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Tuesday, March 21, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Federal Judge Blocks Elián González Asylum
2000-03-21

U.S. War on Drugs Condemned

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In New York yesterday, city activists and Haitian groups expressed outrage over the police killing of an unarmed black man. Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old security guard, was shot by an undercover police officer after leaving a midtown Manhattan bar. The officer asked Dorismond and another man where he could buy marijuana as a part of a police drug sting. He is the fourth black man killed by the NYPD in the past 13 months. [includes rush transcript]

This recent shooting puts the spotlight on an anti-drug campaign in New York called Operation Condor. The campaign is part of a larger trend around the nation in the so-called "war on drugs," which typically targets low-level drug sales involving marijuana. In the push to make more arrests, police strategy has shifted from the observation of actual crime to tactics that induce crime. In the name of fighting drugs, innocent people of color are commonly targeted.

At the center of the debate over the war on drugs is President Clinton’s proposal to give $1.6 billion in aid to Colombia. Congress is considering the proposal today. Critics of the aid package say that the war on drugs is a failure and does not look at the fundamental issue of demand for drugs here at home.

Guests:

  • Sylvester Salcedo, retired Navy lieutenant commander who served as an intelligence officer with Joint Task Force Six, a Department of Defense unit that provides military specialists to law enforcement agencies. He believes that the Clinton administration’s $1.6 billion aid proposal to Colombia is good money thrown after bad. Email: Sylvester Salcedo.
  • Deborah Small, attorney and director of public policy and community outreach for the Lindesmith Center, the leading drug policy research and advocacy project of George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
  • Patricia Buritica Cespedes, director of the Department of Women and member of the national executive committee of Colombia’s largest union federation, the Central Organization of Workers in Colombia (CUT).
  • Winifred Tate, Washington Office on Latin America, translator.

Related links:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we look at how local and national issues connect to international issues, today we’re going to talk about the U.S. war on drugs. In New York, as you know, over the last week, there has been serious protests over the killing of an unarmed black man, Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old security guard shot by an undercover police officer on Thursday morning, last Thursday morning. After leaving a Manhattan bar, he was approached by the police officer, who asked him if he knew where he could buy drugs. When Patrick said — got angry, saying he shouldn’t be asking him this, ultimately he was shot. The officer had asked about where he could buy marijuana. This was supposedly part of a police drug sting. Patrick Dorismond, the fourth black man killed by the New York Police Department in the last 13 months.

This recent shooting puts the spotlight on a federal anti-drug campaign in New York called Operation Condor. It’s part of a larger trend around the nation in the so-called “war on drugs,” which typically targets low-level drug sales involving marijuana or other drugs. In the push to make more arrests, police strategy has shifted from the observation of actual crime to tactics that can induce crime. In the name of fighting drugs, innocent people of color are commonly targeted.

At the center of the debate over the war on drugs is President Clinton’s proposal to give $1.6 billion in aid to Colombia, which is up before the Congress today. Critics of the aid package say the war on drugs is a failure and doesn’t look at the fundamental issue of demand for drugs here at home.

We’re joined by a number of people to discuss this issue at various different levels. We’re going to start with Sylvester Salcedo, who is a retired Navy lieutenant commander who served as an intelligence officer with the Joint Task Force Six, a Department of Defense unit that provides military specialists to law enforcement agencies around the country. He believes the Clinton administration’s $1.6 billion aid proposal to Colombia is good money thrown after bad.

And we welcome you to Democracy Now!

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what Operation Condor in New York, which is similar to other campaigns around the country, actually accomplishes and what you had to do with it?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Well, with regards to Operation Condor specifically, I have to say that I really don’t know much about the details of it, except for what I read in the newspapers, because I retired from the Navy in April of ’99. And actually, during my service with JTF-6, which was from about April — excuse me, November ’96 to April ’99, I was not directly involved with local operations, per se. I was more involved in terms of the strict mission statement of JTF-6, which is to provide training support to various federal law enforcement agencies, who are in turn involved with the war on drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what were you doing exactly?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Well, what I did exactly is difficult to share, because unfortunately I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement when I signed on with JTF-6, as far as the details of day-to-day activities that I performed. However, what I thought would be helpful for your audience is for me to give the sort of big picture look, in that in anything that I may have done during my tours for JTF-6, I came away with a conclusion, combined with my own personal life experiences in prior activities as a public school teacher in Boston and a citizen in many of our communities, is that this strategy of approaching the so-called “war on drugs” with interdiction, crop eradication, really is not successful, because what we’re doing is really just expending a lot of effort, spending a lot of money, that ultimately has no achievable goal that I can see. On the one hand, you’re mixing up political goals with military missions. And the military, they can only carry out their orders as given by the national leadership.

