HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html 'Traffic' Captures Much of Drug World, People
Pubdate: Thu, 18 Jan 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Authors: Alison Leigh Cowan And Christopher S. Wren
Bookmark: (Traffic)


Chic in charcoal pinstripes and chunky shoes, her blond hair clipped back, 
Debra Walcott is a poised, fresh-faced 22-year-old. She is also a 
recovering heroin addict who bears some resemblance to the teenager in the 
new movie "Traffic," a character whose drug habit quickly devours her 
comfortable middle-class life.

For Ms. Walcott, watching the "Traffic" character Caroline Wakefield lose 
everything was like reliving the five years she spent using drugs or 
scheming to get more. "That did happen to me," said Ms. Walcott, who grew 
up in Dix Hills, an affluent community on Long Island built atop new money. 
"I remember getting kicked out of my house, losing my license, my car."

When "Traffic," directed by Steven Soderbergh, was released in December, it 
caused a stir for its gritty realism and dim view of Washington's handling 
of the drug problem. Lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours, it paints bleak pictures 
of lives touched by drugs, from the federal agent who is blown apart by a 
bomb aimed at a witness he was protecting to the prep school student who is 
foolish enough to overdose while his parents are in Barbados.

The action, several stories that unfurl during one month, centers on the 
naming of a neophyte as the nation's new drug czar, Robert Wakefield, 
played by Michael Douglas. To prepare a 10-point plan to grapple with the 
problem, he seeks enlightenment far from home just as his daughter, 
Caroline, begins her dizzying descent into drugs.

To show what Mr. Douglas's character is up against, Mr. Soderbergh cuts 
frequently to Tijuana, where an honest Mexican police officer battles the 
corruption that surrounds him, and to a San Diego suburb, where the 
pregnant wife of a prominent businessman discovers how her family really 
makes its money.

At every opportunity Mr. Soderbergh puts human weakness on display as the 
incorrigible foe that Mr. Douglas's character must also battle. A federal 
drug agent lights up a cigarette with unintended consequences; a hit man is 
seduced by a stranger and ends up in custody; Robert Wakefield keeps his 
family at a safe emotional distance when he indulges his tastes for career 
climbing and nightly Scotch.

"What makes the film more than a powerful thriller is its unflinching 
contemplation of human frailty," wrote Stephen Holden of The New York 
Times, one of many critics who have praised the movie. "The film 
understands the sheer, brutal force of human desire."

The film is patterned on a mini-series on British television that followed 
the drug trade from Pakistan to Britain. Soderbergh's version tracks it 
from Mexico to the United States. Much of the action is lifted straight 
from news accounts, and the moviemakers hired Tim Golden of The Times, a 
member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that reported extensively on 
Mexican drug cartels, as a consultant to ensure the material's authenticity.

For Ms. Walcott and eight others who were invited to The Times last week to 
watch the movie and share their views, the film succeeded wildly in 
describing a world they know all too well. The panel consisted of former 
addicts, a convicted dealer, a medical historian, a prosecutor, a retired 
drug agent, a sociologist, an advocate for needle exchanges for addicts and 
a psychiatrist. The movie could have been even harsher, the panelists said. 
At least three of them pointed to their lives as proof.

Ms. Walcott said "Traffic" glossed over the ravages of drug use, the pain 
of withdrawal and the long journey that awaits people like her who seek 
treatment. In the film, Caroline's father tracks her down almost 
vigilante-style to a flophouse where she is turning tricks to support her 
habit. A few quick cuts, and she's on the mend. "If they had her going 
through withdrawal, it would have been more real," Ms. Walcott said.

Frank McManus, 19, of Massapequa, N.Y., who used drugs from age 12 until 
last fall, when he began treatment, agreed. "She looked healthy throughout 
the movie," he said of Caroline. "Real heroin users don't look healthy. 
They start losing weight, their teeth start getting messed up, their skin 
gets scaly."

Still, Michael Garland, 56, a 30-year veteran of the federal Drug 
Enforcement Administration, said that not since "The French Connection" in 
1971 has a movie so captured the challenges that drug trafficking poses for 
law enforcement.

In Mexico, which is the conduit for most of the cocaine and much of the 
heroin entering the United States, the situation is grimmer than depicted 
in the film, said Mr. Garland, who was the D.E.A.'s attache for Mexico for 
three years before retiring in September.

The Mexican state police, he said, are far more likely to be triggermen and 
kidnappers for the cartels than the quiet heroes that they are in the film. 
"The state police in Tijuana are an organized crime group," he said, and 
the torture glimpsed in one scene of "Traffic" is tame compared with the 
real thing.

"Torture in Mexico is a spectator sport, just beyond description," Mr. 
Garland said. He told of some counterparts in the Mexican attorney 
general's office whose heads were crushed in a hydraulic press as their 
captors tried to extract information.

All nine panelists liked the movie for its haunting look at a issue that 
may not grip public attention the way it did when crack was rippling 
through cities and crime rates were high. Otherwise, during a freewheeling 
discussion of the movie and the broader topics it raised, they agreed on 
little else. Not on how $19 billion in federal drug-fighting money ought to 
be spent; not whether it is possible to be a "functioning drug user"; and 
certainly not on whether the film is correct in suggesting that the war 
against drugs is lost.

The movie's sense of hopelessness seems overstated, said David F. Musto, a 
historian of illegal drugs at Yale University. He said drug use has been 
declining steadily since 1980, at a rate of about one or two percentage 
points a year, but that the drop is "invisible because it's so gradual."

