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Joe Biden and Drug Control: A More Complete Picture (Part 3—the Late ’80s)

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC). She continues the series on Joe Biden’s drug policy she started last month.

Now that Joe Biden has been duly elected president, I want to continue exploring his drug control activities where I left off last month. Although it takes me further and further from my chronological comfort zone as a historian, I have really appreciated the opportunity that writing for Points has presented me to learn some basic stuff about the “decade of greed.” To that end, I watched The Last Narc, an Amazon series about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Mexican-American DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in February 1985. I know very little about this incident, but I had seen so many references to it in primary and secondary sources that I figured it had to be a defining event in the history of the drug wars. 

The new documentary went something like this (spoiler alert … ?). Part 1: The traffickers involved were selfish, brutal, and strung out; but Mexican officials at the highest level also were complicit in the wildly profitable and violent drug trade. Part 2: Cartel commanders definitely beat Camarena to death slowly while he begged for his life. Part 3: Wait, CIA agent Félix Rodríguez also beat and questioned Camarena, who probably knew too much about the U.S.-run Contra training camp in Central America secretly funded by Mexican cartels running South American cocaine into the United States. Part 4: An unidentified DEA agent also assisted in planning the abduction; looks like Camarena was betrayed by his own government. 

Investigative journalists have been piecing together parts of this horror story for 35 years now. What really happened to Camarena still matters because his murder set a new, militant tone for all of U.S. drug control. At the time, no one with a public platform really speculated on U.S. involvement. Rather, that the narcotraficantes could be so brazen, armed to the teeth, and protected by the Mexican government alarmed public officials in the United States considerably. The U.S.-Mexican border was temporarily closed. The Senate authorized a “Camarena Reward” of $100,000 (from forfeited drug assets—who could vote against that?) in exchange for information leading to the conviction of anyone who killed or kidnapped a federal drug agent. Senate oversight of the DEA was moved to the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, signaling a shift in its focus from home to abroad. There was serious talk of sending the military south into drug-producing countries. There was a stern bipartisan push for increased drug-war funding—even, said Democrats, if it meant higher taxes.

Narcotrafficking became a watchword of the 1980s. But who were the most villainous of the villains?

Biden would not give up his continuing efforts to confront illicit drugs, both because he believed that drugs caused violent crime and damaged American lives and because the drug issue’s popularity was good for Biden politically. Beginning his third six-year term as senator in 1985, he was one of three Democrats who immediately cosponsored a bill that cited Camarena’s death and made several demands of the Reagan administration with regard to international drug control. Those demands included a report to Congress from the president himself within 60 days “on why the United States Armed Forces should not exert greater effort in facilitating and supporting interception of narcotics traffickers, and in gathering narcotics-related intelligence, outside the United States.” The bill would also have disallowed foreign aid payments to countries that did not cooperate with U.S. plans for drug interdiction or crop eradication; required the Department of State to share information on drug trafficking with the DEA and Customs; and demanded that the Department of State issue an advisory warning Americans that it was dangerous to travel to Mexico, to “remain in effect until those responsible for the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Camarena have been brought to trial and a verdict has been obtained.”

This bill, destined to die in a Republican-controlled Senate, was one among many anti-drug legislative initiatives that Biden pursued after Reagan had pocket-vetoed a 1983 crime bill that had included a number of anti-drug measures, such as Biden’s long-desired cabinet-level drug czar. While looking toward a revision that would be veto-proof in 1984, Democrats parceled out the long-shot measures. Sometimes these smaller bills amounted to political theater, but they could serve a real purpose in winning a legislative compromise. Having demanded the moon from the international drug control establishment, Biden won a small concession: after he tacked the travel advisory requirement onto the end of the State Department’s major funding bill, Congress and the president both agreed to require, in lieu of the travel advisory, frequent State Department reporting on the progress of the ongoing Camarena murder investigation.

