Interdiction efforts aren't keeping drugs out of the United States. Federal agencies say they will, someday. But officials say that even if the borders were sealed, the American people still would face a drug plague.
What's a government to do?William J. Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the United States must keep up the interdiction pressure on all fronts - air, land and sea.
But as Bennett works on a national strategy for combating drug abuse and the violence spawned by drug trafficking, he also is accepting that much more must be done on prevention, education and treatment.
"You don't abandon interdiction just because drugs are somehow getting through," said Bennett spokesman Don Hamilton. "You have to do what you can to make the lives of traffickers more difficult.
"The whole strategy consists of doing everything, doing everything smarter and everything better."
A report by the General Accounting Office, the research branch of Congress, says drugs were found on only 10 percent of the planes targeted for inspection through aerial interdiction, and that half of those were "controlled" deliveries in which intelligence agents knew in advance that the planes were bringing in drugs.
Arnold P. Jones of the GAO stressed during testimony last week before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that, despite all interdiction efforts, the drug supply in the United States is increasing, illustrated by an increase in purity of drugs sold on the street, a decrease in price, and a hike in drug-related emergency- room treatments.
Enforcement officials acknowledge that huge amounts of drugs are still getting through but say the interdiction efforts have other benefits.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James G. Simpson says that even if aerial interdiction's success rate were just one out of 20 planes, "that's a great record."
For years, Simpson said, the Coast Guard "putzed around the Caribbean with two or three ships, and we came up with huge seizures of marijuana. Eventually we put a lot of equipment down there and seizures dropped."
Simpson said he views decreased seizures not as a failure but as success, indicating that the drug traffickers have had to use other routes that possibly cost more and pose more problems, such as using individual overland couriers or hiding the drugs in cargo containers.
Dick Weart of the U.S. Customs Service said a system of radar balloons along the souther border is only partially completed, but already "land-border crossing seizures are up 500 to 600 percent. More and more, we're getting containers with 5,000-, 6,000-, 7,000-pound loads."
"This indicates to me that they're moving toward less desirable means of transporting their product," Weart said, explaining that such modes are less desirable "because they can't control it from beginning to end like they can on a small plane."
But some say interdiction, no matter how dramatic some seizures may seem, ultimately won't work, not only because foreign drug traffickers will continue to get around barriers but because domestic producers will fill any otherwise unmet demand.
Mexico targets traffickers
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has promised to "make life impossible for drug traffickers" because of their corrosive effect on society but says Mexico cannot be expected to halt the drug trade by itself.
"It worries me that it (drug use and drug trafficking) doesn't show signs of diminishing as a world trend," Salinas said during an interview Tuesday. Drug trafficking and corruption that protects traffickers are a major bone of contention in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Mexicans believe the real problem is immense demand in the United States and say they are pleased the United States is beginning to do something about it.
"We will not end drug trafficking by fighting it in Mexico," said Salinas, calling for an international effort against drugs. Salinas said the drug trade and corruption are threats to Mexico's national security and that drug use is a danger to Mexicans' health.