The president said this week that America will be able to stop the flow of incoming drugs “once the wall is up” on the Mexican border. But a DEA report suggests that smuggled narcotics are more likely to arrive by truck, boat or airplane.
President Trump says his wall at the U.S.-Mexico border will help stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. But a DEA intelligence report says the drugs coming into the U.S. Northeast often arrive by plane, boat, or hidden in vehicles, according to Foreign Policy. A 24-page report prepared by the DEA in May found that drugs coming from Mexico often enter through the southwestern border, but they do so concealed in vehicles, like tractor-trailers. Drugs coming from Colombia are more often transported by plane and boat, the reports notes.
Transnational criminal organizations “generally route larger drug shipments destined for the Northeast through the Bahamas and/or South Florida by using a variety of maritime conveyance methods, to include speedboats, fishing vessels, sailboats, yachts, and containerized sea cargo,” the reports reads. “In some cases, Dominican Republic-based traffickers will also transport cocaine into Haiti for subsequent shipment to the United States via the Bahamas and/or South Florida corridor using maritime and air transport.” On Monday, Trump said, “The drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen…We’ll be able to stop them once the wall is up.” But the DEA report said many drugs arrive inside the U.S. via airplanes, often carried by human couriers on commercial flights, sometimes with the help of airline employees. Other drugs are transported by boat from the Bahamas or Venezuela through Miami.
Just when you thought America’s opioid problem couldn’t get any worse, along comes fentanyl, a powerful man-made narcotic that is being cut into heroin, causing thousands of fatal overdoses. A federal drug official calls fentanyl “a weapon of mass destruction.”
The Washington Post examines the precipitous rise of fentanyl as the latest deadly complication to the nation’s intractable opioid crisis. Once a minor player in the drug crisis, the man-made narcotic — about 50 times stronger than heroin — is directly linked to thousands of overdoses and a shocking rise in fatalities nationwide, a trend that is particularly noticeable in the nation’s urban areas. Drug-users are buying heroin laced with an even more potent additive, often in unpredictable amounts that antidotes can’t stop from being deadly.
In 24 of the nation’s largest cities and the counties that surround them, fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased nearly 600 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to county health departments nationwide. Overdose records in those cities show there were 3,946 fatal overdoses linked to fentanyl last year, up from 582 in 2014. Officials estimate there will be a much higher number of fatal fentanyl-related overdoses in 2017. Chicago, Orlando and Columbus, Ohio, were among the cities with huge increases. Law enforcement and public health officials say they are alarmed by the rate at which fentanyl has infiltrated the illicit drug market and how it is transforming the face of the drug crisis, which resulted in 60,000 fatal overdoses in 2016, more than half of which were from opioids. “If anything can be likened to a weapon of mass destruction in what it can do to a community, it’s fentanyl,” said Michael Ferguson, agent in charge of the DEA’s New England division. “It’s manufactured death.”
Chuck Rosenberg joins the chorus of law enforcement pros who decry the president’s suggestion that cops ought to get rough with crime suspects. In a memo to DEA employees, he said, “I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.”
The nation’s top narcotics officer repudiated President Trump’s remarks urging police to be rough with crime suspects, issuing a memo saying Drug Enforcement Administration agents must “always act honorably” by maintaining “the very highest standards” in the treatment of criminal suspects, reports the Wall Street Journal. Chuck Rosenberg, who as acting DEA chief works for the president, told agency personnel to disregard any suggestion that roughing up suspects would be tolerated. Rosenberg is a longtime Justice Department official who twice served as a U.S. attorney in the George W. Bush administration.
“I write to offer a strong reaffirmation of the operating principles to which we, as law enforcement professionals, adhere,” Rosenberg says in the memo, titled “Who We Are.” “I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.” On Friday, Trump spoke to police officers in Long Island, N.Y., to commend their efforts against the MS-13 gang. Trump told them, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice.” His comments prompted laughter and applause from the police audience. Many police organizations have decried the remarks. The White House, which has said Trump was joking, declined to comment on the Rosenberg memo.
Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen, pleaded guilty this week in a case involving smuggling arms and drugs to Colombia’s FARC group. But the undercover tactics by U.S. agents raise questions about future drug-war strategies in Colombia.
A man from the Ivory Coast has pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to offering support to undercover DEA agents posing as members of Colombia‘s FARC guerrilla group.
The case involving Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen known by the alias “Excellence,” raises questions about the handling of similar operations in the future in light of the FARC‘s ongoing demobilization.
