Hollywood's 'Infiltrator' shines light on failed drug war

How real-life 'Infiltrator' exposed Pablo Escobar's money-laundering scheme
How real-life 'Infiltrator' exposed Pablo Escobar's money-laundering scheme

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Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: "The Infiltrator" bolsters view that war on drugs has been a failure
  • It targeted the poorest and most vulnerable in America, rather than the big players, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The war on drugs has been a failure.

A new film opening Wednesday makes clear the dynamic behind that debacle. "The Infiltrator" offers a gripping look at the life of a federal agent named Robert Mazur who went undercover to infiltrate the notorious Colombian drug cartel. Mazur, played by Bryan Cranston, is shown pretending to be a high-flying money launderer, along with a fake fiancée who also worked undercover, so that he can embed himself deeply into the international drug trafficking cartels that were bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine to the United States throughout the 1980s.
    Though it's a fictionalized account of Mazur's story, the film offers an important opportunity to have an urgent conversation about America's broken drug policies.
    Looming over the film is President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan. We repeatedly see the President speaking on television about his war on drugs. We see the ads ominously warning what would happen to children if they didn't say no.
    The 1980s was a key period in the evolution of the nation's punitive approach toward drugs. Average users, small-time dealers and urban gangs were the focus of a criminal justice system that placed millions of Americans, including a disproportionate number of African-Americans, in our prisons.
    But this powerful film reminds viewers of Mazur's basic insight: that big international banks, often working with U.S. allies (such as Manuel Noriega) were the real forces that allowed drug cartels to thrive. They provided the institutional mechanisms that allowed for the secure flow of their money.
    In the film, we watch as Mazur has the realization that rather than following the drugs the government should be following the money. He struggles to gain support for a strategy that targets the banking system rather than the smaller players who had consumed his time. The real-life case that is the focus of the film led to the indictment of 85 people, many of whom worked for the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
    It's not the first time Cranston has been cast in a role that raised questions about U.S. drug policies. In the hit show "Breaking Bad," Cranston played a high school chemistry teacher driven by economic desperation and inadequate health care to produce meth.
    Through five seasons we gained a powerful look at how ineffective and destructive the current war on drugs has been. One dealer replaces another, while the system leaves behind imprisoned dealers and devastated communities.
    Though it has not been effective, the war on drugs has consumed an enormous amount of federal dollars.
    In one moment in "The Infiltrator," Cranston's character expresses surprise when his partner, played by John Leguizamo, says that he offered his informant $250,000 for information. Leguizamo responds, "No one said the war on drugs was going to be cheap, bro." And it has not been. Over the past four decades, federal, state and local governments have spent more than $1 trillion on an effort that has not produced satisfactory results. If it were any other area of government, critics would be calling for heads to roll. Instead we keep spending.
    Despite Mazur's heroic efforts and an enormous expenditure of government capital, the crackdown that we see in the film doesn't have much of a long-term effect. Drugs continue to flow into the country, though shifting from one kind to another and one source to a new source, and we are not in better shape than before.
    These discussions are not unconnected from the protests in recent weeks. At the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement is a critique about the impact of institutional racism, the argument that if we are ever to deal with racial disparity in the United States, we need to address these problems through public policy, not speeches or a law and order crackdown.
    The war on drugs has been one of the most glaring examples of a failed policy that has had extremely detrimental effects on African-American communities. During the 1980s, for instance, the federal penalties for crack cocaine were far more stringent than those for powder cocaine, which resulted in lengthier terms for African-Americans. According to the NAACP, five times as many white Americans were drug users as African-Americans, yet African-Americans went to jail at 10 times the rate of whites. The NAACP also reports that African-Americans spend as much time in prison for drug offenses as whites do for violent offenses.
    Americans have supported changes, as has been evident with the debates over marijuana, where states have begun moving away from a model of criminalization. There is growing support, in the case of some drugs, to abandon a policy that revolved around locking up citizens and unintentionally fostering illegal drug markets, toward a set of regulatory and medical policies that can contain the problem.
    These efforts won't work for all kinds of drugs, given that some can be much more dangerous when used, not just to the user but those around them.
    "The Infiltrator" reminds us that part of the solution must deal with looking at bigger organizations such as financial institutions and allied governments that capitalize on the drug trade for their own revenue. As Robert Mazur told me in an email interview, "The international banking community doesn't get the scrutiny they should because people perceive that as a licensed international institution that would be above this sort of thing and it isn't the case."
    Unless the government actually goes after these pillars of the drug trade, combined with medical and regulatory policies for dealing with drugs in our communities, we will prolong a system that exacts an unfair toll on the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged in American society.