Agents aim to break hold of barons

Matthew Chance

Bangkok

Details of new plans for the Secret Intelligence Service are, naturally, secret. But moving, at times, outside the parameters of the law, undercover MI6 operatives using skills refined during the Cold War will have the freedom to collect data, develop contracts and in some instances, help to co-ordinate military-style raids against drug installations, like heroin processing factories or opium "farms". They are also expected to record information to help guide criminal case against drug barons, smugglers and officials involved in the trade.

Rather than taking direct action, their real value in the global fight against trafficking may be the political pressure British intelligence can help bring to bear on countries like Burma, linked with drug trafficking at the highest levels.

"There's really no question of them leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them: M16 are far too subtle for that," according to Richard Dickens, an intelligence adviser to the United Nations' International Drug Control Programme in Bang-kok. "But they can be expected to manipulate the situation on the ground to their best advantage, and, for want of another word, to agitate."

This "agitation" could take the form of blackmail: exposing the links of high-ranking individuals to the drug trade could be used as leverage to pressurise governments into taking action against other elements involved in trafficking.

"The aim is to break the trafficking loop," said Mr Dickens, "to seize money, to freeze assets, to stop the drug trade, even if that means bending morals or sending people to the firing squad in some countries."

Although the heroin which can be bought on the streets of Britain originates largely from Afghanistan, not Burma, British officials are acutely aware of the potential threat posed by South East Asian heroin producers. If UN negotiators, for instance, succeed in arm-twisting the militant Taleban Islamic government, which controls most of Afghanistan's opium-growing regions, into clamping-down on their people's drug production, South East Asia could re-emerge as a key supplier of heroin to British addicts.

"This British initiative looks like it fits well into the global strategy we are trying hard to promote," said the Vincent McLean, the UN's drug control chief in Bangkok, who added that the fight against trafficking was "a global problem".

"This is an exciting time for those of us who have been watching the steady rise of South East Asia's drug producers. Turn MI6 loose in Asia, give them carte blanche to operate in this area, and they will make a difference," he said.

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