Colombian drug barons could fill heroin vacuum

War against terrorism: Drugs
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Colombian drug barons could replace Afghan traffickers as the leading suppliers of heroin to Britain and the rest of the world, if the war against the Taliban intensifies, a Customs and Excise official warned on Thursday.

Burmese heroin producers could also move in to fill the vacuum left by poppy-growers and traffickers in Afghanistan who presently supply Britain and the rest of the world with about 80 per cent of the drug.

Nick Fishwick, the director of national intelligence at Customs and Excise, told a drugs conference yesterday that three-quarters of the world's heroin came from Afghanistan's opium fields, and that the market in the United Kingdom alone was worth about £350m a year.

At present, Turkish drug gangs dominated the smuggling from central Asia into Britain, while Colombian cartels controlled the lucrative cocaine trade, worth £600m a year in the UK, he said.

Mr Fishwick said that Colombian drugs gangs already had sophisticated smuggling networks in place, operating between the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, and Western Europe.

He said: "The effect of military action in Afghanistan could be changes in Afghanistan's ability or willingness to produce heroin. Other potential producer countries currently without a profit incentive to produce heroin could then have an incentive to fill the gap."

Citing the Colombian drug gangs as among the most likely candidates to turn the military action to their advantage, he said: "They could find it in their interests to do so. The traffickers would have existing networks and infrastructure which they have already used for cocaine."

He added: "The fallout of military action in Afghanistan could lead to big uncertainties. But we know that when one organisation disappears, others quickly take their place because the business remains so profitable.

"These organisations have greater flexibility in their networks. The only certainty is that, as long as there remains demand for heroin, the traffickers will show formidable enterprise and ingenuity in going about their business."

The intelligence expert, speaking at a drugs conference organised by the national charity DrugScope, in London, also predicted that heroin gangs in Burma would be in a strong position to cash in on the war against terrorism, and said that law-enforcement agencies would have to increase surveillance on Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur airports.

But another drugs expert, who is scheduled to speak at the conference later today, said that traffickers in Afghanistan were stockpiling heroin and could flood the European market with the drug.

When the Taliban banned opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan last year, in an attempt to win favour with the West, the production of the drug plummeted 60 per cent, according to Sandeep Chawla, the chief researcher for the UN's drug control programme.

But opium-growing is believed to be back in full swing, he said. Mr Chawla also said that only 3,300 tons of opium were produced last year, but after the Taliban's ban on poppy cultivation in July last year, that fell to 200 tons this year.

The drug-control expert warned that the effects of the war were hard to predict, but said that there were "anecdotal reports and evidence" that the ban on poppy cultivation had been lifted.

He said: "We have evidence there was considerable over- production and stockpiling of heroin in the last two years.

"These stockpiles of heroin could well be released into the European market. This, coupled with the possible return to full-scale opium production, could mean more heroin on the streets of Europe."