A Veteran of the Drug War Fires at U.S. Policy
By Michael Massing
Sunday, February 6, 2000; Page B05
Having spent the last decade studying the war on drugs, I have come across no military veteran of that conflict who publicly challenged it -- until now.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Sylvester L. Salcedo, who spent the best part of three years working closely with law enforcement agencies doing anti-drug work, believes it is time to share his disillusionment with the policy he helped enforce. From October 1996 to April 1999, Salcedo served as an intelligence officer with Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), a Department of Defense unit that provides military specialists to law enforcement agencies. In New York, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, he helped agents from the DEA, FBI, Customs and local police departments penetrate drug gangs and disrupt money-laundering rings. He regards the $1.6 billion that the Clinton administration is proposing to spend on drug-fighting efforts in Colombia as good money thrown after bad.
I first learned about Salcedo's views last June, when he sent me a letter. He had read a book I'd written that was critical of the drug war and, he explained, fully agreed with it. Over the next few months, we had several phone conversations, and in each he was more passionate.
Salcedo's views offered front-line confirmation of the conclusions I had reached. I've been to both Colombia and Peru to examine U.S. efforts to disrupt the South American cocaine trade. I visited Panama in the wake of the U.S. invasion and later attended the trial of Gen. Manuel Noriega in Miami. In New York and other American cities, I'd gone on ride-alongs with drug agents, witnessed police busts on the street and sat in courtrooms as drug offenders were marched off to prison.
None of it seemed to make much difference. Over the last 10 years, the federal government has spent about $150 billion to combat drugs, yet the cocaine market is glutted as always, and heroin is readily available at record-high purities. And, while the number of casual drug users has declined some, the number of hard-core users, who are responsible for most of the crime and other social problems associated with drugs, hasn't. In short, the war on drugs seemed a costly failure. And now a soldier in that war was saying as much.
Salcedo became particularly animated by the news of U.S. intentions to increase spending in Colombia over the next two years: Much of the money is for military purposes--providing 60 helicopters and training two Colombian rapid deployment battalions. While sympathetic to the need to confront leftist guerrillas in Colombia, Salcedo said that the stated goal of the aid package--to disrupt the production and export of drugs to the United States--is unrealizable. Salcedo was so disturbed by this new development, he said, that he wanted to return a Navy medal he had received for his work with JTF-6.
I arranged to meet Salcedo at a coffee shop in New York, where we both live. With his boyish face, erect bearing and strait-laced appearance, the 43-year-old seemed every bit the military man. His firsthand perspective made his comments all the more striking to me. "I don't think we can make any progress on the drug issue by escalating our military presence in Colombia," he told me. "As in Vietnam, the policy is designed to fail. All we're doing is making body counts, although instead of bodies, we're counting seizures--tons of cocaine, kilos of heroin." Rather than spend more money in Colombia, Salcedo said, we should confront the issue of demand here, by providing more services to "the hard-core addicted population, the source of 80 to 90 percent of the quality-of-life issues associated with drugs. That's what's not being addressed."
He showed me the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal he had received last year. The certificate accompanying it cited his "professional achievement in the superior performance of his duties" and his "exceptional diplomatic aplomb." It added: "Lieutenant Commander Salcedo's distinctive accomplishments, unrelenting perseverance and steadfast devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
In deciding to return the medal, Salcedo said, he hopes to evoke the actions of Vietnam veterans who opposed that war. "My goal is to . . . get us to focus on our own drug addiction problem," he said. "I want to show that somebody is speaking out against the orthodox policy--that there is a dissenting opinion."
Salcedo's views, it turned out, aren't simply the result of his recent military deployments; they stem from a lifetime of experience. Born in Minneapolis, he spent his early years in the Philippines (his father is Filipino and his mother Filipina-Chinese). When he was 12, the family moved to Boston, and Salcedo was sent to a Jesuit boarding school. After graduating from Holy Cross College in 1978, he joined the Navy, and he spent most of the next four years at sea. In 1984, Salcedo entered the Naval Reserve, specializing in intelligence. He also began working as a Spanish teacher in the Boston public schools. He was assigned to Dorchester, a low-income section of Boston that was rife with drugs, and many of his students got sucked into the trade.
