Friday, September 9, 2011

ACTTing Out in Arizona – Where the Drug War now has a “Unified Command”

·        Arizona is “ground zero” in the reconfigured war on drugs.

·        Numbers tell the story of the failed drug war and a misguided combat against transnational crime.
·        ACCT is a paper alliance created to demonstrate Obama’s border security/transnational crime strategy.

·        It’s all about marijuana and immigrants – the same old story of border control, now called border security.
Arizona and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are the “ground zero in the war on drugs.”

That’s the assessment of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC), the state office that receives federal criminal-justice grants -- and which then redistributes these Department of Justice (DOJ) grants to Arizona’s multiagency drug task forces and other counternarcotics programs.

Making the essentially same threat assessment about the border’s frontline status in protecting the U.S. against the transnational threat of illegal drug flows, the Obama administration launched its Southwest Border Initiative in March 2009, calling it the “way ahead” in combating drug trafficking.

As part of that 2009 initiative, which brought together the resources of the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ), DHS launched the Arizona-based Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT) in September 2009, describing it as an “innovative” and “unprecedented” multiagency assault on crossborder drug trafficking.

ACTT claims to be directing allied forces against the transnational threats emanating from the Sonora-Arizona drug corridor. The loose alliance pulled together by DHS represents the latest manifestation of the federal-state drug war strategy – one that began taking shape after the declaration of the “war on drugs” in 1971 and became institutionalized in the late 1980s especially after congressional approval of Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

In the new lexicon of the Obama administration, the old “war on drugs” has been superseded by the new combat against “transnational threats,” “transnational organized crime,” and transnational criminal organizations” (TCOs). This switch in counternarcotics terminology was formalized with the July 2011 release by the White House of its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime.

Twenty-four years after ACJC entered the state’s “war on drugs” and nearly two years after ACTT started targeting transnational crime on the Arizona border, there has been no official evaluation of the progress in this transnational combat at ground zero. Yet the Obama administration, along with two border states (Texas and Arizona), continue to channel more revenues and personnel into border counternarcotics operations.

Multi-Agency Drug Task Forces as Drug War Instruments

ACJC was established in 1987 to serve as a funding reciprocal for the expected flood of federal dollars for drug task forces and other counternarcotics operations that follow the expected passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

When ACJC began receiving these new counternarcotics grants from the Justice Department, Arizona had four multijurisdictional narcotics task forces. Known commonly as narc squads, these are undercover units of police and sheriff deputies that form the vanguard of the domestic drug war.

Today, Arizona has sixteen such multijurisdictional counterdrug forces. Despite the 24 years of drug war grants and narc squad expansion in Arizona, drug consumption and drug flows in the state have boomed, as year after year of ACJC’s own statistics show.

According to ACJC, the ACJC-supported drug “task forces operating along the border are the first line of defense in marijuana, drug-trafficking operations.”  

In 2007 marijuana seizures rose to 276,906 pounds, up from 221,205 pounds in 2004. Nonetheless, ACJC acknowledges that “marijuana remains readily available and is considered the most widely used illegal drug throughout the state.”

The other nexus for drug war funding and operations along the Arizona-Sonora border is the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) group. Like ACJC and other similar state offices, HIDTA, which has affiliates throughout the nation, was also a creation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, also created by the 1988 drug legislation, directs the expanding national network of HIDTAs.

Like ACJC, the Arizona HIDTA relies exclusively on federal funding for counternarcotics operations. HIDTA’s longtime goal has been to “disrupt and dismantle” the drug trafficking organizations – which is the same goal of the newly created ACTT.

Since the late 1980s the Justice Department, which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration, has served as the federal government’s leading drug warrior agency, leading and funding the domestic drug war in Arizona and throughout the nation.

But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the drug war bureaucracy expanded along with the nation’s security and intelligence apparatus. The new Department of Homeland Security has become a major federal partner in the drug war at home and abroad. Transferred from DOJ to the newly created DHS, the border and immigration agencies – Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) -- stepped up their counterdrug roles as part of their post-9/11 security mission to protect the nation against “dangerous people and goods.”

The creation of ACTT by DHS underscores the new role of border and immigration enforcement agencies as drug warriors. Through its recently established Operations Coordination Center in Tucson, the Border Patrol coordinates ACTT. 

Also see related articles and policy reports:

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