'Mothers Of The Disappeared' Aim To Put A Face On Drug War

By Zelie Pollon, special contributor to The Dallas Morning News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. Ever since Mattie White's three children were arrested two years ago during the largest drug sting her town of Tulia, Texas, had
ever seen, she's been working overtime.

Now she says she's tired. The 50-year-old has been raising her two grandchildren and visiting her children whenever she can, she's been working two jobs and she's trying to change the laws governing drug

Ms. White was in New Mexico on Tuesday along with five other mothers whose children are in prison for drug offenses. They had gathered to meet with Gov. Gary Johnson to kick off a national campaign showing how the drug laws affect families.

"It's good we're all coming together, but it's also very sad to hear everyone's story," she said. "When your kids become incarcerated for such a long time, you become incarcerated, too."

Calling themselves the "Mothers of the Disappeared," the women will end their seven-day tour in Tulia, marking the two-year anniversary of the controversial drug sting in the Panhandle community of 4,700, 45 miles south of Amarillo.

In the July 23, 1999, sting operation, forty-six Tulia residents, - 43 of whom were black - were charged with cocaine possession based on the testimony of one undercover officer. About 250 black people live in Tulia.

One year later the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, accusing local officials of singling out black people to run them out of town. The NAACP has filed several lawsuits. Twenty residents remain in prison while others are on parole or on probation.

The mothers plan to open a Tulia office, the second of what they hope will be several nationwide.

This year, the Texas Legislature, responding to the Tulia case, made drug convictions contingent on corroborating evidence, and not solely on the testimony of a single drug agent. Sentencing laws were not changed.

"Most of those people in Tulia are first-time offenders," said Elaine Bartlett, who served 16 years in a maximum security prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. She wants changes in New York's so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which require among the harshest
mandatory minimum sentences in the nation.

"These severe drug laws were made for kingpins, but that's not who's being put in jail," she said.

"This is putting a human face on the war on drugs," said Mr. Johnson, who has been hailed as a visionary and a hero since he became the highest elected official to call for decriminalizing marijuana.

"I don't think there's a bigger issue going," he said, adding, "If we ever get around to changing drug laws, we'll easily be able to shut down our private prisons."

Teresa Aviles' son Terrence died mysteriously in New York, eight years into a 23-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. The black mother has yet to receive a full accounting of what happened; the death certificate she received was for a white man.

"My son had never done any other offense, and what he essentially received was a death sentence," said the 53-year-old from New York. "There is something wrong when people who kill get out in seven years and you get accused of selling drugs ? without any evidence ? and you get 25 years to life. What kind of society is that?"

As for her meeting with New Mexico's governor, Ms. Aviles offered an exchange. "I wish we could take him back to New York and give New Mexico[New York Gov. George] Pataki."

The mothers will participate in a NAACP forum on race and the drug war in Amarillo on Friday, then will arrive in Tulia by Sunday for their "Never Again" rally.