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The New Yorker Reports on a Local-State-Federal Task Force


September-October 1994

The New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan tells the fascinating story of "Operation White Tornado," a cocaine investigation in San Augustine County, TX that led to a massive raid by over two hundred law enforcement agents in June 1989. San Augustine County has a population of 8000 mostly poor persons in an area the size of the State of Rhode Island. The county is about 80 miles from a town of any size and has no interstate highway -- it is roughly half-way between Shreveport, LA to the north and Beaumont, TX to the south. At the post-raid press conference, the U.S. Attorney described the local drug trade as "what you would expect to find in a major metropolitan area" (William Finnegan, "Deep East Texas," The New Yorker, Aug. 22 and 29, 1994, p. 72-97).

Of the fifty-four persons convicted, fifty were black. The county is 30% percent black. This is a well-told story mixing many threads -- class and race relationships in poor, rural East Texas, a country sheriff, national media presentations about drugs, political opportunism, poverty and economic opportunity, mixed with the culture and techniques of drug enforcement. The principal undercover investigator was a narcotics officer from another county in the region, Betty Donatto. She explained her view of Operation White Tornado to Finnegan:

At first, it made sense. The feds said, 'People in San Augustine are fed up -- they want something done about drugs now.' But after I got to know the scene, and saw how small it was, things stopped making sense. The problem was, the feds were trying to make it seem like more than it was. The quantities were all wrong. In fact, when they yanked the string I was upset, because I only needed a couple more months to really figure out what was going on. But then I decided that maybe they didn't want me to see that there weren't seventy-five pounds coming up from Houston every week.

... It's all politics. Sticks and stats, that's what we say -- arrests and big numbers. There's so much money available for drug programs now, and every region wants that money, so they put you out there, telling you to get those sticks and stats. Liberty County loaned me out, and we made big bucks on my seizures. We got a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars just for my work. But what did we really do? I went back to San Augustine for that one-year celebration they had [celebrating the drug bust] ... .I just snuck off, and on the drive home I just cried, all the way back to Liberty County, It just seemed so, so ... I mean, all these people got promotions and raises, and what had we done? Here they were celebrating, with all the politicians, and a barbecue at the sheriff's house, and everything else, and unless I really missed something, there just wasn't that much dope there. Thinking about those heavy sentences, and all those families we'd hurt ... I tell you, the more you get into narcotics on the law side, the more you see the politics.