Television Reviews : 'Frontline' Probes the Laundering of Drug Profits

Television reporting is rightly accused of frequently distorting or simplifying a subject, usually as a result of little reflection or investigative time spent on the issue at hand. The epidemic of the drug trade is a case in point. So Byzantine are the forces at work in this massive, international business that no government investigation anywhere, let alone journalist, has gotten to the bottom of it.

"Who Profits From the Drug Trade?" (on "Frontline" tonight, at 9 on Channels 28 and 15, 10 on Channel 50) suggests what happens when television resources and months of research are lavished on a story. What had been a mystery--with sinister results--begins to be comprehensible.

As "Frontline" follows the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) penetration of a multi-million-dollar drug-profits laundering operation, the viewer's whole perception of the drug business is altered. The DEA's Operation Man (so-called for Britain's Isle of Man, whose bank-secrecy laws make it a haven for laundering) uncovers not swarming nests of Colombian coke dealers driving speedboats down Florida waterways, or urban gangs enforcing "justice," but white, college-educated male American yuppies who know how to convert burdensome mountains of cash into such investment purchases as real estate and John Lennon's auctioned piano.

The report's message is unmistakably political: American business, based on its logic of "make profits or die," is quickly becoming hooked on the drug market.

The biggest profiteers--outside of drug cartel warlords--from an American addiction destroying the lives of countless urban poor are lawyers, accountants, politicians, bankers and the like. The connective thread is of professionals brilliantly using their skills to exploit a cultural and social malaise.

"Who Profits From the Drug Trade?" is so compelling as a meticulous detective story that the viewer, at least for the hour the story takes to tell, suspends the deeper questions left unexplored here: Who needs drugs, and why?

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