Drug traffic off Florida spikes as US turns its focus to terrorism

Shift of antidrug resources to guard against terrorists has increased the boldness of narcotics trafficking.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the Caribbean became a superhighway for drug trafficking in the 1980s, it became the inspiration for a TV show - "Miami Vice." Today, the azure waters of Florida are once again threatening to become a major artery in the narcotics trade. As US antidrug authorities have shifted their resources to the porous borders of Mexico and Canada over recent years, drug smugglers have been prompted to once again test the waters of the Sunshine State. Where's Crockett and Tubbs when you need 'em?

Even more alarming is how Sept. 11 has opened the floodgates in these pristine waters. With terrorism a top priority, no longer are US boats so vigilantly patrolling the coastal waters in search of drugs. Large amounts of antidrug resources and manpower have been diverted to that effort. The result: a boomtime for drug peddlers off America's coastlines.

"We've got the makings for a real upsurge in drug trafficking and an inability to cope with it," says William Walker, a professor of history and international relations at Florida International University in Miami. "They are seeing [drug-running] speed boats they haven't seen in south Florida in 20 years."

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Indeed, the Coast Guard has seen its drug seizures plummet since crews were sent to guard ports and oil refineries. Well over half of the Coast Guard's anti-drug activities were redirected after Sept. 11, causing a 66 percent drop in cocaine seizures from a year ago, and a more than 90 percent drop in marijuana seizures. Experts say that the redeployment of resources is even affecting the Pacific coast, where drug traffickers are attempting routes they haven't tried in decades - or even creating new ones.

"One consequence of our shifting efforts is going to be less drug interdiction on the oceans, which creates an opening for traffickers," says Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

FBI agents are now spending much of their time chasing the money trail of Osama bin Laden instead of the money trail of drug lords. Customs surveillance planes and radar, once used to detect drug transit routes, are now devoted to counter-terrorism surveillance. And many DEA agents have been reassigned to airport security or as sky marshals.

"Unfortunately, this is the way this game is played," says Stan Furce, director of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. "The bad guys are always trying to get drugs into the US where they think they will get the most payoff. They know the Coast Guard has pulled back, and they are taking advantage of that."

But, Mr. Furce and other drug-fighting agencies are optimistic that things are beginning to return to normal and that agents will soon resume regular duties.

Experts, however, warn that a number of international factors were already wreaking havoc on the war on drugs before Sept. 11, and will continue to do so even with beefed-up drug control.

First of all, the price of coffee has plummeted on the world market, leaving many farmers in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru to turn to coca and opium-poppy cultivation. Compounding the problem is a deepening recession in much of Latin America. And many of the US-funded eradication programs are suffering.

It's still unclear whether that has meant an increase in production. For instance, the price of cocaine on the streets of Houston hasn't changed since Sept. 11 - still running at about $1,600 to $1,700 a kilo - indicating a steady stream of supply.

"It's just too early to tell," says Dr. Andreas. "Because drug traffickers have large stockpiles of drugs on both sides of the border, we won't necessarily see a change in price this quickly."

But one thing is for certain: The increased security along the Mexican and Canadian borders is making traffickers nervous. Many have been caught carrying significantly larger loads since Sept. 11, contrary to the most recent trend of moving a lot of little loads. "It seems the smugglers are getting a little more brazen in trying to pass larger loads at one time," says south Texas Customs spokesman Rick Pauza.

Tractor-trailers are the new method of choice. Recently, for instance, Laredo Customs inspectors discovered a 2,349-pound load of marijuana in a truck. A day earlier, inspectors found 49 pounds of cocaine in Eagle Pass. The combined street value in seizures for that weekend was $5.6 million.

As opposed to dwindling seizure activity in the Caribbean and Pacific Coast, seizures along the Mexican border have been rising ever since Sept. 11. That is due to the heightened border security.

The Bush administration says it won't have hard narcotics numbers until sometime this month. But no matter what those numbers show, experts worry that a greater focus on terrorism is bound to mean a decrease in funding for counter-drug efforts.

"Priorities within the Defense Department are clearly shifting, as are the assets used to combat drug trafficking," says Eric Olson, a senior associate in the Washington Office on Latin America. "That is going to pose a lot of questions."

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