Interpol has come from behind the technology curve Reforms transformed global police agency

January 05, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LYONS, France -- When police in Luxembourg arrested a Nigerian national suspected of trafficking in heroin from Thailand last year, they believed 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 a 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 data base 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 the 1960s.

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-- or, formally, the International Criminal Police Organization -- was best known among law enforcement experts for its outdated technology, labyrinthine bureaucracy and unreliable protection of sensitive intelligence information.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.

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.

The Vienna, Austria-based International Criminal Police Commission, Interpol's predecessor, was essentially a European organization.

After World War II, police officials renamed it the International Criminal Police Organization and moved its headquarters to Paris, where Interpol languished under the tight control of the French, who operated it as though it were part of the French government bureaucracy.

Not until 1985, when the United States led a rebellion against French domination, did Interpol elect Raymond Kendall of Scotland Yard to be its first non-French secretary-general since the war.

A French newspaper referred to Kendall's election as an "Anglo-American takeover."

Kendall moved Interpol's headquarters to an ultramodern, six-story glass structure along the Rhone River in Lyons and initiated a $25 million high-tech development program.

Interpol's "red notices," which signify that a member nation seeks the suspect's apprehension and extradition, have contributed to the arrest of several of the world's most wanted. Among them: Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist captured in Sudan in 1994.

A red notice posted in July at the request of British authorities quickly resulted in the apprehension of a bartender wanted in connection with the murder of his pub's owner.

Interpol's Washington office, tracking financial records, traced the man to Colorado and alerted the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to a man with a glass eye and an Australian accent.

Hours later, a highway patrolman recognized the suspect after stopping him for speeding. "That's the kind of case that shows the value of instantaneous communications and cooperation that Interpol brings to international law enforcement," said John Imoff, a 22-year FBI veteran who heads Interpol's Washington office.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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