, “everybody knows the CIA is the biggest drug trafficker in the world.”

Former cocaine addict and current LAPD actor Kevin Michael Key told a Santa Cruz audience, “It’s in the interest of the governments to continue narco-traffic as a means of controlling the people. Criminalization is the American way. Though rehabilitation exists, many drug users are simply locked up in jail. The demand for rehabilitation has to come from the people.”

In answer to a Bolivian man’s question about whether or not Obama will change things, John Malpede opined that, “Changing drug policy is not a high priority for Obama. Changes in drug policy have come from communities or states in defiance of federal law, to reduce penalties and put treatment in place of jail time.” Malpede’s tag line for the show, that “the war of drugs imposes a military solution to a social and public health issue,” was widely printed in the Bolivian press.

Bolivians have their own defective drug war in place, thanks to Law 1008, passed in 1988 under intense pressure from the United States. Anyone accused of drug violations under what one former law school dean calls this “inhumane” law loses basic human rights, such as the presumption of innocence, the safeguards against self-incrimination, the right to a defense, to an impartial judge, to due process or to a speedy trial. Law 1008 expands the definition of ‘trafficking’ to mean ‘to produce, possess, keep, store, transport, deliver, administer or give as a gift.’ Judges routinely hand out harsh sentences, since an accusation is tantamount to a judgment of guilt, and they fear public outrage for giving lesser punishments.

The law rewards denuncias or snitches. These snitches often turn in people for the reward money with whom they have grudges unrelated to drugs. Police routinely resort to torture to extricate confessions from the accused. Such forced confessions are all that is needed for proof of guilt in Bolivian judicial proceedings. In their book, The Weight of Law 1008 (1996), the Andean Information Network compiled heartbreaking narratives of poor, illiterate Bolivians hounded into prison because they could not pay the bribes that were demanded by officials to make their cases disappear. Several of these drug war victims report being tortured under the direction of gringo DEA agents.

On the post-show panel at one of the Oruro performances, two drug officials parried questions from the audience about Bolivia’s war on drugs. Alex Alfaro, Departmental Director of the Special Police Force to Fight Drug Trafficking, said drug production was rising in Oruro. In the year he has worked there, his forces have found seventeen cocaine labs. So far in 2009 the police have confiscated more than a ton of cocaine, as much as in all of 2008.

Alfaro said a kilo of marijuana costs one hundred dollars (U.S.) and a kilo of cocaine, $1200. He handed out anti-drug pamphlets, warning of the dire organic consequences of using marijuana, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol and inhalants. But members of the audience, unaccustomed to access to these usually invisible officials, began to ask penetrating questions.

What did Alfaro, and the public prosecutor appearing with him, Franz Villegas, think of Law 1008? Villegas fudged his opinion, merely describing it as a drug law. Kevin Michael Key asked if the men thought the CIA really was involved in drug trafficking in the 1980s as the play alleged? They did not know. Was it a good or bad for Bolivia that the Morales government had expelled the DEA? Alfaro said it was a national government decision, not his. He said he had worked with the DEA and “they supported us. Now the national government helps us fight drugs…”

A Bolivian woman said: “You are preoccupied with drug consumption and apprehension. Is there any attention being paid to the health aspects of this problem?” The two officials made no attempt to respond. Someone else asked: “Is drug enforcement a form of social control?” The public prosecutor answered that “Drug enforcement involves citizen participation. It’s everyone’s fight. Denuncias are an important part of the system.”

Someone else asked: “What about innocent people caught up and arrested under Law 1008? Like a taxi driver whose passenger might have drugs without the driver’s knowledge?” Most of the personal stories in The Weight of Law 1008 center on and decry false accusations. Villegas said: “We don’t accuse people just to accuse them. I don’t know of a single case where a taxi driver has been unfairly jailed…”

And so it went that night in Oruro, as the drug officials evaded questions and shaded their responses in ways that precisely mirrored the dynamics of Agentes y Activos, in which the CIA Inspector General danced around issues, answered questions he had not been asked or flat out lied about the CIA’s links to the Contra cocaine scandal. The show was not only relevant but was being replayed immediately afterward in an updated, Bolivian mode right out where everyone (except the officials themselves) could see it.

Agentes y Activos played theaters and schools, public plazas and even a prison, helping to show that the real struggle is not between Bolivia, where coca grows, and the United States, where much cocaine is consumed. Rather, the greater problem lies within each country, between each government and its own people.

By declaring war on drugs, the United States and Bolivia have both declared war on their own populations, but only against the small-time users and dealers, not the powerful few who profit most from the ongoing, proliferating traffic in illicit drugs. If all the world’s a stage, then it’s time for a new global act. This “war on drugs” thing isn’t playing well anywhere, in any language.

James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

One comment on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Bill Harris said on August 28th, 2009 at 12:09pm #

    Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation didn’t yet run amok. One needn’t travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under banner of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance credibility.

    The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. In God’s eyes, it’s all good (Gen.1:12). The administration claims it wants to reduce demand for cartel product, but extraditing Canadian seed vendor Marc Emery increases demand. Mr. Emery enables American farmers to steal cartel customers with superior domestic product.

    The constitutionality of the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) derives from an interstate commerce clause. This clause is invoked to finance organized crime, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Official policy is to eradicate, not tax, the number-one cash crop in the land. America rejected prohibition, but it’s back. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

    Nixon promised the Schafer Commission would support the criminalization of his enemies, but it didn’t. No matter, the witch-hunt was on. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA halted all research. Marijuana has no medical use, period.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion with his or her maker, precludes free exercise of religious liberty.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common-law must hold that adults own their bodies. The Founding Fathers decreed that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

    Simple majorities in each house could repeal the CSA. The books have ample law on them without the CSA. The usual caveats remain in effect. You are liable for damages when you screw up. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based drugs policy.