Faouzi Jaber. Photo courtesy InSight Crime
Jaber pleaded guilty on July 25 to conspiring to traffic arms and drugs in support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) insurgency, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
According to a press release from the U.S. prosecutor’s office, Jaber met multiple times with confidential sources working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who were posing as members of the FARC.
In those meetings, Jaber introduced the confidential sources to drug and arms traffickers, and promised to help the guerrilla group obtain weapons, smuggle drugs in Africa and launder money.
Jaber was arrested in April 2014 by local authorities in the Czech Republic acting on a US request for his capture and extradition.
Jaber is not the first international arms trafficker brought down by DEA operatives pretending to be members of the FARC.
Perhaps the most infamous example is the 2008 arrest in Thailand of Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” who was later convicted in the United States of conspiring to sell arms to DEA sources posing as FARC fighters.
More recently, a Romanian-born man named Flaviu Georgescu was convicted in the United States of participating in a weapons trafficking conspiracy following a similar set-up.
Although the tactic of posing as the FARC has helped the DEA capture a number of suspected international criminals, the agency will almost certainly have to find a new group to impersonate in these types of stings. The FARC, one of the world’s oldest and most famous guerrilla groups, signed a peace deal with the Colombian government last year and recently handed over its weapons to the United Nations.
However, the fact that the FARC is now effectively defunct as a guerrilla organization does not mean that the DEA will stop using confidential sources posing as criminals to execute sting operations.
In fact, this tactic—which has been criticized as a form of entrapment— has become a staple of the DEA’s pursuit of so-called “narco-terrorism” cases in Latin America and abroad.
Mike LaSusa is editor of InSight Crime. The Crime Report is pleased to publish this story in collaboration with InSight Crime. For the complete version, including related links, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcomed.
The answer is far from clear. But the battle lines are already being drawn in Congress and in statehouses across the country.
Is the drug war back on the nation’s agenda?
That depends on whom you ask. But uncertainty over the answer begins with President Donald Trump himself.
Nearly two decades ago, in a Miami speech to 700 Florida business executives, he offered policy prescriptions that would have pleased most drug reformers.
“You have to legalize drugs,” Trump told the executives, at a time when the cocaine crisis was ravaging south Florida. Speaking at an awards ceremony hosted by the Miami Herald, he declared, “You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”
Today, such views are becoming mainstream—shared by advocates on both the left and right. But if the administration’s budget released this week is any guide, those views now have little traction in Washington. Instead, Trump’s new “law-and-order” justice team seems bent on pursuing the zero-tolerance enforcement policies that he described in his Miami speech as a “joke.”
The President’s 2018 budget package supports a federal drug control budget of $27.8 billion—with the bulk (56 percent) going to supply reduction strategies such as increased interdiction and enforcement. That’s in contrast to the Obama administration’s “Drug Policy for the 21st Century,” which emphasized demand reduction programs such as treatment and prevention over law enforcement efforts.
While some drug reformers maintained Obama was still being over-cautious in backing away from zero-tolerance drug enforcement policies, his administration was the first in history to propose more funding for drug treatment and prevention than for enforcement and interdiction.
Trump’s budget also exposes some sharp differences between the new administration and legislators on both sides of the aisle who have been supporting efforts to reduce the fiscal and human costs of mass incarceration (joined by state and local officials)—efforts that include changing, if not reversing, the now four-decade old combative approach to drug enforcement.
How that conflict plays out remains to be seen. But the President’s budget suggests reformers who want to prevent the country from sliding back into the punishment-oriented and law-enforcement-dominated strategies that characterized the so-called War on Drugs” have an uphill battle ahead of them.
One clear indication of which way the wind is blowing: the Trump budget calls for $84 million in new funding for the federal prison system in anticipation of a swell of inmates caught up in the administration’s new enforcement initiatives.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Noting that these efforts resulted in “unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution,” the memo added that “long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation.”
Such sentences are a major reason why the U.S. has led the world in per capita incarceration rates. Although it’s unclear what impact the Holder memo has had on drug prosecutions, the release of thousands of federal prisoners jailed for nonviolent drug offenses contributed to an overall drop in the nation’s prison population in 2015 to its lowest level since 2002—a decline that was further fueled by the decision of many states to re-think their own “tough on crime” sentencing strategies.
Sessions believes, however, that such “soft” sentencing is responsible for recent crime spikes in many cities, and the increase in the proposed funding for the federal prison system seems to many critics an implicit acknowledgment that the new policies will reverse the prison-population decline.
“Donald Trump is pushing an outdated approach to criminal justice that virtually everyone now recognizes is a staggering waste of money,” Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told The Crime Report.
