'War on Drugs' Seems More Than Metaphor in Border Towns

The Pentagon's recent recommendation to permanently cancel armed military patrols along the Mexico border is a good first step toward a drug policy not based on military force. Armed soldiers on the border, however, are only the tip of the iceberg in our militarized drug war.

The incident that led to the proposed policy shift - the shooting death of young goat herder last year by a United States Marine on an antidrug surveillance mission - should never have happened.

When I visited the Texas border town where Esequiel Hernandez was killed, residents said they could not understand why they were treated like criminals simply because they lived on the border. Military helicopters droned overhead. Children were afraid to go outside.

Many in the community felt the military had taken from them one of their best and brightest. Yet, the Department of Defense has yet to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Instead, it hides behind last year's questionable grand jury decision not to indict the marine who fired the fatal bullet. It fails to mention that the majority of the jury were people who received paychecks or retirement checks from the federal government, including the deputy border patrol chief for the region, as well as a member of the very agency that called in the Marines and was responsible for their supervision.

The Hernandez family has suffered from the loss of their son. They deserve a formal apology from the Pentagon.

For most of our nation's history, police actions by the military have been barred from US soil. This was consistent with the sentiments of our Founding Fathers, who objected to the presence of British standing armies in the colonies. In 1878, Congress passed a law that made it a criminal offense for the military to be involved in civilian law enforcement.

But in 1981, that tradition began to change. Over the protest of then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the government put in place the first of several amendments allowing the military to become involved in civilian law enforcement. Mr. Weinberger's concerns - that blurring the distinction between civilian policing and military action would risk our democratic principles, and that soldiers lack the training to deal with civilian situations - fell on deaf ears.

Since then, the military role in drug enforcement has escalated rapidly:

* The Pentagon's drug enforcement budget approaches $1 billion a year;

* 4,000 National Guard troops are involved in 1,300 counter-drug operations;

* 89 percent of police departments now have paramilitary units, 46 percent of which have been trained by active-duty armed forces;

* Army Special Forces units have conducted urban warfare drills in at least 21 cities throughout the US;

* The military under federal law is the "lead agency" on drug interdiction;

* The US military provides weapons and training to foreign military and police units, many of which have been involved in human-rights violations.

Despite this, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey announced last year that he was backing away from the "war on drugs" metaphor, opting instead to view the problem as a "continuous challenge" without clear victors. Yet, the reality is that today's drug war has turned more and more into a real war.

We have two choices. We can continue down the path of the last decade and a half and involve the military, National Guard, and paramilitary police forces in civilian law enforcement. More communities will feel like that border town in Texas where constant surveillance and the presence of troops have become facts of life.

Or, we can begin taking steps to remove the military from civilian policing altogether. We can begin to reframe our national drug problem as a public health crisis that must be addressed with public health solutions, not military force.

* Kevin Zeese is president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, a clearinghouse for drug policy alternatives.

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