Mexico, 7 Other Nations Unite in Drug Dragnet : Crime: Blitz nets narcotics, suspects. Cooperative effort with Central American neighbors is lauded by U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexico and all seven Central American countries have carried out what a U.S. official Friday called the biggest multinational counternarcotics blitz in history. The 10-day operation enlisted the Mexican army, navy and police forces to seize more than five tons of cocaine, nearly 40 tons of marijuana, two aircraft, six ships and more than 650 suspected drug traffickers in Mexico alone.

In unveiling the operation, confirmed Friday by Mexican authorities, U.S. officials also said the Drug Enforcement Administration played a key support role in the crackdown, dubbed Operation Unidos. Mexico's attorney general's office, which coordinated the effort, said it began Nov. 25 and ended Monday. U.S. officials said it included all land, sea and airspace from the southern U.S. border to the southern tip of Panama.

"For Mexico, drug trafficking is a phenomenon that transcends borders, and the fight against it is a responsibility that our country has assumed in a framework of international cooperation," the Mexican government's statement on the operation said Friday. "In this context, Mexico is exchanging information with Central American countries, which are simultaneously carrying out similar operations."

A spokesman for Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who has declared war on narcotics trafficking and the nation's powerful drug cartels, indicated such operations will continue in the future. "We are going to be acting very aggressively on an issue we consider vital to our national security," he said.

One U.S. official who participated in the months of planning that he said preceded the operation called it "a tremendous effort" by Mexico, which he said increasingly is playing a lead role in combating narcotics trafficking in the region. He added that it laid the foundation for new coordination among the nations that are key transit routes to the United States' cocaine market.

For the first time, he said, the participating counternarcotics agents all used secure communications lines supplied by the United States--a critical tool in combating multinational drug cartels that similarly use shared intelligence to coordinate smuggling operations throughout the region. The DEA estimates that smuggling routes through Mexico supply up to three-fourths of the South American cocaine sold in the United States.

Mexican and U.S. officials have said such coordination among law enforcement agencies is critical to gaining an advantage in the war on drugs, although sensitivities to sovereignty and occasional mistrust have hampered such efforts in the past.

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On Friday, officials on both sides of the U.S. border agreed that the quantity of drugs confiscated during the operation was less important than the unprecedented level of multinational cooperation.

"The seizures in Mexico, as far as I'm concerned, were secondary," the U.S. official said. "The bottom line and focal point of this was to enhance cooperative efforts in the region and develop machinery for the exchange of information."

U.S. and Mexican officials have acknowledged in the past that five tons of cocaine is a tiny fraction of the total they estimate enters the United States through Mexico each year. During a single weekend in early November, for example, U.S. officials told The Times that an estimated 25 tons of South American cocaine traversed Mexico through clandestine air shipments that landed in remote airstrips here.

But the seizures during Operation Unidos were hardly insignificant. The five tons of cocaine intercepted during those 10 days totaled about a third of what was seized by Mexican authorities during the first nine months of Zedillo's term, which began Dec. 1, 1994, according to statistics supplied by the Mexican attorney general's office.

The attorney general's statement confirmed the quantities that U.S. officials said were seized in Operation Unidos. It also reported that Mexican authorities made 671 drug arrests in more than a third of the nation's 31 states during the 10 days. And the statement confirmed that the Mexican army, navy and four key federal departments were involved in the operation, which it said was directed by the attorney general.

Mexican authorities declined to confirm U.S. assertions that as many as 60,000 army troops--more than 40% of the total Mexican armed forces--were involved in the operation. And they gave no further details of specific drug arrests.

U.S. officials, however, said the largest single drug bust during the operation took place on the first day, when Mexican navy and airborne police patrols spotted a 68-foot fishing vessel off the coast of Mexico's Sinaloa state unloading onto a barge what turned out to be more than a ton of cocaine. The following day, naval patrols intercepted a second barge containing an additional ton of the same shipment. That case is still under investigation, they said.

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Another seizure cited by U.S. officials was the seizure in Mexico of two tons of ammunition from Brazil en route to Guatemala. They said shared intelligence helped police intercept the shipment before it left Mexican territory.

Most of the seizures and arrests were made in Mexico, where the army helped police operate hundreds of roadblocks in the southernmost and northernmost states. The army also assisted in destroying 15 clandestine airstrips used by drug smugglers, 450 acres of marijuana plantations and 220 acres of opium poppy fields in Mexico.

U.S. officials also reported that Guatemalan authorities seized half a ton of cocaine and arrested 38 suspected drug dealers there, and that officials in El Salvador detained 16 suspects in drug crimes.

"Our statistics pale in comparison with what they did in Mexico," a law enforcement official in San Salvador said. "We got some marijuana and a little cocaine. The important thing was that we got everybody working together."

Times staff writer Juanita Darling in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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