The Underground Empire

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Fashions in public attitudes toward the use of recreational drugs change over time. The so-called counterculture of the late 1960’s, reacting against the supposedly stifling conformity imposed by middle-class values, greeted the rising consumption of mind-altering drugs as the harbinger of a new and higher human consciousness. By the 1980’s, however, middle-class values were back in style: Most Americans had come to see drug intoxication not as a path to greater psychic well-being but as a threat to labor productivity, a breeding ground for violent crime, and a danger to public health. Riding the wave of America’s renewed desire to do something about the drug problem, James Mills, a veteran reporter, has written The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Governments Embrace.

The perplexing problem of drug abuse can be looked at from many different angles, depending on what one sees as the key to its solution. The author has written a massive book about one rather narrow aspect of America’s drug problem: the international traffic in addictive drugs and the hitherto unsuccessful attempts of the United States government to put a stop to it. Thus this work treats the supply side of the drug problem rather than the demand side.

The federal government antidrug organization Centac (Central Tactical Unit), established in the early 1970’s, was phased out by 1986. Instead of simply arresting users and small-time peddlers, Centac went after the multimillionaire narcotics magnates and tried to use the conspiracy law to put them behind bars. Mills gives a detailed account of the war waged by Dennis Dayle, the head of Centac, against three such alleged narcotics magnates: Alberto Sicilia-Falcon, a Cuban émigré marijuana trafficker based in Mexico; Donald Steinberg, a young American marijuana entrepreneur based in South Florida; and Lu Hsu Shui, a highly elusive Chinese dealer in Southeast Asian heroin, based in Bangkok, Thailand.

According to Mills, the story of Centac’s hunt for these men is the fruit of five years of diligent legwork and extensive interviewing. Mills asserts that he accompanied several Centac agents on their investigations. He also informs the reader that he had conversations with drug entrepreneurs Alberto Sicilia-Falcon and Donald Steinberg, with such government informants as Mike Decker, with various Centac agents, and with the head of Centac, Dennis Dayle.

Mills, clearly sympathizing with Dayle’s frequent expressions of frustration over the limits of Centac’s enforcement powers, sees a deep-rooted ambivalence within the highest circles of the United States government regarding the problem of drug smuggling. The author is full of sarcasm over what he regards as the glaring contrast between the American government’s muscular antirhetoric, produced for domestic consumption, and its reluctance to take vigorous action against drugs beyond America’s frontiers. The United States Central Intelligence Agency, Mills charges, protects, as valued sources of information, some of those same Asian drug dealers which American drug enforcement agents are trying to hunt down and capture. Likewise, the United States government shrinks from using threats to win the cooperation of those drug-producing countries that are American allies. Mills gloomily concludes that American law enforcement’s war against drugs will continue to be a futile one until the United States government begins to exert far more pressure on friendly but corrupt governments than it has up to 1986. Yet with all of his muckraking zeal, the author offers no guidelines for resolving the inevitable tension between the goals of American foreign policy and the aims of American drug law enforcement.

In February, 1985, Enrique Camarena Salazar, an American Drug Enforcement Administration agent working in Mexico, was kidnaped and murdered by Mexican drug traffickers, with the apparent complicity of the Mexican police. The author sees this shocking incident as merely one symptom of a much deeper malaise. Communicating a crusading anger against corruption, Mills makes one charge after another concerning the influence allegedly exerted by narcotics traffickers over governments in both Asia and Latin America. Although the author does regard some Latin American Communist governments as...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, May 15, 1986, p. 1343.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, May 29, 1986, p. 19.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, May 1, 1986, p. 703.

Library Journal. CXI, June 1, 1986, p. 114.

Los Angeles Times. June 26, 1986, V, p. 26.

Los Angeles Times. October 2, 1986, I, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, October 9, 1986, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, June 29, 1986, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, April 11, 1986, p. 76.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVII, June 26, 1986, p. 29.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, June 1, 1986, p. 4.