After working my way through the 1100+ pages of James Mills’ book, The Underground Empire there remains no doubt in my mind that the United States Government is intimately involved in drug trafficikng.

Mills’ book was published in 1986 and is now out of print. And, while many of the specific stories it covers are now old news, the trends and policies are not. It is clear that the Federal government, acting through the CIA, has deep and long-.lasting ties with large, powerful drug smugglers around the world. The CIA uses these ties for a varieties of purposes: intelligence gathering; government destabilization; weapons smuggling; and the like. In many cases, these activities are essentially underwritten by drug addicts in America.

This is not to imply that CIA planes and boats bring narcotics into the USA and that CIA agents are dispensing coke and crack on street corners. What the CIA does do, is protect the upper levels of the large narcotics smuggling organizations from prosecution. This helps those organizations maintain their money, connections, and institutional memory, thereby making those organizations more resilient, durable, and flexible.

In one specific instance, the CIA facilitated the smuggling of drugs into the US from a particular smuggler’s network. The profits from the drugs were then turned into weapons. The weapons where then exchanged with Central and South American rebels in exchange for more drugs. The rebels would then use the weapons to destabilize the governments in their home countries. The now destabilized governments would then turn to the US Government for help restoring order within their borders. That was the ulimate goal of the program: enticing foreign governments to forge tighter military ties with the US Government. That the program was paid for by US drug addicts, instead of US taxpayers, was just a bonus in the eyes of many.

In many ways, the US government’s generally ineffective “War on Drugs” is a reflection of its involvement with smuggling. The vast majority of arrests made in the War on Drugs are low-level smugglers and dealers; the people moving a half-pound of pot or a couple ounces of cocaine. The number of so-called drug kingpins indicted and tried in this country, given its high-tech investigative techniques, broad military powers, and numerous police agencies, remains pitifully small. Are we seriously to believe that one guy operating out of Columbia, Mexico, or Peru can outwit the US Government for ten or twenty years without ever making a mistake? What about all of the low-level dealers and smugglers? Why don’t they turn in their higher-ups? Why don’t those higher-ups then turn in their higher-ups? Why can’t we just go up the drug smuggling food chain until we reach the top? How often does that happen? About never.

Clearly, there are some major questions that remain unanswered in the so-called War on Drugs. While Mills does not, and can not, answer all of those questions, he does ask them.

The books primary voice is that of the people in it. Mills does little to no editorializing. In fact, the vast majority of the book is dialogue spoken to him or others. He only interjects his own voice to help move the story along from place to place or to consolidate long periods of time and distance down to a reasonable length for an already large book.

While the size of the book, its relatively abstract subject matter, and its long-past publication date might dissuade some from picking up this work, they would be missing out on something by passing it by. The Underground Empire is a book that I will remember for a long, long time and it has certainly altered many of the ways I think about the so-called War on Drugs.