MEXICO CITY -- The landmark North American Free Trade Agreement has made it easier than ever for Mexican traffickers to smuggle drugs, and U.S. authorities are not doing enough to counter the fast-growing threat, a U.S. task force has concluded.
Sophisticated drug gangs are investing in everything from trucking companies and rail lines to warehouses and shipping firms to shield their trafficking activities, according to a confidential report by Operation Alliance, a task force led by the U.S. Customs Service.
Drug traffickers are using "commercial trade-related businesses to exploit the rising tide of cross-border commerce," said the 63-page report, "Drug Trafficking, Commercial Trade and NAFTA the Southwest Border."
While many U.S. officials avoid even talking about potential free trade-trafficking ties, Mexican smugglers have been busy hiring consultants to learn how to take advantage of NAFTA, some former drug agents say.
"For Mexico's drug gangs, the NAFTA was a deal made in narco-heaven," said Phil Jordan, a former high-level official with the Drug Enforcement Administration. "But since both the United States and Mexico are so committed to free trade, no one wants to admit it has helped the drug lords. It's a taboo subject.
"While I was at DEA, I was under strict orders not to say anything negative about free trade. Now it's come back to haunt us."
The free trade agreement is aimed at wiping out all tariffs between the United States, Mexico and Canada by the year 2008.
"If you believe NAFTA has not adversely affected the fight against drug traffickers, then you must believe in the tooth fairy," said Tom Cash, a former high-level DEA official.
The sheer volume of U.S.-bound cargo, some 400 million tons per year, makes it harder to find contraband, he and others say. "The Customs Service has tried to play down the idea that inspectors have less ability to stop drugs from coming across the border, but I think it's irrefutable," Cash said.
Border inspectors are under pressure to speed the flow of people and goods, he said, and can't always do thorough inspections.
Mexican traffickers are believed to smuggle an estimated 330 tons of cocaine, 14 tons of heroin and hundreds of tons of marijuana into the United States every year.
Pub Date: 5/11/98