“Trump can tinker with federal criminal justice policy, but he won’t be able to reverse the cultural shift that has occurred across the nation,” predicted Leach.
Will the hardline rhetoric make a difference at the state level? Responses so far have been varied.
States Rethink Drug Policy
The Florida Senate rejected a bill this month that would have created new mandatory minimums for trafficking the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In Pennsylvania, however—where prison reform measures led to the largest drop in the state inmate population in four decades—Republican lawmakers have been advancing a measure to re-introduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.
One key driver of drug policy reform has been the spreading opioid epidemic. And in this area, the lines between hardliners and reformers seem blurred. During the campaign, Trump put it high on his agenda, giving special weight to addressing the issue as a public health problem rather than a law enforcement problem—and that appeared to resonate with voters. Many of the epidemic’s victims are in states that voted Republican last November.
The new budget proposes $10.8 billion to support recent legislation aimed at expanding treatment for substance abuse, such as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA)—which was passed by Congress last year to improve state programs in drug treatment and overdose prevention.
That’s a slight increase over 2017 continuing resolution levels; nevertheless it represents a drop from the $13.2 billion earmarked for treatment efforts in 2016. The new budget earmarks $128 million for CARA-related programs—$25 million less than 2017—with most of those cuts coming from a reduction in Targeted Enhancement Grants to expand the availability of medication-assisted treatment, an evidence-based approach that uses suboxone and methadone to help reduce drug dependency.
The mixed signals—a renewed emphasis on treatment combined with cuts—make it hard to draw conclusions about White House policy.
Adding fuel to the skeptics’ concerns, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, sparked an outcry from the medical community during a multi-state opioid “listening tour” when he stigmatized people on opioid replacement drugs like methadone and buprenorphine.
HHS Secretary Tom Price. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
“If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much,” Price said of MAT, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society and realize their dreams.”
The President’s decision to tap Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, a respected addiction expert and a strong proponent of medication assisted treatment, to head the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has eased some anxieties. But critics worry that any progress on treatment will be undercut by massive cuts to social services programs and health care.
The President has also proposed $150 million in new funding toward law enforcement strategies specifically to address the opioid crisis. This includes an extra $30 million for the Drug Enforcement Administration that will be used to expand the agency’s Tactical Diversion Squads —which investigate doctors and pharmacies suspected of being “pill mills”—and to hire more U.S. attorneys to pursue federal drug cases against them.
According to budget documents the money will also be used to help the DEA implement forthcoming recommendations by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recently created Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. Officials say the task force will work closely with Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis— led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—to develop the details.
Sessions named Steve Cook, former head of the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys — a conservative group of U.S. Attorneys strongly opposed to criminal justice reform — to lead his crime reduction task force.
Adding doubt to the importance placed by the new administration on the treatment approach, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office this week projected that Trump’s signature health care bill, which passed the House on May 4, would leave 23 million people without health insurance (including support for substance-abuse programs and counseling) over the next decade.
“What’s often overlooked… is that economic safety net programs and overall health care services are also critical [in treating addiction],” said Leo Beletsky, an expert in public health and law at Northeastern University. “If Trump succeeds in slashing resources to those programs, the opioid crisis will spiral into something a lot more deadly.”
The Drug War Abroad
In other areas, Trump has evoked the specter of an expanding drug war by connecting his proposals to build a ‘Great Wall’ on the southern border with Mexico with effort to stem addiction. Among other things he proposes hiring 1,500 new federal border and immigration agents to block international drug trafficking—one of the centerpieces of previous Washington policy—and i asking Congress to funnel more than $2.6 billion to border enforcement.
Critics like Beletsky argue such strategies have not been successful in the past—and are not likely to be successful in the future.
“Given the dynamics of the illicit drug supply chains, I can predict with 100 percent confidence that [border enforcement] will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs to the US,” Beletsky said. “In fact, ramping up interdiction efforts at the US-Mexico border may exacerbate the problem by making fentanyl and other cheap synthetic drugs that much more attractive to dealers.”
The shifts in criminal justice policy—including drug policy—have already elicited a vocal backlash from current and former public officials in both political parties, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and former Attorney General Holder—who issued a statement calling the effort “dumb on crime.”
Last week, 15 Democratic state Attorneys General joined in, with a letter admonishing the new administration’s tough on crime stance.
“Pursuing the toughest criminal penalties against defendants is an outdated approach that has not lowered recidivism rates or reduced crime,” said Lisa Madigan, the Attorney General of Illinois.
“We need the Justice Department to be at the forefront of implementing proven policies to reform our criminal justice system in ways that lower prison populations and make our communities safer.”
