Time to Change Strategies

By Bill Masters Special to The Denver Post Sunday, May 13, 2001

The following Op-Ed by Bill Masters, America's first Libertarian Sheriff, was published in the Mother's day edition of the Denver Post. It is reprinted by permission.

Bill Masters has served as Sheriff of San Miguel County (Telluride) for 20 years. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Drug War Addiction." More essays by Bill Masters may be found at www.libertybill.net.

Roni Bowers and her baby Charity were killed not by drug-dealing gangs or criminal thugs, but instead by government agents. They were "collateral damage" in the War on Drugs.

In late April, a United States spotter aircraft, flying with a Peruvian air force officer on board, thought a civilian plane might have been transporting drugs. However, the only cargo was a human one of Baptist missionaries and their children, including 7-month-old Charity and her mother.

After spotting the civilian aircraft, the U.S. jet contacted the Peruvian air force, which then scrambled fighters to shoot at the helpless civilians.

A bullet went through Roni and into her baby, killing them both instantly.

Witnessing this horror were Roni's husband, Jim, and their 6-year-old son, Cory, who were passengers on the plane. During the attack, the pilot of the civilian plane continued contact with civilian Peruvian air traffic controllers. According to press reports, he said repeatedly, "They are killing us! They are killing us!"

After the plane was strafed, the American pilot working for the Baptist church was able to crash the burning plane into a river. The injured pilot, together with Jim and Cory were able to escape the wreckage and float down the river grasping dislodged pieces of aircraft. One fighter plane continued to shoot at them. Reuters reported that the U.S. plane watched the incident from about a mile away.

We shouldn't be surprised that this occurred. Mad as hell maybe, but not surprised. After all, we are in a war, a War on Drugs. And during times of war innocent people get in the way.

This tragedy has played itself out scores of times in recent years. U.S. Marines shot and killed teenage goat herder Esequiel Hernandez in 1997 near his home in Texas, mistaking him for a drug runner.

Drug agents flew over 62-year-old Donald Scott's ranch and claimed they saw marijuana growing on his property. They raided his home, pushed his wife to the ground, and shot him to death. No drugs were found.

Police, acting on false information about a $30 drug deal, raided the home of 84-year-old, bed-ridden Anna Rae Dixon, and shot her with a 12- gauge shotgun, killing her instantly.

In Denver, Ismael Mena was killed in September 1999 after a cop filed a false search warrant affidavit and the SWAT team raided the wrong home. Reportedly the last word from the father of nine was a questioning "Policia?" as the dressed-in-black SWAT team stormed into his small room.

The list goes on and on. It includes children, mothers, fathers, elderly ladies and teenage goat herders. All "collateral damage," according to common military parlance.

The increasing militarization of the Drug War and our local police forces is a dangerous trend. Today most of the tactical and firearms training for "peace" officers comes straight out of military doctrine. The tactics taught are not of negotiations or individual bravery but of concentration of forces and firepower.

In our own state, the legislature has passed laws requiring the governor as "commander in chief" to use the soldiers of the Colorado National Guard for drug interdiction and enforcement.

To that end, the soldiers are providing "aviation assets and ground assistance units trained for the specific mission of cannabis suppression and eradication." They are available to local law enforcement in "narcotics-centered investigations with surveillance platforms, thermal imagery and night vision equipment, case support and intelligence analysis."

The soldiers are also training local officers at the County Sheriffs of Colorado facility in Douglas County on issues like "non-urban tactical operations" and "airmobile drug enforcement operations."

It is only a matter of time before our increasingly militarized tactics will result in more unintended deaths like those in Peru. I question whether it is worth it.

Policing and blaming Peru, Colombia or Mexico for our nation's drug problems is a little like blaming Saudi Arabia for traffic jams. This is a demand problem, not a supply problem.

We shut off the cocaine supply, then some people start cooking meth in their homes. We stop the meth and many will get high on Ecstasy, booze, the doctor's pills or whatever. Controlling the drug supply is like holding water in a fist, it just leaks out and goes on to something else.

Eventually, we will realize a fist won't work against what is fundamentally a spiritual problem.

Before we suffer more innocent deaths at the hands of those sworn to protect us, before we lose touch with our local peace officers, and before more children overdose because we haven't identified or addressed the demand problem, we must rethink the Drug War. We must change strategies.

Op-Ed: Time to Change Strategies Libertarian Party 2600 Virginia Avenue, NW Suite 100 Washington DC 20037

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