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Crackdown on cartels, border enforcement cutting U.S. cocaine supply, officials say

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Mexico’s crackdown on drug cartels and U.S. authorities’ seizures at sea have helped to sharply reduce the availability of cocaine in 37 American cities, according to a report released Tuesday by federal anti-narcotics officials.

The shortage has driven up prices to their highest levels in nearly two decades, with the cost of cocaine increasing 24%, from $95.89 to $118.70 per gram over the six-month period ending in June, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Washington and New York are among the cities reportedly experiencing shortages.

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Critics of U.S. drug policy remain skeptical, saying it’s too early to determine whether the statistics signal an important milestone in the war on drugs.

The report, they say, comes as the Bush administration prepares to ask Congress for an aid package of nearly $1 billion to help Mexico fight traffickers.

But John Walters, director of the White House drug policy office, said at a news conference in San Diego that the multibillion-dollar anti-drug effort appears to be causing major disruptions in trafficking routes from Colombia to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s extradition of top drug cartel figures and his decision to send thousands of soldiers and federal agents to major drug transit areas over the last year has also helped cut supplies, Walters said.

In August, Mexican authorities arrested several key members of the Sinaloa drug cartel in the border state of Sonora.

In Tijuana, thousands of troops and federal agents have failed to quell drug violence, but their presence appears to be putting pressure on drug traffickers.

“Kudos go to President Calderon and his cops and military,” said Michael A. Braun, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief of operations. “They are very aggressively engaged and working closely with us and other U.S. law enforcement along the southwest border and Mexico in attacking the major cartels.”

The U.S. government’s war on cocaine traffickers is a multipronged effort aimed at eradicating coca cultivation in source countries like Colombia and intercepting the drugs along major trafficking routes in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Although production has increased in recent years, drug seizures have gone up steadily, highlighted by the March seizure of 21 tons of cocaine on a freighter off the coast of Panama, which was the largest ever maritime seizure of cocaine, according to the DEA.

In Mexico, the war between the Sinaloa and Gulf drug cartels could be disrupting the flow of cocaine on a key highway corridor to the border, authorities say.

Most of the cocaine entering the United States is smuggled in cars through ports of entry.

Another emerging factor is growing demand in Europe, where traffickers are believed to be sending increasingly large shipments of cocaine.

DEA officials say cash seizures in Mexico and Colombia have been turning up larger amounts of Euros in the last year.

Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst for the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, said the statistics illustrate the largest sustained price increase in years.

But he said crackdowns and cartel wars in the past have produced similar price spikes, only to be followed by increased drug supplies as new groups take over.

“My fear is even if Mexico is quite successful at taking down the Sinaloa, Gulf and Tijuana cartels, something is going to replace them. That’s been the history of the drug war,” Isacson said.

The statistics, compiled by the DEA, are supported by other independent data showing an effect on cocaine supplies, officials say.

The nation’s leading workplace drug testing company, Quest Diagnostics, reported a nearly 16% drop in positive tests between the first six months of last year and this year, the lowest levels in a decade, said Walters.

Some lawmakers quickly questioned the timing of the report, coming just before the administration’s request for funding for Mexico.

“Law enforcement always claims a victory before they ask for money,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), a critic of the administration’s drug policy, who thinks more focus should be put on drug treatment.

“All the money that went to fighting drugs in Colombia, an equal amount should be spent fighting usage in America,” Farr said.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com


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