The criticism isn’t limited to Democrats. Brett Tolman, the U.S. Attorney for Utah during the Bush administration, says the administration’s rhetoric signals a failure to recognize that state and local policy changes have already saved taxpayer dollars on unnecessary incarceration, with little or no impact on crime rates.
“I think there is a shift in the mindframe, which is unfortunate because even many conservative states have recognized that this is not the solution,” he told The Crime Report.
But the other side in the battle over the future of drug policy is equally vocal. Many prosecutors—particularly those in sparsely populated, cash-strapped counties—view mandatory minimum sentences as a crime-fighting tool.
Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, the District Attorney of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, says mandatory minimums are “desperately needed.” Without them, she said in testimony in Harrisburg this week, DA’s have no “leverage” to pursue bigger game like drug kingpins.
“We have nothing to get them to sit down at a table and tell them how much time they’re going to spend in jail if they don’t move up the food chain,” she explained. “It gives smaller communities (the ability) to attack and at least fight this battle on an even playing field.”
Who will win the debate? The jury is out.
Alex Whiting, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, questions how much impact Sessions hardline strategy will have at the grassroots level, given the momentum of reform. “How far this gets implemented and with what kind of energy I think is really an open question,” he said in a recent article in The Hill.
One unknown is whether even the expected increase in federal drug prosecutions will significantly reverse the policy changes that are already underway in jurisdictions around the country.
“[The feds] could increase their volume somewhat but they don’t have the resources to take enough cases to make a big difference,” said a veteran prosecutor in Pennsylvania, who asked to comment off the record, citing office policy.
Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the federal government technically takes precedence over state and local jurisdictions in prosecuting a number of drug and firearms offenses. However, it frequently relies heavily on local law enforcement to help build a case.
Asked what would happen if local cops and DAs simply avoided cooperating with their federal counterparts, the prosecutor conceded that such an outcome could create an unprecedented challenge for the Trump administration.
“If the case originates in the state system it would be hard for [the Feds] to just start snatching those cases,” he told The Crime Report. “They have never done that in the past.”
For the time being, Sessions’ best bet may be to stack the deck in his favor. Shortly after his confirmation he fired more than 40 U.S. Attorneys. As of last month, the Department of Justice had yet to hire a single replacement; but finding individuals who share Sessions’ drug war fervor is almost surely a top priority.
And the ultimate question is whether voters’ apparent support for Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric during the campaign will extend to policies that effectively criminalize friends and family for nonviolent drug offenses, or treat victims of the opioid crisis as a law enforcement problem rather than a health issue.
Voters (most recently in Philadelphia) have been rejecting tough-on-crime prosecutors in favor of DAs who favor more evidence-based approaches.
Nevertheless, some law enforcement officials who have spent years in the drug war’s trenches argue that still leaves room for a more focused approach—if the administration is able to resolve its mixed signals.
“There is no appetite from where I am sitting for going back to retail drug prosecutions.” said Jerry Daley, Executive Director of the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Traffic Area (HIDTA) program. “Nobody is really looking to prosecute those cases aggressively. But when it comes to drug traffickers, well that’s a different story.”
That opens the possibility of a re-calibrated anti-drug strategy that mixes a public health approach with aggressive pursuit of kingpins and drug cartels.
There’s no sign of that yet, but as the Trump White House has already demonstrated, policymaking is anything but predictable.
One example: last week Washington was in a tizzy over rumors that the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—long a centerpiece of the nation’s combative drug war strategy but which has been shifting towards a public health approach under recent drug “czars”—would be gutted in the budget proposals.
When the budget details were finally made public, the ONDCP was untouched.
Christopher Moraff is a frequent contributor to The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Under DEA guidance, a task force of five Baltimore detectives will investigate overdoses to try to trace drugs back to dealers who could face criminal charges. It will be a big job in Baltimore, which records hundreds of overdoses each year.
For the first time, Baltimore police have begun investigating overdoses in an effort to trace drugs back to dealers, joining a wave of Maryland law enforcement agencies showing up at 911 calls previously left to medics, says the Baltimore Sun. A task force of five detectives will operate out of the homicide unit, responding when possible to fatal and nonfatal overdoses. More than 1,000 patrol officers also are being trained to respond to overdose scenes by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.”I think everyone would agree that we can’t keep up this rate of overdoses,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said. “We’re going to build some cases hopefully that will result in some criminal charges against people putting this poison out on the street.”
