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Chronicle Book Review: At The Devil's Table

At The Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, by William Rempel (2011, Random House, 346 pp., $27.00 HB)
For six years in the 1990s, a Colombian engineer named Jorge Salcedo worked for the Cali cartel, gradually making his way up to chief of security for the $7 billion a year cocaine exporting and distribution operation, up to that time the wealthiest and most powerful drug operation in history. Then he flipped, going to work for the DEA to help bring down his erstwhile employers, and vanished into the US federal witness protection program, along with his family.

For more than a decade, veteran Los Angeles Times investigative reporter William Rempel conducted exclusive interviews with Salcedo, never knowing where he lived or even the name he was living under. At The Devil's Table is the result, and what a riveting and relentless, ever more suspenseful, story it is. The book reads like the finest fictional thriller, fast-paced, full of unexpected twists, and increasingly tense and terrifying. I sucked it down in two days.

Through Salcedo's inside access to Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, capo of capos of what was largely a family operation, Rempel's readers are given a never before seen view of the Cali cartel, its inner workings, and its principal players. Salcedo got hired on to help protect the cartel heads and their families from the murderous predations of rival, and much more flamboyantly violent, Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar.

But his purely defensive function gradually morphed, and Salcedo was charged with hiring British mercenaries to attack an Escobar estate via helicopter, and later, with buying bombs in Central America for an aerial attack on Escobar's luxurious hillside prison. Both efforts failed, but through them Salcedo reveals the depth of the cartel's penetration into Colombia's police, armed forces, and political class.

Probably the ultimate example of that penetration was the cartel's $6 million dollar contribution to the campaign of Ernesto Samper, which helped him become president of the country in 1994, and was supposed to ensure smooth sailing and a "soft reentry" into legitimate society for the Cali capos in return for their giving up the dope business. It didn't work out that way. The Clinton administration, infuriated when word leaked out, put the screws on Samper, who in turn was forced to put the screws on his benefactors.

As the pressure mounted, Salcedo got deeper and deeper into a world he increasingly wanted no part of. He witnessed mass killings and feared for his own life in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia, and when cartel bosses ordered him to put a hit on a fellow worker, an accountant who meticulously recorded the cartel's business endeavors, he made his move. It was kill the man as ordered or face death himself. There had to be another way out.

In one of the book's darkly comic moments, Salcedo cold calls CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and spends futile moments telling a bewildered operator he knew how to bring down the Cali cartel. That initial contact didn't pan out, but Salcedo knew a cartel-employed US lawyer in Miami who was staring at his own federal indictment, and before long the DEA came a-knocking. At the Table's final scenes are white-knuckled nail-biters, as the DEA and the Colombians attempt to bring down Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and get Salcedo, his family, and the accountant out of the country alive.

This is fine drama of the highest order, excellently crafted by a real pro, and makes an exciting and informative summer read. But it's not an indictment of drug prohibition or an impassioned call for reform -- unless one reads that between the lines. For Rempel the crime reporter, the drug war is little more than the palette on which he can paint his true crime masterpiece, not something to be probed and called into question.

But who can read about the wholesale corruption of the security forces and the political system by prohibition's filthy lucre, who can read about the assassinations and murders with impunity, who can read about the billions of American tax dollars spent chasing cocaine cowboys across continents in a never-ending game and not call drug prohibition into question?

Rempel the journalist doesn't have to tell us about the effects of drug prohibition; he shows us, and in a most compelling fashion.

Federal Crack Prisoners Will Get Sentence Cuts [FEATURE]

Thousands of inmates imprisoned on federal crack cocaine charges will be able to seek sentence reductions and early release after the US Sentencing Commission vote unanimously June 30 to make changes in federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenders it had approved earlier this year retroactive. About 85% of those crack prisoners are black.

Federal Correctional Institution Milan, Milan, Michigan. Soon there will be room at the inn. (Image:
The changes in the sentencing guidelines came after Congress last year passed the Fair Sentencing Act reducing the notorious disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under drug laws passed amidst the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while people caught with powder cocaine had to be carrying 100 times as much of the drug to garner the same sentence.

The law passed last year reduced the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but did not eliminate it. After passage of the law, the Sentencing Commission proposed a permanent amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines to implement the new law, which would result in sentence reductions for newly convicted crack offenders. But that amendment provided no relief for those already serving harsh crack sentences -- until now.

