The Underground Empire: Where crime and governments embrace 
by James Mills.
Sidgwick, 1165 pp., £15, November 1987, 0 283 99454 1
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The rubric at the start of this remarkable volume is encouraging: ‘Everything in this book is true. No names have been changed, there are ... no invented scenes or dialogue.’ On the next page, however, the British publishers confess they have had to resile and purge the text to make it fit for the country whose attitude to freedom of expression has recently been judged by Mr Justice Scott to have somewhat too many similarities to places east of the Iron Curtain. ‘Because of differences in the American and British legal systems, several names have been deleted from the British edition by the publishers.’ Those passages which distressed the lawyers into censorship are tantalisingly signposted by being re-set in lighter type in the text.

The 1165 thickset pages, which would have benefited from an index, form an authorised documentary-obituary of Centac, a little-known former unit of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Centac was specially set up, not to seize the illicit powders, but to target the major international dealers who profit so richly from them: necessarily so, because whereas such traffickers form highly organised multinationals (‘It’s not crime, it’s the ultimate in free enterprise’), there is often little or no co-operation between the Customs, Coastguards, FBI, CIA, DEA, State Department, Internal Revenue, Justice Department and local police forces within the USA – let alone in their operations overseas. A proposal for a Cabinet-level ‘tsar’ who would co-ordinate anti-drug efforts and prevent ‘turf-wars’ was in fact passed by both Houses of Congress in 1983 but was vetoed by President Reagan.

Centac has now been terminated with extreme prejudice: not by the Mafia but by the FBI. Even while it lived, it only had the meagrest resources at its disposal compared with the prodigiously financed and equipped traffickers against whom it was pitted. On one occasion, reminiscent of the scene in The French Connection where a cop shivers outside a restaurant in which drug-dealers are feasting, Centac haggled with a wealthy Asian dealer, whom it was trying to turn, about whether the retainer for risking his life undercover should be $2000 or $2500 a month. Both sides seem equally hooked on the dangers as well as the inordinately serious money involved. Drug crooks appear to attract glamorising superlatives as ordure does blue-bottles: the reader loses count of men described as ‘the world’s biggest dealer’.

At one level, this book gives generous value: three jumbo-size triple-decker police thrillers (set respectively in South-East Asia, Florida and on the Mexican-US border) that are rarely less than exciting. If you want to find out how drug dealers furnish their houses and the way their parents dress, then The Underground Empire’s first 1100 pages are for you. Mr Mills is a master of that genre of reporting which, when recording a conversation, never fails to detail, not only the décor of the restaurant where it took place (interviews happen mainly at mealtimes) and how the food was cooked, but also adds the biographical particulars of the waiters. The author seems anxious to waste as little as possible of the ‘183 two-tape cassettes’ he amassed in his investigation. And he is a dedicated exponent of the echo school of composition: ‘Centac’s budget was only a fraction of the value of funds and property Centac seized. Centac made more money for the taxpayer than it spent.’ He also shows considerable courage, however. Despite their spectacular vanity, not all traffickers are enthusiastic about being interviewed.

The lessons are depressingly familiar. Heroin and cocaine trading is being lubricated and successfully exploited like any other commodity future by bankers, lawyers and investors, with the backing of government officials in an increasing number of countries. The narcotrafficantes no longer transport their plunder in suitcases full of banknotes: because no suitcase is now big enough, and also because the finance is now channelled through international banking networks which employ dummy companies operating out of off-shore tax havens. The conduits for laundering the profits stretch from the Bahamas and Guernsey to Hong Kong and Liechtenstein. One importer instanced the futility of US efforts to police its Mexican border: ‘I’d go in the tower of the airport where my uncle was an air controller and watch the border patrol with binoculars, and when they were so far away we couldn’t see them I’d make a signal and someone would cut the fence wires on the hill and run a truck through. Our customers fly into the airport, we pick them up.’ The drug-dealers’ verdict on their pursuers in the DEA is patronisingly succinct: ‘We know you people are trying to do your job. You are groping in the dark.’

