WASHINGTON -- The CIA has stepped up its counternarcotics operations abroad and assisted Colombian authorities last month in tracking down a kingpin of the notorious Cali cartel, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials.
Providing a rare glimpse of the Central Intelligence Agency's recent clandestine efforts at slowing the flow of drugs into the United States, the officials acknowledged that the agency had penetrated several drug cartels and boosted its caseload from a couple of operations annually in the 1980s to "more than a dozen" each year in the 1990s.
Yet despite the stepped-up and apparently successful CIA assault on narcotics traffickers, one top intelligence official said he is concerned that powerful cartels will form permanent alliances among themselves to corrupt democratic societies.
"I'm very much troubled that the organizations pushing drugs -- the Colombians, Mexicans, Southeast Asians and the Russian mafia -- are developing massive capital, and my concern is that they will link together [to corrupt] democratic societies around the world," said the official, who, like the others, asked not to be identified. The official said that, so far, cooperation between cartels has been sporadic and limited to specific drug shipments.
The CIA estimates that illicit narcotics is a $300-billion-a-year industry.
Among the CIA's successes, the officials said, was the intelligence support for Colombia's June 9 arrest of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, a chieftain of the notorious Cali cartel, which supplies most of the cocaine in the United States.
"The United States' role was critical," said the official, who said that the State Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies participated. "And the CIA was a full partner."
It is unusual for the government to admit a CIA role in a specific clandestine operation abroad.
The officials said Mr. Orejuela's cartel had developed sophisticated counterintelligence and that an encrypted computer recently seized from the cartel contained all the phone numbers of U.S. Embassy personnel in Bogota, Colombia, enabling the cartel to learn who in the organization might have been in contact with the embassy.
The officials hinted strongly that the CIA had provided intelligence assistance for many of the recent major arrests of traffickers in Latin America and of significant narcotics seizures. They said, for example, that CIA penetration of the Cali cartel had enabled drug agents to interdict a 5 1/2 -ton cocaine shipment in 1992.