With the Sentencing Commission's vote Thursday, retroactivity for current crack prisoners will go into effect the same date as the proposed amendment, November 1, unless Congress acts to undo it. But despite the grumblings of a few Republicans, that appears unlikely.

"In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," noted Commission chair, Judge Patti Saris. "Today's action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied, and that federal crack cocaine offenders who meet certain criteria established by the Commission and considered by the courts may have their sentences reduced to a level consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010."

While not every crack offender in the federal prison system will be eligible to seek a lower sentence, more than 12,000 will, and they will see an average sentence reduction of slightly more than three years. That should result in a cost savings of more than $200 million over the next five years, the Commission said.

But with an average crack sentence of about 13 ½ years, current crack prisoners will still serve a harsh average of about 10 ½ years. [Editor's Note: The original version of this article inadvertently understated those numbers.] And many future crack offenders will still be handed down mandatory minimum five- or 10-year sentences based on the amount of crack involved in their offenses.

While advocates lauded the commission's move, they noted that there was still more work to be done. Still, for many, some of whom have been working to redress the injustice for years, Thursday was a day of joy and relief.

"I am thrilled for our members and their families who suffered under a sentencing scheme that Congress admitted was fundamentally flawed, said Julie Stewart founder and director of Families against Mandatory Minimums. "I am also grateful to the members of the Sentencing Commission who responded to facts, not fear. The Commission once again has played its rightful role as the agency responsible for developing sound, evidence-based sentencing recommendations. In fact, if Congress had listened to the Commission fifteen long years ago when it first called for crack sentencing reform, today’s vote might not have been necessary," said Ms. Stewart.

But noting that Thursday's vote only applied retroactivity to relaxed sentencing guidelines and not to pre-Fair Sentencing Act mandatory minimums, Stewart called on Congress to make the act retroactive as well, bringing relief to those serving mandatory minimum sentences.

"The ball is now in Congress's court," Stewart said. "To finish the job, Congress must now make the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine retroactive."

While calling the commission's action "the right thing," ACLU Washington Legislative Office director Laura Murphy also said further reform was needed. "Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people s who received unfair sentences under the old crack cocaine law. However, despite today's victory, sizeable racial and sentencing disparities still exist, and it is time for our country to seriously rethink mandatory minimums and a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. Based on little more than politics and urban myth, the sentencing gap between powder and crack cocaine has been devastating to our African-American communities."

The change has been a long time coming, said the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Since 1995, the US Sentencing Commission has, in four reports to Congress, requested that Congress raise the threshold quantities of crack that trigger mandatory minimums in order to ease the unconscionable racial disparities in sentencing," said Jasmine L. Tyler, DPA deputy director of national affairs. "This vote to provide retroactive relief to the thousands of defendants whose sentences the Commission has consistently condemned for the past seventeen years."

"The difference between crack and powder cocaine is cultural, not chemical," said Jim Lavine, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The Commission's own research indicates that over 80 percent of the nonviolent offenders who will benefit from the new guideline are African-American or Hispanic. We can't give back all the time that offenders served under the previous guidelines, but reducing prison time for those persons still incarcerated is a significant recognition of the unfairness of the old law," he said. "A civilized society doesn’t mete out punishment based on a defendant's culture or skin color."

Some Republican lawmakers had opposed retroactivity, arguing that early releases would pose a threat to the public safety, but the Sentencing Commission reported that prisoners released early had no higher rate of recidivism than those who served more time. It also sought to reassure nervous conservatives that each case would be carefully reviewed.

"The Commission is aware of concern that today’s actions may negatively impact public safety," said Judge Saris. "However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the Commission’s policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender's potential risk to public safety. The average sentence for a federal crack cocaine offender will remain significant at about 127 months," she explained.

The Sentencing Commission's vote is a significant victory against prejudice and injustice and marks another milestone in the retreat from the "lock 'em up" mania that has dominated the officials response to illicit drug use and sales for decades. But the fact that the federal courts are still going to be sending people to prison for a decade for slinging some rocks, or even, in some cases, merely possessing them, shows how far we still have to go.

