President, Constantine's Circus, Inc.
Honorary DEA Special Agent of the Year
I'm here to tell you some good news about the war on drugs. Notwithstanding the gloomy picture painted in the current film Traffic, it has turned around. I can even tell you where it happened and when. It was in Buffalo on August 19, 1992.
Former State Police Superintendent and Drug Enforcement Administration chief Tom Constantine often says that when he was a boy in Buffalo a kid could ride on the streetcar all over town in perfect safety for a dime. But over the years that changed. During the decade of the 50s when he was in high school, the city abruptly lost something like a third of its population. Industry slumped. The city was eclipsed as a seaport. Tight-knit neighborhoods declined, became seedy and then slid into decay as houses were abandoned and storefronts boarded up.
Drugs had always been around, but with the downturn, they increased. Amazingly though, the crack cocaine epidemic that erupted and raged elsewhere in urban America during the 80s never hit Buffalo until around 1990. But when it did, rising sharply in 1992, it hit hard, especially in poor neighborhoods.
For weeks that year the Buffalo media whipped up public concern over a sudden increase in street-level drug dealing and violence. Shots were fired at a police substation and at a uniformed security guard apparently mistaken for a cop. People called on the Mayor and other community leaders to do something.
On the morning of August 20, 1992, I opened The New York Times and found a story headlined “75 Arrested For Drug Deals In Buffalo Raid.” Only Tom Constantine could get so fortuitous a headline in the very year the New York state troopers were celebrating their 75th anniversary.
And the story got better still. Tom had come back to Buffalo and joined two other great Irish cops -- Erie County Sheriff Tom Higgins and Buffalo Police Commissioner Richard Donovan -- to pull off this spectacle in front of all the residents of the largely poor neighborhoods on Buffalo's east side where the good people who lived there had been subjected to the increasing depredations of the drug dealers. That all for one, one for all approach became his signature from then on. By later that day, they had swept up over 150 dealers -- local individuals who were getting their drug supplies from dealers in New York City. The people came out and cheered. That man had style.
I remember the first time I met him. The governor of New York had just nominated him for the post of superintendent of state police. Already known as a taskmaster, he was not a welcome or popular choice among the state troopers. That is what I had heard, at any rate. The day I met him, he showed up at a meeting in a hotel in Albany. Everybody there was making much of him and congratulating him. He stood in the middle of the group and looked upward, almost overwhelmed for a moment, and said: “I can't believe this happened to a kid from Buffalo.”
One day, I went to visit him in his office at the state police headquarters. It was in the late Spring of 1988. I didn't meet with him all that many times and each occasion was very brief. I remember each of those meetings vividly; especially that one. I found him to be rather harsh and stern, brusque and hard to connect with. That time, though, I felt some feeling stirring in me that I couldn't quite name. It wasn't until I left the building and was out in the sunlight looking at the bed of flowers that had recently been planted there that I identified the feeling. Something about that man made me feel hopeful. No other word could describe it. That was something we were going to need.
You see, 1992 was not only a time of celebrating the great tradition of the state police and stunning successes like the Buffalo drug raid. A terrible scandal came to light that year. Some of our investigators had committed the most egregious breach of trust. They had falsified evidence and lied in criminal trials in cases that sent quite possibly innocent people to prison. The investigation of this affair took several years. It was an ordeal.
One day, a reporter called me and tried to get me to say on the record that the governor regarded the scandal so politically damaging that he wanted Tom to resign. We had quite an argument about it. No such story came out although there was plenty of hurtful press during that time. I hung up the phone. I did not want his story to end with Tom going down to defeat under the weight of so ugly a scandal.
I spent the following year working with a group of retired friends to raise a monument to the men and women of the state police. We worked with a sense of purpose and urgency. The investigation and bad press continued. Several investigators involved in the scandal were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. I knew one of them. After all of that bad news, we wanted to give everyone a happy and uplifting event.
It must have been the clearest and warmest day that September when a crowd of some six hundred members, family and friends of the state police attended the unveiling of our big bronze trooper. Everyone had a wonderful time posing for pictures with him and congratulating the chairman of committee and the artist. When it was over, I watched as Tom just headed across the grounds to go right back to work. He worked very hard; harder than anyone I've ever known.
It was only a few weeks later that the news came out that he was under consideration for the top job at the Drug Enforcement Administration. There was concern that the scandal would be used to derail his confirmation. I was so concerned that I went down to Washington for his confirmation hearing.
It was a miserable morning in Washington, March 4, 1994. The city was shut down because two inches of slush had accumulated. I went into the hearing room and sat in the back row. It went very well, except to my annoyance the Honorable Senators kept mispronouncing his name -- and his wife and kids all sitting there behind him. Senator Joseph Biden mentioned the evidence tampering scandal briefly and was assured that written questions asked by the committee would receive a full response from the state police and the Special Prosecutor. That was the last we heard of it.
It was on that day that I began to see the big picture and to really appreciate the important part he would play in it; indeed, already had played.
New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told us that the problem of drug addiction and the profiteering and criminal violence that went with it arose gradually out of advances in industrial chemistry made in the mid-19th Century. First chemists learned to purify naturally occurring narcotics like opium and coca. Later, they manufactured synthetic versions of them. Finally, they learned to design whole new substances with pain-killing and pleasure-producing properties the likes of which human beings had never before experienced but with the unfortunate effect of addiction. This stuff was, you could say, an industrial by-product -- a sort of toxic waste; another poison spewing into the human environment.
