ROME — ITALIAN law enforcement agencies are netting record cocaine and heroin seizures. But hope for bringing Italy's drug problem under control is dimming. Drug experts note a disturbing pattern in which Italian mobsters are increasingly working in tandem with South American drug kingpins to supply the booming European market for cocaine.
``In the past two years there has been a real thrust by the Colombians into Italy,'' which in turn has become a major distribution hub for Europe, notes Frank Panessa, a Rome-based US Drug Enforcement Administration official. Italian organized crime groups are also controlling much of the heavy traffic in cocaine along the Spanish coast, he says.
``It's just a matter of economics,'' says Mr. Panessa. ``Cocaine commands fantastic prices in Europe.'' (Considering a multinational antidrug force, page 6.)
Europe's cocaine craze is yielding high profits to drug barons, who, experts warn, eagerly await a unified European market in 1992.
``With European integration you obviously will also get a unified Mafia that will be able to move without frontiers,'' notes Hans Emblad, a Swedish official at the UNFDAC, the United Nations' anti-drug agency.
At a recent conference in Florence, Mr. Emblad joined European law enforcement officials, legislators, and experts in calling for a unified strategy to combat Europe's drug scourge.
Gen. Pietro Soggiu, head of Italy's anti-drug service, was pessimistic about the chances of success. Stressing the lack of coordination among European countries and between producer and consumer nations, he said, ``to lose a war you have to at least fight it.''
``We are up against the best criminals in the world, the best lawyers, the best everything, and we are facing them with blunted weapons,'' General Soggiu says.
Europe counts a stable population of about half a million heroin addicts on top of the swelling ranks of cocaine users. In Italy - with around 160,000 heroin addicts - a steeply mounting death toll is heightening public awareness of the dimensions of the problem. Last year, the needle claimed nearly 800 victims in Italy, up nearly 50 percent over 1987.
European drug consumption is boosting worldwide drug revenues, which experts estimate at up to $500 billion.
``In any case it is certain that we are talking about dizzying figures that would be able to influence and heavily condition the economy of any country,'' says Giovanni Falcone, the leading Sicilian magistrate who has spearheaded many of Italy's most successful Mafia investigations.
In Italy, cocaine surpassed all other drug seizures for the first time in 1988, nearly doubling from the previous year. Italy ranks second to Spain, where cocaine seizures increased more than 500 percent over 1986.
Because of its close ties with Latin America and a common language, ``Spain is becoming a crossroads for drug trafficking,'' says Miguel Solans Soteras, head of Spain's anti-drug program.
But Mr. Soteras believes that only 10 percent of the cocaine pouring into Spain is consumed there. The rest is destined for cities elsewhere in Europe. Drug merchants have adapted the means of transport to the expanded volume of cocaine traffic, he says. While couriers and luggage carried aboard flights once conveyed the bulk of the Colombian cocaine to Europe, today ships ostensibly bearing cargoes of fruit ferry the drugs to Spain and Italy.
Much of this traffic, says Panessa, is dominated by the Naples-based organized crime group called the Camorra. Panessa believes the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia, which dominate the heroin trade, have hammered out deals with South American drug cartels.
Evidence of this marriage of convenience between Italian and South American criminals, says Panessa, is the discovery in the past two years of the direct exchange of heroin for cocaine. The going rate of exchange, according to international law enforcement authorities, is four kilos (8.8 lbs.) of cocaine for each kilo of heroin.
European countries that traditionally felt safely outside the purview of Mafia activities are realizing that theirs was a false sense of security. Hans Gottfried Bernrath, president of the West German Parliamentary Anticrime Commission, says Germany had hoped to remain free of the drug scourge. ``It was a surprise for us to learn that organized crime groups such as Colombians, had penetrated our country.''
The doubling of the death rate from overdoses in the past two years combined with the ever-declining age of drug users has provided West Germans with a rude awakening to the real dimension of the problem, says Mr. Bernrath.
In Italy, drug abuse is a relatively new problem, dating to the early 1970s. Today, the per capita rate of heroin addiction in Italy is among the highest in the world. In the past decade heroin seizures have soared sixfold. Cocaine seizures for the same period are up from 16 kilos in 1979 to 612 kilos last year. There have been no crack seizures to date in Italy. (Crack is a concentrated form of cocaine.)
It's not always organized crime groups that are cashing in on Europe's drug culture. In Italy, the lure of quick profits has engaged the talents of businessmen and other citizens normally considered above suspicion.
Pino Arlacchi, author of ``The Mafia Business'' and pioneer of studies on the marketing of drugs, demonstrated this in a recent study in Verona, the northern Italian town best remembered as the romantic setting for Shakespeare's ``Romeo and Juliet.''
Mr. Arlacchi found that even though Verona is not a Mafia enclave it had become a major drug distribution center. He found that a cadre of small businessmen, artisans, and white-collar workers were plying a trade in drugs and dubbed them ``The Merchants of Verona.''
No one yet has found the answers to Italy's drug problem. But the search for a solution has spawned two diametrically opposed approaches. At one end, the Socialist Party is sponsoring legislation that would crack down on drug consumers in Italy, which has among the most liberal laws in Europe.
In opposition to the Socialists, the smaller Radical Party is trying to garner support for a proposal to decriminalize drug use. In March, an international anti-prohibition league was founded in Rome. The league's manifesto contends that the prohibition of drugs is destined for same failure as prohibition of alcohol was in US.
Arlacchi proposes that national antidrug budgets be beefed up along with greater coordination between national policies. ``There is not yet in Europe a drug foreign-policy similar to what the US is doing in Latin America,'' he says.
A step in that direction was taken in May when members of the European Community met in Vienna for the first time under UN auspices to discuss the drug problem. Also in Vienna last December, an agreement was reached on a draft convention that would promote greater coordination of law enforcement activities in the international fight against drugs.