Salcedo's experience as an intelligence officer, serving periodic two-week tours abroad as an assistant naval attache, fortified the knowledge he was gaining in those drug-ridden pockets of Boston. With his fluency in Spanish, he was sent to Argentina, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia, where he could see how the booming cocaine trade was corrupting society. Back in Dorchester, Salcedo saw the other end of the cocaine pipeline--a bustling street-level market that resisted all efforts to quash it.
"I saw a disconnect between being in a minority neighborhood that was awash in drugs and jumping on an airplane and being at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia," Salcedo says. "I didn't see how this evolving strategy of trying to stop drugs at their source was going to work . . . as long as the demand was there, it was going to be provided for." It was a conclusion that I, too, had reached early on in my research.
Then in 1990, when Salcedo enrolled in a master's program in national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., he got his first glimpse of the growing institutional support for getting the military more involved in fighting drugs. With the Cold War over, many of his fellow students were writing papers calling on the military to join the drug war. "Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon of the drug war," Salcedo says. He took a strong stand against them, arguing that drugs were not a national security issue but a public health one.
Around this time, Salcedo hit a major bump in his career. Passed over for promotion, he suspected he was being discriminated against because of his Filipino background. He filed a formal complaint with the Navy, and, over the next two-and-a-half years, it worked its way up the chain of command. Salcedo was given the choice of either suing the Navy or continuing his service in the Reserve. He chose the latter, hoping to demonstrate that the Reserve had made a mistake. Over the next several years he continued to serve temporary tours.
Then, in 1996, Salcedo heard that JTF-6 was looking for intelligence specialists to work in the war on drugs. Despite his skepticism about the war, Salcedo--eager to prove his worth to the Navy--applied and was taken on as a analyst. He was assigned to work with drug-enforcement task forces on the East Coast. Because he signed a confidentiality agreement upon taking the job, Salcedo avoided talking about the substance of his work. But, based on my knowledge of drug enforcement, it wasn't hard to figure out. These drug task forces, which bring together specialists from federal, state and local agencies, are flooded with data, much of it from informants inside the drug world. With his expertise in intelligence, Salcedo could help make sense of it all.
From what Salcedo could tell, however, such actions had no effect on the supply of drugs on the street. Adding to his disillusionment was the constant bickering among the DEA, FBI, Customs and Coast Guard. It is revealing, I think, that the "diplomatic aplomb" mentioned in his medal certificate referred to his work not with foreign governments but with U.S. agencies.
In April 1999, Salcedo took mandatory retirement. But he remained absorbed by the drug issue. Reading "The Corner," David Simon and Edward Burns's account of life on a drug-ridden street corner in Baltimore, he was struck by how much the young dealers in it resembled the students he had seen in Dorchester. Watching a "Frontline" program titled "Snitch," he was appalled at how drug agents got big-time dealers leniency in return for incriminating their small-time accomplices. And, after reading my book, Salcedo got in touch with one of its protagonists, a street worker in Spanish Harlem named Raphael Flores. I had described the trouble Flores faced in getting addicts into treatment, and Salcedo now got a firsthand look at the problems. Treatment centers seemed completely overwhelmed and understaffed. The experience strengthened his conviction that Washington should spend its money not on helicopters and trainers but on prevention programs and more services for addicts.
Hoping to dramatize his concerns about U.S. drug policy, Salcedo plans soon to drive from New York to Washington and leave his medal at the White House, accompanied by a letter explaining his position. His example, he hopes, will attract other military veterans frustrated by their participation in what has become a wasteful, wounding and ultimately futile war. I suspect there are many other such veterans out there.
Michael Massing's study of U.S. drug policy, "The Fix," will be issued in paperback in March by the University of California Press.
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