Why The DEA Prostitution Scandal Should Not Be A Surprise

On Apr. 21, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, will step down next month. This follows congressional hearings last week in which she said that she could not fire DEA agents who allegedly participated in sex parties in Colombia which occurred in houses paid for by U.S. tax dollars and featured prostitutes paid for by drug cartels.

Many people in the establishment media were surprised and outraged that DEA agents would do such a thing. While outrage is certainly appropriate, surprise is not. Let us examine why we should not only expect such behavior to occur, but why such behavior not occurring would actually be surprising and newsworthy.

Bootleggers and Baptists

This phrase was invented by economist Bruce Yandle to describe situations where one group supports a regulation at face value while another group supports regulation because of the predictable consequences that undermine the face value. Evangelical Christians in the United States have consistently supported laws that restrict the sale of alcohol, while bootleggers realize that the demand for alcohol will not go away just because selling it is illegal; only their legal competition will go away. Politicians were thus able to pose as acting in the interest of morality while actually being puppets of illicit business interests. The same dynamic is at work in the War on Drugs today.

Plato o Plomo

This is a common phrase in Latin America, and it translates to English as “silver or lead.” It means that government agents and officials must choose to either accept bribes from the drug cartels and stay out of their way or be assassinated to make way for someone else who will. Contrary to popular belief, this is not always as bad as it sounds. That such a system can exist means that a government is corrupt, and will therefore do less damage to the economy than a government which imposes all of its laws and regulations to the letter. It also means that there is something of a culture of resistance, in that the use of violence to defend oneself from the state is openly practiced, while in some countries it is taboo to even discuss such a thing. But when violent criminal elements are utilizing such tactics, the results tend to be even more destabilizing to civilization than government alone. The DEA agents chose silver, as most rational actors would.

Black Market Fascism

Of course, the bribes may go above and beyond simple payments to government agents to leave the drug cartels alone. The most powerful drug cartels, just like the captains of any other industry, will seek to use state power to destroy smaller competing businesses. As Milton Friedman once said, “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.” It is known that the parties occurred “where agents’ laptops, BlackBerry devices and other government-issued equipment were present, potentially exposing them to extortion, blackmail, or coercion.” But such access to government-issued equipment by drug cartel members could also be used to gain intelligence on rival drug cartel operations, thereby providing an unfair advantage to the cartel that can most effectively bribe the DEA. The result of this regulatory capture is a sort of black market fascism where government agents and business leaders work together to set policies that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.

The State Only Cares About Itself

The interest of statists in pursuing the War on Drugs is not that they care about their citizens and want to protect them from substances that will harm or kill them, as starry-eyed state propagandists would have us believe. The real interest of those who wield state power is best discovered by taking a cynical look at what is in their rational self-interest. It is in the interest of those who wield state power to have a justification for maintaining or expanding their authority and budgets, and to have a productive population to support this parasitism. Making substances illegal does not make people stop using them; it only pushes such activity underground. Deprived of legal means of resolving disputes, the black-market drug traders start resorting to violence. The risks of dealing in illegal goods raises the prices of drugs several times higher than they would be in an open market, leading addicts to commit more thefts to acquire the money to support a drug habit. Those who wish to use drugs like cocaine and heroin may turn to alternatives which are more dangerous both to manufacture and use, such as crystal meth, when prohibition makes prices rise. These factors give statists an excuse to expand police actions to deal with the violence. This works even better if the violence is kept mostly in other countries, as the dead bodies are out of sight and out of mind for the domestic population. The fascist friends of government enforcers in the for-profit prison industry receive a boon as well, as they have an increased supply of prisoners to hold and government funding to receive. Authorities also wish to stamp out drug abuse because it makes workers less productive and more draining on the healthcare and welfare systems, but this is ultimately done for their own benefit, not for that of the workers.

Not So Different

Contrary to statist propaganda, governments and drug cartels have much in common. Drug cartels routinely kill rivals and innocents, to the tune of 125,000 dead and 27,000 missing as of 2013. Governments killed 262 million of their own people in the 20th century alone. Both ultimately maintain their power by force of arms, using violence to dispatch those would compete with them or seek to put them out of business. Both cloak themselves in what appear to be good deeds by providing assistance to the poor. Both exist parasitically on the productive economy and cause massive disruptions to free trade and peaceful living. It should be no surprise that similar evils would join forces when an opportunity for mutual benefit presents itself.


Every incentive is pointing in a favorable direction for corrupt government agents to collaborate with drug cartels for mutual benefit. We should therefore not be surprised that it is happening, and instead be surprised when it fails to happen.