BRITISH anti-narcotics officials fear that their improving record of seizing illegal drugs in reality masks a highly undesirable trend.
They say they have mounting evidence that much larger quantities of cocaine and heroin are entering Britain than in the recent past. The shipments are part of a determined attempt in the last two years by Latin American drug-traffickers to target Britain and other European countries.
Douglas Tweddle, chief investigations officer for Customs and Excise, says a series of drug hauls in British ports earlier this year are proof that Latin American countries, faced with saturated markets in the United States, have swung their attention to Europe.
"Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and other countries are involved," Mr. Tweddle says. "There is evidence that we are at the receiving end of a determined campaign by the drug barons to find new and lucrative markets."
The size of the problem, Tweddle says, is indicated by the seizure in Liverpool last month of 900 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of 150 million pounds ($259 million).
This interception - a record in Britain - was followed two weeks later by the discovery of 25 kg of heroin at Dover worth 2 million pounds ($3.5 million) and of 100 kg of cocaine, worth 16 million pounds ($27 million), in a London warehouse.
"One sees the drug problem in Britain getting worse on all fronts," Tweddle says.
"The amount of cocaine coming in is increasing, and the number of heroin addicts is growing. Our task is to contain the problem."
The scale of the problem is well illustrated by the Liverpool cocaine haul. The consignment was hidden in hollowed-out lead ingots shipped from Venezuela and labeled "for industrial use." The seizure, which was preceded by clandestine X-raying of the ingots, brought to a successful conclusion an 11-week surveillance operation by police and customs agents.
Tweddle says the discovery adds to his belief that large stockpiles of cocaine in Colombia and Peru, are waiting to be shipped to Europe.
A week before the Liverpool discovery, Belgian authorities seized 650 kg of cocaine in Antwerp aboard a Panamanian-registered ship, according to a police official. The drug was thought to have reached Belgium from Peru via Venezuela and Panama.
In January Dutch police and customs authorities announced that they had seized 800 kg of cocaine, also in lead ingots, in a Rotterdam warehouse.
Further evidence of a concerted attempt by Latin American drug traffickers to deluge European countries with hard drugs has come from Capt. Carlos Mow of the Colombian National Police.
He told a conference of British police officers in Preston May 1 that Colombian producers are branching out from cocaine production. "Gangs controlling the cocaine trade are also trafficking, marketing, and processing heroin and morphine," Mr. Mow said. "The main target countries are in Europe."
Last December US Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Robert Bonner, said 14,000 kg of cocaine had been seized in Europe in 1991 compared with "virtually nothing" six years earlier. Mr. Bonner said he feared up to 200,000 kg may have entered European countries undetected and warned that it might take three years for the full devastating effects of cocaine to become apparent in the countries concerned.
Tweddle says Bonner's warning must be heeded. "We know that more and more drugs are being targeted on Britain and that in South America the production levels are increasing," he says. "We are also seeing increased heroin production in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Laos, and Burma."
Western Europe is "one of the more affluent parts of the world," Tweddle says. "The people who want to make money out of drugs see us as a rich market."
Britain's anti-drug operation received a financial boost last year as a result of joint US-British investigations into the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Some of the bank's employees were found to have been laundering drug money through London.
US anti-drug authorities donated $3 million to Britain's Customs and Excise authorities in exchange for information on the bank's employees. The money has been used, Tweddle says, to support Britain's anti-drug strategy.
According to Customs and Excise statistics, British seizures of cocaine rose from around 18 kg in 1982 to 1,070 kg in 1991.