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Television Review

Magnetic Pull of 'Wars'

'Frontline's' stunning two-part series shows how U.S. is losing its

fight against drugs.

October 09, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"Frontline" stands alone on television as a place inquiring minds can go regularly for smart, tough documentaries that demystify hard-news issues affecting the health of the entire planet. It wears this mantle honorably on PBS.

More evidence arrives in four hours of "Drug Wars," a collaboration with National Public Radio that examines a multibillion-dollar cancer that has widely metastasized deep within the world economy.

A stunning two-parter produced by Martin Smith and reported by Lowell Bergman--the former "60 Minutes" producer-investigative journalist played by Al Pacino in "The Insider"--this is surely the most exhaustive and perceptive work on the topic ever to travel the airwaves. To its great credit, it does not isolate international drug trade from the social, cultural and political influences that shape it.

It tracks, step by step with laser vision, this nation's failed 30-year campaign against drug use, locating threads connecting Colombia, Mexico and trafficking inside the U.S. and drawing them together like a corset. Its many fascinating talking heads include first-time TV interviews with kingpins of Colombia's once-powerful Medellin cartel, in addition to a broad array of humanity with connections to all aspects of the drug issue.

What's more, with narrator deluxe Will Lyman on hand, "Drug Wars" is magnetic television, told as a slowly crescendoing horror story that should open eyes instead of weighing down lids.

Presented chronologically, it opens in the Nixon years, when marijuana is initially regarded in the U.S. as much less a crime byproduct than as part of a hippie-esque cultural revolution. Heroin becomes another matter. Following reports of its widespread addiction among U.S. troops in Vietnam, the Nixon administration opts for controversial methadone programs.

"For the first and only time in the history of U.S. drug policy," we hear, "treatment supplanted law enforcement for most of the attention and most of the money."

As the 1972 election approaches, though, Nixon is aware that he can win more voters by stressing drug law enforcement over treatment, and someone here recalls him saying while in a chopper over Brooklyn: "You and I care about treatment. But those people down there, they want those criminals off the street." The statement is symbolic at this critical crossroads.

Nixon is soon preoccupied by Watergate. But a recurring theme across these four hours is the conflict between advocates of treatment, education and prevention as a solution for U.S. drug worries, and the stronger lobby for law enforcement.

Halfway through Part 1 comes the first mention of cocaine, which in the 1970s, we hear, had been integrated into the nation's entertainment and other pop cultures. In fact, cocaine was seen as harmless even by Colombian drug producers and transporters, says Carlos Toro, once a prominent cocaine smuggler.

"I mean everybody was using it," he says. "But we saw cocaine just like we saw Colombian coffee."

Also woven through the narrative are conflicts between U.S. anti-drug policy and its Cold War policy in Latin America, as the name of Oliver North and reports of alleged CIA drug smuggling surface ominously.

*

The advent of crack is the thundershot ending Part 1. Crack, the cheap, smokable cocaine so potent that it's said here to equal "a thousand Christmases" or "a hundred orgasms at one time." Crack, the high of highs that makes servants of its users.

"I didn't care about anything, nobody, it was just crack," says a recovering addict, echoing a mantra that resonated so painfully in HBO's brilliant miniseries, "The Corner."

Much of Part 2 directly ties U.S. crack problems to deeply rooted corruption in Mexico's government and law enforcement. We hear stories of sophisticated money laundering and intrigue right out of John Le Carre. We hear of anti-drug activity taking a back seat to commerce regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Clinton signed into law in 1994.

And so it goes, with powerful drug cartels giving way to a Rolodex of 300 Colombian gangs that we hear move 90% of U.S. cocaine and 70% of its heroin, mainly through Mexico.

"Drug Wars" ends grimly, without even a fissure of light at the end of its long, winding dark tunnel of violence, heartache and dirty politics. It's ugly, but you're smarter for watching.

* "Frontline's" two-part special, "Drug Wars," begins tonight and concludes Tuesday--both nights at 9 on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV.

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