THE Italian Mafia has begun using Britain as a transfer point for smuggling Colombian cocaine and other hard drugs into countries of the European Union, British customs officials say.
British banks and other financial institutions are being extensively used by narcotics traffickers in Britain to launder profits from Mafia drug-dealing, they add.
The determination of the Mafia to penetrate the 12-nation EU by using Britain as a convenient staging post, the officials say, was demonstrated when British police seized 550 pounds of cocaine at the port of Felixstowe, shortly before Christmas.
The seizure followed a tip-off to Scotland Yard in London by Italian police. It was the first proven case of an attempt by the Mafia to land cocaine in Britain. Two British citizens of Italian parentage, arrested at Felixstowe, have been charged with smuggling.
Felixstowe is directly opposite the Dutch coast. British police say that if the narcotics had not been seized, they would probably have been carried by fishing vessel to continental Europe and distributed to other countries, taking advantage of the EU's decision a year ago to ease internal frontier controls.
The lifting of border restrictions makes it easier for EU citizens to move around continental countries. Britain has shown deep reluctance to accept the new rules, but there are now few impediments to travelers with EU passports moving in and out of the country through airports and seaports.
At airports, EU passport-holders are allowed to pass through a special customs channel. Only occasionally are they stopped for questioning or to have their luggage searched.
UNTIL a few months ago, British police and customs officials had assumed that the Mafia would concentrate on funneling Colombian narcotics to the countries of Eastern Europe, where they saw room for rapid expansion.
Early in December, however, according to Scotland Yard sources, London police chief Paul Condon learned from Italian law enforcement officials that the EU's laxer customs and travel rules were seen by drug smugglers as an invitation to switch their attention to the more lucrative West European market. The street price of cocaine in large European cities is up to three times higher than that in the United States.
British customs officials say they are working on the assumption that most of the cocaine being sold in Britain and elsewhere in Western Europe has its origins with Colombian drug cartels.
In May 1992, also at Felixstowe, customs agents seized 2,200 pounds of Colombian cocaine that had been shipped via Venezuela, but were unable to establish a Mafia connection.
The seizure prompted the establishment of closer contacts between British and Italian police.
London's financial district, with its complex network of foreign banks and finance houses, is seen by the traffickers as a valuable place for handling and laundering cash arising from drug-related deals.
There have been reports of London-based agents purchasing works of art on behalf of the Mafia. A British police source says such purchases are seen as investments. If private buyers are involved, it is difficult to trace the money.
The London-based National Criminal Intelligence Service has known for some time that foreign finance houses in the British capital were being used to launder the profits of narcotics-related crime.
``It is all too easy for money to be moved from one bank to another, and then shunted on to yet another,'' a police official says. ``London in many ways is the perfect venue for such transactions, and it is exceptionally difficult to keep track of them.''
Last year British customs seized nearly 5,000 pounds of cocaine, but they concede that this represented only a fraction of the amount of the drug entering Britain.