Why traffickers will always be one jump ahead

COCAINE traffickers call it 'The Jump'. This is the ability to get the cocaine across the Mexican border or the Caribbean into the United States. It was here that Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel made their money in the 1980s as American consumption of cocaine soared.

The drug business in Colombia and the US was never integrated. Escobar's skill was in arranging transport of the cheap and easily available raw cocaine from the fields and laboratories and making 'The Jump' successfully. Some of the drugs brought into the US were owned by him but more came from freelance producers. If a shipment was intercepted then Escobar would usually refund the price of the drugs lost to the owners.

The success he and other Colombian drug traffickers have enjoyed in circumventing US government efforts at interdiction can be demonstrated by tracking the wholesale price of pure cocaine in the US. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the price fell sharply in the early 1980s. It then levelled off at dollars 11,000 ( pounds 7,500) for a kilogram (2.2lb) of pure cocaine where - despite all efforts to throttle supplies - it has stayed for the last five years.

The reason Escobar and the Colombian drug traffickers, who supply 80 per cent of cocaine consumed in the US, made so much money and are so difficult to stop is explained by State Department figures. These say that, given that a ton of the drug is worth dollars 100m in the US, the American market alone puts dollars 15bn to dollars 17.5bn into criminal hands.

With profits like this it is easy to see why Escobar's wealth was once estimated at dollars 3bn by Forbes magazine. A State Department report says: 'Cocaine and heroin are currently the most abundant, lucrative commodities in the world.' The whole of the US consumes only 150 to 175 tons of cocaine in a year and it appears to be impossible to stop it entering the country.

The extent to which attempted interdiction has failed was underlined yesterday with the almost universal acceptance that the death of Escobar would have no effect on the flow of drugs from Colombia to the US. The Cali cartel - less publicly violent in their methods than the men from Medellin - has already taken over some 80 per cent of cocaine trafficking to the US.

Escobar was, however, the best- known criminal in America since Al Capone. His ability to elude the Colombian police and DEA for so long was a continual humiliation of law enforcement. For 20 years the 23 federal agencies involved in the war on drugs boosted their budget through exploiting fears of cocaine but have notably failed to reduce its availability.

The death of Escobar could be seen as a success for the DEA's so-called Kingpin strategy of going after the leaders of the drug cartels. David Bonner, the former head of the DEA, described this as an effort 'to reduce the cartels' capacity to produce and distribute cocaine by incarcerating their leaders, seizing their assets and working capital, confiscating their financial records and otherwise disrupting their operation'.

The lesson of the last decade is that US attempts to stop drugs at source are doomed. The profits are too great. Draconian sentences at home probably have reduced the use of cocaine but at a high price. Just as with prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, the government has frightened off casual consumers but has ensured that the hard core of the drugs business is in the hands of professional criminals.

Escobar fell because, like Capone, he publicly challenged the state. The Cali cartel refused to join him in 'narco-terrorism', whereby he assassinated politicians and newspaper editors who called for his extradition to the US. Others will now organise 'The Jump' just as he once did, but with less publicity.

Obituary, page 15