So, in this particular case, my experience is that JTF-6 is given a particular set of marching orders, and they carry that out quite well. Again, just as a way to expand on this issue of JTF-6, in the past six weeks since basically my story has been made public by Michael Massing’s article in the Sunday Washington Post of February 6, a lot of people have — excuse me — come back to me and said, "Well, Sylvester, exactly what is this with JTF-6? And, you know, people sort of have this nefarious image of what JTF-6 is. But really, JTF-6 is not some secret component of the military running around amok in our communities. JTF-6 is quite open publically to be able to explain, and I certainly will defer to their own public relations officials to explain what is it that they do exactly. However, again I go back to the confusion really here between what the national leaders, political leaders, want and what it is that a military unit such as JTF-6 can carry out. And that, to me, is one of the major confusing and conflicting issues at hand here. We’re mixing what the political leaders want, and they’re sort of depending on the military to carry it out, but it’s confused.

AMY GOODMAN: So the military is training law enforcement agencies around the country? That’s what the JTF-6 program actually does, right? It’s working with agents from the DEA, FBI, customs and local police departments to penetrate drug gangs, disrupt money —

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: No, what’s happening there is actually — it’s the military personnel themselves who are participating, who are receiving or enhancing their own training. I know it’s kind of confused here, but most, at least, of the people I’ve worked with are mostly from the intelligence field within the military, the different branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps — and all they’re doing, really, is being of assistance because of the Posse Comitatus Act. And for those of the members of your audience who are not familiar with that, that’s the law that prohibits the military from carrying out direct law enforcement activities within the borders of the United States of America, because otherwise then we would be under martial law.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sylvester Salcedo, retired Navy lieutenant commander, served as intelligence officer with Joint Task Force Six, a Department of Defense unit providing military specialists to law enforcement agencies. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, as he talks about what so angered him about the Clinton administration’s $1.6 billion aid proposal to Colombia, making him want to return his Navy medal. When we come back, we’ll also speak with a Colombian union activist. We’ll talk about what that money means when sent to Colombia, usually to shore up the Colombian military. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk to Sylvester Salcedo, retired Navy lieutenant commander, served as intelligence officer with Joint Task Force Six, a Department of Defense unit that provides military specialists to law enforcement agencies around the country.

When the U.S. put forward — the Clinton administration put forward the $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia, supposedly to fight the war on drugs, Sylvester Salcedo returned his Navy medal. And you returned it with a letter to President Clinton. Can you read that letter?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Yes. “Dear President Clinton, I am returning the enclosed Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal to you in protest of your administration’s current national drug policy. Specifically, I would urge you to cancel your emergency spending proposal of $1.3 billion over the next two years to expand the American military involvement in Colombia for counter drug operations.

“In my opinion, narcotics use and abuse is our problem here at home. The solutions should be applied here and not in Colombia or elsewhere. To spend this amount of money overseas is wasteful and counterproductive.

“Instead, I urge you to review and consider the drug policy under the Nixon administration that emphasized treatment on demand and prevention, not interdiction, arrest and incarceration, to address this national public health issue and its consequences as encountered by individuals, families and communities across our great country. It was a policy that worked. It was a policy that brought down crime rates without mass arrests and long prison terms. It was a policy that did not send more and more men and women, especially from our minority communities, to jail. It was a policy that is worth a second look today.

“I implore you to call for an end to the war on drugs as we know it today. I implore you to call for peace and treatment for those in need of help to overcome substance abuse. I implore you to call for peace, compassion and amnesty for those jailed by draconian drug laws to reunite families and rebuild communities.

