WASHINGTON - Down in the warm waters off Central America, the drug war is a cat-and-mouse game that has gone on for decades.
But since Sept. 11, the game has changed because the Coast Guard has been ordered back to American ports to guard the nation's borders from terrorism. And intelligence reports suggest that large shipments of drugs that would normally have been stopped in the eastern Pacific Ocean above Colombia are amassing just south of the U.S. border in Mexico.
Coast Guard seizures of drugs are down 66 percent by weight from this time last year. One official describes a "vacuum" of supervision in the stretch of water where drug shipments are consolidated and at their largest.
There was one big bust on Christmas Day about 600 miles south of the Mexican port of Acapulco that netted 20,000 pounds of pure cocaine, worth more than $200 million.
But officials say even that seizure - the fourth-largest drug confiscation in U.S. history - could be a sign that dealers are seeking to exploit what they view as virtually free passage along their traditional shipping routes.
Now, U.S. law enforcement officials are bracing for what many predict will be a flood of drugs crossing U.S. borders this year.
"It's hurting us," said Jack O'Dell, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. "Terrorism is our highest priority, and we've had to reallocate our resources."
Coast Guard officials said they have by no means abandoned surveillance of any drug routes and are still patrolling the eastern Pacific and Caribbean, another prime drug route.
But they acknowledged that, barring additional funding and resources, they cannot simultaneously fight a war on terrorism and a war on drugs at peak levels.
"Our crews, who were already working 70-hour work weeks, are giving 15 to 20 percent more," O'Dell said. "We can do that, but you've got to wonder how long it is before we wear out our equipment and our people."
Last year, the Coast Guard accounted for 61 percent of U.S. cocaine seizures. And 92 percent of the Coast Guard's drug seizures occur in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
While drug interdiction by the Coast Guard diminished, drug seizures by the Customs Service at U.S. ports have soared since Sept. 11 as screening has been stepped up at the nation's 301 airports, harbors and border crossings. Analysts warn that those seizures account for much smaller stashes of drugs than are in the waters south of Mexico. (Once in Mexico, the drug shipments from Central and South America are broken down and shipped out in a dozen different directions.)
"Traffickers would be stupid to not be adjusting their routes to some of what's going on," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Customs Service. "Our seizures are way up. But even inside the U.S., obviously, the FBI is focusing full throttle on terrorism, not drug task forces."
Boyd said it was too early to determine the long-term effect of Sept. 11 on drug trafficking. In the weeks after the attacks, the drug trade came to a virtual standstill. Traffickers, wary of car and boat inspections, bomb-sniffing dogs and increased, round-the-clock patrols, especially on the U.S.-Mexico border, preferred to sit on their loads rather than risk trying to get them across.
In recent weeks, though, drug trafficking across the border appears to have increased to more typical levels. This worries U.S. officials who fear an onslaught of cocaine, marijuana and heroin making its way north from Central and South America.
"These guys have a business to run, they owe people money, they have to pay their employees," Boyd said. "A lot of them have said, `To hell with it, we've got to get it across.'"
The new trends emerging from Sept. 11 are beginning to worry officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The concern is, with U.S. efforts being focused away, it limits drug interdiction," said Steven Casteel, assistant administrator for intelligence at the DEA. "And philosophically, we need to be concerned about the drug issue because it is so closely tied to terrorism."
Since state-sponsored terrorism began to decline in the 1980s, the DEA has seen terrorist groups across the world - including al-Qaida - turn to drugs to help fund their activities.
The National Security Agency similarly recognized the connection between terrorist groups and the drug trade and began monitoring drug trafficking as part of its intelligence-gathering. But now the NSA has also shifted its focus - to preventing terrorism, aiding the war effort and finding al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Some current and former intelligence and drug war officials warn that it's time for the government to stop believing that it must choose between fighting drugs and fighting terror and recognize that they are inextricably linked.