February 15, 2001 • Commentary

The movie Traffic paints a devastating portrait of America’s war on drugs. Director Steven Soderbergh cuts through all of the sanctimonious cant about the drug war to pose a rebellious question: Who are we waging this war against?

Traffic stars Michael Douglas as the newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield. Wakefield’s challenge is to reinvigorate the drug war for the president. In a private meeting with the departing drug czar, a former army general, Wakefield is taken aback by the general’s lament that years of effort have had no impact on the drug trade.

The general then introduces Wakefield to the Washington blame game — namely, if you get stuck, blame your predecessor. If you get stuck again, move on to a new job — and leave the sticky problem behind for your successor. The White House chief of staff and other aides assure Wakefield that they will always be ready with suggestions on how to “spin” news stories to his advantage — so that the public will not lose confidence in the overall drug war effort.

Traffic also takes the audience on a chilling journey into drug law enforcement in Mexico. We witness high level corruption from the perspective of an ordinary Mexican police officer. When a Mexican general and his soldiers surround this officer’s vehicle and demand that he hand over seized contraband from a drug bust, who can he turn to for help? No one, because it becomes painfully clear that this man must work day in and day out in an environment where the line between cops and robbers has been completely erased.

Sadly, that episode and other suspenseful scenes from Tijuana don’t come from the imagination of Hollywood writers. This film is reality‐​based. The enormous profits generated by the black market have given gangster organizations so much wealth they have compromised the integrity of Latin American law enforcement institutions. For example, in 1991 American customs officials were horrified to learn that Mexican soldiers ambushed a team of elite Mexican police officers that was closing in on a drug shipment.

In December 1996, our own drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, heaped praise on his Mexican counterpart, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, as a man of “impeccable integrity.” Although Gutierrez appeared to be a tough law enforcer, he was simply helping one drug cartel by cracking down on its rivals. Gutierrez was subsequently arrested and prosecuted on corruption charges.

The Clinton White House spinned that disaster the best it could. The arrest of Gutierrez, said Clinton, was good news because it showed that corruption was unacceptable to Mexican leaders. That’s like saying we shouldn’t fret about our own Defense Secretary’s spying because catching him will show we don’t tolerate treason.

Traffic juxtaposes the policymaking elite in Washington, where Senators talk breezily over cocktails about “getting tough on drugs,” with the grunt work done by police in the field. DEA agents risk their lives trying to infiltrate gangster organizations while politicians posture, wring their hands, and seek to avoid responsibility for the consequences of a failed policy.

When Wakefield’s own daughter runs afoul of the drug laws, he meets privately with the local prosecutor and gets him to drop the matter. This is another realistic look at the hypocrisy of the drug war. The prosecutor would never let a mere receptionist’s daughter off the hook because she has no political connections, and besides, that would “send the wrong message” to our youth.

At the end of Wakefield’s odyssey through the world of American drug policy, he comes to the conclusion that the war on drugs is really a war on our own families. Soderbergh says that while he was working on Traffic, he made a point of interviewing police officers about their work. He posed one question to each cop: “If your daughter had a drug problem, would you involve the police department?” Without exception, the answer was “no.” That telling concession from the drug warriors on the front lines is the central message of the film. Drug abuse ought to be viewed as a character and health problem, not a crime problem. In other words, end the war.

About the Author
Tim Lynch
Adjunct Scholar and Former Director, Project on Criminal Justice