The movie Traffic paints a devastating portrait of America's war ondrugs. Director Steven Soderbergh cuts through all of the sanctimoniouscant about the drug war to pose a rebellious question: Who are we wagingthis war against?
Traffic stars Michael Douglas as the newly appointed drug czar RobertWakefield. Wakefield's challenge is to reinvigorate the drug war for thepresident. In a private meeting with the departing drug czar, a former armygeneral, Wakefield is taken aback by the general's lament that years ofeffort 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 onto a new job -- and leave the sticky problem behind for your successor. TheWhite House chief of staff and other aides assure Wakefield that they willalways be ready with suggestions on how to "spin" news stories to hisadvantage -- so that the public will not lose confidence in the overall drugwar effort.
Traffic also takes the audience on a chilling journey into drug lawenforcement in Mexico. We witness high level corruption from theperspective of an ordinary Mexican police officer. When a Mexican generaland his soldiers surround this officer's vehicle and demand that he handover seized contraband from a drug bust, who can he turn to for help? Noone, because it becomes painfully clear that this man must work day in andday out in an environment where the line between cops and robbers has beencompletely erased.
Sadly, that episode and other suspenseful scenes from Tijuana don't comefrom the imagination of Hollywood writers. This film is reality-based. Theenormous profits generated by the black market have given gangsterorganizations so much wealth they have compromised the integrity of LatinAmerican law enforcement institutions. For example, in 1991 Americancustoms officials were horrified to learn that Mexican soldiers ambushed ateam of elite Mexican police officers that was closing in on a drugshipment.
In December 1996, our own drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, heaped praise on hisMexican counterpart, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, as a man of"impeccable integrity." Although Gutierrez appeared to be a tough lawenforcer, he was simply helping one drug cartel by cracking down on itsrivals. Gutierrez was subsequently arrested and prosecuted on corruptioncharges.
The Clinton White House spinned that disaster the best it could. The arrestof Gutierrez, said Clinton, was good news because it showed that corruptionwas unacceptable to Mexican leaders. That's like saying we shouldn't fretabout our own Defense Secretary's spying because catching him will show wedon't tolerate treason.
Traffic juxtaposes the policymaking elite in Washington, where Senators talkbreezily over cocktails about "getting tough on drugs," with the grunt workdone by police in the field. DEA agents risk their lives trying toinfiltrate gangster organizations while politicians posture, wring theirhands, and seek to avoid responsibility for the consequences of a failedpolicy.
When Wakefield's own daughter runs afoul of the drug laws, he meetsprivately with the local prosecutor and gets him to drop the matter. Thisis another realistic look at the hypocrisy of the drug war. The prosecutorwould never let a mere receptionist's daughter off the hook because she hasno 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 ownfamilies. Soderbergh says that while he was working on Traffic, he made apoint of interviewing police officers about their work. He posed onequestion to each cop: "If your daughter had a drug problem, would youinvolve the police department?" Without exception, the answer was "no."That telling concession from the drug warriors on the front lines is thecentral message of the film. Drug abuse ought to be viewed as a characterand health problem, not a crime problem. In other words, end the war.