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Fighting the Good Fight Against Drugs Takes Money, Men and Hard Persistence

June 12, 1988|Robert C. Bonner | Robert C. Bonner is U.S. attorney for California's Central District in Los Angeles.

Drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in our country, and there is the understandable desire for a quick fix. Yet we should remember that our problem with illegal drugs did not occur overnight. It has evolved over the past 20 years. Not more than a decade ago, medical experts were suggesting that cocaine was physically non-addictive and relatively harmless. They were dead wrong, as the death of basketball star Len Bias and others demonstrated. It has only been in the past few years that we have obtained legislation, at least on the federal level, to enforce drug trafficking laws seriously and that the film industry has stopped portraying drug use in a positive light. Despite election-year rhetoric, there are no instant solutions.

The strategy for success in the war against drugs is clear. It requires a continuing and upgraded law enforcement effort against drug traffickers and their organizations, and a curbing of the demand for drugs through education, treatment and attaching of legal consequences to the illegal use of drugs. This two-tiered strategy will work, but it requires an unwavering commitment, not just from law enforcement, but from all segments of society--public officials, the courts, businessmen, entertainment industry executives, labor leaders, teachers, students and parents. Realistically, it is going to take at least five years, and probably longer, to return to a relatively drug-free society.

The point is: It can be done.

None of this is to suggest that the road will be easy. Indeed, Los Angeles has become the principal distribution center for the nation's cocaine supply. Due to the effectiveness of interdiction efforts in south Florida, the Colombian cocaine cartel has linked up with Mexican drug trafficking organizations to smuggle huge quantities of cocaine across the porous Southwest border and transport it to Los Angeles where it is warehoused and distributed throughout the United States. Last year, local and federal law-enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and Orange counties seized more than 30,000 pounds of cocaine--up from 4,000 pounds in 1985. Colombian cocaine organizations have earmarked much of the cocaine flowing into the Los Angeles area for distribution to the West Coast, Midwest and even as far east as New York.

The first level of distribution is performed by Colombians operating in and out of Southern California, who supervise and control 50-pound to 100-pound shipments to other areas of the country. Separate organizations of Colombians are engaged in laundering the money, principally into Panamanian banks controlled by the Medellin cartel. Operation Pisces, an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration money-laundering operation that concluded this year with the convictions of 115 people, revealed that the Colombians were laundering $17 million in cash weekly (close to $1 billion annually) out of Los Angeles.

Equally alarming, in the past five years we have witnessed the growing involvement of Los Angeles street gangs in the processing and trafficking of rock cocaine, or "crack." Street gang alumni use sub-gangs, or "sets," of the Crips and Bloods to make street sales and exert muscle. More ominously, these emerging Mafias have set up rock-cocaine distribution outlets in many other cities across the country, including Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis.

All this relates to the supply side of the equation. The fact is that federal law enforcement, frequently with the assistance of local police and sheriffs, is becoming increasingly effective in identifying, investigating and prosecuting high-level drug organizations, including the Colombian organizations operating here. Many of these cases have been developed and prosecuted under the auspices of the multi-agency Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, coordinated through my office. In addition, the tough sentences provided for by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 are already producing some results--though the act has only been in effect for 18 months.

Under the act, those participating in the distribution of more than five kilograms (10.4 pounds) of cocaine must be sentenced to at least 10 years imprisonment. No probation or parole is permitted. The maximum sentence is life. As word of these sentences filters back to Colombia, it will become increasingly difficult for the cartel to recruit Colombians to staff their U.S. distribution organizations. Just as important, because of the severity of these sentences, more defendants cooperate with the government so that cases can be made against the drug kingpins.

With these tough laws, and with the more effective use of federal forfeiture statutes, we are now dismantling entire drug organizations and confiscating their assets.

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