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The Bell Curve: Drug war longer than you think

September 15, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

"Locked up in a federal prison in Durango, Mexico, is a short, slight, frightened farmer with a pencil mustache and an ugly growth on the side of his neck. I was allowed to interview him, and I'll never forget his face. Nor will I forget that this small bewildered man is at the same time villain and victim in the growing efforts of the Mexican government to find and destroy the sources of the burgeoning drug traffic from Mexico to the United States.

As a villain, this farmer had been growing — deep in the wilds of the mountains of central Mexico — illegal fields of amapola, the poppy from which opium and heroin are extracted. As the victim, he is simply — and sometimes unknowingly — the tool of the rich and powerful traffickers in narcotics who set the farmer up in their illicit business and then let him take the heat if he is caught. If the farmer chooses, instead, to implicate the trafficker or decline the job, he has been told that his family will be executed. That is not an empty threat."

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I wrote these lines 43 years ago for the American Medical Assn.'s national magazine, Today's Health. I bring them up now to illustrate how long the U.S. and Mexican governments have been fighting a losing war together against drug trafficking. And how relatively little attention seems to be paid today in shutting down the place where the drugs originate: the guy who grows them. The AMA tried for more than a year before it got permission in 1967 from the Mexican government to send a reporter down for a first-hand look at the effectiveness of a fleet of helicopters — flown by American-trained Mexican pilots — that the U.S. had lent Mexico to cut the legs from under the rapidly spreading harvesting of amapola. I was the reporter assigned to that story, along with photographer Shel Hershorn.

We started in Mexico City, where we were briefed by the man who then headed the Mexican Federal Police. From there we were sent north to Culiacan, a city of 100,000 about a thousand miles south of the U.S. border. There, the Mexican agent directing the field campaign — a genial, heavy-set Stanford graduate named Evarardo Rios — held forth. He rattled off some impressive success numbers, compiled on bar charts, then explained how these achievements had come about — which is why we were there.

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