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We’ve got a drug problem.
We’ve got it here in Colorado. Prescription opioids and illegal narcotics. The director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Prevention said of the epidemic last week, “It’s getting worse, and it continues to grow.”
But there’s nothing unique about Colorado. We’ve got a drug problem all over America. Unless you live in a cave, you know that by now.
What we don’t have is a solution. Not to the opioid crisis, not to the flow of illegal drugs. Everyone knows that too, but President Trump would have us think otherwise.
President Trump would have us think his “big beautiful wall” at the Mexican border is a big part of the solution. And until it’s built with a price tag in the neighborhood of $18-billion (at Mexico’s expense, of course, to hear him tell it), soldiers sent to the border are the solution.
No they’re not. Dispatching them won’t be a total waste of money— their deterrent value alone might discourage drug smugglers from breaching the border. But the bigger picture is, drug producers south of the border— not just in Mexico, but well down into South America— have found all kinds of ways to get drugs into our country that aren’t carried across the border by a “mule” on foot.
A few years ago, I shot a documentary in Colombia about the drug war, focusing on the cartels that produce the drugs, and on the Colombian anti-narcotics army that the United States pays for, from helicopter gunships clear down to their lip balm. They are called the “Junglas,” and they are hardened by years of combat. We went along on raids in the steamy jungle, we set down under machine-gun fire in clearings ringed with land mines, we got chased by armed cartel criminals trying to save their illicit industry, we watched primitive drug labs go up in smoke. Yet when I came home to Colorado, I sure didn’t come home to a drug-free state.
It was all quite dangerous but, more important, revealing. In half a dozen Central and South American nations, drugs are big business. Take down a business over here, the bad guys just rebuild it over there.
But probably the most revealing single moment on the whole trip was during an interview within the safe walls of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. An American officer helping run anti-narcotic efforts in Latin America told me that when it comes to stopping the manufacture and movement of illegal drugs toward the United States, we only stay “this far ahead” of the bad guys. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger together as he said it. There was no light, zero, between them.
One case in point: the Drug Enforcement Administration took a camera crew and me to a coastline on the Pacific near the border with Ecuador to see a vessel they had captured, something they call a “one-way” boat. It’s not a submarine, but a “submersible,” visible only about a foot above the water’s surface, designed to smuggle up to ten tons of cocaine out of South America. Remember, that’s in just a single boat. Then, after its one-and-only trip, the submersible is trashed. But by that time, up to ten tons of cocaine are on their way to our nation. From just one submersible. There are hundreds each year that they don’t catch. Which leads to a lot of ruined lives in American cities. Including Denver.
But a lot of drugs don’t take that watery route. Cars and trucks coming north have them secreted in hidden compartments— sometimes ingeniously embedded in gas tanks, engines, tires. You’d have to tear every piece of the vehicle apart to discover them.
Drug exporters hide their product in the heads of dolls coming into the United States as children’s toys. They stick drugs in fruits and vegetables destined for our supermarkets but sidelined to remove the drugs before the journey is complete. They mix cocaine powder with resin used to make plastic deck furniture, then reverse the process and extract the drugs once the furniture has been imported to the U.S.
And of course, as you know if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie about drugs, they move them in by air.
Shortly before I left Colombia, a major in the anti-narco army asked me to tell the American people in my documentary, “We are doing all we can. But we cannot fight consumption in your country. You have to do that.” He was right. We have to fight it in Colorado, and every other state in the union.
Sorry to say, maybe two thousand soldiers on our two-thousand mile border with Mexico aren’t going to pull it off. They will stop some drugs, but they won’t end the epidemic.