AMERICA confronts a deepening crisis at its borders. The nation's far-flung frontiers, defended by a thin line of federal officers, are being penetrated with ease by drug traffickers, illegal aliens, smugglers, and even potential terrorists.
Centuries of isolation behind two great oceans made Americans blas'e about protecting their 19,858 miles of borders. The 5,525-mile boundary with Canada is the longest unfortified frontier in the world. Along the Mexican boundary, only a few thousand guards oversee 1,953 miles of rivers, mountains, and deserts.
Now the United States is paying a heavy price for this inattention.
The discovery two weeks ago of 20 tons of cocaine in a Los Angeles warehouse brought home that problem. The record size of the cache startled federal officials. It suggests that Latin American drug lords are secretly moving larger and larger quantities of narcotics into the US.
As pressure grows on US frontiers, criticism is mounting in Congress, and even within the executive branch, that President Bush's highly touted ``war on drugs'' is off to a turtle-slow start. Critics say the White House needs to pump in more money, manpower, and equipment to stop the flow of drugs into the country.
Yet drugs are only one aspect of the problem. Interviews with federal, state, and private experts give the following overall picture of the nation's problems along its frontiers:
Illegal immigration, which had declined during the past three years, is rising again. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants climbed to 89,200 in August, up 19 percent over a year ago.
Several nations, including Libya and Iran, are thought to have established terrorist infrastructures within the US. These organizations could be brought into action on short notice.
Narco-terrorists, representing Colombian drug cartels, are believed to pose a threat to certain US political leaders, for whom protection has been increased.
Smugglers, attracted by America's lucrative market, brought into the US from $100 million to $250 million worth of illegal wildlife and wildlife products during the past year. This smuggling increases the threat to the world's endangered species, such as elephants. And some see a threat to US agriculture, especially from diseases carried by illegally imported tropical birds.
Foreign agents are making major efforts to violate US national security laws by smuggling out high-technology equipment, such as infrared radar for Iraq, and airplane parts for Libya.
Heroin supplies, which were decreasing as recently as 1987, are again on the rise. Federal officials worry that new channels for heroin smuggling are opening.
Cocaine imports have risen steadily during the past decade, and are now estimated to be 30 times higher than in 1981. Despite recent pressure against the cocaine cartel in Colombia, the long-term price trend is down, making cocaine more affordable.
Couriers are moving hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits across the northern US border into Canada, where banking laws make it easier to launder the money.
Hundreds of clandestine drug flights are entering the US each month without being challenged by US authorities.
Criminal gangs, made up largely of illegal aliens, are deeply involved in narcotics and weapons trafficking, and are believed to be responsible for at least 600 recent murders in US cities.
The public clearly is alarmed by these problems - particularly the threat from illegal drugs. A recent Times Mirror/Gallup survey found that 63 percent of the American people now consider drugs the most important problem facing the nation. Analysts say this is the highest number ever to mention a single problem, except for war or economic disaster.
The concern about border violations by drug suppliers and illegal job-seekers has stirred a counter-concern among Hispanic and other ethnic groups: that they and their traditions will be made unwelcome in the US.
Other Americans worry that the idea of their country as a haven for political, religious, and economic freedom could be impaired. Overreaction, they fear, can lead to a suspension of civil rights. And Washington's efforts to improve relations with debt-plagued Latin countries - as evidenced during last week's visit to Washington by President Salinas of Mexico - are strained by the border difficulties.
President Bush's war on the drug problem is still just developing. For many state and local officials Washington's response to the drug and border crisis is coming very, very late.
When the hoard of cocaine was discovered Sept. 29 in Los Angeles, the city's police chief, Daryl Gates, said plaintively:
``Hey, Washington. Listen to us. We need your help.''
Local political leaders have begged for such assistance for years, but got what they regarded as a cool response from the White House and Congress.
In 1986, for example, Florida was on the leading edge of the newest, most severe cocaine problem - crack cocaine. Month by month, the crack epidemic spread like a dark tropical thunderstorm up the east coast of Florida. The crisis began in the Miami area. Then it expanded to West Palm Beach, to Vero Beach, to Daytona Beach, and finally up to Jacksonville near the Georgia border.
At that time, Florida Gov. Bob Graham (D) - now a US senator - went before the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control and pleaded for federal help.
``We are at war,'' Mr. Graham told the committee. ``Our borders are being violated every day by enemy ships and by enemy planes. A destructive weapon is being smuggled in by the tons - a weapon which kills, ... which unravels the fabric of our society. We are under attack by both sophisticated networks and ragtag renegades of a guerrilla force which has complete contempt for our values and our laws.''
Graham linked drugs to the mounting crime problem.
``Sixty-four percent of the homicides in Florida are drug or alcohol related. Local law enforcement officials around the state concede that 50 to 70 percent of the street crime ... in their districts is directly attributable to the influence of illegal drugs.''
Graham wondered why Washington could not do more.
``The security of our country is threatened. We cannot talk about national defense without talking about defending our own borders. And our borders are wide open.''
He warned about the threats from drug-carrying aircraft.
``[Today] a single-engine Cessna carrying drugs ... lands and offloads its cargo in the Florida Keys. ... Tomorrow an undetected plane could bring in terrorists - and bombs.''
Graham still feels that way, and he is not alone. There is growing skepticism in Washington about how firmly President Bush will deal with the crisis, particularly with problems at the border.
The new drug plan put forward by Mr. Bush and drug policy director William Bennett, will keep the border security effort near current levels. Increased funds for law enforcement will be directed toward the state and local level. Other major increases announced by the White House will go toward drug education, and helping the armed forces of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.
The President has also vowed to provide limited military help to stop drugs and other contraband before it crosses the borders. Experts in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, and narcotics all will be watching to see whether the White House plan finally starts to slow this growing criminal activity on the nation's doorstep.
First of a series of occasional articles about America's border problems.