Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring Law Enforcement Officers Slain in the War on Drugs

April 19, 1988

The President. Well, thank you all for your greeting this morning, and welcome reverend clergy, Nancy, Attorney General Meese, Members of the Congress, diplomats, and members of our Cabinet, and distinguished guests.

Today we're gathered to honor, as you've been told, the brave public servants who have fallen in the war On drugs. These men took a solemn oath to uphold the law. They accepted the dangerous work of defending our communities, our borders, our families from the scourge of narcotics. And in the line of duty, these courageous citizen soldiers paid the ultimate price. Some died close to home in the towns where they were born. Others fell in foreign lands. But they were each lost to us far too soon. And they each made their love for this country and for us, their countrymen, something real that they lived each day.

Today and in days to come, it'll be our turn to show our love for them. We can show our love by teaching our children to just say no to drugs, by teaching them to choose life, by helping them to live in the world God made, not in an artificial, drug-induced world of false hopes and permanent darkness, of imaginary freedom, but absolute slavery. America's liberty was purchased with the blood of heroes. Our release from the bondage of illegal drug use is being won at the same dear price. The battle is ultimately over what America is and what America will be. At our founding, we were promised the pursuit of happiness, not the myth of endless ecstasy from a vial of white poison. We won our personal freedom so that we could serve God and man, so that we could freely produce and create and build a nation of strong families, rich farms, and great cities. We struggled for liberty in order to cherish it and defend it and transmit it undiminished to our children and theirs.

What sort of a nation is America? The kind that produces heroes like Enrique Camarena Salazar, Eddie Byrne, Terry McNett, and many others who gave their lives in the battle against illegal drugs. We're the kind of country that will pull together and sacrifice to rid ourselves of the menace of illegal drug use because we know that drugs are the negation of the type of country we were meant to be.

In New York City, a young rookie cop, Eddie Byrne, was sitting in his patrol car protecting a government witness in a drug case. On February 26th, at 3:30 a.m., Eddie Byrne was shot in the head three times at point-blank range. His father, a retired police lieutenant, said, "If my son, Eddie, sitting in a police car, representing and protecting us, can be wasted by scum, then none of us is safe." Newspaper accounts say he was ordered killed by a drug kingpin in order to send a message to the police.

Enrique Camarena Salazar, special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was conducting an undercover investigation in Guadalajara, Mexico, to smash a ring of drug traffickers. He was kidnapped, tortured brutally, and killed.

Terry McNett, a detective in the Sedgwick County, Kansas, sheriff's office, was part of a team raiding the house of an alleged crack dealer in Wichita 2 months ago. After entering the house, Detective McNett, 36 years old, a 15-year police veteran, was shot twice in the right eye and killed.

For these men and for all men and women in this country and around the world who've perished in the war on drugs, I would like to ask that we observe a moment of silence on this solemn occasion. Would you join me? Amen.

We rededicate ourselves to continue their struggle. It's a struggle of which we've all been a part and one in which we've worked together.

The United States is joined by other countries in a common battle against drugs. I've received a report from Attorney General Meese on his recent trip, that he mentioned in his remarks, to the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. And I'm particularly encouraged by the commitment he received from the leaders of those countries to heighten efforts in the crusade against narcotics trafficking. The drug enforcement and justice officials overseas have our full support.

I want to pay special tribute to the many sacrifices made by our international allies in this fight. In Colombia alone, 12 supreme court justices, an attorney general, justice minister, and scores of other judicial and law enforcement officials have lost their lives. The traffickers in Colombia have also extended their terror beyond its borders. In 1987 former justice minister, and then Ambassador to Hungary, Enrique Parejo was shot and nearly killed in Budapest at the direction of traffickers. Fortunately he survived and last week received PRIDE's Spirit of Freedom Award. We have the honor of his presence today and salute his courage. Recently, Colombia's Chief Prosecutor, Attorney General Carlos Hoyos, while fighting his country's war on drugs, was abducted and murdered. Similarly, officials from Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, and other nations have perished in this international struggle. These giants of courage and the brave men and women like them around the world will be remembered in our prayers.

When I spoke to our nation's police chiefs 7 years ago, we pledged a united effort against the menace of illegal drugs. And since then, important progress has been made. Since 1981 the antidrug law enforcement budget has tripled, and another 13 percent increase has been requested. No nonsense Federal judges are part of the war on crime. Drug convictions have more than doubled since 1979, with prison sentences 40 percent longer. And last year new, tougher sentencing guidelines were issued. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act, passed in 1984 after a long effort—passed with the help of Members of the Congress who are here today—they helped put drug dealers out of business by confiscating their assets. Last year over $500 million in ill-gotten assets were seized. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which I signed into law in October, 1986, contributed additional tools to our effort.

Our antidrug effort spans the Federal Government. It is coordinated by the Cabinet-level National Drug Policy Board chaired by Attorney General Meese. The coordination of Federal, State, local, and international drug enforcement is at an all-time high. Under the leadership of the Vice President, our national drug interdiction system has enabled unprecedented levels of narcotics to be seized en route from source countries and at our border by law enforcement agencies. These efforts were significantly assisted by the U.S. military, which last year provided more than 16,000 hours of air surveillance and over 2,500 ship days of maritime support in the war against drugs.

Drug eradication programs are now underway in 23 countries. That's up from just two in 1981. And to stem demand for illegal drugs, more funds than ever before are being spent on drug education and public awareness, and I've requested a further 12-percent increase in that.

We can list the accomplishments in this war, but by themselves these efforts, impressive as they may seem, are still not enough. It'll never be enough until we have fully honored the memory of those who have perished and until we have won for them, and for ourselves, a drug free America.