The effort has been in the works for more than a year in partnership with the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office and with guidance from local DEA agents, who have been working with smaller agencies statewide to collect and share information about drug dealing resulting in overdoses. The plan will be a challenge in Baltimore, where the new squad will face hundreds of cases a year. In Harford County, the sheriff’s office began sending a narcotics detective to every overdose scene two years ago but since has scaled back due to a spiking number of calls. “We can’t keep up,” said Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.
The budget deal that keeps the federal government running through September 30 provides increases for several anticrime programs, particularly in the anti-drug and immigration enforcement areas. It also creates four “enforcement groups” to target heroin abuse and 10 new “immigration judge teams.”
The budget deal that keeps the federal government running through September 30 provides increases for several anticrime programs, particularly in the anti-drug and immigration enforcement areas. It includes $8.8 billion for the FBI, an increase of $277 million over last year. The House Appropriations Committee says increases are “targeted to anti-cybercrime, counterintelligence, anti-violent crime, and counterterrorism programs.” The law provides $420 million for “critical infrastructure projects.” The Drug Enforcement Administration gets $2.1 billion, $23 million above 2016. Congress gave the DEA $12.5 million for four new enforcement groups to target growing heroin abuse and availability in the U.S. Also in the new law is $383 million for the Diversion Control Program (an $11 million increase) and $517 million for the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces (a $5 million increase).
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) gets $1.3 billion, a $19 million increase. Congressional Republicans say the law continues “to protect the Second Amendment rights of all Americans, including prohibitions on ‘gun-walking, such as the disastrous ‘Fast and Furious’ operation.” The bill includes $1.5 billion for short-term detention space to hold federal detainees, consistent with President Trump’s initial budget request for next year. It includes 10 additional immigration judge teams to process immigration reviews more quickly, and reduce the backlog of pending cases. Congress provided $2.4 billion in grants to support law enforcement and victims of crime. More money goes to violence against women programs ($481.5 million) and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants ($403 million). The bill includes $22.5 million in grants for armored police vests. The law maintains funding for other key programs, including the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program ($210 million), Adam Walsh Act grants ($20 million), National Instant Criminal System background check grants ($73 million), DNA Initiative grants ($125 million), the Reduce Sexual Assault Kits Backlog grants ($45 million), Second Chance Act grants ($68 million), and Missing and Exploited Children grants ($72.5 million). Congress eliminated $113 million in what Republican appropriations leaders called lower-priority or duplicative grant programs.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.
Does your teen spend a lot of time with his graphing calculator? That could be a sign of a drug problem, according to the DEA. On April 20, the Drug Enforcement Administration tweeted out a link with a simple imperative: Find out where kids hide drugs. The link takes you to “Hiding Places” page at getsmartaboutdrugs.gov, […]
Does your teen spend a lot of time with his graphing calculator? That could be a sign of a drug problem, according to the DEA. On April 20, the Drug Enforcement Administration tweeted out a link with a simple imperative: Find out where kids hide drugs. The link takes you to “Hiding Places” page at getsmartaboutdrugs.gov, “a DEA resource for parents, educators and caregivers,” says the Washington Post. The agency listed a few common places where teens could be hiding drugs.
The list includes alarm clocks, graphing calculators, highlighters (in the caps), shoes, candy wrappers, behind wall posters, heating vents, teddy bears and other stuff animals, cars interiors and game consoles. The general message of the “getsmartaboutdrugs” website is that seemingly innocuous objects and behaviors can be signs of a life-ruining drug habit.
The Obama administration expanded opportunities for scientific research of medical marijuana, but left intact the cannabis classification under its longtime most-dangerous-drug status. This “strikes us as an important step, but hardly a solution,” says the Denver Post.
The Obama administration’s decision to expand opportunities for scientific research of medical marijuana, while leaving cannabis classification under its longtime most-dangerous-drug status, strikes us as an important step, but hardly a solution, says the Denver Post in an editorial. The decision is hopeful in that it signals an attempt to end the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent scientific study of the drug that so many advocates claim has curative powers. But leaving in place the stigma and legal problems that a Schedule I designation creates makes the administration’s attempt to find some middle ground difficult to truly appreciate.
And by leaving cannabis in that most-dangerous category — a category that defines pot as having zero medicinal value — the decision leaves in place restrictions that baffle researchers and does nothing to ameliorate the many problems state-legal cannabis businesses must navigate. Nor, obviously, does it do much good for personal freedom in states where cannabis remains illegal. And so the destructive, decades-long war on pot hobbles along. But declassifying cannabis was a long-shot. Despite the fact that public opinion toward legalization has greatly shifted toward acceptance, legitimate questions about its safety exist. More study is in order, and to that end, Thursday’s news is positive.