Washington, DC
United States

Bolivia to Quit United Nations Drug Convention Over Coca

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia is preparing to withdraw from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to protest its classification of coca leaves as an illegal drug. A law that would do just that has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party of President Evo Morales has a two-thirds majority.

The Congress is acting at the request of Morales, a coca union leader. His government sought late last year to amend the convention to reclassify coca leaf, but that effort failed in January, so now Bolivia will withdraw from the convention altogether.

Coca leaf has been used for thousands of years in the Andes, and Bolivia has long argued that coca in its natural state is not an illegal drug, just a plant with traditional, therapeutic, and industrial uses. The Bolivian constitution obligates the government to preserve and protect the chewing of coca leaves as a cultural heritage and ancestral practice.

Under the draft law, which has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where Morales's party has a two-thirds majority, Bolivia would keep its international obligations in the fight against drug trafficking. Foreign minister David Choquehuanca said the country could rejoin the convention next year, but with a reservation: that it be allowed to consume coca legally.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian Thursday.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer behind Colombia and Peru. Much of the production is diverted into cocaine destined primarily for Brazilian and European markets. Bolivia has intensified its fight against drug trafficking, but says it is fighting a losing battle as long as demand for cocaine remains high in the West.

La Paz

Criminal Injustice -- Inside America's National Disgrace
The libertarian Reason Magazine ("free minds and free markets") has devoted its July issue to "Criminal Injustice -- Inside America's National Disgrace"). Wrongful convictions, the immigration detention system, rogue prosecutors, the wastefulness of long prison terms and the peril of vague criminal statutes are just a few of the topics addressed.

In one particularly interesting column, "The Crime Rate Puzzle," Radley Balko (recently hired away from Reason by the Huffington Post) examines what academics think about the causes for the much-touted drop in crime of recent years. "Did incarceration reduce the crime rate, or did it get in the way?"

Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska and one of the top scholars of policing, tells Balko:

Conservatives say the crime drop was because of incarceration. Liberals say it was programs like community policing. I don't think there's much convincing evidence for either."

Academic consensus, according to Balko, exists for just two factors: the ebbing of the crack trade after its peak in the late 1980s, and the growth in the economy since 1992. In this understanding, part of the drop in crime is due to the previous rise having been an aberration -- the new drug crack, shorter acting and marketed in poor neighborhoods, brought in a larger number of transactions each day and new fighting over turf. When the trade restabilized and the use of crack diminished, violence went back down to more normal levels. And over the longer term, a big part of the drop in crime is the growth of the economy, leading to lower unemployment, more jobs in the licit economy, less desperation, etc. "[I]t seems that as we live better... we live better," writes Balko.

Balko's willingness to question whether imprisoning more people has really reduced crime is especially important in light of the willingness of some academics to oversimplify that very question. In a generally insightful column published last month, sociologist James Q. Wilson was willing to question how much of the drop in crime was accounted for by the increased in incarceration, and even whether some types of incarceration really do address violence, low-level drug dealers in particular. But overall it is as simple to Wilson as to say "when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family."

Of course it's not that simple. The prisoner kept off the street may have a younger brother who becomes embittered by his sibling's absence, and is driven to crime for that reason. The money spent to incarcerate that person might instead have funded an after-school program serving dozens of at-risk youths, possibly preventing a number of criminal careers from ever beginning. Ultimately such questions can only be answered by research. Wilson's willingness to entirely omit such questions from his discussion makes it less likely to shed light on that particular point, and it ignores research calling the assumption into question. As Balko cites:

In a series of studies published in 2009, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld and the SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner found that during the last 15 years, states with lower incarceration rates saw bigger drops in crime, on average, than those with lock-'em-up policies. Moreover, the historic increase in the prison population began in the early 1980S, a decade after the crime rate began to rise and a decade before it started to fall. The incarceration rate increased by more than 100 percent in the 1980s, but violent crime still increased that decade, by 22 percent.

Also omitted by most authors, but not Balko, is the prohibition issue. "[W]ere it not for drug prohibition, we could well be living in the safest era in American history." A good reason not to be complacent about the state of crime and the criminal justice system in America today.

