The Absurd Theatre of the Modern Cocaine Bust

When a billion dollars worth of coke was seized last week, experts were quick to remind us that it's not going to solve America's drug problem.
24 June 2019, 7:50am
Left Image: (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images). Right Image: James Pozarik / Contributor / LIFE Images via Getty

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

With all the cocaine bricks in front of him, you couldn't see anything below Joseph Martella's waist. There were so many—450, to be exact—that it looked like he could practically ascend them like a small staircase. It was March 21, and the uniformed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official based in Philadelphia was showing off the carefully organized spoils of a massive drug bust as assorted men in suits looked on. His hair was immaculately combed.

The numbers, at least, were impressive: Those 450 bricks fit into 13 large black duffel bags. That's 537.6 kilograms, or 1,185 pounds and three ounces. At street value, it was about $38 million worth of the drug, according to Martella's estimate.

The victory lap came just days after a similarly high-profile bust in Newark, New Jersey, where inspectors from CBP and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) uncovered 3,200 pounds of cocaine, or $77 million worth. In both cases, journalists took photographs and recorded videos of federal law-enforcement officials speaking to the media from beside neat piles of bricks of confiscated cocaine. The coke remained covered, of course—the white powder was still secured in brown paper, like gifts whose contents you already know without unwrapping them.

At the time of the Philly bust, Martella and other law-enforcement officials touted the seizure of cocaine as the city's largest in 21 years. It didn't hold that distinction for very long.

On Tuesday, William McSwain, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, revealed that around 16.5 tons, or about $1 billion, worth of coke had been discovered aboard cargo ships at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia, likely headed to Europe. It was lauded as one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history. On Friday, with only a quarter of the seized narcotics—the total was later pegged at more like 17.5 tons—serving as their backdrop, law-enforcement and government officials gave a press conference to local reporters, where they confirmed that six crew members had been arrested and charged. "Laid end-to-end, all the bricks would cover a distance of about 2.5 miles," said Casey Durst, director of field operations for CBP in Baltimore.

Certainly, such efforts are notable at a time when cocaine-related overdose deaths are believed to be on the rise. But experts were skeptical that even a series of massive seizures in such short succession would make any substantial impact on the coke market in America. Instead, they suggested, the cascade of busts amounted to little more than a bit of classic drug-war pageantry, a routine that gets less convincing with every year—especially in the age of fentanyl saturation.

"In many ways, this has always been the MO of our drug-control system, measuring results by operational metrics—by the number of arrests, the number of drug shipments seized, the weight of those shipments," said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University School of Law. "And inherent to that is the theater that's involved with it: announcing these drug busts and posing for pictures in front of the drugs. It's what I call policy theater. 'We're doing something about this issue, and here's the proof.'"

McSwain Looking

Photo via US Attorney William McSwain's Twitter account

If nothing else, that leaves us with visuals. Lots of them. Like tweets: these images of US Attorney McSwain, as if framed in an art-house film, on the deck of the boat during the Philly bust Tuesday, the sun reflecting on the water behind him as he looked forlornly toward something out of the frame; relatively blurry moments captured of him, folder in hand, walking and talking with an officer; and a picture of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parked right in front of a bunch of containers, as if stopped there in both a hurry and perfectly centered for the camera. They could probably be mistaken for stills from an original Netflix series that you haven't bothered to watch yet.

As Beletsky pointed out, it's not just coke deaths that have surged—those connected to methamphetamine, and, perhaps most notoriously, fentanyl, have spiked too, making it only natural that more money and resources would be pumped into interdiction and detection in general. After guards at a Pennsylvania prison apparently got sick from exposure to K2, or synthetic marijuana, $15 million of taxpayer money was spent on what the Philadelphia Inquirer last year called "radically tightened security measures," like "high-tech body-scanners for visitors, drone-detection equipment, and the digital delivery of all mail." It was just another subplot in a long American tradition of waging a supply-side drug war—at ports, in prisons, and on the street—in the most dramatic way possible, experts said.

"A big bust is a big bust, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's evidence for shifting policy," said Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "That's the problem. You can't take a big bust and say, 'OK, you guys are really good at this, so we're going to give you twice the money next year.'"

"There are going to be big busts, and there are going to be little busts, but one of the truths we hold with drug policy is that busts reflect supply," he continued. "But they don't necessarily reflect success of interdiction in capturing new or better amounts of supply, in the long run."

That "proof," as Beletsky put it, has a lengthy history. For Topic in March, Andy Wright wrote a timeline of the drug-bust photo op, where he showed that it's actually many decades old, and "has achieved a sort of iconic status, served up by national and local media on a regular basis as evidence of law enforcement's victories in the drug war, as well as a titillating snapshot of illicit deeds." It'd be pretty easy, at this point, for virtually any American to choreograph this: neatly assemble the narcotics, and maybe sprinkle in a few assault weapons also from the scene, or spread out the illicit cash so the viewer can at least attempt to count it. At worst, as Wright argued, they're proof of "law enforcement propaganda and media manipulation"; at best, they're simply distractions that feed our need for constant entertainment. And now they've morphed, evolved—into live-streamed press conferences, tweetable behind-the-scenes photos, and even viral memes.

It's all part of a routine that, like many aspects of American criminal-justice culture, has been brought under a more critical lens as of late—especially as we move further and further online. The documentary filmmaker Dan Taberski recently watched hundreds of Cops episode, and after he produced a podcast that examines the series, summarized his findings in an op-ed for the New York Times: "What we found is that Cops is edited far more problematically than it lets on, that it consistently presents excessive force as good policing and that its structural reinforcement of racial stereotypes about criminality raises questions about the ethics of continuing to let the show remain on the air." Police officers have also become rather integral participants on TikTok, and this week, in Philadelphia, 72 of them were put on desk duty due to offensive posts on social media.

As perhaps is epitomized by the latter-day War on Drugs photo op, it's increasingly hard to shake the feeling that cops are beginning to break the fourth wall—forcing us to consider what some of them might be doing is, well, acting.

Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.