A Bad Week For Drug Kingpins

troops collect drugs in giant bust
U.S. officials said Saturday they have broken up a major drug trafficking operation that used commercial ships to haul Colombian cocaine around the world.

The U.S. Customs Service said 43 people have been arrested and 68 tons of cocaine were confiscated along with 10 freighters capping off a two-year investigation, dubbed "Operation Journey." CBS News Correspondent Jacqueline Adams says officials believe the seizures may be the biggest ever.

"We wiped out a sprawling organization whose tentacles reached around the world. Massive amounts of cocaine will be kept off the streets of Europe and America," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

A big part of the operation was announced in recent days by Venezuelan officials, who said they seized 10 tons of cocaine and arrested 16 people in a series of raids.

Among those in custody is the suspected leader of the organization, Ivan de la Vega, a Colombian shipping magnate arrested Aug. 16 in Venezuela. He has been turned over to U.S. custody and faces charges in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The operation began as separate investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Athens, Greece, the Customs office in Houston and other agencies. The investigations were eventually united and coordinated by the Justice Department.

In a statement, Customs described the organization as "a one-stop shipping service for Colombian cartels interested in moving cocaine via maritime vessels to U.S. and European markets."

The organization used eight to 10 freighters. Some were owned by the organization; others by shipping companies in Greece and other nations.

Cocaine would be transported by land or air from Colombia to the Orinoco River Delta in northeastern Venezuela. It would be hidden in the jungle before being taken by boats to offshore freighters. It would then be stored in secret compartments until it reached its destination, where boats carried it ashore.

The organization would try to throw off investigators by making "dry runs" with legitimate cargo. But working with foreign police agencies, the DEA and Customs obtained information about specific cocaine shipments heading to Europe, Customs said.

The Customs Service estimates Colombian drug lords export 300 tons of cocaine every year through their sophisticated, multi-nation network.

On Wednesday, President Clinton travels to Colombia with a new $1.3 billion military and economic aid package aimed at beefing up that country's war on drugs.

"We can either help Colombia try to come to grips with that, help Colombia in its effort to deal with that problem or stand back and let Colombian democracy collapse," says National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.

Still, no one thinks American dollars or these kinds of seizures are enough to win that war.

"Have we won the battle? Hmm. No way," says Kelly. "We're never going to seize our way or arrest our way out of the drug problein this country. We need a significant reduction in demand."

Kelly believes as long as there is a high demand for drugs, there will continue to be a problem.

Even with 68 tons of cocaine off the market, prices haven't fallen and supplies haven't dried up. Despite their best efforts, frustrated Customs officials believe there's still plenty of cocaine stashed all along the pipeline.

But their accomplishments, at least in this case, are encouraging. "This case demonstrates what can be achieved," said Kelly,"when nations of the world work together against a common enemy."

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