Drug seizures jump after September 11 attacks, officials say
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Drug seizures at U.S. borders and entry points increased by 29 percent in October over that month in 2000, federal officials said Wednesday, attributing the rise to stepped up enforcement after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Top officials told the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources about the dramatic increase in interdictions, showing how the attacks have affected federal law enforcement agencies.
"A lot of what we've done actually has made it more difficult for drug trafficking as we've intensified our overall presence, particularly at the border," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, one of several officials who testified at the homeland security hearing.
Bonner and Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Asa Hutchinson said drug traffickers appeared to be holding back shipments across the U.S. border with Mexico during the first weeks after the attacks because of the heightened security presence.
"So, they held off and then at some point they had to continue," Hutchinson said. "As they continued their trafficking, because of the intense pressure across the border, the seizures increased dramatically."
New routes for drug traffickers
Bonner said drug traffickers appear to be shifting their strategies for getting drugs to the United States. In particular, he said, major Colombian drug traffickers seem to be seeking alternative routes, such as the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, to avoid increased scrutiny along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The commissioner played a videotape of a November 21 seizure in which federal agents used high-speed boats and a Blackhawk helicopter to chase down suspected cocaine traffickers off Puerto Rico. In that incident, customs agents arrested six people and seized 1,000 kilograms of cocaine.
Hutchinson said trafficking patterns within the United States also appear to have been affected since the terrorist attacks.
Because of heightened security at the nation's airports, drug traffickers are moving more to overland routes. The amount of drugs being trafficked in New York also seems to have declined, he said.
Staffing concerns at enforcement agencies
Agency officials also testified about the increased pressures they have faced since September 11 as personnel and resources have shifted to combating terrorism.
The FBI, for example, has moved many agents previously assigned to areas such as organized crime, white collar crime, drugs and civil rights violations to counterterrorism investigations. Before September 11, nearly three quarters of the FBI's 8,883 special agents in the field had been assigned to those other criminal investigations.
Following the attacks, 67 percent of agents who had been assigned to other criminal inquiries were diverted to the terrorism and anthrax investigations, or to investigate possible hate crimes against Muslims, said Deputy Assistant Director Frank Gallagher.
Resources are gradually returning closer to previous levels, Gallagher said.
But Gallagher noted that it is unlikely the agency will ever return to previous staffing patterns. "With the increased emphasis on the prevention of any terrorist act, it is doubtful that we will ever return to the same staffing levels for each program," he said.
New INS effort to deport illegal aliens
Also at Wednesday's hearing, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar announced a new initiative aimed at identifying illegal aliens who are avoiding deportation warrants and hiding from authorities.
For the first time, Ziglar said, the agency will begin entering names of such absconders into the National Crime Information Center index, allowing law enforcement agencies to conduct background checks.
Previously, illegal aliens wanted on deportation warrants were not entered into the index, and their status would not show up if police stopped them for other violations.
Ziglar said that about 314,000 people are wanted on deportation warrants. He estimated the use of the index could identify as many as 7 percent to 10 percent each year.
"We think that this will send a message that when you come to the United States, you're expected to stay here on the terms you were admitted on," Ziglar said, "and that coming here and staying in illegal status is not appropriate."
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