Spy Agency Adapts Cold-War Tactics for Drug War
CIA shifts emphasis from spying on Soviets to pursuing poppy-growers
Satellites once used to snoop on the Kremlin are now gathering data on another American adversary: international drug syndicates.
The global network of illegal narcotics smugglers - raking in $300 billion a year - is seen as a major post-cold-war threat to democracy by the Clinton administration.
Consequently, the Central Intelligence Agency is redirecting some of the manpower and technologies it employed to fight the former Soviet superpower.
The CIA once spared just a handful of agents for one or two counternarcotics operations a year. Now, some 200 CIA agents are working with other United States law-enforcement officials on about 20 major cases annually. The agency also gathers intelligence on drug rings, uses surveillance satellites and other means to estimate global narcotics production, and trains US and foreign law-enforcement personnel in espionage "tradecraft" that can be used to combat traffickers.
US officials worry that major international drug syndicates could pool their fortunes in coordinated campaigns to expand markets and undermine democratic institutions.
Already, the influence of drug money is pervasive in some Latin American nations. Campaign contributions, outright bribery, and murder are common elements in the political and judicial arenas of some states.
"I am very much troubled that the organizations that are pushing drugs ... are developing massive capital. I am concerned they are going to link together ... to leverage democratic societies around the world," says a senior intelligence official. "There is a tremendous dimension to this problem that we have hardly begun to see."
This concern came to light at a rare briefing held last week for reporters to highlight the roles the CIA and other US intelligence agencies are now playing in the war on drugs. Officials spoke on condition they not be identified.
The effort is starting to bear fruit, claim American officials. US intelligence was crucial, officials here say, to last month's arrest of Gilberto Rodriquez Orejuela, the reputed head of Colombia's Cali cartel, a group believed to produce 80 percent of the world's cocaine.
Still, such victories seem to have little impact on America's streets, where demand is higher and drugs are more available, cheaper, and purer than ever.
"It's not a question of winning a war," concedes a senior intelligence official. "You are not going to win it on the supply side. You have to fix the problem domestically."
US counternarcotics programs are also hampered by some serious internal problems, says John Kelly of the Government Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency. These include a lack of coordination between US agencies and cuts in funding for interdiction efforts and drug-fighting aid to production states such as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
In addition, Mr. Kelly says, the White House has yet to complete a heroin policy it pledged in November 1993 to produce in 120 days. Kelly also says that corruption often undermines efforts abroad and foreign governments in drug-producing states are reluctant to cooperate with US counternarcotics efforts because of the political unrest it causes among peasant farmers. "Perhaps what we really need is more of a focus, more of a plan," he told a congressional hearing last week.
Intelligence officials say that law enforcement agencies interdicted about 300 tons of the estimated 900 metric tons of cocaine produced last year. Another 300 tons entered the US, while 100 tons were smuggled into Europe and Asia. The rest was either consumed locally or never made it to market for various reasons.
In 1993, Peru coca leaf yields slipped 30 percent, officials say, due to plant disease and other production problems in 1993. Last year, production rebounded by 6 percent.
About 77 percent of the world's coca crop is grown in Peru, the officials say. The rest comes from Bolivia. The leaves or coca paste are smuggled to Colombia, where they are reprocessed into cocaine at jungle laboratories. From there, most US-bound cocaine is flown to Mexico in bulk shipments that are broken into small loads for transportation across the border by cars and trucks.
Some traffickers smuggle through Puerto Rico because cargoes entering the US mainland from the island are not subject to customs inspections.
The officials say they are somewhat heartened by stepped-up efforts by Peru and Colombia to disrupt the cocaine "air bridge" out of their respective countries. But traffickers are adapting by moving their labs to new areas and flying circuitous routes into Mexico.
Complicating counternarcotics efforts in Colombia is the establishment in recent years of large-scale opium poppy production. The yields have become so high that US officials estimate that about 30 percent of the heroin entering the country now comes from Colombia. The rest comes from Southeast Asia.
The increase in Colombian heroin contributed to a 42 percent surge in worldwide supplies between 1988 and 1993, when a record 3,671 tons of the drug was produced, the officials say.
Burma was responsible for about 70 percent of the world's heroin in 1993. A drought reduced its share last year to about 59 percent.
Officials say another major heroin producer is Afghanistan, where refugees who fled the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war have returned to plant large poppy crops.