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DEA's Man in L.A. Brings War on Drugs to the Public

October 25, 1987|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

When John Zienter took over as the top federal drug enforcement officer in Los Angeles earlier this year, one of his first moves was to join the Rotary Club.

Zienter's honorary membership in Rotary International was not part of any undercover drug operation, but it did symbolize a change in strategy in the nation's war on drugs.

As head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles, Zienter is among a growing number of top U.S. narcotics officials convinced that tough law enforcement alone can never solve the nation's drug problems.

The DEA's new emphasis, Zienter says, is to combine traditional enforcement techniques with an increased anti-drug public relations effort aimed at all sectors of society--from business leaders to schoolchildren.

'A New Era'

"This is a new era for the DEA," Zienter said during an interview in his downtown office. "We have traditionally been strictly enforcement oriented, but in the last few years we have greatly increased our effort on the overall demand reduction problem."

The agency's expanded Los Angeles office is one of the DEA's six "super divisions," with about 85 agents in the Los Angeles area and another 115 assigned to Nevada, Hawaii and Guam. The agency's other major offices are in New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston and Washington.

Since taking over as regional chief in January, Zienter has beefed up the agency's community affairs operation with the assignment of one of his top field agents, Roger Guevara, to full-time public relations duties.

Zienter, 45, an outgoing salesman for the DEA who wears a goatee, has personally taken his anti-drug crusade to business groups and to drug seminars at UCLA and elsewhere, while assigning another agent, Roland Talton, to work on a full-time basis with high school students and local police departments.

The new emphasis on public education, according to Zienter, has lifted spirits among federal drug agents who had come to believe that the war on drugs was doomed to defeat as long as it was limited only to containment efforts.

"Until we started looking at demand reduction, the war was being lost," Zienter conceded. "That's not saying that enforcement isn't a big part of our effort. But law enforcement generally has come to recognize that the long-range goal has to be reducing the demand for drugs.

"We've really just come out of the dark ages on this subject," Zienter added. "I've always been a strong enforcement advocate myself. But if we're going to accomplish anything in this country, we've got to do it together. Not just the law enforcement agencies, but the country as a whole."

Zienter, a narcotics agent for 22 years who came to Los Angeles after heading the DEA's special investigations section in Washington, is not so naive, however, as to believe that a sudden flurry of anti-drug lectures will have much immediate impact on the overall drug problem.

"What took all these years to bring about, no one can change it in five minutes," he said. "It's going to take years to educate the public, and it has to involve every segment of society. It's like a full court press. You need everyone pulling together on this."

Zienter's emphasis on public education, part of a coordinated federal effort from the White House down, comes during a period of record narcotics seizures and some of the most successful DEA drug operations in years in Los Angeles.

The agency's most significant coups in Los Angeles this year included the indictment of 10 members of an alleged cocaine ring broken up as part of the continuing investigation into the 1985 torture-murder in Mexico of DEA Agent Enrique S. Camarena.

A second major triumph was a massive money-laundering investigation penetrating the highest levels of South America's drug networks, which was hailed by U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III as "the largest and most successful undercover investigation in federal drug enforcement history."

Zienter, who began his career in Detroit making $50 undercover marijuana buys, rates cocaine the No. 1 drug problem locally, noting that Los Angeles has now become a shipping center for cocaine networks in New York that historically have relied on Miami as the primary source for the drug.

The DEA has almost doubled its cocaine seizures in the Los Angeles region in the last fiscal year--from 3,782 kilograms in fiscal 1986 to 6,198 kilograms in the first 10 months of fiscal 1987.

Under Zienter's leadership, local federal drug agents have also increased their seizures of both heroin and marijuana. In 1986, the agency seized 61 kilograms of heroin in the Los Angeles area, roughly 80% of all the heroin seized by federal agents throughout the United States. The figure for fiscal 1987 is already at 98 kilos of heroin, a new record for the DEA.

Drive Against Marijuana

The most dramatic increase in drug seizures, however, is the result of a new crackdown on major marijuana dealers launched by a 12-agent task force set up by Zienter after his arrival.

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