Convicted 'Team America' DEA agent says the War on Drugs is 'unwinnable'

Convicted 'Team America' DEA agent says the War on Drugs is 'unwinnable'
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In December 2021, José Irizarry, a former agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was sentenced to 12 years in prison for conspiring to launder money for Colombian narcotraficantes. Irizarry has been cited as a textbook example of a federal law enforcement agent who went bad, but according to some critics of U.S. drug policy, the War on Drugs was bad to begin with.

Libertarian journalist Radley Balko, a scathing War on Drugs critic known for his work for the libertarian Reason and the Washington Post, has long been arguing that the War on Drugs is terrible policy for a variety of reasons — from mass incarceration to the militarization of police to narcotics officers screwing up and conducting no-knock drug raids at the wrong address. Balko, author of 2013’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces,” also believes that the War on Drugs encourages law enforcement officers to behave unethically when the profit motive is involved.

With Irizarry, there was definitely a profit motive: Irizarry enjoyed a lavish lifestyle before he got caught. And according to a report for the Associated Press (AP) published on November 14, he isn’t an isolated example.

READ MORE: Joe Biden's cannabis pardons matter. But the war on drugs' racist legacy lingers

“José Irizarry accepts that he’s known as the most corrupt agent in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration history, admitting he ‘became another man’ in conspiring with Colombian cartels to build a lavish lifestyle of expensive sportscars, Tiffany jewels and paramours around the world,” AP reports. “But as he used his final hours of freedom to tell his story to The Associated Press, Irizarry says he won't go down for this alone, accusing some long-trusted DEA colleagues of joining him in skimming millions of dollars from drug money laundering stings to fund a decade’s worth of luxury overseas travel, fine dining, top seats at sporting events and frat house-style debauchery.”

AP continues, “The way Irizarry tells it, dozens of other federal agents, prosecutors, informants and in some cases cartel smugglers themselves were all in on the three-continent joyride known as ‘Team America’ that chose cities for money laundering pick-ups mostly for party purposes or to coincide with Real Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops along the way in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with plenty of booze and more than a dozen prostitutes.”

Before going off to federal prison to serve his 12-year sentence, Irizarry spoke candidly to AP and admitted something that Balko has been saying for decades: the War on Drugs has been a colossal failure.

Irizarry told AP, “You can’t win an unwinnable war. DEA knows this, and the agents know this. There’s so much dope leaving Colombia, and there’s so much money. We know we’re not making a difference. The Drug War is a game.... It was a very fun game that we were playing.”

READ MORE: 'A step in the right direction': How Colombia's president plans to end 'the failed War on Drugs'

Although the War on Drugs has been a key factor in mass incarceration in the U.S., it hasn’t prevented the United States’ tragic opioid crisis — which is obvious in parts of major northeastern cities. In Philadelphia, the Kensington area is infamous for countless addicts who are homeless and sleeping on the streets; in Boston, the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard near Roxbury has become known as the “Methadone Mile” because of its abundance of drug-related homelessness. And in both Kensington and the area around “Mass & Cass,” one sees a vivid illustration of Balko’s point that the War on Drugs has failed from a treatment standpoint. Addicts, according to Balko, need comprehensive treatment, not a prison cell — and the War on Drugs has failed miserably where treatment is concerned.

AP notes that Judge Charlene Honeywell has said that Irizarry is not alone when it comes to a DEA agent violating drug laws; he is merely “the one who got caught

Irizarry told AP, “The indictment paints a picture of me, the corrupt agent that did this entire scheme. But it doesn’t talk about the rest of DEA. I wasn’t the mastermind.”

READ MORE: The war on drugs is a preview of life without reproductive freedom: columnists

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