WHILE fighting the Gulf war, the United States exposed its southern flank in another war - the drug war. The transfer of US military planes, ships, helicopters, and spare parts to the Gulf has undermined a successful program that intercepts Colombian cocaine shipments through Mexico, US and Mexican officials say.
``The loss of US aircraft and naval surveillance assets constitutes a very significant loss,'' says an official close to the program.
Mexican seizures of cocaine shipments have plummeted in recent months, according to figures compiled by Mexico's attorney general's office. Compared with the record 40 metric tons seized during last year, there has been a 70 percent drop (on an annualized basis) over the last four months in cocaine confiscated by Mexican police.
Two factors account for the fall off, according to US officials. Foremost is the loss of US military surveillance equipment. The second factor was a restructuring of the Mexican antidrug agency with the appointment of a new drug czar.
Mexican officials privately agree with the first explanation but not the second. They attribute part of the drop to a shift in smuggling patterns.
``The severe blows delivered to the Colombian traffickers over the last two years have caused them to look for new, safer routes - through Canada and elsewhere - to their customers in the US,'' says Fernando Arias Perez, spokesman for Mexico's attorney general. He also notes the confiscation of about 30 high-priced Rockwell Turbo Commander aircraft may have diminished the smugglers enthusiasm for transiting through Mexico.
But a US official here says there has been no slowdown in drug shipments. Currently at least one cocaine-laden aircraft a day flies into Mexico, he estimates. Officials from both sides of the border are looking forward to the return of one of three radar-equipped US Navy ships and an undisclosed number of US military aircraft used to track the planes ferrying narcotics north.
With the success of drug interdiction efforts in Florida and the Caribbean, Latin American cocaine smugglers (principally Colombian) have in recent years shifted delivery routes. Many are getting their product into the US market by flying to hundreds of clandestine air strips in sparsely populated northern Mexico. The large shipments are then unloaded and split into small loads that go by car, truck, burro, or foot across the 2,000-mile-long US border. An estimated 50 to 70 percent of cocain e sold in the US is shipped through Mexico, US officials say.
Last year, US and Mexican drug cops designed the Northern Border Response Force program. Narcotics-laden planes bound for Mexico are picked up on radar by US planes or ships in international waters south of Mexico.
Despite political sensitivities about sovereignty here, Mexico restored permission in January for US detection aircraft to fly over Mexican territory (with their radar turned off) en route to detection points south of Mexico.
Once picked up by US surveillance craft, flight information is passed to Mexico. Smugglers' planes are then pursued by special Cessna Citation jets on loan from the US Customs Service and jointly manned by US and Mexican crews. (Mexico just purchased its own pursuit jets.)
War blunts joint program
Smugglers are tracked to desert landing strips. Before traffickers can unload and hide the narcotics, helicopters carrying teams of drug police arrest them and seize the drugs and aircraft.
But the joint program's effectiveness has been blunted by Gulf war priorities. So far, only 9 of the 21 US Army UH-1H Huey helicopters promised have been delivered. US training teams and spare parts are also on hold.
Despite the drop in seizures, US border police, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Customs agents contacted in three US border states report no significant increases in the flow of cocaine across the border.
``It's been steady, but nothing to indicate a big jump in shipments,'' says an US Customs agent in Arizona. ``What I'm hearing is that the traffickers are taking a wait-and-see attitude. They know with the Gulf war, border security is tighter to prevent terrorists from getting in.''
One theory is that cocaine may be piling up in Mexico until after the terrorist threat subsides. An indicator supporting this thesis was the Feb. 20 discovery by Mexican police of 1,500 pounds of Colombian cocaine in a cave in the northern state of Chihuahua.
Yet the Chihuahua seizure is one of only a few since October, when Jorge Carrillo Olea took over from Javier Coello Trejo as drug chief. Mr. Coello Trejo was widely praised for his effectiveness. But his removal appeared to result from continued allegations of police brutality. Mr. Carrillo Olea's appointment, as well as the revamping of the Mexican attorney general's office and federal penal code, are part of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's efforts to clean up rights abuses.
``The restructuring of the federal attorney general's offices, including the narcotics section, is part of a move to be more sensitive to the human rights problem,'' a US official says. ``Once the shakedown period is over, the new structure can be expected to improve things.''
Carrillo Olea, who is described as a top administrator, is restructuring his agency in accord with two major programs: interdiction of cocaine shipments and eradication of marijuana and poppy crops. As result, personnel are being shifted. A new police academy opened its doors last month to improve screening and training of drug enforcement officers.
New US drug czar visits
Robert Bonner, the new head of the DEA, visited the country last week to have first hand look at the reorganization. It was his first visit to Mexico since taking office in August. Mr. Bonner had a series of private meetings with Mr. Salinas and top officials here.
In Washington last week, Colombian President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo received President Bush's endorsement for his country's anti-extradition policy. Mr. Gaviria's policy promises not to extradite Colombian drug kingpins to the US if they turn themselves in and confess. Eight traffickers have given up since December.
One of the traffickers has received a light jail sentence, triggering doubts about the policy. But US officials hope tougher punishments will be meted out as a result of a new US-Colombia agreement that allows evidence gathered by US authorities to be used by Colombian prosecutors.