“Most of all, I implore you to call for peace and an immediate nationwide review and dialogue, at the national to neighborhood level, about the destructiveness and senselessness of the current American federal narcotics prohibition policies and practices. Very respectfully, Sylvester Salcedo.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response of the Clinton administration?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Well, actually, Amy, I’m still waiting for an informal or formal response from the President or any of his representatives.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s quite rare for someone to return their Navy medal.

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Well, actually, I was really thinking somewhere along the lines that I’m just really following in the footsteps of people like the Vietnam veterans who were against the Vietnam War, people such as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, where I used to live, and many others like them who really, as a matter of exercising their own free speech rights, tried to make their small voices heard across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as you return your Navy medal, Sylvester Salcedo, retired Navy lieutenant commander who was an intelligence officer with Joint Task Force Six, I want to look at what this war on drugs means around this country and also what it means on the ground in Columbia.

Starting in this country, Deborah Small is with us, attorney and director of the public policy and community outreach for Lindesmith Center, a leading drug policy research and advocacy project. What does it mean here at home in terms of numbers of people incarcerated and who gets picked up? I learned an interesting fact yesterday. I didn’t realize that more than half of drug arrests are low-level marijuana arrests?

DEBORAH SMALL: Yes, I think that that’s information that’s been kept from the American public, in general, as the politicians and others have continued to ratchet up the offensive on the war on drugs. Most people believe that the majority of law enforcement is really focusing on higher-level dealers and people who are actually responsible for the large amount of drugs in the community. But in fact, you know, one in two of all of the national arrests for drugs are for marijuana offenses. And so, out of 1.5 million last year, about 750,000 of those had to do with marijuana, either possession or sale, or small amounts of marijuana.

In New York City, what’s so amazing to me about Operation Condor and the fact that they’re actually arresting tens and thousands of people for marijuana in New York City is that marijuana is decriminalized in New York. I mean, you are legally able to possess up to 25 grams of marijuana in your house, and the most that you could be charged with is a violation and pay a $100 fine.

So the fact that we have law enforcement officials putting in almost $24 million worth of overtime to go after, you know, busts, of $5 worth of marijuana, or to bust people who are smoking a joint in public, is just absurd to me. But it results in the situation that we have in the state, where out of — our prison population has grown dramatically in the last two decades, from about 12,000 to 70,000. And out of the 70,000 people who are incarcerated in New York, 20,000 of them are there for drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: What about nationally?

DEBORAH SMALL: Nationally, there’s two million people behind bars in New York — in the nation, in state and federal prison. And out of those two million, about two-thirds of them are there for nonviolent drug offenses.

AMY GOODMAN: And people of color, what proportion?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, you know, that is just an issue that’s hard for me to even talk about, because when you travel around the country and look and see who are in our jails, they’re primarily poor people and overwhelmingly people of color. More than two-thirds of the people who are incarcerated for drug offenses alone are either black or Latino. And the number of women who have gone to jail for drug offenses has gone up 800 percent in the last 10 years. And yet, every study that the government has ever done on drug use shows that it exists equally across every spectrum and within every racial group and every nationality in the United States. So it seems to me that if this was — the war on drugs was really about drugs, that we would be enforcing the law just as strongly in suburban communities as we’re enforcing it in inner-city communities. But that’s not what’s happening. Suburban kids are not going to jail for using cocaine, for having a couple of bags of heroin, and they’re certainly not getting shot for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Small is with the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research and advocacy project of George Soros’s Open Society Institute. That’s looking at what’s happening in this country.

Now let’s look at the other end, as Congress weighs today whether to pass this $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia, making up the third-largest recipient of U.S. money after Israel and Egypt. Let’s look at what it means on the ground in Colombia. On the phone with us is Patricia Buriticá Céspedes, director of the Department of Women and member of the national executive committee of Colombia’s largest union federation, the Central Organization of Workers in Colombia. She’s in the United States traveling from state to state to talk about what this policy means. She’s translated by Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Patricia.

PATRICIA BURITICÁ CÉSPEDES: [translated] Many thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what the aid package will mean for Colombia?

PATRICIA BURITICÁ CÉSPEDES: [translated] For those of us in Colombia who are union activists, we agree what everyone has said so far. The military strategy in Colombia has never helped us find peace in our country. It’s even made the conflict worse.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just going to interrupt for one minute just to say it’s a little hard to hear you, Winifred, translating right over the Spanish.