Even in the minority passenger seat of Senate committees engaged with drug policy, Biden tried hard to solve the puzzle posed by the Camarena case—at least, as he understood the facts at the time—which was: Why did all of the federal government’s spending and planning result in a national drug problem that only grew worse? How could U.S. drug control be working, in any sense, if Mexicans could gain such a deadly upper hand? Of course, these questions might have been far different if he had only known the extent to which the administration was working against the goal of reducing the flow of drugs into the country. In other words, Cold War trumped Drug War, but Reagan’s CIA had kept its hand hidden. Perhaps this situation also contributed to Reagan’s distaste for spending money on expanding the domestic drug wars in the mid-1980s.

In the 1980s, greed was good, and so were drug arrests.

In addition to increased funding, Biden had always believed that oversight was what federal drug control badly needed. However, Reagan, citing opposition by his cabinet, was dead set against a drug czar that could coordinate federal agencies. A compromise written into the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act was that the attorney general would serve as drug czar by heading a National Drug Enforcement Policy Board composed of cabinet members with oversight of drug control functions. During a DEA oversight hearing in March 1985, Biden indicated that neither outgoing Attorney General William French Smith nor incoming Edwin Meese III had reached for the reins. Additionally, DEA Administrator Bud Mullen—reportedly targeted by Columbian drug traffickers who placed a $350,000 bounty on his head—had left the position, to be replaced by the DEA’s second in command, Jack Lawn.

Biden told Lawn that Congress would be watching Meese closely as he marshalled the country’s anti-drug forces. Biden was particularly interested in “the whole question of whether or not we are going to enforce the new forfeiture law, and the whole question of increasing seizures and forfeiture of drug trafficker assets.” The 1984 crime act had included an overhaul, led by Biden, that cleared numerous legal hurdles to forfeiting drug defendants’ property to the federal government; and had established “equitable sharing” of forfeited assets with local law enforcement. Biden also said he was eager to learn whether Meese and Lawn would return to “an area that we have essentially moved out of, and that is prevention and treatment.

“I am becoming—having been involved in this thing deeply now for 9 of my 13 years as a Senator—I am becoming more and more skeptical, not about your collective abilities,” he said, “but I am becoming almost despondent about the ability of producers to increase in ever phenomenal quantities the availability of coke, heroin, and dangerous drugs that flood the market.”

Biden worried that the job of drug control was “phenomenally large” and that the Democrats had been overpromising results from federal efforts, an error that Republicans too were beginning to make. “The President says that he is going to end drugs,” Biden said. “Well, I do not know where he has been. We will not see that under his Presidency or probably in our lifetime.” But he promised Lawn that the Judiciary Committee stood ready “to do whatever you ask us to do within the constitutional limitations that are thrust upon all of us.”

In keeping with his past approach, Biden offered the federal drug control apparatus financial support and watchful oversight. Two years later, after Democrats won back control of the Senate and Biden became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he remained deeply dissatisfied with the state of federal drug control. Although Congress had pushed yet more stringent federal criminal penalties and other overhauls into the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the law “failed to contain what I believe is the most critical component of an effective drug control program: a framework for coordination and leadership,” told the committee at a hearing on his bill to create a cabinet-level drug czar.

The policy board had failed to meet its mandate, he said, and drug-related problems had only gotten worse. Exasperated, Biden aired a laundry list of recent examples of the same old problems. Agencies were “double and triple counting” arrests and seizures, rendering federal statistics unreliable. The Coast Guard had taken $8 million from a shared Customs account it said Customs had promised but later reneged upon. The CIA had “unilaterally” stopped collecting narcotics intelligence altogether. Meese had apologized to Mexico after a Treasury official accused it of “massive corruption” with regard to narcotics. Agencies had publicly “bickered” over budget allocations made by the policy board, questioning the board’s authority to do so.

This left the committee with no choice, Biden said, but to continue seeking solutions to escalating drug use and related crime. “Once again, we will be looking for answers to fundamental questions,” he said. They remained:

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