Supreme Court Holds Crack Penalties Apply to "Cocaine Base"

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the US Supreme Court upheld a 10-year federal prison sentence for possession of cocaine base, rejecting an appeal that harsher penalties for crack cocaine did not apply to "cocaine base." The case was DePierre v. US, and it concerned the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed at the height of mid-1980s crack hysteria.

The Supreme Court says "cocaine base" means more than just crack. (Image via
Under that law, possession of 50 grams of "cocaine base" was punishable by a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, while it took five kilograms of powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride or "cocaine salts") to garner the same sentence. While those penalties have been imposed almost exclusively on crack cocaine offenders, the words "crack cocaine" do not appear in the law. Instead the harsher penalties are imposed on those who possess substances or mixtures containing "cocaine base."

Frantz DePierre got busted for selling more than 50 grams of "cocaine base" to an undercover agent in Massachuseets in 2005. At trial, a federal judge rejected his request to instruct the jury that "cocaine base" meant only crack cocaine, and a federal appeals court in Boston agreed with the trial judge. And now the US Supreme Court has endorsed those lower court rulings.

"Cocaine base," as used in the 1986 law, "means not just 'crack cocaine,' but cocaine in its chemically basic form," Justice Sotomayor held, as the court upheld DePierre's conviction and 10-year prison sentence. That basic form includes "the molecule found in crack cocaine, freebase, and coca paste," she continued. "On its plain terms then, 'cocaine base' reaches more broadly than just crack cocaine.

While Congress last year voted to substantially reduce -- although not eliminate -- the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, crack still earns you substantially more time than powder. And this ruling clarifies that those stiffer penalties apply to freebase and coca paste, as well as crack.

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Submarines and the Futile Fight Against Colombian Smuggling

Yet another lessen in the futility of drug prohibition: Drug smugglers in Colombia have a low-cost way to transport cocaine -- narco-submarines. Authorities are struggling to keep up, and the technology keeps improving. Jay Bergman, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's Andean division, said it's a whole new challenge. "Without question, it has us all going back to the textbooks and the drawing boards and figuring out what are we going to do about this." Bergman pointed out that so far, no drug submarines have been detected under the sea. But seizures of semi-submersibles have dropped dramatically in the past two years. That could mean that traffickers have already made the switch to submarines – and that they're eluding detection.
Public Radio International (MN)

Venezuelan Drug Trafficker, Walid Makled, Says Chávez Government Officials Tied to Cocaine Trade

Walid Makled says he had top Venezuelan generals and government officials on his payroll. He says that five or six plane-loads of cocaine take off everyday from San Fernandeo de Apure, in south-western Venezuela, bound for the US, via Honduras and Mexico. "It’s an everyday thing. Not every other day, it’s every day. Between FARC and the Venezuelan Army, we’re talking about four or five planes leaving Apure every day."

Morales: DEA Not Coming Back to Bolivia‎

The arrest of Bolivia's top counternarcotics cop, Rene Sanabria, has not changed President Morales' stance on allowing the DEA into the country. Morales insisted he has no intention of inviting the DEA back. He alleged "interests of a geopolitical nature" were behind the Sanabria case. "They are using police to try to implicate the government," he said. Vice minister of social defense, Felipe Caceres, suggested that Sanabria's arrest was the DEA's revenge for being expelled. The president also hinted at U.S. hypocrisy, recalling reports that American agents ran guns to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s with the proceeds of cocaine sales in the United States.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Drug Smuggling Scandal Shakes Bolivia

Drug prohibition is responsible for a phenomenal amount of government corruption across the globe. Retired-general Rene Sanabria, the former head of Bolivia's main anti-narcotics unit serving as a top intelligence adviser to the country's Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, pled not guilty in a Miami federal court on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., in a scandal that has rocked the government of Evo Morales. Felipe Caceres, Bolivia's top antidrug official said Mr. Sanabria's security unit "was riddled" with corruption, and that 15 other police officials were in the process of being detained for complicity in the drug-smuggling operation.
The Wall Street Journal (NY)

Former Head of Bolivia's Drugs Police Is Sent to U.S. to Face Cocaine Trafficking Charges

In yet another example of drug prohibition corrupting top officials, the former head of Bolivia's counter-narcotics police, Rene Sanabria, has been arrested in Panama and sent to the U.S. to face charges he ran a cocaine trafficking ring.
Daily Mail (UK)

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