WINIFRED TATE: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks.

PATRICIA BURITICÁ CÉSPEDES: [translated] In Colombia, one of the hardest-hit sectors, in terms of human rights violations, are union activists. About 78 percent of human rights violations we have traced, in some way impacting workers or workers’ rights, so when we see this aid package is almost 80 percent made up of simply military hardware, military training, we’re very concerned about the impact it’s going to have in the war in Colombia.

What we’ve seen in Colombia is that all of the social problems are being treated with military solutions, and that includes the issue of drug production and drug trafficking, as well as the social problems. What we really need in Colombia is assistance in building peace in our country that will help us deal with drug trafficking and will address the roots of the social conflict, rather than military assistance that will escalate the war.

We agree completely with some of the comments made by Sylvester Salcedo. When you look at the incredible resources that have been spent on fumigation campaigns and aerial eradication campaigns focusing on coca production in Colombia that have been completely ineffective, what we’ve seen, despite all this money and all this effort, that coca production in Colombia has actually increased, and there’s more people involved in drug production now than there ever was before.

What we really want to communicate to people in the United States, who are, as taxpayers, going to be really funding this program, that they be aware that this is going to be a program that’s going to be for war in Colombia, not for peace. With the money that’s going to be spent on helicopters and weapons, you could solve the crisis that’s facing public hospitals, public education in our country. We think that addressing the impact of drug trafficking, the U.S. would better spend their money dealing with treatment in the United States, with reducing demand in the United States, rather than focusing on drug production and trafficking in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: The AFL-CIO is who has brought you, Patricia Buriticá Céspedes, with the — Colombia’s largest union federation, particularly focusing on the plight of women in Colombia. They, interestingly enough, have put out a very strong statement against the Colombia aid package. Can you tell us what the AFL’s position is?

You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

PATRICIA BURITICÁ CÉSPEDES: [translated] We are here because the AFL-CIO has been very much in solidarity with our thinking. In their statement, they say what we have been saying, which is that they reject this package because it’s going to be increasing the war rather than supporting efforts for negotiated settlement of the conflict.

We’re also concerned that this so-called “aid package” goes along with a lot of institutional reforms that the Colombian government is trying to make, which are really eroding workers’ rights. So, the AFL-CIO has been very clear in their conversations with the U.S. government, saying that they see this package as very detrimental to Colombia, and will most likely lead to an increase in human rights and worker rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to say that this $1.6 billion is a corporate welfare package for arms manufacturers, but, Sylvester Salcedo, where does this $1.6 billion — where does it go?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: I believe, from some of the breakout lists that I’ve seen, most of it, I believe 80 to 85 percent of it, will go to the purchase, maintenance and operations of about 30 Black Hawk helicopters and 33 Huey helicopters.

AMY GOODMAN: That will be sent to Colombia for use by the Colombian military?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: That will be sent to — right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Last comments, Deborah Small of the Lindesmith Center?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, I just want people to think about the fact that drug prohibition has not worked any more than alcohol prohibition did. And it’s costing a tremendous amount of money, and it’s costing a tremendous cost in human lives. In the U.S. and abroad increasingly, drug prohibition is being waged against communities of color. And I think the long-term consequences of that are really beginning to be felt, both in the level of dysfunction that we find in communities because of the high incarceration rates as well as the erosion of civil liberties that threaten the democracy of all societies.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Small, website for the Lindesmith Center?

DEBORAH SMALL: Www.lindesmith.org. There’s a wealth of information there about drug policy.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sylvester Salcedo?

SYLVESTER SALCEDO: Well, if people want to contact me, they can send me an email — my first initial, last name and 98. It’s ssalcedo98(at)aol.com. And in closing, I just wanted to say, Estoy de acuerdo con todo lo que Patricia dijo. I agree very much with everything that Patricia and the AFL-CIO, as well as Deborah, said about the fact that we do need peace in our own country regarding this war on drugs. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: And I also want to give out the phone number of Congress, because your voice can be heard. Today Congress is considering the $1.6 billion package to Colombia. The number switchboard, 202-225-3121, 202-225-3121, and the AFL’s website, aflcio.org.

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