Boost for MI6 in war on drug trade

Cook's tour: Foreign Secretary promises to concentrate efforts on trying to snuff out international trafficking at its source
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The Independent Online
Jason Bennetto

Crime Correspondent

The rise in international drug trafficking was identified yesterday as one of the most worrying and dangerous develop- ments facing Britain.

According to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, tackling the drug trade abroad is to become a top priority for agencies such as MI6, customs, and MI5.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, he insisted that this was "not simply a restatement of old policy; we will refocus all resources to make this a top priority". In future the organisa- tions 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 at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. So far this year pounds 42m has been spent on anti-drug measures abroad.

Mr Cook yesterday highlighted the drug trade from South East Asia, and in particular Burma, where he said the military government was conniving with drugs barons. Heroin is now the most common class A drug smuggled into Britain. Most of it comes from opium grown in the "Golden Crescent" of Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and arrives via countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Drug agencies estimate that only 10 per cent of the heroin that comes into Britain, most of which involves Turkish drug gangs, is intercepted en route.

Heroin also reaches Europe from South East Asia, smuggled by sea through Vladivostok and by land through Mongolia and the Russian federation. The territories of the former Soviet Union are increasingly used as transit points by traffickers of heroin and cannabis resin.

The majority of the cocaine, which is being seized in the UK and Europe in record amounts, is grown in South America, particularly Colombia and Bolivia, and smuggled through Spain and Portugal.

Drug cartels have also moved in to exploit the political upheavals in Eastern Europe. Cocaine is being smuggled into Europe thorough the Russian Federation, Poland and south-eastern Europe.

The former Soviet Bloc has also become a major source of synthetic drugs, such as speed, produced in laboratories of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Latvia. The largest producers of ecstasy are still based in western European countries particularly the Netherlands.

Although the Secret Intelligence Service, MI5 and Customs and Excise will be used in the drugs battle, Mr Cook does not believe that British military forces will be used in South East Asia as countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have powerful armed forces. In other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean and Colombia, Britain provides specialist training by the SAS and support by the Royal Navy to help curb the drugs trade.

The intelligence services have been increasingly involved in the battle against the drugs trade since the end of the Cold War. Mr Cook's announcement yesterday, which did not mention whether extra money was being made available, suggests that officers are likely to be reassigned to investigate drug barons rather than Soviet spies.

In his authoritative new book New Cloak, Old Dagger, Michael Smith reveals that MI6 has been involved in a number of successful anti-drug operations. One in 1991 began when Scotland Yard detectives arrested two Czech "businessmen" in London with a consignment of cocaine, and stumbled across a major drug route from Colombia, via Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

Unable to operate abroad, the police called in MI6 which helped to close the route and convict several traffickers. MI6 has set up a "Global Issues Controllerate" to target drug traffickers that includes officers working on organised crime.

Similar arrangements are in place at GCHQ, which monitors radio messages. According to Mr Smith, GCHQ has adapted its operational techniques to intercept drug smugglers before they get to Britain. Liaison between the intelligence services and the police is conducted through the National Criminal Intelligence Service.