Interview with Sylvester Salcedo 3/31/00

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When Sylvester Salcedo, a 43-year old Lieutenant Commander retired from the US Naval Reserve, heard about the administration's Colombia initiative, he decided to make a statement. Salcedo, a veteran of anti-drug operations and a recipient of a Navy achievement medal, decided to return his medal to President Clinton in protest.

The Week Online interviewed Salcedo. We print the interview here, followed by the text of Salcedo's letter and some links for further military perspectives on drug policy.

WOL: Tell us a little bit about your background.

SS: In short, I was born in Minnesota, in 1956, 43 years ago. I was raised in the Philippines from age 2 to 12, which is roughly 1959 to 1969, and then I came back here to the states, to the Massachusetts area, where I finished 8th grade and high school and college. And then I joined the Navy, getting my commission from Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, and then I did my first active duty sea tour in the Navy, which is about 4 years. After that I returned home to Boston, and I got a job teaching Spanish in the Boston Public Schools, for almost three years. And in the meantime, I had joined the Naval Reserve Intelligence Program, beginning in 1984, did the teaching, and then I resigned from the job and started a home based business. From there, I went back to active duty in 1990-1991, as a student at the Naval War College for a year, and from there I went to law school, '91 to '94. After graduating from law school, I had a year off and went back to the Navy for the last 2 1/2 years, a year ago, and then was retired from the Navy after 20 years of combined active duty and reserve tours in April of '99. And since that period, I've really just been a stay at home husband, and have done some research and reading, following up on the issue of the war on drugs and issues on addiction and prison population and those sorts of issues.

WOL: Tell us about your involvement in the drug war in the military.

SS: Basically I had found out about JTF6, which stands for Joint Task Force Six, and that’s a joint military command, which means it includes all branches of the military, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, and it's the branch of the Dept. of Defense that provides reservists to go on training missions in support of various federal law enforcement agencies who specifically work in prosecuting the so-called war on drugs. So that would be the whole alphabet soup of federal agencies, beginning with ATF, FBI, DEA, US Border Patrol, US Forest Service and many others. My involvement is I did five six-month rotational tours, beginning with a tour in New York with the FBI, followed by six months in Puerto Rico with US Customs, and then back to New York, with the New York-New Jersey HIDTA, which stands for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, and then I went to Miami, with something called the South Florida Investigative Support Center, and then back to New York with US Customs for my last tour.

Specifically what I did there, there is this issue of non-disclosure agreement, we're not supposed to talk about what we did specifically, in terms of projects we may have worked on, or name sources and methods or that sort of thing. But I guess in general, for the listening public, it really boils down to analysis of information that's already under the control of these different law enforcement agencies. So in other words, we in the military didn't have to collect this information. It was already there in the possession of these different law enforcement agencies, and all we did is assist them in sorting through it and doing analysis with it and helping them out that way.

WOL: Tell us about the action you took earlier this year.

SS: I returned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal that was awarded to me for my performance during the tours I did with JTF6. I returned it to President Clinton as a protest of the current national drug policy, and specifically by the news, that I read in the paper, that President Clinton was pushing for added and expanded involvement in Colombia, with very active US counternarcotics missions in Colombia to the tune of $1.3 billion, which since then has ballooned to $1.7 billion. Not all of that money is for military purposes, but certainly a good 85% of it is. My fear is that this will lead us down a path that will not be desirable to be in, that it will suck us into Colombia's 40-year old civil war.

WOL: Do you see this aid as having any consequences, positive or negative, for Colombia?

SS: From our perspective in the US, I cannot see how this would make sense for us to take this step. The announcement made by the Clinton administration was that this military aid was going to be directed strictly toward counternarcotics operations, efforts to cut off the supply at its source, through crop eradication or interdiction. In the meantime, they're also saying none of this money is going to be used for counterinsurgency efforts. To me, that on its face does not make sense. How can you with any reasonable sense of expectation, believe that in the heat of battle that with the bullets flying around and your fellow soldiers getting killed, that you're going to actually yell out and stop and say oh, time out, these guys are wearing their guerrilla suits today, and we can't shoot and kill them because we’re only allowed to do that when they're in their narcotics growing roles? It's ludicrous. My fear is we are paying for an impossible military mission to be carried out, and it's insane.

