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Separating Drug-War Facts and Hollywood Fiction in ‘Traffic’

WASHINGTON POST

Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” a harsh and artistic indictment of America’s “drug war,” arrives on a wave of extravagant praise, surfing stylishly into view just in time for Oscar season.

Already the film is generating considerable buzz as an Academy Award contender, its chief selling point being its somber documentary-like take on the nation’s drug problem. But just how realistic are the movie’s three interlocking narratives meant to show the entire pyramid of the drug trade, from street-level cop to White House drug czar?

The short answer is: very, but with a few of the usual missteps that Hollywood imposes to punch up the drama. In fact, one can argue that “Traffic” is the most realistic depiction of the drug issue ever put on film (that is not always a strength, though).

The movie--loosely based on the acclaimed 1989 British TV miniseries “Traffik"--can be seen as an almost by-the-numbers attempt to get in as many drug-policy arguments, drug-trade archetypes and obscure drug-world references as possible. One can envision the script conference: Let’s refer to Pablo Escobar, the dead Medellin cartel drug lord, here. How ‘bout a trip to EPIC, the El Paso Intelligence Center, here? A reference to asset forfeiture? A citation of Illinois vs. Gates?

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Don’t forget to mention the formal name of the drug czar’s office: It’s the Office of National Drug Control Policy, thank you.

To give the film its due, all this scrupulous verisimilitude does add gravitas. “Traffic” is extremely good at capturing the look and feel of the drug war. Everything, from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raid jackets and badges to the padding inside the surveillance vans, looks right. A Georgetown cocktail party is full of real politicos--Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, William Weld--spouting canned statements, suitable for sound bite, on drug policy.

Some touches in the movie will be recognized only by aficionados of the deepest sort of drug lore: A shot of cocaine being unloaded from a plane is uncannily composed to virtually match the famous CIA-snapped photograph of DEA informant Barry Seal unloading drugs in Nicaragua in 1984 in what was probably the most important sting in DEA history--the first case against Colombia’s Medellin cartel.

Overall, how does “Traffic” stand up to the historical record? Here’s a quick scorecard. (Caution: For those who haven’t seen the movie, a few spoilers await.) First, a few points of agreement:

Hollywood:

One of the story lines turns on the actions of a corrupt Mexican army general who is pursuing the Tijuana cartel at the same time that he is in the pocket of the Juarez cartel.

Reality:

In the early 1990s in Colombia, some officials of that country’s government aligned with the Cali cartel in a war against the Medellin cartel.

Hollywood:

The head of the Juarez cartel is reported to have died on the operating table during plastic surgery to change his face. But he survives.

Reality:

A Mexican cartel leader is reported to have died on the operating table during plastic surgery to change his face. He stays dead. The doctors responsible are tortured, killed and stuffed in barrels.

Hollywood:

A federal drug bust is interrupted when police officers from another agency charge in to make arrests, unaware that they are stepping on a DEA operation in progress.

Reality:

It was not uncommon for different police agencies to trip over each other’s investigations in Miami in the 1980s, but those instances didn’t result in wild shootouts like the one depicted in “Traffic.”

Hollywood:

Mexican drug law enforcement is shown to be riddled with corruption.

Reality:

Ahem.

Hollywood:

The traffickers come up with an ingenious method of pressing, molding and painting cocaine to make it resemble a clown toy.

Reality:

At the Port of Miami in the late 1980s, the traffickers came up with an ingenious method of pressing, molding and painting cocaine containers to make them resemble yams. Other ingenious methods included stuffing drugs inside aircraft engines. And dissolving the powder in water inside plastic bags, which are then placed in containers of tropical fish, where the bags float, almost impossible for the naked eye to discern.

Hollywood:

A key government informant is murdered just before he is to testify against a cartel boss.

Reality:

Seal, the DEA informant, was murdered in Baton Rouge, La., in 1986, just before he was to testify against a series of cartel employees.

Hollywood:

Gen. Arturo Salazar, America’s ally against drug traffickers, is actually protecting the traffickers.

Reality:

Remember Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega?

Hollywood:

When a cartel boss is arrested, his wife takes over the family business and proves to be as ruthless as her husband.

Reality:

Griselda Blanco, known as the “Black Widow,” ran a smuggling ring, employing her three sons, and was as ruthless as any man. She is credited with inventing the “motorcycle assassin,” who rode by victims and sprayed them with machine-gun bullets. And at least one of her paramours did not live to see old age.

Now some quibbles:

Hollywood:

When a cartel drug distributor (played by Steven Bauer) is arrested in Los Angeles, his wife (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) is shocked to learn how he made the money that gave them such a lavish lifestyle.

Reality:

Oh, please.

Hollywood:

The White House drug czar (Michael Douglas) is portrayed as the commander of the nation’s drug war, able to veto the budgets of other federal agencies and make the DEA, the U.S. Customs Service and others cower.

Reality:

The drug czar is a largely ceremonial figure who does not directly control agency budgets and has no operational role in the drug war.

Hollywood:

The informant against an L.A. cartel boss is a sad sack who is berated, humiliated and treated shabbily by his DEA handlers in the days leading up to his testimony. He is housed in a fleabag hotel under lax security and allowed to wander outside in sight of snipers.

Reality:

The real drug war is run through informants, and top-level ones are treated like kings, at least before they testify. Max Mermelstein, the most important witness against the Medellin cartel, drove his handlers nuts with his imperious demands, but he was treated with kid gloves because he was so important to the government. They housed him in a secure location called “the submarine” that had no windows and was situated under a U.S. District Courthouse. When I interviewed Mermelstein in 1987, he demanded that I buy him a speakerphone and a Mont Blanc pen. I bought him the speakerphone.

Hollywood:

The security is so lax around the courthouse that a cartel assassin can saunter up to a DEA car and plant a bomb without being seen, much less caught.

Reality:

Courthouses in major cities tend to have secure, guarded parking lots for government vehicles.

Hollywood:

The drug czar makes a speech with the following sentence: “The war on drugs is a war that we have to win and a war we can win.”

Reality:

U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey says in his final report to the country this week: “The metaphor of a ‘war on drugs’ is misleading. Although wars are expected to end, drug education--like all schooling--is a continuous process. The moment we believe ourselves victorious and drop our guard, drug abuse will resurface in the next generation.”

Hollywood:

The drug war is portrayed as a miserable failure, with drug traffic an unstoppable flood destroying America’s teens.

Reality:

Overall drug use has declined 50% in the United States since its peak in 1979, and use among people between the ages of 12 and 17 has dropped 21% since 1997, according to the drug czar’s most recent report. “By historical standards, present rates of drug use are relatively low,” McCaffrey reported.

Jeff Leen is the investigations editor of the Washington Post. He covered the cocaine trade from 1985 to 1993 for the Miami Herald and is the co-author, with Guy Gugliotta, of “Kings of Cocaine” (Simon & Schuster, 1989), a nonfiction account of the Medellin cartel.


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