The Washington Times
Commentary, 28 July 1996

Maj. F. Andy Messing Jr./Mark DeMier

Against a Sea of Drugs...

MONA PASSAGE, Dominican Republic

The US Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island knifes through eight-foot seas at nine knots. Named after the first all African-American life-saving station in North Carolina, this 110-foot ship patrols the corridor between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in the Mona Passage for illegal immigrants and drug transshipments. The 16-person crew is of evenly mixed gender with an average age of 25. As a report is given on the bridge, and salutes are exchanged, messages about the current operations are handed to Lt. Beth Havlick, the ship's skipper. The orders are to plow through the rolling waves until the Pea Island intercepts several small "yolas" (boats) with illegals and possible drugs that a Coast Guard helicopter has under surveillance. An hour later, the "general quarters" bell rings with an announcement to break out weapons, vests, and other gear.

Then, in a scene from the opening of the movie "Clear and Present Danger," the white ship with red-and-blue racing stripes on its hull speeds at 22 knots to an inception point. The first boat spotted is a 16-foot craft with two men furiously jettisoning objects into the water. The other two are "yolas" with more than 180 people crammed into these overloaded vessels. As the executive officer, Lt.j.g. Wendy Simeur, continues to contact the command center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for permission to enter into Dominican waters, the crew quickly positions itself for combat or rescue. The delay allows the drugs to be ejected into the forgiving sea, and the "yolas" turn back to the shores of the Dominican Republic to be crushed in the surf as its passengers scramble for safety.

Simultaneously, in San Juan, an FBI team led by Agent Hector Pesquera springs a trap on an illegal immigrant seizing cocaine valued at $4.2 million after a six-month investigation. The haul of 323 kilograms of the drug is displayed for local media consumption as the FBI representatives explain their success.

Then, weeks later, a sole Colombian National Police Officer in the airport in Bogota, Colombia, picks up a cardboard box on a whim. It is three times its normal weight. The policeman brings in a test kit to evaluate the cardboard itself and finds it registers traces of cocaine. The entire bust is more than 50 kilograms of cocaine that has been saturated into the boxes.

Continually, law enforcement officials are making seizures and apprehensions that impact on the free-flow of illegal narcotics and other drugs. Yet the progress curve of the early 1990s that showed a reduction in drug availability is now headed in the other way, introducing an almost "free-skate" for drug lords who smuggle. Accordingly, President Clinton realized his political vulnerabilityand appointed retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey to reorganize the drug fight. While there was a flurry of activity surrounding the general's appointment in both the media and on Captiol Hill, attention has dissipated, leaving him with only 40 percent of the staff he is authorized. Mr. Clinton, having covered that political base, is moving on to other campaign issues. Speaker Newt Gingrich has lost intense interest in countering Mr. Clinton's initiative because of the press of legislative business and reduction in media interest.

Once again the anti-drug effort stalls for a lack of consistent presidential and congressional leadership, and its accompanying reduction in funds. The politicians in Washington have yet to grasp that the greater the reduction on the drug supply side, the less money spent on the drug demand side.

The Colombian National Police fight the narco-guerrillas aggressively despite limited resources and almost 100 casualties per month. Given their effort, additional help on our part can go a long way in reducing the drugs flowing into the United States. For instance, six Huey helicoptors recently delivered to the CNP courtesy of congressional prodding by Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, now serve in a cargo-medevac flight role. Saving the lives of those policemen who face the dangers of drug-war combat everyday has the related effect of saving American lives. Simply put, reducing availability means reducing use, reducing crime, reducing "drugged driving," and reducing health problems among Americans. Money spent on front-end interdiction, especially in areas like Colombia and Peru, means less money spent on drug-treatment and other mending initiatives for a damaged people and economy in the United States.

It is clear that the mechanism to reduce the drug flow and its resulting damage exists. The trained and dedicated people are in place at many levels. What is required now is a major display of interest and leadership by the president and our leaders in Congress. Clearly, without this the cost in lives and dollars wil keep skyrocketing.

F. Andy Messing Jr., a former Special Forces officer, is the executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation. Mark C. DeMier is a research associate at the Foundation.