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News from the war on drugs: Kingpins, open borders, and shadow wolves

US News and World Report,By David E. Kaplan Posted 4/5/06 http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/060405/5drugwar.htm

Remember the war on drugs?
It's still there, folks, but the narcs have taken a back seat to the war on terrorism. Not to miss a beat, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the 11,000-strong counternarcotics force under the Justice Department, is retooling for the age of terrorism and focusing more of its efforts on what it calls the drug-terror nexus. There's good reason why: As the United States and its allies continue to squeeze traditional sources of terrorist funding, such as Islamist charities and renegade states, terrorist groups are increasingly turning to criminal activity for cash, say experts.

Using techniques honed against Latin American drug lords, the DEA is employing a "kingpin" strategy to take out traffickers tied to terrorist groups. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the agency has targeted top heroin smugglers close to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Less well known is a major push by DEA agents in South America's triborder area, a crime-ridden no man's land where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. The region, a notorious haven for smugglers, is home to Arab drug-trafficking gangs that are moving cocaine from South America to Europe and the Middle East, the DEA's chief of operations, Michael Braun, told the House International Relations Committee on March 30.

Some of their profits, Braun said, are reportedly ending up with radical groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The lucrative drug trade could become "an unlimited source of cheap and easy revenue" for terrorist groups, Braun warned, noting that a $6,000 kilo of Latin American cocaine goes for $110,000 in Israel and $150,000 in Saudi Arabia. Key to the DEA's strategy will be going after the flow of money generated by the illicit trade.

On America's southern borders, meanwhile, the war on terrorism and a failure to replace old ships and planes are hobbling efforts to stop seaborne smugglers, according to a March report by the House Committee on Government Reform.

The tough report calls the lack of maritime patrol aircraft "a crisis" and says the "lack of air assets often leaves law enforcement with no way to counteract drug shipments, leaving them to merely watch as drugs make their way into the country." In a January visit to the Joint Interagency Task Force South, a Key West, Fla.-based counternarcotics nerve center, committee staffers were told the group "now has more actionable drug intelligence than there are interdiction assets available to respond to smuggling events."

Military planes and ships, the report notes, have been drained away by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the more striking examples cited: In the busy smuggling lanes of the eastern Pacific, an average of four U.S. ships patrol an area larger than the continental United States. The DEA itself has few such assets and must rely on the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, whose aging fleets need repair and replacement.

Here's some better news: Back at home, the DEA is finding success with a novel system that lets cops nationwide know if they're investigating the same suspect. Spurred by the post-9/11 push for better intelligence sharing, DEA tech managers merged their "deconfliction" system with that of several other agencies in 2004.

The National Virtual Pointer System has grown from 100,000 "active targets" to 609,000 suspects today. To participate, investigators must first enter the name of the person they're investigating.

"You have to pay to play," says Judith Bertini, DEA's deputy chief of intelligence. The NVPS is not a database; the system rapidly queries some 20 law enforcement bodies to check whether someone else is looking at the same suspect - which happens about 10 percent of the time - and investigators are then put in touch with each other. The system, piggybacked on existing technology for less than $1 million, won a 2005 government technology award. NVPS so far includes DEA, regional crime task forces, and various states. Notably missing: the FBI, which also wants to get on board.

Finally, a worrisome note about the fate of the Shadow Wolves, a celebrated unit of American Indian federal cops who patrol the 76-mile stretch of the Mexico-Arizona border in the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation. The Shadow Wolves combine traditional tracking methods with modern technology to thwart drug traffickers. The group is "one of our nation's most effective drug enforcement units, seizing over 100,000 pounds of narcotics annually" with fewer than two dozen agents, according to that March report from the House Government Reform Committee.

The problem: The Shadow Wolves were part of the now-defunct U.S. Customs Service until March 2003, when the new Department of Homeland Security put them under the Border Patrol. The new management hasn't worked out.

Only 15 of the 21 uniformed Shadow Wolves agents remain active, warns the report, "and there is a serious risk that the rest will retire or move to other employers if the problems are not addressed." The latest incident is Border Patrol insistence that the Wolves cut their hair, an action that, says one drug control expert, would "make them stand out like a sore thumb in Indian country."