Secret agents go to war on drug barons

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook said yesterday that he wanted Britain's intelligence services to play a larger role in combating the scourge of drug smuggling in South- East Asia.

"My government has decided to use all the resources available to it to fight this scourge," he said in a speech in Malaysia. "This is not simply a restatement of old policy - we will refocus all resources to make this a top priority."

"Our diplomatic, aid, law enforcement and intelligence assets will all be targeted at fighting the international drugs trade," he said as part of a speech which covered relations between Britain And South-East Asia. It is rare that ministers make public mention of the intelligence agencies or their role.

The intelligence organisations will concentrate on trying to stifle the production of drugs at their source rather than just catching traffickers as they enter Britain. To reinforce this commitment greater resources are to be allocated to MI6 and the listening base in GCHQ Cheltenham. So far this year pounds 42m has been spent on anti drug measures abroad.

The Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, is always quick to spot new roles in the post-Cold War world. MI6 has set up a "Global Issues Controllerate" to target drug traffickers which includes officers working on organised crime. Similar arrangements are at GCHQ, which monitors radio messages.

But forget flashy cars with ejector seats, or fountain pens packed with explosives. The real-life 007s in Robin Cook's "refocused" SIS may find a bottle of mosquito repellent more useful in their new mission: to combat Asia's ruthless drug traffickers.

Hidden behind thick malaria and swamp-ridden jungles, the notorious "golden triangle" opium fields of Burma, Laos and Thailand produce the bulk of the world's heroin. Protected by corrupt officials and their own well-trained guerrilla armies, the secretive drug overlords, like Burma's infamous Khun Sa, who profit from the illicit trade have seen their organisations thriving in recent years.

The new emphasis on combating international drug crime, particularly from heroin-producing Burma, is likely to involve British agents on covert operations deep in Asia's jungle, monitoring trafficking routes from Asia to Europe and America, and perhaps even infiltrating the tight-knit Asian gangs who control heroin production and supply drug distribution networks across the globe. "Intelligence gathering is the key to breaking down these criminal organisations," said Richard Dickens, an intelligence advisor to the UN's International Drug Control Programme in Bangkok.

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