Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drug War Intensity: A Look Back at HIDTA

HIDTA Drug War Infrastructure/ONDCP

As the casualties of the drug wars in Mexico continue to mount, the federal government is intensifying the crackdown on illegal drugs at home.

In the past two and a half years, President Obama has opened new fronts in the drug war at home and abroad. The March 2009 launch of the Southwest Border Initiative and the creation of the illegal drug-focused Alliance for Combat Transnational Threats signaled, among other things, the Obama administration’s commitment to enforcing drug prohibition.

Despite the evident failures of President Felipe Calderón’s military-led drug war in Mexico – as measured by spreading bloodshed, failed governance in many areas, and gross abuses by the government’s security forces –the Obama administration continues U.S. support for this drug war across our southern border.
The Obama administration, through the White House’s Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP), has distanced itself from the “war on drugs” rhetoric embraced by previous administrations – from President Nixon through George. W. Bush.

But it continues to support the instruments of the drug war at home and abroad, such as multiagency drug task forces and foreign counternarcotics aid.

The creation in September 2009 of the Arizona-based Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT), a loose counterdrug alliance of 60 federal, state, and local agencies, indicated that not only was the administration committed to continuing the crackdown on drugs but also that it was merging the foreign and domestic drug wars. In ACTT, the notion that drugs constitute transnational threats on U.S. national security is being tapped to mobilize a new alliance of multiagency drug task forces – in yet another DHS public relations display of its oft-repeated commitment to secure the border.

The Unending Drug War

President Richard Nixon was the first president to use the term “war on drugs.” At a 1971 press conference he also asserted that illegal drugs were “public enemy number one in the United States.” Nixon had started framing illegal drugs – with the focus on marijuana use at home and growing heroin use by U.S. troops in Vietnam – as a national security issue two years before.

In a special message to Congress on July 14, 1969, Nixon described drug abuse as "a serious national threat." That same year Nixon also mounted Operation Intercept to obstruct the flow of marijuana into the country from Mexico. The 1973 creation by Nixon of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which consolidated the counternarcotics operations of all federal agencies, represented the institutionalization of the foreign and domestic war on drugs.

During the 1980s and 1990s Congress passed a series of bipartisan anti-drug bills, the most important of which was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. That measure gave rise, among other things, to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Foundation for the Drug Prohibition Infrastructure

The war on drugs has been raging for more than forty years. Yet it was not until the late 1980s that the federal government began constructing the infrastructure of regional and local drug task forces, which have for more than twenty years been the main instruments of the continuing drug crackdown.

The plainclothes “special investigations units” that drive around in vehicles seized in drug busts are the shock forces of the drug war at home. In addition to their reliance on forfeiture assets, these special undercover units have become shadowy national police force bringing together local, state, and federal narcs. These drug agents, without uniforms and without marked cars, are funded almost entirely by flows of federal funding – through DHS, DOJ, and ONDCP, among others.

The infrastructure for the drug war at home is largely a legacy of the Reagan administration and the mounting bipartisan enthusiasm for a national drug/crime crackdown in the late 1980s, as manifested in the passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Among the legacies of that drug war law include:

·        * Creation of the ONDCP at the White House (with arch conservative William Bennett as the office’s first “Drug Czar”),

·        * Designation by ONDCP of five High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs) for targeted crackdown operations, and

·        * Establishment of a drug war slush fund in the Department of Justice called the Edward Byrne criminal justice assistance program, renamed as the Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program in 2005.

High Intensity Goes National

The counternarcotics infrastructure, which began taking hold after the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, is more diffuse and widespread than focused and targeted.

From five HIDTAs designated in 1990 (Houston, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, South Florida and Southwest Border - California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas), there are now 32 high intensity drug trafficking areas spread across the nation, covering most of the nation except for sparsely populated expanses of the Midwest and North Plains.

As an evaluation of the HIDTA program commissioned by the DOJ in 2000 observed:

The geographic scope of the program has expanded so dramatically that in an interview, one ONDCP official quipped, “We used to keep track of the HIDTA program by listing areas that had HIDTAs; now, we just list areas that don’t have HIDTAs.”  The HIDTA program can no longer be seen as directing funds to specific regions; it is de facto a national program. 
The expansion of the HIDTAs and the proliferation of JAG-funded multiagency drug forces are not the result of determinations that new regions have indeed become “high intensity” drug trafficking corridors. Nor has this expansion of the drug war infrastructure been spurred by evaluations of the effectiveness of the HIDTAs and drug forces. 

In fact, there is little to show that this federal-local network of narcs have reduced illegal drug consumption let alone meeting their objective of dismantling Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs).
Instead, it has been the bounty of federal dollars – traditionally from DOJ and ONDCP but not heavily supplemented by DHS funding – that makes all law enforcement jurisdictions eager to join the flagging but generously funded drug war at home.

Eager for the federal disbursements and the political capital for officials eager to demonstrate their tough-on-drugs credentials, there’s continuing pressure on ONDCP to expand the HIDTAs.

Nowhere is this pressure on the federal government so strong and shrill as in Arizona. Mirroring the hypocrisy that pervades the debate over border control in Arizona, the state’s Republican leadership blames Washington and big government for many of the state’s social and economic problems. Yet Arizona – which receives considerably more federal revenues that it pays in federal taxes – also demands more federal involvement and federal dollars.

Initially, the Arizona HIDTA region included the four border counties of Cochise, Santa Cruz, Pima, and Yuma, as well as Pinal and Maricopa. Later the western counties of La Paz and Mohave counties were also incorporated into the Arizona HIDTA. Most recently, Navajo County was named a HIDTA county in 2010, as part of a bipartisan drive in Arizona to have Arizona designed as the first state where every county is designated as a high-intensity trafficking area.

U.S. Cong Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat (defeated by a more conservative Republican challenger in 2010) who counted on the support of Republican senators McCain and Kyle, introduced the Southwest Border Narcotics Reduction Act in 2009 to have ONDCP declare the entire state a HIDTA. According to Kirkpatrick, "The drug cartels are taking advantage of the gap in our law enforcement's plan of attack." 

There is, however, little or no evidence that the HIDTAs have done much of anything to target the drug cartels. Like so many of the rash of border security and counternarcotics bills being introduced by border politicians, this initiative to expand the drug-war infrastructure at home is simply more pork-barrel politics and border security political posturing. 

Similarly, there is no hard evidence that the new Alliance to Combat Transnational Crime in Arizona is doing anything to meet its declared mission:
"To deny, degrade, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle criminal organizations and their ability to operate; engage communities to reduce their tolerance of illegal activity; and establish a secure and safe border environment, which will ultimately improve the quality of life of affected communities."

(Next: HIDTA Foundation for Border Security Drug Wars)

Also see: Escalating Drug War in Arizona, at:

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