At the same time, success in reducing the supply of narcotics has lessened 
the sense of crisis, argued Robert H. Silbering, who was New York City's 
special narcotics prosecutor from 1991 to 1997.

"When crack was king we had all these drive-by shootings and all the 
violence. There was a sense of urgency," he said. "And in the last 
half-dozen years or so, as the crime rates have gone down and we took out 
all these drug gangs and the crack epidemic has subsided, we've become 

So much so that several participants could not resist noting that neither 
presidential candidate had much to say about illegal drugs during the campaign.

"Drug policies were in the headlines, but they were all about prescription 
drugs for the elderly," said Travis Wendel, a sociologist who studies the 
drug scene at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

James Woods, 35, a Baltimore native and former drug user, said the film 
especially resonated with him when the pregnant Helena Ayala (played by 
Catherine Zeta-Jones) learns that her husband is a drug dealer. The 
character "kind of reminded me of my mom," said Mr. Woods, who admired his 
mother for her loyalty to his father, a drug dealer, even though she 
considered his livelihood repugnant.

Though his father showed him "how to make money quickly," his mother made 
sure he got an education, Mr. Woods said. And he blames no one but himself 
for squandering more than half of his life on drugs.

He spent 1984 to 1989 in prison for conspiring to distribute heroin, an 
experience that he said fortified his connections in the drug world. When 
he got out, he was back in business.

Still, almost as if he were following parallel paths, he chased his 
mother's dreams, too, completing a degree in drafting and working at an 
engineering firm that sent him out on assignment so much that his heroin 
habit went unnoticed.

"From the moment the movie started, it was true," Mr. Woods said. "The 
violence part was very, very true."

His father and older brother were murdered, Mr. Woods said, and he was shot 
in the head. His mother urged him to leave town, and he moved to New York. 
But it wasn't until a younger brother turned up dead, his body tossed in a 
trash bin, that Mr. Woods sought treatment. Only now, 10 months later, can 
he talk freely about those wasted years with a candor that he hopes will 
help others. His new career ambition is to be a drug counselor.

As Mr. Woods thanked the two law enforcement officers on the panel for 
forcing people like himself to re-examine their lives, Mr. Garland 
demurred, saying, he was no hero. He insisted that he went into law 
enforcement not for idealistic reasonsbut for the "opportunity to travel 
and go up against some of the biggest criminals in the world."

He said that the film scenes highlighting the unhealthy competition between 
law enforcement agencies rang true. Other scenes resonated with his 
experiences as well, like one in which two D.E.A. agents eavesdropping on a 
woman are surprised when she walks up to their van and hands them some 
lemonade. When Mr. Garland was working in Miami, a woman whose house he was 
staking out brought him some cold Coke with a "Hey, no hard feelings" in 

But other movie elements strained credibility. "The ease with which they 
were able to establish wiretaps was totally unrealistic," Mr. Garland said. 
And he never had an informant demand anything as unusual as the surprising 
payment requested by the Mexican officer played by Benicio Del Toro in the 
film. "Just cold cash," Mr. Garland said.

The scene in which the nervous Mexican officer has a rendezvous with 
federal agents in the middle of a crowded pool was far-fetched, he said. 
"But that's Hollywood. Everyone would be leaving the theater in boredom if 
they saw how tedious a lot of police work was."

Mr. Garland said he almost declined his last promotion because of the 
daunting challenge. Mexican drug lords wield enormous power and wealth, he 
explained. Violence is rampant, and battling drugs often conflicts with 
other political goals like improving trade. Yet like one D.E.A. agent in 
the movie who refuses to give up the fight, Mr. Garland said he never 
considered his job to be futile.

"If you go in thinking that you're going to end drug trafficking, you will 
become very frustrated," he said. "But if you take the view that there are 
some people out there doing outrageous things and they need to be taken out 
of society and you can help in your own little way, then you will find that 

The movie suggests that anyone's child can fall under the spell of drugs, a 
theme with great resonance for Ms. Walcott. In one scene, Caroline has a 
brush with the law and puzzles her caseworker when she rattles off a resume 
loaded with top grades, extracurricular activities and two hours a week of 
reading to the blind.

Ms. Walcott, too, was no slouch in high school, earning good grades and 
managing the boys' basketball team. Yet at 15 she had begun experimenting 
with drugs, marijuana first, and in later years prescription drugs and 
cocaine. She found many in her hometown "snobby and stuck-up" and was in a 
hurry to move on. She doubled up her course load, graduated a year early at 
age 17 and took up with a more dangerous crowd.

After graduation she landed a job at a CVS Pharmacy while feeding a 
$200-a-day cocaine habit. She helped herself to prescription drugs and rang 
up purchases, later voiding the transactions and pocketing the cash. In 
February 1997 her employer confronted her about the $4,000 to $5,000 that 
had been stolen, she said. She lost her job and faced charges of grand 
larceny and computer tampering. As a youthful offender, she got three 
years' probation.

"Things got a lot worse after that," she said. To pay the daily bills, she 
turned to topless dancing.

The movie scenes in which Caroline lies to her parents and steals from them 
to support her habit were also familiar to Ms. Walcott, who occasionally 
returned to her mother's home.

"She knew I was using drugs but didn't want to accept it, kind of like the 
movie," Ms. Walcott said.

After failing one drug test after another in violation of her probation, 
Ms. Walcott was ordered into treatment. Finally a probation officer 
informed her mother that her daughter had a drug problem, a simple act that 
lifted a heavy burden.

"I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to hide," said Ms. Walcott, who 
has been at the Phoenix House treatment center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., for 16 
months embarking on a part of the journey that the movie barely begins to 
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