Drug Traffic Seen Spreading Like Brush Fire to New Areas of Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Even as officials in the United States and Mexico debate the volume of drug traffic moving north through Mexico, there is agreement on both sides of the border that the narcotics trade, whatever the volume, is penetrating parts of Mexico where it has never before been prominent.

The brush fire spread of the drug traffic indicates that the effort--encouraged by the United States--to destroy drug crops in one part of the country is stimulating new cultivation elsewhere.

Mexican and U.S. officials say, for example, that a 13-month campaign to eradicate crops of marijuana and opium poppies in Sinaloa, a major drug-producing state, has stimulated new plantings of the crops in Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca to the south. Opium is the source of heroin.

Phenomenon Continues

"We are sure the phenomenon has not ended," said Jose Ortega Padilla, head of the Mexican attorney general's Permanent Campaign against Drug Traffic.

Mexican officials also admit to frustration in trying to block the flow of cocaine from South America to the U.S. market. Mexico does not grow coca, the raw material of cocaine, but is a way station for moving the drug.

"The passage of cocaine through Mexico is probably growing," Ortega Padilla said. He described a process in which U.S. cocaine runners fly south from the United States undetected, and Colombians fly north from Colombia or Central America. They meet in Mexico, where Mexican traffickers provide runway and fuel services.

"It's very simple," he said. "The drug traffickers land where they can, where they find facilities to refuel."

Topic of Discussion

The march of drug activity across Mexico is expected to come up for discussion when President Reagan and Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid meet Feb. 13. The presidents are scheduled to meet in Mazatlan, a West Coast resort in Sinaloa, and it should give U.S. officials a closer-than-usual look at the drug landscape in Mexico.

The meeting will undoubtedly be colored by different perceptions of the problem. As surveyed by U.S. officials, little progress against drugs is being made in Mexico. A recent congressional report complained that Mexican campaigns to destroy crops have failed to keep pace with new plantings. Increased seizures of cocaine at border crossings have led U.S. officials to conclude that Mexico now competes with Florida as the main gateway for narcotics into the United States.

In addition, a recent series of indictments in California implicated present and past members of Mexico's armed forces, police departments and courts in the drug traffic. The U.S. government asserts that a third of the heroin, marijuana and cocaine sold in the United States originates in Mexico or is transported through this country.

Assessments Disputed

Mexican officials argue that U.S. assessments are unfair and make light of Mexican efforts to battle the drug traffic. The Mexicans note, for example, that U.S. officials base their estimates of increased Mexican drug harvests on reports that more and more crops are being seized or destroyed in Mexico.

"They say the Mexicans destroy more, therefore Mexico grows more. Does that mean if we destroy less, there is less?" Ortega Padilla asked. "No. We destroy more because we are getting more efficient."

He rejected accusations in the United States against high-ranking Mexican law enforcement and military officials.

"Simple charges are not proof," he said.

According to Mexican accounts, recent campaigns to destroy drug crops in Mexico have resulted in a frustrating cat-and-mouse game. Military-led crop destruction in Sinaloa has prompted narcotics growers to plant marijuana and poppies on ever-smaller plots of land in rugged terrain. Such crops are hard to reach by planes or by soldiers who destroy the crops by hand, so growers in other states are following the Sinaloa example.

Moving to Jalisco

Furthermore, successive army raids on the hide-outs of Sinaloa drug traffickers have merely forced prominent smugglers to move their operations to Jalisco, Sinaloa's neighboring state on the south.

"Forget about Sinaloa for the moment; it's Jalisco that needs a housecleaning," advised one foreign diplomat who monitors drug traffic in Mexico.

Jalisco is no stranger to drug smuggling and related violence. It was there that Enrique S. Camarena, an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was kidnaped, tortured and killed by drug runners in 1985. The killing and its aftermath, with the alleged participation of Mexican police, still clouds U.S.-Mexican relations in anti-narcotics cooperation.

11 Landing Strips

Heading off cocaine traffic appears to be as difficult an enterprise as destroying home-grown drugs. If anything, the burgeoning cocaine trade is more widespread in Mexico than the cultivation of native drug crops. Maps furnished by the DEA show that landing strips used by cocaine smugglers can be found in at least 11 Mexican states.

Part of the earnings from cocaine has been used by the smugglers to bribe policemen and to buy heavier weapons, officials of both countries say. Accordingly, the Mexican government has sent in the army to take on the traffickers, not only in Sinaloa but also in Tamaulipas on the Texas border. The army is considered to have greater firepower and to be less vulnerable to bribes than the regular police forces.

In Tamaulipas, the military is trying to intercept drug shipments before they reach the U.S. border. Recently a federal legislator from Tamaulipas, Jorge Cardenas, told reporters that in his state "narcotics gangs are better armed, paid and organized than the police."

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