How much the ‘Underground Empire’ forms one cohesive entity, James Mills did not discover. What he did frequently find were the fingerprints of the CIA. There is a permanent conflict of interest in Washington between, on the one hand, the CIA and the State Department, who interpret US national security in terms of external politics, and, on the other, the law-enforcement agencies whose concern is with criminal organisations. Over several decades, irrefutable evidence has accumulated that the preferred policy of the CIA is to ignore – and on occasion to condone – overseas drug-producers and dealers in exchange for intelligence and influence. The most spectacular instances were the help given to Mafia leaders so that they could reestablish themselves in Italy at the end of the Second World War, and later on, the support given to anti-Communist heroin war-lords in South-East Asia. The real fuse of this book, which relates to this misguided policy, is hidden in its final fifty pages, and it would be a pity if its message were lost in the writing’s Chandleresque configurations. It is fanciful to claim, as Mills does at the start of the book, that ‘the inhabitants of the earth spend more money on illegal drugs than they spend on food. More than they spend on housing, clothers, education, medical care, or any other product or service.’ At the same time, it appears incontrovertible, as he concludes, that the US continues to indulge drug-trafficking allies for foreign policy reasons while giving vent to ‘paroxysms of anti-drug rhetoric’. Throughout his five-year investigation, Mills tells us, he never encountered anyone who thought Reagan’s so-called war on drugs was anything other than a joke. ‘The United States, fearful as always of compromising military bases, political allies and intelligence sources, fired off noisy barrages in its war on drugs, issued token protests, and looked the other way. An acting assistant Secretary of State said: “We have other diplomatic interests in these countries, and if we alienate them over drugs, we may be sorry when we need them for something else a few years later.” ’

In 1984, Thailand, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Belize, Burma and Jamaica – all countries receiving US economic and other assistance – actually increased their drug-producing crops. Bolivia’s failure to eradicate ‘even one’ coca plant that year, despite large-scale aid from the USA, was described as ‘a major disappointment’ by the State Department. Quite apart from the pervasive corruption, neither the Thai nor the Pakistani Government is anxious to alienate its border tribes. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle: drug-crop profits are used to bribe officials and to purchase arms, which brings increased independence, which allows still more opium poppies to be grown. Mills fingers a number of very high-up Thai and Panamanian government figures who are themselves involved in the ‘global connection’: ‘It’s been going on so long that Senate investigators visiting Panama in late 1982 reported that it had become “common knowledge” that Noriega’s National Guard “has ties to and income from various traffickers in drugs, arms and other contraband, as well as fugitives”. Furthermore, the Guard “provides warehousing for narcotics on their way north, assures the release, for bribes received, of drug traffickers arrested”.’ General Noriega has recently been accused in the US of making $4.6 million from drugs. Senior Columbian, Turkish, Lebanese, Pakistani, Mexican and Bahamian officials are also implicated: ‘An American plan to expose the Lehder-Vesco-Pindling alliance by apprehending Nottage as he accepted a bribe (an operation that would have exposed widespread Bahamian corruption and possibly have denied traffickers their Bahamian bases) was killed by the American Ambassador to the Bahamas. The Ambassador’s reason for blocking the plan, delivered to newsmen with a candour he must have later regretted, was that such an action “might upset delicate negotiations with the Bahamians over the US Navy submarine testing base in the Bahamas. This can be very embarrassing.” ’ Mr Mills might have added among other examples the 16 heroin factories flourishing in the Afghan guerrilla camps in Pakistan.

Intervention, it is true, can cause moral and other problems. When the Guardian suggested that the international community should threaten Pakistan with sanctions unless it cleans up its heroin trade, a diplomat replied that to threaten a Third World country because of the follies of the rich, heroin-consuming West is as unfair and impractical as threatening the heroin-consuming countries with sanctions unless they eliminate drug addiction. And when Washington recently allocated $18 million for drug-crop eradication in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley (the source at present of perhaps one-fifth of the world’s coca), the programme aroused so much angry support for the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas among the campesinos that the US Agency for International Development was forced hurriedly to abandon its local headquarters after 21 members of its team had been tortured and massacred. Nonetheless, the CIA’s present policy – or alibi – patently lacks credibility: the US Government could give the leaders of Thailand, Panama et al. an ultimatum (as Nixon successfully gave Turkey over opium), for it is beyond question that they need the US’s friendship far more than the US needs theirs.

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