Bailing the Ocean with a Sieve


Washington. -- Bill Mockler is one of the fortunate few for whom there is no clear distinction between work and play. "I love," he says, "the challenge of trying to put people in jail." It is especially challenging because, he says, he is "dealing with some of the craftiest people in the criminal world." It is a measure of Mr. Mockler's professionalism that he can acknowledge the skills of his Colombian adversaries while despising the activities the skills serve.

Mr. Mockler, who speaks in the Flatbush accent of his native Brooklyn, is 51, six years from mandatory retirement from what is largely a young man's business, the Sisyphean task of disrupting the distribution of illegal narcotics. He has risen through the ranks of the Drug Enforcement Administration to be director of special operations.

Those operations usually target what are called "drug kingpins," people like the man known as Zorro, who also was known as "the Mayflower mover" for the Cali cartel in Colombia, moving a ton of cocaine a week across the United States from Los Angeles. That cartel controls more than 80 percent of the cocaine sold in America.

It took 31 concurrent investigations during two years to identify and arrest Zorro because the Cali operatives use technologically sophisticated systems of fax lines, cellular communications (to foil wiretaps they use computer software to "clone" -- steal -- the telephone numbers of unsuspecting individuals) and segmented organizations. As a result Zorro rarely met anyone in his distribution network. When someone like Zorro is arrested, much of his operation is rolled up -- much, but not all of it. One or more of his operatives may be left in place so that law enforcement can follow them and identify the new leadership that replaces those arrested.

But replacements always appear. That is why the high morale of men and women like Bill Mockler -- he has been with the DEA and predecessor agencies since 1968 -- is remarkable. DEA agents routinely devote 12-hour days to seizing a product that is replaceable and arresting people who are fungible.

The government has spent many years and billions of dollars fighting drugs on the supply side, yet the price on the street is falling, and the purity of cocaine and heroin is rising. There are fewer casual users of cocaine than there were a decade ago, but total consumption is as high as it was then because the number of heavy users has increased.

Heroin often is 65 percent pure rather than the 6 percent 15 years ago. Thus it can be inhaled, which cleanses the drug of the stigma associated with needles. One sign of the increased purity is the increasing rate of fatal overdoses. The strength of marijuana is often 15 times what it was in 1980.

James Q. Wilson, writing in The American Enterprise magazine, explains the depressing mathematics of cocaine interdiction:

"Experts at the RAND Corporation estimate that the price of cocaine in transit to the United States is $17,000 per kilo, but on U.S. streets that same kilo is worth $129,000. That enormous spread means that even if authorities managed to seize one out of every 10 kilos shipped (which seems to be about as much as can be hoped for) the street price on the supplies that get through need only be raised by 1.5 percent to make up for the lost shipment."

So, how do the DEA men and women like Mr. Mockler avoid the despair to which people are prey when assigned to bail an ocean with a sieve? They know that law enforcement is just one leg of a three-legged stool -- the other legs are education to prevent drug use, and rehabilitation to cure addiction -- but also know that law enforcement performs an educative as well as deterrent function that reduces addiction rates. And perhaps the most sustaining sense they have is of preventing individual, anonymous tragedies.

Mr. Mockler remembers a night in 1987 during a cocaine-seizure operation in upper Manhattan when he was startled by the traffic congestion in side streets caused by drivers, many from New Jersey, stopping to transact business with young men waving small plastic bags. It was an open-air market at the beginning of the crack epidemic, and its brazenness mocked the resources of law enforcement.

And yet, he thought, if one arrest is going to prevent a young person from taking narcotics back to a party where another young person might be tempted to step onto the slippery slope to addiction, that alone is worth all his efforts. Such efforts by many unsung agents have earned more of the nation's gratitude than they have received.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad