Drug War Casual Ties

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Independence Institute
Feature Syndicate Opinion-Editorial

For Release November 16, 2000

DRUG WAR CASUALTIES
By Mike Krause

America's "war on drugs" stopped being a metaphor long ago. It is a literal war, with militarized police units, high tech intelligence gathering and surveillance, an enemy, and, as with most wars, lots of casualties.

As the North Metro Task Force's pursuit of the Tattered Cover bookstore's sales records winds its way through Colorado's courts, it seems a good time to look at some of the damage done in the name of the drug war in terms of both lives and liberties.

When Ismael Mena was killed last year by a paramilitary police unit serving a drug warrant on the wrong house here in Denver, it was more than a tragedy; his death was part of a national pattern. Since Mr. Mena's death the body count has increased.

Less than a month before Mr. Mena was killed, an unarmed 64-year-old grandfather of 14, Mario Paz, was shot dead in his own home after a Compton, California SWAT team blew the locks off his door in a late night drug raid where no drugs were found.

In September of this year, 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda was killed by a blast from a SWAT shotgun while spread-eagle on the floor of his parent's Modesto, California home during a drug raid where no drugs were found.

In October, 64-year-old John Adams died at the hands of police while presumably defending his home from invaders when Lebanon, Tennessee police kicked in his door at night to serve a drug warrant, the wrong door on the wrong house.

Criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University has shown that, nationwide, the deployment of SWAT teams has increased 538% since 1980, with 75% of their mission dedicated to serving warrants (almost all for drugs), a far cry from their original intent of hostage rescue.

In the drug war, peace officers outfitted with machine guns and flash-bang grenades invade private homes, based solely on the addled claims of junkies who are getting paid to be informants.

The drug war has not just increased the use of paramilitary police units, it has blurred the line between civilian law enforcement and the real military in America.

In 1981 and 1988, Congress created legal loopholes allowing use of the military in the "drug war." In 1990, Congress authorized the creation of the Department of Defense Counter Drug Technology Program. Part of the program's published "Goal No. 5" is to "break domestic drug sources" and part of their tactical operation support program is "local surveillance and tracking" -- including the use of thermal imaging which can be deployed by helicopter and literally peek through the wall of private homes.

The drug war has brought the resources of our own military to bear within our own borders, against the American people.

In the Tattered Cover case, the local drug police, in cooperation with federal agents, wish to know who's buying books about drugs. As America's drug war continues to expand, so does collateral damage such as the black market violence that accompanies prohibition. And so does the government violence that comes with militarized policing. Meanwhile, civil liberties are eroded further and further.

It is legitimate to want your kids and neighborhoods free of the damage drugs often do, but it is equally legitimate to ask if the way the war on drugs is being fought is worth the damage being done to our constitutional liberties.

Lt. Lori Moriarty of the North Metro Task Force defended the Tattered Cover warrant: "If it only takes one or two records from a bookstore to help us eliminate drugs on the street, then so be it." But it is never just one or two of anything in the drug war.


Mike Krause is a Research Associate with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

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