I'm especially proud of the antidrug work that Nancy has done, which is an act of love beyond anything money can achieve and which has changed the way we talk and think about drugs. You see, we too often forget how the level of drug abuse reached the proportions that it did. Back in the 1960's and 1970's, America crossed a deadly line. The use of illegal drugs became not just condoned but even celebrated by a permissive cultural establishment whose slogan was "Just Say Yes." It was a time when all the restrictions on personal behavior were under attack. Some liberal politicians decried our prohibitions on drugs as conservative, moralistic, reactionary, and old-fashioned-or simply remained silent that there even was a drug problem. Many universities adopted a hands-off attitude toward so*called recreational drug use, and the entertainment industry produced films and music that promoted and legitimized the drug subculture. When our young people looked for guidance and direction, instead of finding positive role models warning them of the dangers of drugs, they would too often see celebrities portraying drug use as cool, hip, and with it. What greater shame can there be? With the active encouragement of the progressive culture, our young people began to use drugs—not to rebel but to fit in.

And tragically, countless thousands of young lives were needlessly destroyed. The truth was that drugs are killers, but for nearly a generation that vital message was ignored by a whole group of people who should have known better. The leaders of that destructive generation remain the forgotten accomplices in the epidemic of illegal drug use; they cannot escape blame when a law enforcement officer dies in the battle.

The good news is that America is on the attack in the fight against drugs. Our young people are turning away from illegal drug use and learning to say, just say no. Almost all of the high school seniors, in the latest annual survey, said that it was wrong to even try a drug like cocaine. And the number using cocaine and marijuana fell significantly. Whole communities are working as never before toward the goal of a drug free America.

USA Today reports that in Philadelphia the police department has trained 25,000 residents to observe, identify, and report drug dealers under its town watch program. In Boise, Idaho, the police work with a group called Parents and Youths Against Drug Abuse to promote drug education. In Jackson, Mississippi, a group of teenagers is fighting back by forming Teens on Patrol to act as the eyes and ears for the local police force. These efforts serve as fitting tributes to the fallen heroes that we honor here today. Our heroes embody the courage and commitment that built America and which will see us through this battle. Let us, through our efforts, keep faith with these men and their sacrifice.

Six months ago, I sent to the Congress a new and important piece of legislation, the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 1987, that would provide a powerful new deterrent to violent crime and narcotics trafficking. This critical legislation takes on the drug syndicates on their own terms. It says that when narcotics racketeers kill and are convicted they will face execution. In 1986 the House of Representatives twice approved this provision, but this year neither the House nor the Senate Judiciary Committees have yet taken up this bill. It is time to back up the rhetoric on the drug problem with action. And I call upon the House and Senate to vote promptly on my bill providing for capital punishment when a death results from drug dealing and when a DEA or other law enforcement officer is murdered. When drug syndicates commit murder, our sympathy should be with the victims, not the killers. It's time for the Congress to pass this bill and make it law. It's time for us to send our own message to people who kill cops.

Our antidrug efforts are working. The heroic sacrifices made by America's law enforcement officers and by public servants from around the world have not been in vain. They have made a difference, a difference that will save lives and assure our children a better future in the type of America they deserve to grow up in. Our dream is a nation of drug free communities, drug free workplaces, drug free homes, and drug free schools. And that is what these men died for, and that is what we must work for.

In the crusade for a drug free America, these heroes gave all that they had and all that they were. Let us do all that we can to honor their memory. Through our prayers, let us be with them. Through our work, let us commemorate their sacrifice. And through our achievement, let us celebrate their lives. Together we can achieve what they died for—a drug free America. Thank you, and God bless you.

Attorney General Meese. Thank you, Mr. President, for those inspiring remarks, which highlight our being here today. In your remarks you mentioned the heroes we are commemorating. Among those are two agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, one of the key institutions in our struggle against drug abuse. We're pleased to have representing our drug law enforcement organizations, Jack Lawn, the Administrator of DEA, seated here on the dais. Jack has been honored recently by his election as president of the International Drug Enforcement Conference.

We had a tragedy in the DEA recently, when two special agents, Paul Seema and George Montoya, were killed in the course of a heroin investigation near Los Angeles. In that operation, one of their colleagues, special agent Jose Martinez, was wounded. We thank God that he survived, and we're pleased to have him with us today. Surely, no one is a more worthy spokesman for those who risked their lives in the course of the battle against drugs than Mr. Martinez. And so, it is my great honor at this time to ask special agent Martinez to step up and say a few words.

Mr. Martinez. First of all, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends, family, and everyone in the DEA family, and all the other law enforcement officers and community for their support while I was hospitalized, and the general public for their encouragement to me—all the letters I received. And I would also like to thank everyone for the encouragement that was shown to the loved ones of my slain fellow agents, Paul Seema and George Montoya. I am thankful for the greater public concern about drug abuse. And thank you, Mr. President and Mrs. Reagan, for your contributions to this awareness.

Those of us in drug enforcement are committed to the task of removing drugs from our society, knowing and accepting the dangers involved. At the same time, many in society rationalize the drug use as being a victimless crime and not harmful to anyone. Paul Seema and George Montoya were victims of society's demand to satisfy their desire for drugs. Not until people quit using drugs will it become safer for those of us in law enforcement and the rest of society. Thank you.

The President. The Attorney General tells me I can just conclude it. [Laughter] I didn't bring a whistle, and I can't think of a good get-off line, except I think that what we have just heard from this young man, his lovely wife—I think all of us know what's at stake here. And I think all of us are going to continue doing this until it's a chapter of our history that we can look back upon, but know that we'll never see that chapter repeated again in our nation's history. God bless you all. Thank you for what you're doing.

Note: The President spoke at 11:47 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring Law Enforcement Officers Slain in the War on Drugs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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