FEATURE The Numbers Game An Inside Look at a Texas Drug Task Force BY NATE BLAKESLEE 0 ne afternoon last summer, a former undercover narc named Barbara Markham drove me through the piney backroads of Chambers and Liberty Counties, 3000 square miles of sparsely populated pasture and swampland between Houston and Beaumont. We were on a tour of crack dealing hot spots in the region, the areas Markham used to work when she was an officer for the Chambers County jurisdictional outfit headed by the local district attorney. Her job had been to buy drugs, usually crack, from street-level dealers. As we drove, Markham pointed out now and again an empty shack where a dealer had been holed up or a trailer, separated from the road by a muddy ditch, where a task force snitch had until recently lived. In Chambers County, Markham explained, the task force has focused on the black side of Anahuac, known as “the Quarters,” and a small, mostly black rural community named Hankamer in the northern portion of the county. In Hankamer, we drove down a sunken and pitted blacktop road past a series of dilapidated frame houses and trailers. They were set close to the road in small lots carved out of the woods, many with piles of tires and rubbish or rusted-out cars in their yards. Several people stood on their stoops or leaned across car hoods to talk, stopping to stare as we passed. This neighborhood, known by the task force as one of the county’s “open-air drug markets,” is a favorite target, Markham said, for so-called “street sweeps,” in which a large contingent of cops will suddenly descend upon a popular hang-out, often someone’s front yard, and detain everybody, checking IDs, patting people down for drugs or weapons, looking for outstanding warrants. In Liberty County, undercover officers cruise through the rural towns of Ames and Raywood, looking for street dealers. Larger towns like Cleveland, Dayton, and Liberty each have their streets known for crack dealing. In Dayton, we swung through the small public housing project, site of many previous undercover operations. Not far from there we stopped to talk to three young black men drinking beer in front of a small frame house. Between them, they’d had numerous runins with the task force. One had just gotten out after serving five years in prison for selling a few rocks of crack to a CCNTF undercover officer. None reported being asked to name his supplier. “They might get you with maybe $200 or $300 in your pocket, but you ain’t no big time dealer,” one said. “You’re just getting by, spending it on clothes and booze. And then here comes Mr. Goddamn Jump-Out Man.” By all accounts, the task force has done a good job of rounding up street-level dealers. The problem, according to Markham, who left the task force in a cloud of controversy in the spring of 1997, is that Mr. Jump-Out Man has done little else, a fact that has made the task force’s presence in the area controversial. “It’s just too easythey never go up the chain,” said Liberty defense attorney Walter Fontenot, who frequently represents poor black defendants with drug charges. “I have never understood the reason for their existence. It just seems to be a governmental bureaucracy that’s in existence for appearance only,” he said. “Crack buys is basically it. But I mean heck, you and I can do the same thing. Crack buys? Man, I can take you to about five crack places here in Liberty County and you and I can make the crack buys,” he said. Fontenot, who is black, said the drug war in Liberty County is caught in a vicious cycle. “If you dig into this stuff, you will find that most people are black, most people are poor, and they just cop out and get probation, and a couple of years later the probation is revoked, because they go back to the same thing because that’s all they know,” he said. It’s much the same in Chambers County, according to Anahuac defense attorney Ed Lieck. “It’s all about numbers,” said Lieck. “More number means more money. I’ve been doing this for ten years, and law enforcement is about money,” he said. “Anybody who tells you different is lying to you.” The money in question comes from Washington. Task forces like the CCNTF are funded through federal grants that pass through the Texas Narcotics Control Program, a department of the governor’s criminal justice division. Across the country, the task force model of drug enforcement has come under increasing fire in recent years from judges, prosecutors, and civil liberties advocates. The amount of federal drug war money flowing to the states has not slackened, however, even as the public’s faith in the effort has steadily dwindled. Well into their second decade, federally funded drug task forces have become a whole new tier of law enforcement, one with 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 10126101
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