America's drug-enforcement agents are facing increasingly sophisticated and ruthless organized groups who resort to violence to protect their lucrative narcotics trade. According to law-enforcement experts, such drug-running groups have no qualms about killing or torturing suspected informers. Further, their activities and influence will increase as a result of the US crackdown on smuggling and distribution of narcotics in major American cities, they say.
``We have torture and hostage situations on a daily basis,'' Ronald Siegel, of the UCLA School of Medicine, said at a drug-enforcement symposium Monday.
In some cases, college undergraduates who were dealing in cocaine armed themselves with automatic weapons, in part because such weapons have become ``part of the behavior'' of drug dealers, he added.
The symposium on drug-enforcement strategy, sponsored by the President's Commission on Organized Crime, also touched on the possible legalization of marijuana. In addition, it raised questions about the effectiveness of drug-education programs, which one expert said ``tend to get people more interested in drugs.''
Mark Moore, a criminal justice professor at Harvard University, said organized drug-running groups with a ``capacity for irresistible violence'' and political corruption will meet law enforcement's challenge with greater ruthlessness and more complex smuggling schemes.
He noted that violent criminal groups are expanding their operations by filling vacuums left after law-enforcement operations weed out drug runners and pushers, who are often less prone to use violence. ``What will remain will always be the worst,'' Mr. Moore said, adding, ``We are partly creating the nasty people.''
Moore suggested one way to deal with such groups is through intelligence efforts aimed at infiltrating the groups and cultivating informants.
The President's Commission on Organized Crime assembled the group of law-enforcement and narcotics experts to explore possible strategies to deal with the country's illegal drug problem. The commission was formed by President Reagan in 1983 to examine the influence of organized crime in the US. It is expected to report its findings and recommendations to the President next spring.
According to estimates of the US Customs Service, roughly 4.5 metric tons of heroin, 60 metric tons of cocaine, and 13,880 metric tons of marijuana were smuggled into the US last year.
In addition, it's hard to keep track of the 250 million individuals -- tourists, businessmen, immigrants, and others -- who cross the US border each year. Experts say this -- and the fact that the US has a long, largely unpatrolled border and sea coast -- compound the problem of trying to intercept drug smugglers on their way into the country.
The group of experts, which included former Drug Enforcement Agency chief Francis M. Mullen, generally endorsed a proposal to step up the use of US military equipment and personnel to help patrol US borders. But they acknowledged that while such efforts might have an impact on marijuana smuggling, it would not have a significant impact on cocaine and heroin trafficking.
``We will never stop it completely. The best we can do is raise the price at the border,'' said John Kaplan, a Stanford University law professor. Marijuana prices would have to be increased by a factor of 10 to affect US consumption, he added. An estimated 3 million people in the US use marijuana daily.
Mr. Mullen estimated 40 percent of the marijuana bound for the US was either seized or destroyed overseas last year.