As European boundaries melt, organized crime and drugs move in

December 28, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

BARCELONA -- With less than a week remaining before th European Community officially eliminates its internal border controls, the frontiers are already humming with a deadly commerce that no one foresaw when the Common Market was launched a generation ago.

As the EC liberalizes its trade policies to grease the wheels of legitimate trade, a rogue's gallery of organized crime is moving in on the action.

Drawn by open commercial frontiers in the West -- and exploiting political chaos in the former Communist East and the Third World -- international drug rings dealing in heroin and cocaine have begun a wave of terror that crime experts across the continent say is spinning out of control.

"We know that narcotics-related deaths in Europe have risen by at least 10 percent in the last two years, after more than a decade of gradual reductions," said Alain Labrousse, founder of the Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, a Paris-based organization of researchers, lawyers and journalists that keeps track of the drug problem.

"But dependable figures are difficult to come by," he added, "and we also know that the true cost is much higher than that."

Where numbers are available, they confirm Mr. Labrousse's suspicions. In 1983, according to Barcelona's Municipal Health Department, an average of five people died in each three-month quarter from drug overdoses. In the first quarter of 1991, the figure was 45 -- a 900 percent increase.

In the past few years, narcotics traffic has been skyrocketing everywhere in Europe, said Georges Estievenart, head of the drug unit of the EC's general secretariat in Brussels.

"And from the start," he said, "our problem has been an almost total lack of competence on how to deal with the phenomenon."

One figure graphically illustrates Spain's outsized role in the EC drug explosion and the desperate efforts that harried police are making to keep up with it: In 1991, 44 percent of all drug seizures in Europe occurred in this country.

The crisis in Barcelona is chillingly obvious on a nighttime walk through the Bari Xino, a port district that reveals the dark underside of the majestic, prosperous city that charmed the world during last summer's Olympics.

By day, its narrow medieval streets ring to the sounds of children walking to and from school and shopfront merchants peddling their wares. But at dusk, the shops close and iron gates are locked across their doors and windows, the children are herded into apartments, and the same streets are taken over by a grim population of junkies, pushers and thugs.

Most of the women in the nighttime Bari Xino are prostitutes who sell their bodies for heroin or cocaine. Many have been abused with such regularity that their faces are bruised, swollen masks, reflecting a climate of violence that police have been unable to contain despite a substantial commitment of officers and funds.

Other victims are the refugees and illegal immigrants who have poured into the prosperous Western European nations since the collapse of communism in the East and as political instability buffets the Middle East and North Africa.

"I wouldn't do what they want, so they took everything I had and beat me," a young Algerian, an illegal immigrant in his teens, told a reporter whom he approached for money in the Bari Xino. His jacket was shredded from the assault, and his arms were bleeding from being dragged over the medieval cobblestones.

The "they" to whom the Algerian referred were strong-arm thugs from criminal syndicates who patrol harbor districts looking for recruits. The "what" that he and thousands like him are asked to do is carry drugs -- from five to 10 kilos of cocaine or heroin at a time -- into the now nearly borderless European Community.

The young Algerian's plight dramatizes the fact that Barcelona and other European port cities -- notably Genoa and Naples in Italy and Rotterdam in Holland -- have become open territory for what Labrousse calls "a cocktail shaker" of crime syndicates.

"This is not something that involves one mafia, the one we all know from Sicily," Mr. Labrousse said, "but seven or eight of them, frequently operating in collusion with each other."

Organized crime in the European drug trade is evolving faster than the available intelligence on its cast of characters. But experts say that the key participants, in addition to the Sicilian Mafia and its mainland Italian rival, the Neapolitan Camorra, are Turkish clan groups based in Germany, the Colombian cocaine cartels -- which operate mainly in Spain and Italy -- and the "triads," the ethnic Chinese organized crime groups of Southeast Asia, which have become increasingly important in Great Britain and Holland.

At a lower level, the transport or sale of narcotics is managed by syndicates of Nigerians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Lebanese and Serbs.

"The Sicilian Mafia is not the universal 'Numero Uno' in the drug trade that's presented in the mass media, but simply one of the principal players on a European and international drug market that now uses multiple channels for trafficking and the recycling of dirty money," said Umberto Santino, founder of the Impastato Mafia Research Center in Palermo and one of Italy's top experts on the mob.

And, he said, "All of them are taking advantage of the liberalization in the commercial policies of the EC."

There will be no physical controls over internal EC borders after Jan. 1 except at the British frontier, said the EC's Mr. Estievenart.

"This marks a profound political and social change," he said, "and it will obviously have an impact on the narcotics situation."

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