As the 20th Century advanced and the world grew more complex and tumultuous and the nature of human society and industry transformed, drug abuse took root and flourished. Then again, so did industrial pollution, the greenhouse effect, damage to the ozone layer, deforestation, radiation, strange new diseases and other bad things. As for the drug epidemic, nothing like it has ever happened before in human history. No one could have foreseen the amount of addiction and the health costs associated with it. No one could have foreseen the power and viciousness of the criminal organizations that arose out of drug trafficking. No one can be fairly faulted for not knowing what to do about it or for the mistakes that governments have made in addressing it.
Tom sat there quietly listening to the Senators and answering their questions. The one thing I remember him saying aside from the charming introduction he gave of his wife Ruth was that he thought it had taken thirty years for America's drug habit to reach the proportions it had at that moment and that it would take another thirty years of sustained effort to beat it. I doubt if he realized as he spoke that his words put him right at the pivot-point.
Since that time, I have come to believe that the tide reached its high-water mark on August 19, 1992 in Buffalo when Tom went out there to draw a line and face it down. He went to a place that he remembered as it was before all this happened and did what he could to restore it to what it had been when he became a police officer in 1960. Again in November the following year, he pulled off another such operation in Schenectady where he and his family had been living for many years. That was just before he went to Washington and it kept the momentum that had started in Buffalo going as he launched his mission out into the world.
There came a day when Tom flew down to Mexico City to address a conference of law enforcement officials from all the nations of the Western Hemisphere. There he stood, the kid from Buffalo whom the American people had asked to be their top soldier in the war against drugs, looking out into an audience of men and women from all those nations, gathered together to plan a winning strategy. Only at that point we weren't winning at all. In fact, at the international level, the conflict was hopeless, unwinnable and tinged to its very depth with cynicism. Tom changed that.
He got up in front of all those people and looked out at the assembly and he said: “As we are sitting here at this conference in Mexico City, there are seven notorious, indicted drug traffickers here, men who are responsible for torture and murder, hundreds of abductions and killings, corruption, violence and drug addiction and the government of Mexico has done nothing to apprehend them and there is no one in Mexico we can trust to work with us to put a stop to them and their crimes.”
Tom went back to Washington and President Clinton had to dispatch half his Cabinet to smooth the ruffled feathers of the government of Mexico. But a brave and honest voice had been raised to tell the world that the sky was falling and no one was doing anything about it.
After he retired from the DEA, a story suddenly made the news that the FBI and Mexican authorities thought they had stumbled upon a mass grave of victims of one of the Mexican drug mafias. Tom said that he hoped that this was the one horrible incident that would cause such revulsion in public opinion so hard that the American people would “get serious at last” about the violence, corruption and addiction.
I read that in a newspaper and thought: “The people have grown inured to tragedy. In fact, they don't even know what it is anymore. They don't have the benefit of the powerful lessons Aristotle told us we learn from tragedy. Ingmar Bergman says all of our cinema has turned into a cavalcade of “butchery and whoring.” In the war on drugs we have seen DEA Special Agent Kiki Camarena tortured to death in Mexico; we have seen five young DEA Special Agents die in a plane crash in Peru's Huallaga Valley; we have seen eighteen Mexican citizens, including eight children, dragged out of a house and shot in the head in their driveway. Those are tragedies in the classical sense. They should inspire pity and fear and make us change our ways. But no one learns. What's one more atrocity on the evening news?”
In response to that question, one I have asked myself many times, I offer Tom Constantine's wonderfully hopeful story. It's a living story and new chapters are constantly emerging. Most of us have no idea where we are in the struggle against drug abuse and the international drug traffickers. What we hear is conflicting and confusing. Are we winning or losing? There has to be a moment when it coalesces into coherence. That needs a story and a story needs a hero. Ours is a simple man, an impassioned man. To him the world appears in black and white; our choices in life are between right and wrong. He tells the truth and that is his real strength and the essence of his claim to the mantle of leadership. He changed everything that day he told the truth down in Mexico City.
Today, across America, state governments are beginning to fine-tune their policy toward drug abuse. Law enforcement agencies are better trained and equipped and work more effectively together. They think and plan more strategically. In New York, where harsh sentencing laws enacted in 1973 saw prison population grow from 17,000 then to 72,000 today, there is serious talk from the most responsible quarters, including Governor George E. Pataki, about changing the laws to force drug abusers into treatment rather than prison. Under the can-do leadership of Judge Joseph Trafficante, a whole set of special drug courts will be in place statewide within two years. We have also adopted a money laundering law that will make us far more effective in battling drug trafficking organizations by targeting all the financial middlemen who make the drug economy go.
The Mexican people threw out the party that had ruled for over three quarters of a century and permitted corruption and drug trafficking to take deep root and flourish. Those five DEA Special Agents who died in the Peruvian Andes did not die in vain -- coca production is down 60% in that nation. In Colombia, the wealthy and powerful Cali Cartel was decapitated during Tom's time as chief of the DEA and newly invigorated attention has been paid to the stalled peace process and the armed insurgencies that have funded themselves through opium and coca cultivation and drug trafficking. Trade agreements between the United States and Latin America will in the long term lead to rising standards of living in all of those nations. Many of them have a weak tradition of representative government that breeds authoritarianism and corruption and permits organized crime to flourish. We have strong representative government and professional law enforcement agencies and we can and must help our neighbors acquire the same. Thorny issues of of extradition have come a long way toward resolution and our neighbors are increasingly adopting laws controlling money laundering and criminal profiteering.
And we have Tom Constantine, a leader; someone to look up to and admire because he is a simple and impassioned man who started out from humble beginnings and has achieved great things. He has been a good husband and father. He has been a mentor to many. He has enhanced the honor and dignity of the profession of law enforcement. He has told the truth. And when his hometown of Buffalo was in trouble, he went back there and drew the line. He is all about leadership and people young and old respond to that. I know I do.
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CONSTANTINE'S CIRCUS, INC.
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