Britain's Drugs Crisis: Drugs intelligence unit sweeps into action: European response: Agency set up to help police combat threat from criminals operating across international borders

AFTER only two weeks in business, Europol, the new drugs intelligence unit of the European Union, is taking credit for two international drug sweeps involving the police forces of Greece, Belgium and France.

The unit, which is based in The Hague, was established to combat what the police and politicians describe as an ever-escalating threat to European society from the international drugs trade and money-laundering and organised crime associated with it.

Seizures show that the quantity and value of drugs being shipped to the EU is rising all the time, and the organisations bringing it in are increasingly violent. There is further evidence of drug traffickers becoming involved in illegal arms sales and of links with subversive groups.

Colombian drug cartels are shipping cocaine via Spain, Eastern Europe and Nigeria, while the classic Balkan pipeline for heroin has been diverted by the war in Bosnia. Heroin from South-east Asia is transported via Eastern Europe and also by courier through Nigeria.

Europol's future role has yet to be decided, with some countries, like Germany, keen that it should become a fully operational European-style FBI. For now it is restricted to providing analysis to police narcotics squads. In the fight against drug dealers who operate across borders with virtual impunity, Europol is providing some badly needed assistance to overstretched police forces, which rarely communicate about operational matters because of language barriers.

For the first time, EU drugs intelligence officers are providing instant tactical intelligence, helping to target individuals and organisations suspected of planning drug operations. Language problems are overcome by having a drug liaison officer from each EU country based at Europol's headquarters in The Hague. Others provide analysis on the mass of intelligence information that is on now tap.

EU police are still unable to conduct cross-border operations, except for nine Schengen countries (which exclude Britain, Denmark and the Irish Republic) when they are already in hot pursuit.

Jurgen Storbeck, Europol's acting director, said the organisation had already intervened to help Greek, Belgian and French drugs officers in recent raids, ensuring that two international sweeps went off without a hitch.

The intelligence back-up they provided allowed police to move in and make arrests with pinpoint accuracy. The direct computer links to national police intelligence services accomplishing in hours, what would otherwise have taken weeks.

In one case Greek customs arrested three individuals on board a ship in Patras and discovered 16 kilograms of cocaine hidden in its cargo of fruit. 'Following consultations here, when it was established that the ship had already been under surveillance in Antwerp they were able to arrest two Colombians and one Greek instead of detaining the ship' and spoiling the cargo, Mr Storbeck said.

In another case Europol was able to co-ordinate the arrest of two Italians, three French nationals and a Dutchman after being consulted by the Belgian authorities, and putting off moves by French anti-drug agents.

Not all experts in the drugs trade share Mr Storbeck's enthusiasm for Europol. Nicholas Dorn, of Britain's Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, believes that there is too much emphasis on beating the trade by concentrating on 'top trafficking'.

'This is a vision which does not correspond to reality in Britain, nor to general trends in Europe,' Mr Dorn said.

'If you 'top slice' drugs intelligence in this way, then you don't get the top of the triangle - there is no triangle; you just get a few slithers of this and that', because drug markets are dominated by medium to small players.

Mr Dorn describes Europol's and Britain's drugs policy as 'a giraffe on a virtually tree-less plain'.

However, fighting the illicit drugs trade has become a top vote-winning priority for European politicians and the strategy they have adopted is one of areas where there is little dissent in the EU.

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