If we are really serious about trying to face the drug use and drug abuse issues of the United States, my proposal to the President and to the Republican majority in Congress is that we dedicate this money towards the issues that we can control and manage here in the US, which is addressing the needs of the more than 5 million hardcore drug addict population, as a first step. And then secondly, to look at more common sense views to address people in terms of curbing the use, curbing the abuse, and having preventive measures and programs that will actually address this very serious community to national problem.

We can't do this by laying the blame on other people elsewhere in the world, and saying, oh, they grow it over there, therefore we're going to go over there and destroy all their growing fields and destroy all their ships that come and ship it to our shores. The experience that I've gone through tells me that we will never be successful, no matter how much money we spend, even if we went on an all out war on this, because at the end of the day, the main enemy is ourselves. It is our own citizens who have an insatiable and voracious appetite for these illegal narcotics. We can continue to cause violence and death in other people's countries [through these drug war policies], but we're not going to solve the issue unless we face our own problems here at home.

WOL: Has President Clinton responded to your letter?

SS: No, regretfully he has not. I've made every attempt, and I certainly will try again in the next couple of weeks, to contact the person to whom I mailed it, but I have not heard directly or indirectly back.

WOL: Is there anything you'd like to add?

SS: I would like to repeat my appeal to the President and to the Republican members of Congress to look seriously at this policy. I cannot understand why the Clinton administration can convince itself that by throwing military support and helicopters and war materials to the Colombian Army and National Police, that they can be successful either in eradicating the coca and poppy fields, or in defeating these guerrillas on the battlefield. I just don't see it happening.

(The following is the text of Salcedo's letter to President Clinton on returning his medal.)
January 26, 2000
The Honorable William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20502

Dear President Clinton:

I am returning the enclosed Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal to you in protest of your administration's current national drug policy. Specifically, I would urge you to cancel your emergency spending proposal of $1.3 billion over the next two years to expand the American military involvement in Colombia for counter drug operations.

In my opinion, narcotics use and abuse is our problem here at home. The solutions should be applied here and not in Colombia or elsewhere. To spend this additional amount of money overseas is wasteful and counterproductive.

Instead I urge you to review and consider the drug policy under the Nixon administration that emphasized treatment on demand and prevention, not interdiction, arrest and incarceration, to address this national public health issue and its consequences as encountered by individuals, families and communities across our great country. It was a policy that worked. It was a policy that brought down crime rates without mass arrests and long prison terms. It was a policy that did not send more and more men and women, especially from our minority communities, to jail. It was a policy that is worth a second look today.

I implore you to call for an end to the war on drugs as we know it today. I implore you to call for peace and treatment for those in need of help to overcome substance abuse. I implore you to call for peace, compassion and amnesty for those jailed by draconian drug laws to reunite families and rebuild communities. Most of all, I implore you to call for peace and an immediate nationwide review and dialogue, at the national to neighborhood level, about the destructiveness and senselessness of the current American federal narcotics prohibition policies and practices.

Very Respectfully,

Sylvester L. Salcedo

Salcedo joins a number of former military in speaking out against the drug war. In 1997, Col. Robert H. Dowd published The Enemy is Us: How to Defeat Drug Abuse and End the 'War on Drugs'. Joseph Miranda, a former instructor at the US Army JFK Special Warfare Center, writes about the drug war frequently and authored "War on Drugs: Military Perspectives and Problems" for DRCNet, online at

The Week Online interviewed Timothy Dunn, a scholar of the militarization of the US-Mexico border, in February 1999, online at

-- END --
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Issue #131, 3/31/00 ON CAMPUS: HEA Reform Campaign Gains Support | Colombia Package Passes House Through Opposition, Moves to Senate | Interview with Sylvester Salcedo | Senate Passes Civil Forfeiture Reform Bill Unanimously | New York City Update | Amherst Voters Approve Referendum to Deprioritize Marijuana Enforcement | UK: Police Foundation Report Calls for Marijuana Decrim, Lower Penalties for Other Drugs | Newsbriefs | on Maine Medical Marijuana, Netherlands Drug Policy | Editorial: War On Us All
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