LYONS, France — When police in Luxembourg arrested a Nigerian national suspected of trafficking in heroin from Thailand last year, they believed that they had a workaday case of small-time smuggling. Purely as a matter of routine, they passed the information along to Interpol headquarters here.
Interpol analysts put the report together with data from other sources, and an unexpected picture snapped into focus: a huge drug ring operating in more than 30 countries across Africa, Central America, Asia, Europe and North America.
Acting on Interpol's evidence, police arrested additional suspects, including an alleged Nigerian drug lord now awaiting trial in Denmark. Moreover, Interpol's work provided new material for an investigation of what a U.S. law enforcement agent describes as the drug world's hottest and most successful new method of distributing its products: the international postal system.
"They are smuggling through the mail such amounts as 500 grams at a time, small compared to the huge amounts the cartels are used to shipping at one time," the U.S. agent said. "But altogether, tons and tons are being mailed."
Key to Interpol's success in the Luxembourg case were its vast computer database and its ability to link seemingly unrelated suspects from airline flight records, telephone numbers, criminal records and code names.
Such sophisticated crime detection may be just what most Americans would expect from an international law enforcement agency that gave rise to "The Man From Interpol," the James Bond-style television series that began in 1960.
For most of Interpol's history, however, the reality has been far different.
Until relatively recently, Interpol--or, formally, the International Criminal Police Organization--was best known among law enforcement experts for its outdated technology, labyrinthine bureaucracy and unreliable protection of sensitive intelligence information.
"Frankly, it was embarrassing and not quite relevant to the needs of law enforcement around the world," says Peter J. Nevitt, a former British police official who directs Interpol's information and technology department.
Interpol was so far behind the curve technologically that it was still using Morse code as recently as a few years ago to communicate with some member countries in the developing world.
Only after a decade of sometimes painful reform was Interpol turned into a formidable instrument for combating global crime.
Some experts say its newfound capabilities may be on the line when Interpol's member nations choose a new chief, perhaps as early as this year. The candidates as of now are Michel Richardot, head of the French police academy, and Ronald K. Noble, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for enforcement during the first Clinton administration.
Under the leadership of a veteran police official from Scotland Yard, Interpol has brought its technological capabilities up to date, streamlined its operations and tightened its security.
Now, more than 150 of Interpol's 177 member nations are linked by computer in the world's most extensive law enforcement communications network.
By the end of 1998, Nevitt said, all Interpol members will be connected to "the world's first qualified, fully equipped international communications network, capable of sending messages throughout the world in 120 seconds."
As a result of these and other changes, Interpol now enjoys considerable trust and cooperation from law enforcement agencies in the major countries that once paid lip service to the idea of the organization but in reality kept it at arm's length.
Indeed, with international crime increasing sharply as the economy goes global, many experts regard Interpol as vital in bringing not only drug smugglers but also such transnational criminals as fraud artists, money launderers, pedophiles and computer crooks to justice.
Political fugitives also find their way onto Interpol's radarscope. In November, as a result of an Interpol request from Bangladesh, agents from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested A. K. M. Mohuiddin Ahamed in Los Angeles in connection with the 1975 killing of the country's president, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, and various other officials during a military coup.
Interpol traced Ahamed to Los Angeles, where he was arrested at an INS office while seeking an extension of his U.S. visa. After his arrest, Ahamed, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Iraq who arrived in the United States in July 1996, acknowledged being involved in the killings.
After an appeal for political asylum was denied, Ahamed posted a $15,000 bond in Los Angeles and was set free. The INS is now seeking to deport him.
Interpol has also played a key role in locating missing persons, especially children. It was Interpol agents, for instance, who located 8-year-old Crystal Leann Anzaldi, who had disappeared from her San Diego home when she was 14 months old.